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EFAC Australia

Essentials

Together Through the Storm:
A practical guide to Christian Care
Sally Sims. Matthias Media, 2016

The book is just as it is described in the sub-title: it’s ‘a practical guide to Christian care’, in three parts. Part 1, ‘Suffering and the God who cares’, sets out the reality of suffering in this world and points us to the God who not only understands, but who can be trusted. According to Sims, Christian care aims to anchor the person in these truths as they deal with suffering. Part 2, ‘Biblical Foundations for Care’ explores how as God’s people we share life together in all its suffering and joy, and how we are called to love one another. It then looks at what makes our care Christian, and finally turns to how Christian care can be structured across the church. Part 3 is about Christian care in action, with lots of very practical guidelines for visiting people, finishing with the specific context of visiting people in hospital.
Sims has achieved what she has set out to achieve: a practical guide to Christian care which is also well grounded theologically, and not afraid of using insights from the helping professions. This work would be useful for a care team in the local church as a basic training tool, or for any Christian keen to be better equipped for caring.

I think the title ‘Christian care’, rather than ‘pastoral care’, is helpful in practice, especially when the term ‘pastoral care’ is too open to the misunderstanding that all or most pastoral care should be done by the pastor. Also, as Sims points out, it helps us to hold onto the distinctiveness of Christian pastoral care, when the term is often used of general pastoral care in hospitals and schools and other settings.
This is a balanced book, encouraging the use of the Bible and prayer in Christian care while also underlining how we demonstrate our love by the way we listen, are sensitive to people’s needs and provide practical care and support. The practical section, the last section of the book, covers some areas that those who are new to Christian care will find helpful—everything from how you might prepare to visit someone, what you need to keep in mind with hospital visits, to what to review when you come back, including discussing and praying about this with your team so you are encouraging each other in the work.

Overall this is a good and useful book. At times I wanted a bit more depth, but as a basic tool it is great. I especially appreciated the reminders about the importance of listening as a way of demonstrating love. These were repeated throughout the book, and I think Sims is right to imagine that we need to be reminded to listen. Her repeated reminders helped me finally to hear what she is saying, and—hopefully—correct the tendency to come up with a quick answer, seeking to solve people’s problems. (See pages 66-68 and 92-93 on listening).

Chapter 8 on the body of Christ working together gave a helpful basic outline and description of how a church could provide structure to the ministry of caring. I’m always struck by how Christian care happens (without much organisation by a leader) as people are motivated by God’s grace in their lives to reach out to love and care for others. Much of this is encouraged and furthered through small group ministry in a church. However, when circumstances are overwhelming or someone has long term needs, they may need additional care that’s part of a more structured and planned approach, including a care team of people who provide care at various levels and care leaders who co-ordinate care and who equip people for this ministry.

Together Through The Storm will help the reader to grow in their capacity to care for others, especially if Christian care is either new to them, or they need some basic training or a refresher on the basics of Christian care. Chapter 8 will also help pastors who have not thought through how to structure Christian care in a church, by providing a basic structure and description of that structure. Finally, there is a helpful reflection at the end of the book about how pain and suffering is often ‘where the real work of life takes place’, and thus how God uses our own pain and suffering to change us for the better and make us better carers. That’s something every pastor or Christian carer ought to reflect on and give God thanks for, whether we read this book or not.

Roger Morey, WA.

People of the Risen King:
A History of St Jude’s Carlton, 1866-2016
Elizabeth Willis, St Jude’s Anglican Church, Carlton, 2017 

Encouragement and gratitude to God and his faithful servants: it was with these emotions that I closed this skilful interweaving of church and society through 150 years at St Jude’s Anglican Church in Carlton. Carlton’s socio-economic conditions and demography, clerical and lay personalities, theological emphases, liturgical practice, the Melbourne Diocese, and national and international affairs are colourfully integrated. Through testing times, diverse personalities and ever-changing ministries, the life and mission of the ‘People of the Risen King’ at St Jude’s Carlton is brought to life. Carlton larrikins blocking the entry of worshippers, the decline in attendance following the First World War, the depression, bulldozing to ‘clear the slums’, the building of Housing Commission estates, the opportunity to welcome New Australians, university ministry, discipleship training, parish partnerships, new congregations and relations with the Diocese of Melbourne: throughout it all we see the faithfulness of men and women to the work of God.

The ethos of the times is well captured. By way of example, the loss of faith following the First World War is highlighted: ‘subdued and grieving at the end of a horrible war when people were picking up the pieces and trying to make sense of a world where old certainties about progress and security had been shaken’ produced stark challenges for the church. A ‘Come to Church Sunday’ in 1919 seemed to miss the mark when it ‘exhorted people to go to church because it was a good thing to do, because it was a duty owed to God, and because their mothers would be pleased!’

Anecdotes tell amusing incidents and memorable characters. Vicar Lance Shilton in the early 1950s was challenged at his first Women’s Guild meeting: ‘We’ve heard that you don’t believe in gambling. We want a “yes” or “no” answer. Can we have raffles at our fete?’ The vicar concluded his ‘no’ with, ‘I am confident that by not having raffles at the next fete, you will make more money than you would ever have made before.’ The President replied, quick as a flash, ‘Would you like to bet on that?’ This reader could not help but laugh!
The parish’s social work encompasses the ‘free seats’ of the nineteenth century and the Debt Centre of the twenty-first century: a wide embrace of society that is at no time loosened.

In the 1890s wealthier people moved away from Carlton and the Depression hit Carlton and the parish hard. ‘In the winter of 1892 St Jude’s began a twice weekly soup kitchen . . . On one Wednesday seventy-six families representing over 300 people were provided with forty gallons of soup . . . and 140 loaves of bread, as well as tea, sugar and a large quantity of clothing.’ These impacts of changing demographics bring their own demands to parish priorities and possibilities. Hardly imaginable in 1866 would be the translation of sermons into Mandarin and Farsi in 2015!

The issue of liturgical changes and their cost to parishioners and clergy is not avoided nor the struggle to settle the culture of a congregation—and indeed of the parish. Would a congregation’s services have robed clergy, hymns, public prayer, charismatic expression, expository sermons? Would it be family/children friendly, welcoming to the outsider, have lay or staff leadership or some combination thereof? (And all in ninety to a hundred minutes.) Change is costly: the cost not always appreciated. A gracious and poignant reflection in 2004 from a now senior member runs: ‘Us young things took little notice of the cost of all this to the older parishioners, who had continued faithful through the hard times, and to whom we owed the continued existence of the church. We failed to respect the work of the Spirit of God amongst them.’

Insight is given to the significance of the gifting and emphases of the clerical leadership on the life and ministry of the parish. I appreciated the honesty of the personal challenges faced by clergy and the conflict within the life of the parish. In particular, conflict between staff is acknowledged without assigning blame or descending into a ‘tell-all’ narrative. This history is no hagiography, and praise be to God for that!

Photos add to the narrative. After viewing the impressive 1905 St Jude’s Football Team, I looked in vain for recent vicars Boan, Adams and Condie in the football team pose of crossed arms, attired in football shorts and sleeveless footy jumper!

A deftly placed photo of a fully robed bishop, robed vicar, two women wardens in smart casuals and a male warden in shorts and thongs, delightfully illustrate the Vicar’s words to the 1988 AGM, ‘I think that St Jude’s still retains a great deal of its off-beat, imaginative and risk-taking style. It is still fun to be part of and, despite the apparent order and sameness of our life, the erratic, the irregular and the very funny still occurs!’
The relationship between St Jude’s and the diocese of Melbourne is honestly traced with its ups and downs - and current healthy state.
The irony of writing of the seemingly endless struggle to maintain the parish buildings fit for purpose at the very time it is uninhabitable due to a deliberately lit fire in 2014 is not lost on the author. A multimillion dollar building project is currently underway.

This truly is a stimulating read! Do leave time for reflection along the way, for this history is a reminder that through the changing circumstances of parish and societal life the church is the ‘People of the Risen King’. Thank you, Elizabeth Willis, for your fine work in bringing this parish history to us, and to the faithful saints of St Jude’s Carlton. Copies are available via St Jude’s website. An insightful and inspiring history!

Bishop John Harrower, Vic.

 

Despite a (hopefully undeserved) reputation as the lowest of low church, pseudo-baptistical despisers of Anglican forms, plenty of evangelical Anglicans minister and preach in services shaped by a prayer book, even following a lectionary. In this paper first presented at the Preaching Seminars, run by EFAC Canberra and Goulburn, David McLennan shares some ways to preach effectively in this context.

"You might need to put up with it for a while, just to keep the 8 o’clock congregation onside. But obviously your ultimate goal should be to replace a liturgical service with something more contemporary."

If you’ve been in evangelical circles for a while, you’ve almost certainly heard some version of this conventional ministry wisdom. Hostility to liturgical forms has become one of the curious hallmarks of Australian evangelicalism.

And it’s a hallmark I’ve personally come to reject. As an Anglican minister who has benefited enormously from the likes of J.I. Packer, Charles Simeon and Thomas Cranmer (not to mention the church fathers); as a Christian who needs both word and sacrament, and as a person who is more than just a rational mind, I’ve come to see the Anglican prayer book tradition as a great ally to gospel ministry. It is theologically rich, pastorally wise and even, in our particular cultural moment, missionally powerful.

But what happens when an evangelical, nurtured in a sub-culture that has an allergic response to anything resembling a formal liturgy, finds themselves ministering in a more recognizably Anglican context? In particular, how might this new context impact their preaching?

For as any preacher knows, context is key. No homiletical approach is well suited to every context. My own sense is that evangelicals need to be very careful about assuming the preaching model they learned in their liturgically-sparse homeland can be transplanted into any context.

Because even if I’m right that an Anglican prayer book service is a good thing—a gospel-centred, orthodoxy-preserving and pedagogically effective thing—it is still a particular kind of thing. It makes sense that a prayer book preacher should consider not only the context of the passage on which the sermon is based, but also the context of the sermon itself.

For the best part of a decade, I’ve been worshipping and ministering in Anglican churches with a more liturgical bent, and now I find myself as rector of a parish with a strong prayer book identity. I’ve come to appreciate how the gospel shape of a prayer book service supports the gospel content we seek to proclaim. But it does require the cultivation of particular homiletical skills which are not always part of the evangelical’s toolbox. So here are four lessons I’ve been learning (usually the hard way) about what works—and doesn’t— in settings like this.

1. Small is beautiful

Part of the beauty of the Prayer Book is that the typical Sunday service includes a lot: up to four scripture readings, a creed, various prayers, a confession and absolution, Holy Communion, notices, some songs, and maybe a children’s spot.

This is a lot of content, and time can easily blow out. This is really not the place for a 40-minute sermon. Nor a 30-minute sermon. Nor a 25-minute sermon. Personally, I think 20 minutes is the absolute upper limit, 15 minutes is a far better goal, and even 12 minutes is not necessarily something to feel guilty about.

The mantra ‘sermonettes produce Christianettes!’ is likely to be deployed in response to such a claim, and there is much truth in it. But this can overlook two important things: firstly, that the Sunday sermon should not be expected to carry the entire burden of the church’s teaching ministry; and secondly, that many a ‘sermonette’ has lasted 30 minutes or more.

Length alone is a poor way to measure the seriousness of a sermon. If a sermon is superficial and unfocussed, lacks biblical insight and human empathy and is meandering and insensitive, more time won’t save it. It will just enhance its power to make the congregation dislike you more.

By contrast, I believe that reducing sermon length while maintaining impact is very possible. The real obstacle to shorter sermons is that they are very difficult and time-consuming for the preacher. They require more, not less, preparation.

I am suggesting that part of the burden we should carry in our preaching ministry is the burden of giving our sermons a very thorough edit: forcing ourselves to ruthlessly cut all that is not necessary for edification; focusing like a laser on one main point, and avoiding tangents. (Because economy of words is so important, I find a full text helps me to avoid wasting time searching for the right phrase, or repeating myself unnecessarily.)

Much of this is good practice anyway, but it also means that when the sermon ends, people may feel sad it is over, rather than sad it took so long.

2. Use the liturgy

Preachers are always on the lookout for examples that can make their point come alive to the hearer. One of the benefits of a prayer book service is that the sermon is nestled within a gathering that is full of such examples: words and actions that pull in the same direction as the preached word.

So, when looking for illustrations it’s a good idea to consider the phrases and moments that are regularly (but not, always thoughtfully) repeated. For example, when preaching on our relationships with one another, why not use the greeting of peace to press the point home? 

When preaching on the ascension, why not refer to the words in the thanksgiving prayer: ‘Lift up your hearts!’ When preaching about the centrality of the gospel, why not explain why we stand during the gospel reading?

And then of course there is Holy Communion. Is there be a better way to preach our dependence on Christ than to remind our people that we shall soon be nourished by him in the Lord’s Supper? Is there a better way to speak of the Jesus’ sacrifice than to remind them of the solemn night when he broke bread with his friends? Is there any physical act that provides a better experience of the gospel than coming forward with empty hands, and finding in Jesus’ death and sacrifice the sustenance we need? Maybe there is, but I can’t think of it.

When these liturgical or sacramental moments are integrated into our teaching, it can liberate them from the sphere of ‘mere habit’ to become discipleship tools that will continue to work years into the future.

3. The church year and lectionary are your friends

Most prayer book churches also preach according to the lectionary and observe the seasons of the church year. These are additional ways that the gospel story can be brought to the people year after year. Theologian Scott McKnight says that the church year:

‘is all about the Story of Jesus, and I know of nothing – other than the regular soaking in the Bible – that can ‘gospelize’ our life more than the church calendar … Anyone who is half aware of the church calendar … will be exposed every year to the whole gospel.’ 1
In this context it makes sense to locate the day’s preaching emphasis with at least one eye on the bigger story that is being narrated each year.

Similarly, the lectionary, when used well, can be a great ally. While it’s often said that sequential preaching through a book helps the preacher avoid hobby horses, my own observation is that no method guarantees this. It is disturbingly easy to preach through book after book and barely touch on the doctrines of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ, or the virgin birth, or the sacraments – or many other things which our forebears thought essential for the Christian to understand.

While the lectionary is not a foolproof device, if used well (not slavishly and inflexibly) it provides scope for covering, each year, the great doctrines of the Christian life, while at the same time walking us through the life of Christ. And it still provides considerable freedom to preach through books – the pattern with which many evangelicals are more familiar.

Informed use is the key. For example, the seasons of Advent–Pentecost are ideally suited to more theological preaching, centred around the gospel reading. The Sundays after Pentecost are a good chance to return to sermon series through particular books. (For more guidance on wise use of the lectionary, see O’Day and Hackett, ‘Preaching through the Revised Common Lectionary’, Abingdon Press, 2007.)

It is also good to find ways to unify, as far as possible, the different texts – up to four – that are read during the service. Tim Keller insists that each text has a ‘surplus of meanings’. So it makes sense to allow the church calendar and lectionary to bias our exegetical focus, so that the readings work in harmony with each other rather than at seeming disconnected.

The person who believes in the self-authenticating quality of Scripture will not feel compelled to explain every passage in detail. But where possible, passing reference to the various readings of the day helps demonstrate how Scripture’s many different voices all testify in unison to the same bigger story.

4. Jesus (not the text) is the hero

Much evangelical preaching tenaciously clings to a single text, so that the structure of the text determines the structure of the sermon itself. While a good method in some contexts, this isn’t usually well-suited to a prayer book service due to the shortage of time and the abundance of Scripture readings. It’s worth remembering that the task of the sermon is to edify - not simply to explain a particular text. In the end, it’s more important that our people are gripped by the hope proclaimed in Romans 8, than that they understand the structure and word choices used in Romans 8.

The best prayer book preaching, therefore, shows the sort of freedom we find in the apostolic preaching in Acts, i.e. preaching which regards the text as authoritative, but does not get bogged down in historical-grammatical exegesis or a desire to explain the text in detail. Other contexts (e.g. the Bible study group) are better suited for that. In the sermon, it’s best to keep the main thing the main thing. The main thing is always centred on Christ and his saving work, and my advice is unapologetically to lift people above the weeds of detailed exegesis, and show them the wider theological landscape to which the text refers. It may feel a bit naughty the first time you do it, but it’s worth persevering.

Conclusion

Besides being an expectation of Anglican clergy, our Anglican liturgical forms are a great gift to the gospel preacher when used thoughtfully. But they also require us to be reflective and open to re-evaluating how we think about ministry—including the preaching ministry. This can lead to the discovery that, when word and sacrament operate alongside each other, the minds and hearts of our people are saturated in the gospel in a more holistic way. And who knows? This saturating process might have the added advantage of drowning a few unnecessary evangelical shibboleths about liturgy. Your 8 o’clock congregation will thank you.



1. Scott McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel (Zondervan, 2011) p.155

'Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’

Gavin is the rector of St Judes, Bowral, NSW.

The small-town boy, now the talk of the whole region, returns to his home ‘church’ in Nazareth. This is the synagogue in which he grew up. His Saturday school teachers could probably think back to when this Jesus was a young boy in their care. What a morning to be in synagogue that particular Saturday!

Jesus has returned to Galilee after his temptation, and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 14) he commits himself to a preaching tour all around the synagogues of Galilee. His teaching has given him a reputation (v. 15).

Jesus tells his disciples that the reason he was sent is to be a preacher of the gospel of the kingdom (v. 43). Teaching is what the Spirit-filled Messiah focuses on, for it is the essential form of revelation from God.

Luke gives us just one of these first sermons, and even then he only gives us Jesus’ opening sentence: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (v. 21). Let’s consider that opening sentence word by word (slightly out of sequence).

“this Scripture”

They have just had the Scriptures read, and probably at the guest preacher’s request the passage was a short reading from Isaiah 61 (see Luke 4:18-19).

Isaiah 61 is about a great reversal for the people of God, and for the holy city Jerusalem in particular. The prophet casts his eyes forward beyond the exile, to the redemption and rebuilding that will follow when they return. There will be a staggering reversal for God’s people. They had been made poor under the judgment of God because of their sin. They had become broken-hearted captives imprisoned because of the covenant curses that had fallen upon them. To them Isaiah preaches a gospel of reversal, in which God by his faithfulness will restore his people and make an everlasting covenant with all those who mourn and grieve their situation and the sin that put them there. The poor are Israel, and the answer to their poverty is the kingdom of the Messiah.

“is fulfilled”

As the congregation stands around him, Jesus sits to preach (now there is a custom we ought to reintroduce promptly!), and he opens by telling them that this hope is fulfilled because he is here.

Fulfilment is one of the great themes of this gospel of Luke. The very first verse of the gospel then tells us that the whole book is about “the things that have been fulfilled among us.” Luke wants us to have certainty about the significance of the events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He wants us to know that Jesus ministry fulfils and is in continuity with the Old Testament. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the fulfilment of God’s global plan of salvation.

Jesus says, “I am here, so this is now the year of the Lord’s favour.” The first word of the gospel is not a command or an exhortation to work harder, rather it is a proclamation of what God in his grace has already done in Jesus.

“Today”

If you are carefully comparing Luke 4 and Isaiah 61 you will notice that the Scripture reading that day stopped abruptly mid-sentence. In Isaiah verse 2 continues, “to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God”.

Why does Jesus stop before he gets to that last phrase? He does so because he wants to say that “today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”. This is not yet the day of God’s vengeance. Today is the day of favour and opportunity.

There are three different fulfillment points of Isaiah’s prophecy separated by centuries.

1.The fulfilment in the history of Israel for those facing the reality of coming exile. They are encouraged that God’s Spirit will anoint someone who will liberate this people. This happens through Cyrus the Persian king.

2. This fulfillment on the ‘Today’ that is the coming of Jesus as the Messiah

3. The return of Jesus in power and glory to destroy his enemies – the day of vengeance.

“in your hearing”

The fulfilment of Isaiah 61 on that day is the preaching ministry of Jesus. His preaching inaugurates the age of favour and grace, but not yet judgment. It is a call to listening ears and responsive hearts.

How do they respond? The movement is striking; verse 14, everyone was praising him: verse 22, they are amazed at his words (with a tinge of condescension): verse 28, they are furious: and then verse 29, they turn into a lynch mob!

What can explain this shift? It is what Jesus adds to his sermon in verses 23-27 by telling two stories form the lives of Elijah and Elisha.

Two stories that both teach that salvation is not limited to the Jews, but at God’s initiative, Jews were passed over for the salvation of Gentiles. It is the Gentile question that leads to them turning against Jesus, just as Gentile inclusion leads to many of the Jews turning against Paul in part 2 of Luke-Acts.

They went from praising Jesus to trying to lynch him, because he told them that he had not come to bring vengeance on the Gentiles, but had come to preach forgiveness to them.

Jesus walks through the crowd, and keeps on preaching and seeking the spiritually poor and weak who know their need and respond to the call, even the Gentiles.

Today, even as many reject Jesus’ offer of favour, we can still expect to find the most unlikely people responding to Jesus. This is the year of favour and salvation to all those spiritually poor and weak who know their greatest need.

Bishop Robert Forsyth, formerly Bishop of South Sydney, current senior fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies sees a testing time ahead for Evangelicals.

We are living in different worlds. Leaving aside for a moment the religious freedom implications of the passing of the Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Bill 2017, the process and events around it reveal profound differences in fundamental beliefs in Australia between the churches and much of the wider society.

Much of the disagreement about same-sex marriage reflected deeper disagreements about other questions of what is marriage itself, what is the moral status of same-sex relationships, and about how such questions are decided in the first place. The differences go all the way down. As ancient historian Kyle Harper recently wrote: ‘In our secular age, just as in the early years of Christianity, differences in sexual morality are really about the clash between different pictures of the universe and the place of the individual within it.’ 1

This was unacknowledged in much of the debate and yet is one reason why neither side seemed to be actually talking to the other. The churches’ campaign for the no case never really said why same-sex marriage should not be legal because, whether they realised it or not, the real Christian case for no is incomprehensible to those who share so little of the Christian understanding of reality. Harper captures this well.
An avowed secularist is as likely as a Christian activist to proclaim the universal dignity of all and insist upon the individual’s freedom. And yet, however moralized the domain of sex might be, the vast, vacant universe seems to have left only authenticity and consent as the shared, public principles of sexual morality. These axioms derive from a picture of the universe different from the one imagined by Paul, who envisioned the individual—including the sexual self—within the larger story of the gospel and a created cosmos in the throes of restoration. That is why the no case was all about unwelcome consequences to same-sex marriage, not the issue itself.

Since then, not unexpectedly, the meaning and significance of the change in the law is deeply contested as well. In the second reading Attorney General George Brandis described the passing of the bill as saying ‘to those vulnerable young people [who are homosexual or lesbian], there is nothing wrong with you. You are not unusual. You are not abnormal. You are just you.’ The Prime Minister said that in amending the Marriage Act the clear message to every gay person was ‘we love you. We respect you. Your relationship is recognised by the Commonwealth as legitimate and honourable as anybody else’s. You belong.’ Peter van Onselen writing in The Australian on 27 November likened those who voted no with ‘people who wanted blacks to continue to ride at the back of the bus, or racial segregation of toilets, or bans on interracial marriage. When the laws changed they realised they were on the wrong side of history.’

If this rhetoric is to be taken seriously it means that in the eyes of significant thought leaders in this country those who voted no, and in particular those who continue to hold to a view of marriage that is not the one endorsed by the passing of the Act, must be saying to gay people; ‘you are abnormal’, ‘you are not loved or respected’, and that such non-cooperators are the moral equivalent to segregationists in America’s deep South in the 1960s. In other words, it is not just that such leaders remain unconvinced as to our stance, they are uncomprehending, and, worse, regard us as immoral.
It is not easy so close to these events to know how long-lasting such attitudes are. Public debates have short half-lives. But the reality of incomprehension and disgust is lasting. We can be sure that the six in ten Australians, who, according to the Ipsos survey2 released in October last year, believe that religion does more harm than good are not going away soon.

The implications for the churches are threefold. Firstly, we face threats to religious freedoms and privilege in a situation of diminished goodwill towards us. Secondly, we need to accept that, on any public issue other than those where we simply echo the majority culture, we have to start way back in the different picture of the universe and the place of the individual within it that informs our understanding. Thirdly, the churches face the Herculean task of maintaining the integrity of their own discipleship and culture down the generations in the face of a proselytising and persistent secularism, especially in matters of sexual behaviour. It will be a testing time indeed.


1. Kyle Harper ‘The First Sexual Revolution’ First Things, January 2018

2. https://www.ipsos.com/en-au/ipsos-global-study-shows-half-think-religion-does-more-harm-good

Bishop Stephen Hale sees small groups as poised to revolutionise 7church life again. Stephen Hale is the Chair of EFAC Australia

Way back in the 1980s a revolution started in thinking about small groups in the life of the church. The late John Mallison (my mentor for many years) wrote a classic book called Growing the Church through Small Groups. The whole focus was on growing disciples of Jesus through meeting in small groups to read God’s word together, to pray and to minister to one another. This was about a revolution in how pastoral care was expressed. It was a discovery of the power and potential of mutual care. St Hilary’s Kew was in the vanguard of this movement and offered significant leadership in this area. Steve Webster writes about this era in the book published last year Excellence in Leadership: essays in honour of Peter and Merrill Corney. At the book launch he told what a massive cultural shift it was back in the 1980s and 1990s to get people involved in small groups.

At present another revolution in small group ministry is taking place. This is a fresh discovery of the mission of God and how we participate in it together. At the heart of this is unlocking the mission potential of small groups. This is about growing in discipleship. This is sometimes captured in the ‘Up’ the ‘In’ and the ‘Out’. ‘Up’ is reading God’s word, listening and responding to him. ‘In’ is sharing each other’s lives and praying together. ‘Out’ is sharing in mission together both as a group and as we support each other to live out our faith in all of our lives.
In our church we have renamed small groups as Connect Groups, as they are about connecting with God, connecting with each other and connecting in mission together. While continuing to study God’s word and pray together, groups in the St Hilary’s Network increasingly participate in some sort of missional endeavour in some real and tangible way. This may be an outreach or social justice activity, it may be linked to the everyday activities of your lives. It is about connecting with real people and sharing the love of God and inviting people to consider the Christian faith. Groups are not told what to do but supported to discover together the mission God wants them to participate in. We recognise this as a significant shift and expect it will take time to become a reality. We hope over time all groups will embrace an outward focus.

It is true to say that growth in maturity increases dramatically, when you get your sleeves rolled up and have to do something for others in some way. This is about seeking God’s kingdom together and about us being a part of something bigger for the sake of others. I think we all know the sense of buzz that comes when we do that. For us this is about a revolution in how we see church and community. For us, this is about making our newly agreed mission (making, maturing and mobilising disciples of Jesus Christ) and vision (to transform lives and communities as we share the love of God through the love of God’s people) a reality.

This is a topsy turvey view of mission. It isn’t top down and program centred. It is releasing the whole people of God to share in the whole mission of God and to do it in the whole of God’s world. That might seem a bit pretentious! But this is a vision for all God’s people to share in God’s mission in God’s world and to share in it both when we’re together and when we’re apart. This is a vision for everyone and not just some people. This is for children and families as well as mature adults. This is about releasing the gifts of the people of God in the mission of God. This is about having a vision for church being a visible alternative community. This is about what Mark Zuckerberg recently called helping others to discover a sense of purpose (in God) for themselves.

This is also about each of us supporting and praying for each other as we seek to be kingdom people in all of our lives—at home, at work, in our street, in our communities, with our Mission partners—this is both local and global. If you think about the number of people in Connect Groups (or the equivalent in your church) and think about the number of places where we each hang out and share our lives, then you have tens of thousands of people that we have kingdom connections with. If we see this as part of the mission of God that we each share in together, then, as St Paul puts it: ‘then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.’ (Philippians 2:15)

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