On prayer

I continue my reflections on my past campus work with a third post that follows on from this one (1) and this one (2). The connections here to travel, apart from the obvious mentions, are the culture of individualism that has given rise both to travel and perhaps to some of the drive for activism. Keep an eye out and let me know what you think!

“Travel is wonderful. A near-perfect state of surprise, wonder, and excitement. A chance to challenge your assumptions, defeat your prejudices, and write a new story for yourself. As a traveller. An exile. An adventurer. An explorer. As someone with great stories of struggle, survival, curiosity, courage and reinvention. But the pursuit of those narratives can be harmful, too.

Everything in life is about dosage. I’d gotten the dosage wrong. I felt ready to reprioritise, to commit to [a place], to [a partner], to my job…, to staying when things got hard, instead of running away to some romanticised, mirage, wanderlust new.”

Taken from chapter 13 of ‘Don’t Go There’ (Adam Fletcher)

There are great dangers of parachurch ministry amongst students. Firstly that the ‘parachurch’ bit can often come unstuck from the local church (we’ll come to this at some other point). But also that it is amongst students.

Students are deemed the next generation of world leaders, culture changers, thought shapers and activists. Increasingly much of society is encouraged to think about going to college – what perhaps once before was something just for a certain section of society. The student world is a fast-paced, fast-changing world, full of possibility, challenge and adventure, where the average student is impressionable and has plenty of free time (even if they don’t think so).

And so the role of the CU Staffworker is both a joy and a challenge. A joy, because very few other roles in ministry see so much change so quickly, so much fruit and such quick forgiveness (or memory) for mistakes made. And a challenge, for the same reason as the travel writer above articulated. Just as there are problems when the traveller lives for the romanticised travel-blog life, shaped by wanderlust and living every day as an their own adventure. So the staffworker when not grounded in the ancient gospel narrative, surrounded by the global church and embedded and submitted to a local gospel-preaching church, can quickly get the dosage wrong and forget the calling to which they are living. Let me explain how that looked in my life at times over these years.

“…the staffworker when not grounded in the ancient gospel narrative, surrounded by the global church and embedded and submitted to a local gospel-preaching church, can quickly get the dosage wrong and forget the calling to which they are living.”

The danger of activism

One of David Bebbington’s four key characteristics of evangelicalism is activism. Evangelicals are activists. We love living out the gospel and letting it shape everything in life. This, unsurprisingly, is a very popular thing these days. Here are 3 examples in the Irish church at large:

  1. Within the Church we are having vast swathes of people move from saying “God is building His Kingdom” to talk about how “we bring in the Kingdom of God”. We emphasize our action.
  2. Within a very young and fragile Irish evangelical Church, students are often infuriated by the lack of zeal and purity and so break off into activist groups who seek to live a ‘more authentic’ life (often seen in groups like The Last Reformation, some Torah-emphasizing ‘Christian’ groups, the lure of subtle cult groupings currently having sway in Ireland, and sometimes just in lone-wolf evangelists, burdened for the lost).
  3. And in a progressive theological scene which seeks to constantly find new things we missed in the Bible (like every PhD is designed to do), the New Perspective on Paul speaks into the vacuum that occurred when western individualism injected toxins into much of evangelicalism, and seeks to claim that free grace found in being united with Jesus and justified by faith alone is not good enough a motivator to propel us into bearing fruit. (Mr Vanhoozer gives a far better summary.)

So what about when we get the dosage wrong?

Well in each of these three things we’ve seen the disasters that have happened in the wider Church.

In the first, we often had many quick converts – the promise of God’s Kingdom here on earth as it is in Heaven is a juicy one. Glimpses can be seen. But soon people get fed up of how hard life is, how slow spiritual change is in our hearts and others, and many grow disillusioned with all they were promised and wander from the faith. There are better activist groups out there, they think. I have seen this in the many churches who do such wonderful work in communities, and use language like the aforementioned.

In the second, the newly formed ‘authentic’ groups often die off quickly. Partly because they have no identity other than being the “radicals”. And that identity is a fragile one. Either they find flaws within the group and need to split again. Or they start drawing different lines and emphasis to what the scriptures emphasize, and so forsake the gospel. Sadly they often do so having already ruined young believers – giving them a deep disillusionment about faithful gospel churches, or even worse in the case of some cults operating in Ireland currently, also giving them a suspicion of their own family and friends, to the point of cutting connections with them.

In the third, those who fully embrace the NPP, perhaps as a right reaction to this over-individualistic reading of the scriptures, often end up unable to clearly articulate the gospel in a way that doesn’t lose the assurance of faith that the New Testament writers seem to have, and succumb to a bland ecumenism (which seems a wonderful unity until you arrive at it and try and figure what gospel you have left).

Countries colored with green have cultures that are more individualistic than the world average. Countries colored in red have relatively collectivistic cultures.Reference
Beugelsdijk, S., & Welzel, C. (2018). Dimensions and dynamics of national culture: Synthesizing Hofstede with Inglehart. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 49(10), 1469-1505.

TheCultureDemystifier, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

But as well as these general trends in church life in Ireland, I found the tug of activism on my own heart as a Staffworker.

  1. As a lone staffworker in Munster, I was tempted to think that I needed to work harder and longer, particularly with such short campus semesters. Campus X would not have a gospel presence unless I got there this week and met with strategic leaders and got everything done. That perhaps was true to some extent, and there are indeed times for sacrifice and hard graft (like in any part of life). But living on high doses of such activism without deep gospel roots would soon make me think more of myself and my role that I ought, and would soon lead me to burnout, cynicism and fatigue (as sadly happened with quite a proportion of staff who I served with, in different ways).
  2. The more I lived like the above, the more I would be tempted to start trying to take short-cuts to make life/ministry simpler and easier. Instead of shaping student convictions by discipling with God’s Word open and letting them lead (even if that meant in weakness or with failures), I would be tempted to primarily give my (good) advice, turn up to every meeting and try and maybe implicitly control the direction of things by my presence or reasoning. Instead of seeing that the longterm way that faithful gospel witness might be on a campus was to develop a sustainable model that didn’t depend on me, I would be tempted to run round trying to be the hero in some ways, receiving praise from many Christians for such “radical, sacrificial living”.
  3. And the more I was tempted to give myself to activism in small ways and big, the more exhausting it became, and the further from enjoying God’s heart I would drift. His yoke being light and his burden being easy were not recognisable to me in the day to day life I sometimes lived. And if His heart was not that of a generous Father, why would I pray?

if His heart was not that of a generous Father, why would I pray?

I found prayer was the first thing to disappear when my hands crafted activism, my heart was enveloped in busyness and my mind chose reason. When I was weary or tired, I was filled with cynicism and bitterness. When I was unsure, my mind replayed scenarios again and again. When I had not completed my task list that day, my hands applied to work longer hours.

None of it brought it to our Heavenly Father in prayer.
None of it brought it to our Servant King ruling on the throne.
None of it brought it to the Holy Spirit for Him to be at work even when we couldn’t be.
None of it enjoyed the freedom of the gospel which meant things weren’t resting primarily on my shoulders.
None of it basked in the gentleness of Jesus.
None of it modelled a life, communing with our Triune God.

I must say that through it all, none of this may have been obvious to the outsider that I was battling and wrestling deep within me to decide each day who I worshipped. I prayed with everyone I met. I filled in work monthly report logs which showed my working hours. I sat under fantastic gospel teaching which sought to persuade my heart that people did not need my good advice (primarily) they needed to meet the living God and hear Him speak. I knew that team life was the ideal. And God graciously seemed to be powerfully at work in the region on the campuses, drawing many to Him. But the tug of activism was still strong.

If you want to hear my full story of how I ended up broken by my own activism physically, I tell it in my book (chapter 2). [Ironically my thoughts on travel were part motivated from long hours living the “activist” life on the road between campuses! How gracious He is to bring good from ugly times!]

  • It took many car journeys to turn my cynical thought cycles into hours of prayer on the road.
  • It took many prayer letters to persuade myself that I was not the hero telling my story, but that God was building His Church through His ordinary people and their prayers.
  • It took many months of realising that God could, would and had raised up many to follow Him, even on the days I felt most alone in that role.
  • It will be many years before I will ever be as content as the old ladies in many of my supporting churches, who sit in their living room and pray all afternoon, with sparkling joy in their eyes as they do so.
  • I am thankful for the life of my praying mother, always starting each day in prayer over breakfast.
  • I am thankful for the life of my praying father, leading the family to rhythms of prayer and worship in different ways over the years.
  • I am thankful for praying churches that I was part of who always valued corporate prayer.
  • I am thankful for those in other churches I learned so much about prayer from, as we prayed for the nations together each month.
  • I am thankful for the example of many fellow-labourers, like the Cork campus workers/lecturers prayer group that met once a week to pray together without fail.
  • I am thankful for my first ever supervisor, who suggested to me to take working hours (sometimes days) to spend in prayer alone.
  • I am thankful for an older worker from another organisation who took me away on silent retreat to show me just how entwined my heart was to the noise and busyness of life.
  • I am thankful for individuals and families who have lifted me (and the work in Munster) up to God for years upon years in faithful prayer.
  • I am thankful for those on our island who for generations have been praying for the gospel to go out everywhere.
  • I am thankful for those in other parts of the world who have been praying for Ireland, unbeknownst to me, not only in historically Christian parts of the world, but in places like China, burdened for unreached Europe.

And I’m thankful that the good news of a Triune God, played out over all history across all peoples, is a wonderful corrector against individualistic activism done from a restless heart. This, of course, is the evangelicalism I grew up with. A deep-rooted, apostolic faith, founded on God and His words (in the scriptures) which gives us much strength as we live out our faith in light of His finished work on the cross and his intercession on our behalf, and as we act together as a Church on our knees. Will the young church scene here embrace it and grow to participate in that tradition, contextualised to Irish life today? We pray onwards.

On the Big Picture – God’s Glory

As I come to the end of 8 years working in an official capacity with Christian Unions (as staff worker, team leader and then part-time project manager for Christian Unions Ireland), and 12 in CU ministry of one sort or another (including my uni years and Relay internship), I’ve been deeply impacted and changed over this period.  Doubtless for the worse in some ways, but hopefully for the better in far more.  Although the EQUIP festival (now largely online) for hundreds of Irish students was a final ‘hurrah’ for me which left me busy till the last day of contracted working hours, I have been acutely aware over the last few months of a need to reflect on these years, to learn from them, and to give thanks to God for all He has done, both in me, through the student-led mission teams on campus (CUs) and also through my weak and fragile witness.

Doubtless, even for my own reflection, I may well write a few blog posts to help me process some of these years as what would have been known as a ‘travelling secretary’, and to amplify stories of God’s grace that may not have been heard in a remarkable era for the Irish Church. [To those who are here for only travel reflections, I apologise for the short detour – but perhaps it will give you a flavour of what God is doing in another part of the world

Munster being the southern 6 counties of Ireland – I was located in Cork, or at least was meant to be there when I wasn’t off on the road and sleeping on floors of generous friends and strangers!

To be around during these years in Munster and Connacht, has been a privilege that I don’t think I’ll fully comprehend.  In the early days, any time I came home frustrated, weary or in tears and phoned my parents (without whose support I could not have done this job), I was reminded of the big picture – not only the big eternal picture of the gospel, but the big picture of where God has taken Ireland from in recent history.

Perhaps only 45-50 years ago, when Mum lived in Munster, a gathering of all the self-identifying evangelical (Bible believing) Christians in Munster may have only filled one hall of a church in Cork (albeit of course there are many who believe outside of those who self-identify as this).  Now, in the same city, the several thousand who worship week by week in evangelical churches are constantly hunting new premises in the city as they overflow in number on a regular basis, and grow in depth and maturity.  And that’s not to mention across the region.

Of course more gloomy pictures could be painted.  Numbers do not mean true Biblical, deep, historical belief, and many have been burnt by the immaturity of the young and rapidly growing church scene we see today.  As well, the Ireland of today that is steeped in Judaeo-Christian ethics and framework (albeit some of it horrendously applied in ways that we are glad to move on from), is rapidly trying to recover from some of that abusive ‘Christian’ past and seems to lack foundation for where to go.  The effects of this on the days to come will be harrowing and deep, depending on what directions are taken.  But at the moment it does not look promising. 

In addition, one senior figure on the university campuses (an academic) would instead say that this is a wearying time of moving heavy stones off the fields, before any sowing (of God’s Word) is possible (humanly speaking).  Doubtless both perspectives have great truth in them.  As a culture departs from the good rhythms that God has set up for the world to flourish, there will be painful days of reaping consequences.  And as that non-Judaeo-Christian system embeds itself into the fabric of society and into the air we breathe, there will be far more to “undo” before humanly speaking there is any chance of reciprocity of the good news of Jesus.

Holding gospel tensions may be one thing during my staff years that I have learnt is essential to the Christian walk.  For two things may at first appear contradictory, but yet still be completely possible to both be completely true.

And that’s the way I came to what I have been privileged to call my “job”.  I hesitantly stated in my early years of working, holding that tension in this way –  I thought Ireland was ripe for the gospel for a short window of opportunity, perhaps a decade or two (humanly speaking), before a stoic-pagan fusion (or whatever follows – most definitely different to the secular trajectory of other neighbouring European countries) took over more fully.

You can decide whether such an outlook was accurate or whether such optimism was naïve (perhaps reading far too much into the years I would be around serving) but I would hesitate to rebuke my younger self completely for such analysis now (perhaps I have repeated it too many times to myself!).  The power of God to use the vacuum in Irish society post-Catholicism to His glory was not to be underestimated.  The temporary nature of thousands coming to know Him, will be proved true or false in due course, but may already be somewhat evident in the slowing of such a church growth rate (amongst native Irish) in Dublin, where faster shifting from a Judaeo-Christian framework has taken place (than outside of Dublin).  For although God is of course free to work outside of human constraints and circumstance (and delights in doing so at times), the regular pattern in history seems to be of Him using such human circumstances by His Spirit.

Regardless of analysis (for which we can spend hours debating and which will doubtless be affected by our eschatology and personality amongst other things), it was those early days that in my first article for the CUI Irish Prayer News, I wrote of a desire to reflect God’s heartbeat for all peoples, that the CUs would soon be in a place where every student could get a chance to hear and respond to the gospel of the Lord Jesus, faithfully spoken and lived out by their fellow students.  That prayer got people chuckling when I first arrived in Cork.  “Who does this guy think he is?  He’ll soon find out how far off that reality we are” some were heard to quietly say.  Yet thankfully the same voices often were the ones who joined me in praying bold prayers for the campuses – our God can do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.

Of course, for this to happen, it would need far more than a quick evangelism lesson and weekly splurge on campus.  Convictions deep inside of us would need changed.  A full-bodied ‘good news’ would need to take shape in far more than just our evangelistic zeal.  Our hearts, often so comparatively cold to the love that God has for the world, would need warmed by His love until a flickering reflection was visible in every area of life – academic study (9am lectures!), social life (midnight mischief!) and church community (including being sent on to campus to reach out) – to mention just a few.  Particularly, a young, restless and arrogant staffworker, would need humbled and reminded that God was not in the job of using supposed ‘heroes’ who happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The stories and thoughts that follow (in future blog posts) will echo some of how I’ve seen God to be more kind in answering that prayer of early days, than I could imagine.  But will sadly also tell of one (writing) who learnt the hard way that God does not need any individual to be a hero, but blesses ordinary people and calls them to enjoy glimpsing His hand at work in the world through His Church.

All things written of course should be held lightly, given how limited my perspective is, and how much history will tell whether seeds sown bear long-term fruit that lasts when Jesus returns.  But none-the-less, I do want to share a perspective to tell of His goodness, that the Church may rejoice all the more in our God of the gospel.

It seems appropriate to end this first reflection with the words of one student who asked me a question:

“Peter, why do you think God seems to be doing so little in Cork and on campus these days?”

To which I could only smile, knowing that they were only one of numerous students to have come to faith that term (a few years ago now) on that one campus, and knowing how God had used such young believers to go on to reach hundreds, if not thousands of other students with the good news of Jesus through their leadership of the Christian Union.  Not to mention the comparatively recent explosion of the Irish church in size.

That spiritual hunger in the heart of that student (and many others) to see the glory of God, manifested in people responding to the person of Jesus as He walks off the pages of the Scriptures, by the power of the Spirit, was one I would never want to quench.  And that hunger I hope informs these stories too – no matter what imperfect analysis of the past I do, I pray that it will not quench a great expectancy for more as we look ahead and are brought to our knees to pray for God’s people in Munster (and Connacht), both those who follow Him now, those who will follow Him, and those that will be One with Him and each other because of the latter’s witness too.

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.

John 17:20-21

(Spending 5 years opening John’s eyewitness acount of Jesus’ life on a regular basis with students and staff, made passages like John 17 an even richer feast to enjoy!)

Travelling to find Transcendence

What are the memories you look back to with fondness? The times you replay over and over in your head on the day winter days. The places you forever have in your mind as incredible, due to some moment that happened there that took you to another plane, despite there perhaps being nothing notable about that place to anyone else who would arrive on a later date.

I remember a trip I once was on, hiking on the west coast of Ireland. Arriving at some cliffs during the golden hour, we sat down to enjoy the stunning moments of last light at the sun set over the water, with the waves crashing on the deserted beach at the foot of the cliffs beneath us. Sitting in silence in long grass, we were captivated.

“So I suppose this is where you thank God, is it?” came the voice from my secular friend beside me.

“Why do you say that?” I whispered back, not wanting to spoil the serenity of the scene in front of us, as if the moment would be taken away if it heard our voices.

“I dunno. Just feels like one of those moments”.

Having just read James KA Smith’s “How Not to Be Secular“, I rather despaired. Short as it is, it took me a while to get through for the rather complex language he chooses to use. But as its a commentary to go alongside the more complex (?) “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor (which I confess to not having yet read), I suppose I can’t shoot the messenger.

It appeared to me he takes a full book to simply outline the basic structures and worldview of where we’ve arrived at, from the last centuries of thought. Of course Smith would resolutely groan at me saying this, given that he’s adamant that this is not just a book about theoretical thought, but outworkings and practice in every area of life, which are far more complex. It’s a radical dismantling of a whole framework. Still, I stand by my motto that experts should be able to translate the complexities of their subject to common people, in accessible ways, if they are worth their weight in gold. But perhaps I’m part of a generation that enjoys being spoon-fed too much. Hey-ho.

None-the-less, the exercise, taxing as it may been at points, was worth it for many reasons, one of which I was reminded of as I read Emily Thomas’ The Meaning of Travel and the appearance of transcendence at many points in it. Smith says:

“The result [of the post-modern way of life, exampled by taking art, decontextualising it and redisplaying it,] is an immanent space to try and satisfy a lost longing for transcendence; in short, this creates a ‘place to go for modern unbelief’ without having to settle for the utterly flattened world of mechanism or utilitarianism – but also without having to return to religion proper. And so we get the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage.”

(page 76)

In other words, when we rob ourselves of any transcendent being, or absolute standards, we resort to having a mechanical world (no immaterial realm or anything but cold, random chance) or a utilitarian one (where we decide things in order to get the greatest good for the greatest number). In an effort to unflatten this world (bringing back the depth of what we just lost from shaping our world round higher meanings, absolutes etc.), we try and find such depth in new created ways.

Unflattening the box

Each of the three illustrations (concert hall, museum and tourism) could easily be expanded upon, but from my last post (of a return to normality, signified by the return of the woman and her friend to the nightclub), you may have glimpsed how the weekly clamour for the night out mimics something of religious worship that went before, not to mention the less regular attendance of gigs for similar (yet different) ends.

As the [liberal] church dies in the west as it accommodates post-modern, liberal theories within its very walls, and forgets to be shaped by the only thing it has different to the world around it (the transcendent, made immanent in the person of Jesus and His words in the scriptures), the walls of those churches do not just lose their transcendent feel, but literally become museums more and more in Ireland and the west.

Just one of many churches in Ireland which has given up the gospel and become a museum instead.

Whether it still is Biblical writings on the walls, or other ancient artifacts of museums, the visitor would feel little different, if the Biblical texts were to be held out and simply critiqued as one piece of history amongst many. (Of course in one sense they are, but in another, the Transcendant speaks through loud and clear in ways that are unique to the text’s claim that these are also the very words of God). The feeling walking around such museums, whether in ecclesial buildings or otherwise, is the feeling that much old ecclesial architecture would have given – a grand awareness of how insignificant one is, amidst the majestic yet intricate universe towering over us.

Which brings us on to Smith’s (and Taylor’s) third sphere of created transcendence, as he envisages tourism as the new pilgrimage. The traveller goes off on their holiday, ‘gap year’, career break or retirement to ‘find themselves’, religiously ticking off the bucket list items that they must cover in order to have declared that one has been to that location.

The majesty of the Cathedral museum is replaced by the far more diverse Cathedral as we pilgrimage round the world, with ever-increasing boundaries towards our universe and beyond. The mystery remains similarly there, with unfathomable possibilities to explore, delve into and enjoy. Though whether the modern pilgrimage is any less overbearing on the traveller than the perceived smaller cathedral was, inflicting guilt on those who don’t obey the code, or learn the right liturgies as they travel, is another question entirely.

But it brings us full circle back to that cliff edge on the west coast of Ireland. The hunt for “one of those moments” is still the pilgrimage of many travellers in this world. The transcendent found once again, not too far from any one of us. But seemingly out of our grasp for most of our days.

The question that Taylor would ask us is:

Is this a vestige from a genuine transcendent being, still present in this world in some bizarre way? Or is this just a haunting of something society once wished upon, and now leaves us with an annoying desire to do things which appear to be chasing after its likeness?

And the answer he thinks is obvious enough that he has the courage not to express it, and simply says “Try this on for size. Does it make sense of something you’ve felt?

In all honesty, if we stopped fearing the answer had to be a horrid religious fundamentalism on one hand, or the New Atheist fundamentalism on the other, we might be able to answer more authentically.

Socially distant discos

This is part of a microadventure series during lockdown that you can find here. I apologise for the dire lack of speed to finish the series. Lockdown has taken its toll on desiring to spend free-time on a screen blogging! Like many of these posts, I’ve strayed far away from mere physical adventures. This one takes us on a journey of political imagination, in a very un-political way. What on earth did the government mean when they suggested socially distant nightclubs opening in August? Perhaps we should find out…

Lockdown ended! Or so it felt. What is a return to normality? Well, the first night out of course. The good aul’ rhythms of pre-lash and getting ready were underway. Music pumping. Nails done. Mascara on. G&T half-drunk on the table beside me. It had been so long since the last night out that I’d nearly forgotten the usual way to get ready – was this it?

The motivation was both there and not there at the same time. There because….




And not there, because I was fairly paralysed by the very thought of meeting other humans in any quantity whatsoever. Could I cope after so long being away from humanity?

But gulping down the rest of my G&T (did I used to drink this during pre-lash or was this my many nights of isolation dictating my rhythms?!), I pushed that thought to the back of my mind and continued to instead be shaped by the rhythms of the music blaring out from Alexa across the room, where my poor housemate was trying to watch another Netflix show. I could think of nothing worse after the last few months.

I can’t believe you’re going out. Like, do you realise that everywhere will be social distancing?” she called out to me as I headed towards the door, feeling the pulsating of my phone in my dress pocket as my taxi pulled up outside.

Yes, yes I did. But with the alternative another night in, doing the same things I’d done every night before, the allure of being free sounded too good to be true. I mean, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the Netflix shows I watched, the friends I chatted to, or the meals I’d cooked. The walks along the coast and the sunsets I’d seen. In fact, if it were not forced upon me, I would quite happily be doing exactly those things time and time again for months on end, by choice. But the very hand on my shoulder, controlling my movements, constraining my choice was enough to feel like this oppressive figure looming over me had to be shaken off. And tonight was the night.

Getting into the quiet taxi, no other voices greeted me. And with no-one else there to laugh our way into town and build up the vibes to a great night, already had it feeling quite flat. But a call to one of the girls doing similar was enough to end that – we’d all be there soon. The Savoy was open again – our favourite spot.

Dropped off around the corner, I was very glad to have got tickets in advance – the queue was right the way around the block, though admittedly that was just because of the social distancing. Though something about the suspense of a cold wait, after so long away, actually seemed appealing right now too. Passing the hordes of nervous revelers, I caught sight of Lizzie beaming like a kid at Christmas. 3 months had been too long. Wanting to pick her up and squeeze her so tightly for as long as I could, I looked around to see who was watching. Everyone.

image copyright here

And so we headed to the top of the queue and flashed our tickets at the bouncer, who stopped us long enough to give us the instructions for the evening:

“Social distancing in place ladies. 2 metres apart at all times from anyone you don’t live with. Bar is closed, but they’ll come round taking drinks orders and taking contactless payments through the night – all you need to do is signal. Toilets are one-in, one-out and maximum of 5 people in there at any time. Enjoy your night girls! Welcome back.”

What we entered was surreal. This wasn’t our buzzing Savoy. It was 12.30, and the eerie, early hours where clubs normally lie as empty echo chambers while party-goers swarm towards town and then suddenly appear en-masse, were well past. Why was the dance floor still so empty, yet the queues so long? Small clumps of people in 2s and 3s danced in circles, dotted about the floor. We weren’t convinced.

Heading straight for the toilets, we caught them before the usual stench of sweat, urine and vomit had taken over. I pretended to do my make-up, waiting for Lizzie to be allowed in as the fifth one in there. Finally! We embraced for the first time. 3 flipping months! Ridiculous. The door swung open again, fresh air coming in with the next girl to enter. A glare from the security guard on the door said it all – she knew and she was watching. I took Lizzie’s hand and we went towards the disabled toilet, locking it behind us.

Relief. Finally we could express ourselves.

Being so tactile a person, the last few months had been a hell-ish existence, unable to simply feel the touch of friends and family. No hugs. No affirming touches. No crying on each other’s shoulders. Telling my nephew off for clinging to my leg. If this is what dis-embodied existence was like, I sure hope those religious folks who go on about life on the clouds forever know what they’re getting themselves in for.

Her arms were already round me, embracing me tightly and holding me in a firm embrace that I hadn’t experienced in so long. Secure.

We stayed like that for minutes, until the tears welled in my eyes, rolling down my cheek, smudging my mascara on the way as I tried to wipe my eyes without undoing all my handiwork earlier that evening.

“I’ve missed you” she whispered into my ear.

“Me too.”

Silence. Beautiful silence. Time rolled on.

“Come’on, let’s dance.”

Squeezing me one more time so hard it nearly winded me, she reached for the door lock, and turned it, nervously glancing out. There was just one other girl at the sinks who thankfully didn’t seem to blink at the sight of two girls coming out of the same cubicle. Wanting to compose ourselves, we joined her at the sinks, one either side of her while we attempted to clear the lines from our cheeks.

Never had a hug felt so illicit.

Our irrational blushes hidden as we left the light-filled facilities, trying to avoid the gaze of security on the toilet door as we headed onto the dance floor, and sought to teach ourselves how to act in this weird new world. There weren’t many more people there than when we first came in – perhaps a third of the dancefloor was filled? Many stood round the edges swaying and gently jiving while cradling a drink in one hand and attempting to make the surveying of the situation, as non-meercat-like as possible.

Only the centre of the dancefloor, normally not visible at all from where we had positioned ourselves, had what could nearly constitute a mass of people. But they still moved in small groups, and a careful observer would still denote that any mingling shortly resolved back into the same groups they first started in.

Others clearly couldn’t care. Their’s was freedom, and they were to enjoy themselves like any other night out before. Moving from one group to another, they got quickly shut out from some circles, scowling at them, while others embraced their courage with a space in their dance circle. But while publicly under scrutiny, were not to allow the next advance of the courageous individual. One thing to dance. Quite another to share more intimate space. Not tonight.

“Drinks ladies?”

The man with a ridiculous flourescent pool-noodle-hat on, interrupted our survey, and was not missing out on the fact the bar was not open for us to visit. Flashing around the dancefloor we’d already seen him and his colleagues smoothly glide between the dancers, working the room to try and cover their wages that were normally covered in the first hour of the night, as dancers usually crowded the bar. A final year law student, a few drinks in, took his chance, and the flourescent hat was gone, flying like a plane across the dancefloor to the cheers of those watching, pretending to dance. Irritated and out of usual habitat, the barman continued taking our order.

“Sorry, what did you say, I was distracted? They took erm….my uniform.”

And soon he was back, drinks in hand, and contactless card machine at the ready. That tap must have been the first voluntary payment from my account in months. Asides from Netflix of course, but that doesn’t count.

image copyright here

The DJ was part of this new social experiment too, of course, and seemed to be desperately trying to sense the mood of the room, slightly perturbed by the number of eyes that joined his, in scanning the space, examining the species present. Classic hit after classic hit rained out, trying to gather momentum and ease some of the fringe into disobeying the rules in the centre – because that’s what had to happen surely? The pack resisted. For now anyway. But all we reckoned it would take, would be a few drinks.

A few drinks later, we weren’t so sure. A few weeks maybe?

The beats continued. The night rolled on. Everyone there seemed to be waiting for when the support act would stop playing and the night would start. Only it never did develop.

Where’s your housemate?” Lizzie yelled in my ear, across the thumping tunes.

At home – didn’t want to come – said it’d be crap because of all this.”


I know. Can’t believe it. What’s she gonna do – stay in there all year?

She rolled her eyes and focused back on the beat.

'Dancing at the disco, bumper to bumper - 
wait a minute, where's me jumper? Where's me jumper?'
Perhaps it's ok to say things will get better'

Regardless whether you’re a clubber, or not, I try and relay some advantages of socially distant clubbing. And if you can’t feel them, at least agree with me and the Sultans of Ping, that at the very least with these regulations, you’ll go home clothed and your mother will not be so, so angry. Nor your brother. Or girlfriend. Or dog for that matter.

Microadventure day 11: fighting zoombies

This is part of our microadventure in lockdown series throughout April. You can find the rest of them here. Do keep letting us know what you’re up to during this time!

You’re just recording whatever you do in your day – these aren’t microadventures!

Several of you have joked this with me recently, and I must confess, that in my desire to create achievable microadventures that could be done by most people in lockdown, they may have come out as quite basic at times. Particularly the broadening of #microadventures away from purely physical activity. But none-the-less I’ve been heartened by all of you who’ve sent in pictures and stories of you doing similar adventures, I stand by the definition given and now present to you what I think a millenial adventurer may find the hardest microadventure yet. But please excuse the forray through Twitter, into the Judeo-Christian worldview to get there. The Zombies will come on stage later.

Scrolling the infinite feeds of Twitter

Twitter is not the place I usually turn to in order to see where public opinion lies, but occasionally I get drawn in to the rabbit warren of threads and replies on random topics. This one was a local councilor who was campaigning to open the centre of Belfast (shops etc) on Sunday mornings for tourists and others who may want that. One comment beneath was telling, though quite representative of the main thrust of comments (and I paraphrase):

“I used to think those religious nuts who campaigned to lock up swings and shut everything on Sunday were hilarious. I still do. But some of what they campaigned for, I actually see as really helpful now. Keeping shops shut on Sundays gives the worker a chance to take a break from the incessant work expectations. It gives family-run businesses and start-ups a chance to have a break, so that they can compete with the bigger chains in the long-run. It gives the individual worker the chance to say no, when their big company pressures them into working Sundays, despite technically saying they ‘don’t have to‘.”

Fighting Legalism

Christians have embittered some societies in the past with a high emphasis on rules and regulations of what one can or can’t do on a Sunday. The focus was that “God says…” and then the specifics of what they did, made it sound to the rest of society like “God says….lock up the parks” or “God says…you can’t do your gardening”. The untold effects of legalism (going beyond what God actually said) on this issue and many others will continue to ripple in our society today, as the picture of God that is portrayed is a false one.

Even within Christian homes, many have been turned off views of Sabbath, by needless over-extension of authority on the issue – I still remember when a tennis ball was confiscated from two teenagers at a church camp, because the minister did not approve of it being thrown between two people on a Sunday. At the same time many wives (normally) were made prepare “Sunday lunch” which often had them working several hours to get the feast of the week ready. This, for whatever reason, was considered not only acceptable, but in some households, necessary.

Fighting for Sabbath

Such strict or inconsistent interpretation of “resting all that day from our work and recreations, and spending the whole time in public and private worship, except the time spent in works of necessity and mercy” (Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 60), with no freedom of conscience within these things, is bound to draw the ire of even those who agree that the Sabbath day of rest is a creation ordinance, set up for all time, even before the law was given on Sinai, flowing from when God rested in his work of creation. One of the better accounts of this view is given here.

An increasing body of other Christians, follow D.A.Carson’s lead that the Sabbath is no longer compulsory for God’s people in the same way it used to be.

Lockdown re-teaching Sabbath?

But what all these believers hold in common is that ‘Sabbath’ rests, whether literal or categorical, are still useful for the world, no matter what we believe. A day off in the week has been acknowledged by many societies in the world to be a necessary thing, despite attempts to re-shape the week in other ways (like 10 days weeks). As many millennial drive themselves with such purposeful (often brilliant) work, 24-7, and struggle to stop, it would be a useful tool in our travel bags to have, if we could remember to stop. Ironically, studies would show that we end up being more productive by doing so, rather than less. I’m so glad my parents helped me to pattern life this way, even from early days in studying for school exams and the intensity of sport and music training 6 days a week for competitions.

And similarly for us in lockdown, where all days melt into one. Would re-establishing concrete patterns of work and rest, not be helpful for many us who mentally or physically struggle during these days?

Originally at  https://www.flickr.com/photos/60216816@N00/79201360 and available under CC license

Fighting Zoombies

But rhythms of Sabbath (that have always been more than the weekly Sabbath, in Jewish society), have helpful consequences far beyond a day of rest. How can I protect myself from constant “screen fatigue” or becoming a “Zoom”bie as some have said?!

One useful commentator suggested:

If one works with one’s hands, take a sabbath by resting with one’s mind. If one works with one’s mind, take a sabbath by resting with one’s hands.

And certainly the latter has always helped me. Spending an afternoon in prayer while doing something physical, is sheer bliss, to free my mind from worry and over-thinking and analysing things that draw me back to feeling like work.

If one works with one’s hands, take a sabbath by resting with one’s mind. If one works with one’s mind, take a sabbath by resting with one’s hands.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel

Fighting Screens

The tricky thing about working on Zoom (or other online video-call applications), is that if one has friends that one wants to connect with in one’s free-time, it is very hard to avoid yet more hours on Zoom! And so despite changing modes (work to rest), I still end up feeling exhausted at the end of the day, having spent it all in one posture. This therefore involves careful planning, and I’ve increasingly decided, intentional time away from screens.

A colleague in another “Zoom” meeting

There are many challenges to this, given I read a fair bit on Kindle (on my laptop), and I call family and friends at regular times each day. But without being legalistic, I decided to try for a 24 hour Sabbath from screens.

One day fighting

Given my phone is what wakes me up in the morning, the temptation is already there, to turn it on and browse messages sent in the small hours of night, by those I think are far more productive than me. But today, I must resist, turn my alarm off, and leave my phone on my bedside table.

Somehow, after enjoying my usual coffee during a devotional time with God in the morning (which I would not normally have my phone on anyway), by breakfast, I already found myself with my phone back in my pocket. Still turned off, but in my pocket none-the-less. Weirdly, it felt right to have it there.

Several times that morning, I took it out of my pocket simply to give myself distraction from what I was doing. Distraction because I wanted time away from my book I was reading. Distraction because I wanted somebody to tell me that they’re missing my online presence in these few hours, simply by viewing the “like-count” of a social media account. It’s blank “off” screen always disappointed.

Fighting something deeper than screens

Perhaps this little experiment away from screens was telling me something far greater about my heart, character and reality of my life.

The trickiest thing was that this was a day off. So there was 14-16 hours to spend without screens. One can only read so many books. And all my music was largely screen based these days too. I’d been for a run, but in lockdown that was not going to take hours of time.

Several times during my reading, I tried to persuade myself that I actually would be better off, if I understood the text I was reading better, by checking a reference on Google. My finger loitered over the “on” button.

Perhaps hardest was persuading myself that I could draw my housemate into this mad game, by offering to end our binge watching another series on Netflix, and instead play a game on the table or something else.

However, at the end of a day (where I was all too happy to go to bed at a reasonable hour in the evening), I looked back with fondness with all the things this day had taught me. Had a learnt far more today, than any other day I had access to Google and online educational materials? Would I be able to regularly discipline myself to stop reaching for my phone to scroll at any slight opportunity of boredom or discontent?

The Fight continues…

Perhaps this should become a regular Sabbath for me. And perhaps, just maybe, Sabbath could start being good news for the world – something that the Christian tradition can start to hold out with confidence again.

Suggestions from Justin Earley in his book, The Common Rule (see below)

A few resources that may help convince us of the need of wider Sabbath rhythms, and help you in life:

  • Fight Hustle, End Hurry Podcast by John Mark Comer and Jefferson Bethke (yes, the man who did that one-hit-wonder video back in the day). They both have similar books out on the topic, which, you guessed it….I was too busy to sit down and read.
  • The Common Rule: habits of purpose in an age of distraction – this book is a lifestory of an American missionary entrepreuneur in China, for whom all of life was rosy. Until small distractions, became bigger issues, and bigger issues started to kill him, mentally, physically, spiritually. In his life story, every millennial I’ve met who has read it, has tended to say “that’s me” to some degree. Well worth reading – I’ll write a longer review soon.
  • 12 ways your phone is changing you – this book shines a light on things we struggle to acknowledge but gives hope for us all.

7 reads for Coronavirus season

Each year I try and get through over a hundred wide ranging books, whether old classics, the latest releases, or ones I’m slow to catch up on. Here’s 7 that have deeply influenced me this in the last year, that have particular relevance to us as travelling people and also to the Coronavirus season. I must also add – this is not what I feed myself spiritually on as a Christian traveller! It’s the extras on the side.

  1. SCIENCE: Why we sleep. (Matthew Walker, Penguin, 2018)
    If you’re anything like me, you’ll have tried at some stage in life to be living such a productive life, that you get up early and stay up late – burning the candle at both ends, so to speak. Matthew Walker writes quite a shocking book in that regard, making me realise that such patterns of living longterm would make my health, mental wellbeing and life crumble. He does so simply through outlining the science which he has spent years researching with many others. He also has very practical tips about drinking before bed (those whiskey nightcaps!), screentime and caffiene which may help improve life too. It’s a heavy read in places (you may want to skim at times), but one that shouldn’t be avoided because of that. Ultimately, I hope that the Coronavirus will return many to rhythms of rest which they hadn’t before, particularly amongst those of us who travel and always desire “more”.

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  2. BIOGRAPHY/APPLIED THEOLOGY: The Common Rule (Justin Earley, IVP US, 2019)
    Potentially the millennial’s book of the year! I have not heard many my age be able to read it and say “that’s not me”. Justin describes his life as a successful cross-cultural business person and traveller, seeking to thrive and live life to the fullest, only to find his life crashing on the rocks, in ways many of us will say “that’s me – just a few steps further down the line!” Addiction to work; distraction; busy-ness; alcoholic tendendcies; indecision; paralysis; medications; mental collapse and more – this book doesn’t dramatise or tell glamourous tales, but instead shares of an ordinary life. The downward spiral was one that had him (although a missionary) at the end of his tether with God, deciding to pack it all in. But over the years that followed he was able to come back to the truths he’d neglected, that would have actually helped him flourish and grow as a human. This is his story. But it’s part of mine too. And I’m guessing many of our generation. Not sure? It’s worth a read. Again, my prayer is that the Coronavirus period will slow us down enough to stop many of these “rushed” patterns in life that cripple us mentally and physically, and instead will let us get back into daily, weekly and annual rhythms.

  3. FRIENDSHIP/THEOLOGY: Why can’t we be friends? (Aimee Byrd, P&R, 2018)
    As we think about isolation and community a lot, may we think about our regular patterns of isolating ourselves or developing deep community. Gender is one of the big topics of recent years, and sadly, many of us as Christians have been busy defending 1960s cultural conservatism, rather than Biblical good news. Aimee seeks to unpick a massive movement in Christianity that claims we shouldn’t get too close to members of the opposite sex, lest we fall into temptation. Showing provocatively how this is not good news at all, for a #metoo world, she calls us to engage wisely and hold out a marvelous Biblical picture of cross-gender friendships, that honour and empower each other, whilst having holiness at the centre. She answers common questions about the fall of so many Christian leaders through sexual sin. When you’ve travelled through cultures which disrespect women, and have segregated genders, there is nothing more free-ing than knowing good news of liberation – a liberation which doesn’t descend into sexual chaos and dishonour. Review here.

  4. MISSIOLOGY: Stubborn Perseverance (Nyman, Mission Network, 2017)
    What we do as humans when we perceive an urgent need or a seeming problem: panic! And its not just in response to viruses that we do this. Another complete change of topic brings us to the latest in missiology that all the main mission organisations are buying into. This is an easy-read fictional account based on real life stories from ‘Creative Access Nations’. It is gripping, very helpful in places, but like much of current missiology in such places, it is largely shaped by panicked pragmatism. In a bid to get the gospel to as many as possible, as quick as possible, we over-emphasize things the Bible does not emphasize. I’ve already written on this briefly here though more full treatment can be found on this website. What should shape our views on urgency? The Biblical pattern. And I think some of us more task-orientated cultures in the west will be shocked that God’s glory is greater than simply some of the tasks He calls us to.

  5. COMMUNICATIONS: So Everyone Can Hear (Crosby, SPCK, 2019)
    The Church has gone online! With Coronavirus stopping any gatherings of people over a certain size where it’s possible to socially distance, livestream events and social media have taken over. But as one who works part-time in communications (including social media), I’ve noticed a wave of panic, as many churches just put up whatever content they can. Every church would do well to read this beautifully presented book, and then to discuss as a leadership team afterwards, how their church’s theology drives communication. It’s not a how-to-guide but an empowering read that will help guide you from your theology to practice. Of course, many in other parts of the world would chuckle, that western Christianity has tied itself so much to buildings and large gatherings, and can’t perceive of other ways of easily being a local church. But regardless, this book is a helpful read.

  6. THEOLOGY: Understanding Christian mission: participation in suffering and glory (Sunquist, Baker, 2013)
    One of the things that strikes me most about my own life, is my feeling of entitlement and desire for control over my life. The Christian doctrine of suffering and joy both running concurrently in the Christian life (1 Peter), is simply baffling for many of us in the west, even to those of us who’ve preached about following in Christ’s sufferings (as well as his resurrection hope) for years. We just can’t fathom suffering when it hits us. We want to say it’s evil, but then struggle when its used by God for eventual, ultimate good. And so this virus shakes the western world and has thrown us in disarray. This title, (recommended to me online by a lecturer at Edinburgh Theological Seminary), helpfully puts participation in suffering at the front and centre of God’s mission. There is so much that is helpful historically and to meditate upon in this volume, that I hope we can overlook the broader side to it. May this virus humble humanity to realise how to incorporate suffering into our worldview well. What might that look like for us pleasure travellers? I’ll leave you to figure.

  7. HISTORY: Dominion (Tom Holland, Little-Brown, 2019)
    This much acclaimed volume I’m sure has reached your attention a long time ago, but I believe still deserves a mention. Secular historian Tom Holland is certainly no friend of endorsing the Biblical text (taking a very liberal view of the Old Testament), but makes astounding claims, which seem fairly undeniable, around the fact that the way that we think in the west, is undeniably Judeo-Christian. Even if you are a hardened atheist reading this, you will be standing on Christian foundations, according to Holland. How are we thinking about the virus? In Christian ways. We mourn at such suffering! Why? Because we have expectations stemming from the Christian worldview. Why do we have the moral response we do in light of the virus? Because we steal our moral framework from the Christian one etc. But ultimately, Holland’s just a great writer who has got me back reading history (having been bored stiff at school by it). It might help us as we travel, to see outside our narrow cultural lenses.

Millennials and mission: some thoughts

Over on kouya.net, Eddie Arthur (experienced missiologist, blogger and more importantly, another ultra-runner) has been once again sharing thought-provoking material. He lays the gauntlet down to us millennials (those born 1982-2000), to give our thoughts on the way ahead with mission and mission agencies.

The problem

Traditional mission agencies are closing left, right and centre in the UK/Europe. Eddie has highlighted how the model started by William Carey in the 18th century, has not really changed since. But now it’s suffering, as big agency after big agency, lays off staff and some even shut doors.

Some of that, is because of new agencies starting (we won’t have time to consider why fully), some presumably is because the Church in the west is (mostly) in sharp decline, and some is because we operate on old models, as I outlined in my last post. This has resulted in organisations like the Irish Mission Agency Partnership, functionally dying a death, despite the evangelical Church in Ireland being in a time of rapid growth (albeit from very small numbers to start with).

An attempt at a solution

Let’s just say that one blog post will never come up with a solution to this problem. Nor will any one person. I have less experience than many of you reading this, and my theology is not as full-orbed or deep at my age either. And I write from a specific context. But, given all that, I’m still going to try.

First, one assumption: mission agencies are necessary things

I’m going to assume that because of the following reasons, we want to persist with charitable bodies that I will call mission agencies:

  • they sharpen the global Church’s focus, when we often are consumed by what is in front of our noses
  • they give expertise in a way that few local churches, individuals or denominations could do
  • when closely linked and in submission to the church (in Acts 13-style mission teams), they can be Biblical
  • despite the disadvantages, mission agencies have many advantages too, such as a brand, prayer base, past experience etc. Good institutions/agencies are very hard to start from scratch!

And so, if you’re still with me, here’s 3 principles I think may help us going forward:

  1. Mission events and agencies need to speak into pre-existing communities more (Local Church, Global Mission)
  2. Mission events and agencies need to know the “why” of what they’re doing (Finding your purpose)
  3. Mission events and agencies need to understand the questions that people are asking (Understanding the questions of the day)

Understanding all 3 of these may be helped by first reading my last post before continuing here. Let me expand on these 3 now:

(image stolen from a friend)
  1. Local church, global mission

Part A) Should an agency turn up to a (church) gathering I’m already going to, I’ll likely be there. The problem with creating extra events for people to attend, is that in some cases, you are actually preventing mission happening rather than helping it. You create extra Christian meetings, so that no-one is sharing any depth of life week by week with their non-Christian colleagues, neighbours and friends. I admit that there will always be necessary meetings that won’t be connected to one individual church, but I do wonder whether our frustration at lack of attendance at these, is more because we haven’t taken the time to work with local churches on such meetings.

Recently I was part of a team who pioneered a student mission-equipping festival in Ireland last year. In attendance were 150 students, and this year it seems that perhaps double that will attend. It was possible, because we speak into pre-existing communities and persuade them of the worth of going. Their leaders persuade their communities and all come together. At the same time, I got a phonecall from another mission agency leader, who offered me large money to bus those hundreds of students 1.5 hours to a different venue, where he would gather 80 mission agency workers and they could chat to them. They then would travel 1.5 hours back to our festival. It doesn’t take a genius to work out the answer I gave (let’s reverse the travel order). Let’s speak into where pre-existing communities are at, and if going outside of that, let’s still work with them.

Part B) Because the younger generations no longer support organisations and institutions so much, it is necessary for those employed in mission agencies to not separate “mobilising” and “mission” so much. The most successful workers in the current generation, I would argue, have mobilised while they are on mission (though I’ve sat through countless counter-arguments to this, and attempts to say that bi-vocational ministry is never good). Let me give one (real) example from a different organisation (names have been made up to protect anonymity).

CASE STUDY 1: mobilising for Jambooli-Ministries International (JMI: reaching some of the least reached people ever)

Old Model: Mobiliser went round 160 prayer meetings (per year) telling the story of their mission workers and organisation [JMI]. They tell of the great things God is doing, share the needs, and pick up €100 at the end of the night. For many churches, they’ll have that worker back again in a year to do the same thing, with a few prayer updates in between. This will no longer work so well because:

  • there are not 160 prayer meetings in churches in most areas, to easily attend. And there are many agencies.
  • The likelihood of someone responding to the need mentioned amongst the Jambooli is not great, given it’s come out of the blue.
  • It it a highly un-relational model and relies on people supporting organisations, which few do anymore.

New suggested model: The mobiliser sees that there are a few Jamboolian people here in Ireland, (that JMI seeks to reach abroad) amongst many others from other cultures. They join or start a ministry alongside churches, seeking to reach these people in Ireland (amongst others perhaps). Through serving in this way, people develop a heart for these people, learn skills, and ponder going longterm to the Jamboolians. It is also highly relational ministry. The JMI mission partners now have prayer support and potential team-mates. At the very least, their prayer supporters are more informed. Disadvantages:

  • mobilising by reaching out at the same time, is a lifestyle, not a job. This could be good, however.
  • In many rural places, it may not be possible to enact this model quite so easily (though Jambooli has farmers/rural business too)
  • The church (or individuals within it) must realise that this training and discipleship opportunity that opens their eyes to unreached peoples, and also trains them in contextual evangelism, must come at a cost, and must be willing to support more than just the “old way” of thrusting €100 in the workers hands per year. Though perhaps the worker could now consider being bi-vocational too, teaching English to Jamboolians here, as a paid job.

Onto (a far more brief) principle 2 for mission agencies going forward:

2. Finding your purpose

Crudely put, to survive as an agency, you must find what your purpose (Unique Selling Point/why) is and make sure you beat that drum. In my first post that you’ve hopefully read by now, the meeting had no USP. I could be passionate about mission, yet happily not go.

Similarly for another Missions conference in Ireland called the “Outreach Conference” in Kilkenny. It came about because decades ago, it was a very lonely experience to reach out as an evangelical in Roman Catholic Ireland, and there were very few workers and very little support. A support conference like that, was gold-dust for such workers. Now, although I went each year and dearly love all those who do, it’s attendance sharply declines, with a few new faces occasionally coming along, propped up by trying to ship in big name speakers from round the world. It has such potential for shaping mission in Ireland, but lacks a new USP. The vision for the new USP should sing from the publicity, and connect with hearers who think “ah…I’d always wanted a network like that!”.

Even for mission agencies, they must re-think their USPs sometimes. As mission is no longer “from the west to the rest” (as it may have been assumed it was by many in the last century) some of the agency worker’s role must be spent on invaluable other things (eg: like helping new Nigerian churches in Ireland, integrate, contextualise and partner well with Irish churches and vice versa) which are different to what they might have done 20 years ago.

Connected into that, our third (and final) brief point for mission agencies going forward:

3. Understanding the questions of the day

John Stott was famous for speaking lots about “double listening”. Having the Bible in one hand and a newspaper [/insert modern method…internet] in the other. He would seek to apply God’s word to God’s world. Without deeply knowing one or the other, God’s voice is not as clearly heard or applied.

I’ve already mentioned in my last post about how this affects the questions we ask non-Christians, but it also affects the questions that young Christians have today too, and how they engage with mission agencies.

And so we must think through this for mission agencies and their workers. They must realise that “come on my organisation’s summer team” cannot be the set answer for everything. Nor can, “signup to pray and give to our organisation“. Yet those are the two incessant things that are pushed at most mission agency stalls I’ve ever visited. Your summer team may indeed be the answer to my questions, but unless you help me to get to see that, the likely reason I will choose your summer team, is because it looks really cool (though more likely than not, with 100 other cool summer teams, I won’t even pick it for that reason). Ironically many of the agencies say that standing at stalls at large Christian festivals is something that bears little visible fruit, yet they still go.

I suggest that we either don’t go, and re-invest the time in relationships. Or that we go, and learn to ask better questions in the context of fresh relationships. I’ll have a separate post on this soon.

In conclusion

“What on earth has any of this got to do with you being a millennial? You’ve just stated 3 [good?] principles but nothing that could not have been stated by an older person.”

Yes and No. The three things I’ve just shared come about because of older models of working, based on things older folks cherished (or passed down by tradition). Perhaps if I were to sum it up:

In the modernist (truth-seeking) era of my grandparents:

  • the mission agency tells you about a need elsewhere
  • the mission agency tells you about a concept of how it does it
  • you pray and support and see that worker in a year (or many years)

In a post-modern (experiential/ individualistic), international world millennials were raised in:

  • (cross-cultural) mission needs are everywhere (including on our doorstep)
  • the agency can model the concept and help us reach out and train us through it
  • we experience deep relationship with the agency through working together

So in other words, the model of mission agencies is outdated, the USPs are often outdated (or not emphasized/known), and the questions that many ask are also outdated.

So in other words, the model of mission agencies is outdated, the USPs are often outdated (or not emphasized/known), and the questions that many ask are also outdated.

The one danger of all I’ve said about this of course, is that you could perhaps acquire the practical bits by secular training (model, USP and questions), and yet not walk closely with God, and not ooze Godly character and spirituality (compared to having acquired the practical bits by wrestling in prayer with a deep love for those you are seeking to partner with, mobilise and learn from). I dichotomise slightly.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Pushback?

I’d love to hear from you, whether in the comments below, or whether in person or from a blog response.

Looking for more along these lines? I have already shared how churches (particularly western evangelical ones) could change to facilitate mission here and here. The whole blog is an attempt to look through God’s mission in this world, through millennial eyes, in particular through the lens of travel – a topic/lifestyle that grips millions of us. Enjoy!

The meetings I won’t travel for

“No-one in the new Irish churches cares about mission!” exclaimed a mission agency representative from one organisation.

Every year we arrange incredible evenings of interactive mission experience, with an incredible speaker from round the world and good worship, and every year we face an empty room on the night. God, awake our nation for mission! Why does no-one care like we do?

You see, that evening I was in two places at the same time. I was on the inside of that circle, feeling frustrated that I’d ‘wasted’ another evening at a random meeting with very few people at it. I was a mission agency representative.

I would say I’m passionate about mission.
I’ve been on short-term mission teams from the age of 15.
I’ve used my holidays intentionally to explore mission.
I’ve trained teams of mission-minded students.
I’ve read several hundred books/papers on mission.
I’ve supported my church leaders seeking to shape the whole church around God’s mission.
I’ve failed endless times at living missionally in my day to day life.
I’ve lectured on mission.

But I was also on the outside of that circle that evening. Because? Because I am a millennial. Standing as the youngest mission agency representative in the circle by a long way, I felt completely baffled to why anyone was frustrated at all! Wasn’t it obvious why the evening had failed (humanly speaking)?

Apparently not.

You work with students, Peter! They have all the free time in the world. Why aren’t they here? Perhaps that’s why tonight failed! Where are they?!

But much as there weren’t many students there (or anyone, for that matter), I had suspicions that the very reason I wasn’t frustrated, may be the reason that they weren’t there too. For we were all (at the time) millennials.

Now, before I get myself into trouble for stereotyping, over-generalising and repeating some unhelpful, vicious attacks on a proportion of our society known as “millennials” (those born between 1980 and 1999), let me caveat this and say that there are obvious nuances of culture, background and much else to be had. I’ll let you apply common sense to what I say. And nope, I haven’t done much research on millennials…I just speak from experience.

But there are some mission gatherings I will not go to.

It’s not because they’re not good gatherings.
It’s not because I think I already know everything (though sadly I often act that way).
It’s not even that I don’t have time (though we all love to repeat that mantra).

Here, I suggest 3 real reasons why millennials like me, don’t go to such gatherings:

  1. Being passionate about mission, means being embedded in community
  2. Being passionate for mission does not equate to being passionate for your organisation
  3. Being passionate about mission, means asking the right questions
  1. Being passionate about mission, means being embedded in community.

I choose to be involved with a number of communities in life. Church community, my sports community, a local travel community and my friendship group. There are some communities I also have no choice about, like family, though for the average millennial in my life, duty-bound ties will never trump chosen ties (though I trust family can be both of these).

Between my sports community and my church community, they have meetings 4 nights a week which I go to, and so when another meeting is scheduled (even in these communities!), I normally am reluctant to go to it, given that life is more than being in meetings. It must grab me enough, that I am persuaded it will impact my life. And that’s me as a single person with more free time than others who have family. I’ve written elsewhere about the trouble of always travelling to [Christian] meetings.

And so random meetings which I don’t see what the ‘Unique Selling Point’ is (or in Simon Sinek’s terms the “why“), will not get me out of my house, particularly if they’re at an unfamiliar venue, with people I don’t know. I may be passionate about mission, but still not attend your mission event. And I see nothing wrong with that.

I may be passionate about mission, but still not attend your mission event. And I see nothing wrong with that.

2. Being passionate for mission does not equate to being passionate for your organisation

You can debate all the reasons you want, and debate whether its a good thing or a bad thing too, but the younger generation like me don’t live by loyalty to organisations. Organisations are often perceived to be hierarchical constructions of a past generation that say very little to where things are at now. Slow-moving, cumbersome, and often more frustrating to work with; my friends would often rather do something without the paperwork, and something that flows from our hearts.

We support those we know on the mission-field. I go to events or things that my friends invite me to. I value authenticity, over an institutional name. I value partnership with others, over preserving a brand-name. I value godly risk-taking and action, over perpetual conservatism and inaction, done for the sake of preservation.

And so I may be passionate about mission, but will never see that as necessitating the support of your organisation, or others. And I see nothing wrong with that.

I value partnership with others, over preserving a brand-name.

3. Being passionate about mission, means asking the right questions

The questions of today’s millennials are different ones to the past generations. And although I quite often describe university students as “apathetic”, I don’t really mean they are apathetic to spiritual questions. It’s just that they’re apathetic to the questions that the last generation persuaded me are “the important questions”. No longer are they asking about “who is Jesus?”, “Did he rise from the dead in history?” or “is the Bible true?”. Those were the modernist’s truth-orientated questions. Yes, they are questions that are central to the gospel, that we cannot abandon, but they are questions that could be considered from other angles. (Kristi and others have better expressed this elsewhere.)

As humans, we are created thinking-beings. We will always have questions, regardless of whether we express them in words or not.

“What does it mean to be human?” invites questions that the modernist would have loved to ask about finding our identity in Christ, and who He is, our maker.

“Is there something more to life?” eventually invites us to consider the resurrection, in order to find purpose in life.

“What is the best grounds for Equality?” invites us to consider the only foundation for equality, found in the scriptures in Genesis 1-2.

“Does Christianity work?” invites us to experience Jesus first-hand in the scriptures, as he walks off the pages by the power of the Spirit.

As humans, we are created thinking-beings. We will always have questions, regardless of whether we express them in words or not.

Because Jesus is Lord over every area of life, He is always only one step away from any conversation, any topic or any question. We have no need to be afraid of other questions, and all questions will lead to Christ (ultimately…but please let’s not get there at a speed that no-one else can follow). Yes, there are some questions that like Christ, we should sidestep, in order to best answer real heart-questions, but let’s not hit people over the head with the old questions of the last generation, claiming it’s what is Biblical. Even I must teach myself this daily, as I work with students of a new generation who are not asking the questions that I was asking!

And so I may be passionate about mission, but will not attend an event or support something that asks the wrong questions. And I see nothing wrong with that.

And back to Ireland….

My prayer that night as we stood in that circle of frustration, not knowing how to escape, was that God would forgive us (who thought we were the most passionate about mission) how cold our hearts were for mission compared to His, and reveal to us afresh how abundantly good His character and gifts are to us, even past what we’ve ever found out.

Why were our hearts cold for mission? Because we forgot to ask the local churches what their questions were about mission, whether they wanted an event like this, and how we could run such things in a way that didn’t become an extra burden to everyone to attend. And when I say “forgot to ask the local churches”, I don’t mean sending them an email to ask what our event can cover. I mean listening to their members’ heartbeats from week to week and knowing them well enough to know the questions that scream from their lives. Sometimes we forget to love others.

I’ll share more concrete thoughts on a way ahead for mission agencies in just a little while. For now, I’ll leave it as the easy half – diagnosing a problem without giving solutions! Oh how easy it is to do this half!

Some more questions around Identity

Thanks for all your feedback, phone calls and comments from a wide range of folk about my last blog post here. It appears our setting on this island resonates with many places in the world. I want to quickly respond to a few common questions that many asked, as a means by which to generate further conversation – please do keep chatting! As numerous people replied with these questions, having similar conversations with me, please don’t think I’m speaking about you specifically if you see ‘your’ question(s).

  • “Clearly no Christian says they have their full identity in their flag. Can we not have part of our identity in it – in the place God has us born?” (about a dozen people said this)

God has lavishly given us everything in life that we have (including our new identity in Him). The only question we have, is how we respond. Because I have been given everything, I hope to say I have everything to give, and God within me to empower me to do so, even when that’s hard. It is hard to read Philippians chapter 2, and still ask questions of “what can I keep speaking about loudly in my identity?”. We follow a Christ who thinks not of His own needs, but that of others as he lays down His life for His enemies, even to death, death on a cross. The Apostle Paul responds to the Corinthian church to say (1 Cor 9:20-22) that he would give up anything for the sake of the gospel, even across cultural divides. If you are British, how can you use that to God’s glory, and to love your enemy (or your neighbour as yourself)? If you are Irish, what about you? Yes be proudly British or Irish, but let’s realise:

  1. every culture is beautiful in some way (Gen 1 – do we celebrate others’ beauty?)
  2. every culture is fallen in some way (Gen 3 – do we repent and show humility?)
  3. the Kingdoms of this world in most ways are temporary and are NOTHING (stronger language could be used) compared to the glory of knowing Christ Jesus (Phil 3:8 – do we hold loosely to even what we are most precious about?)
  • I am not called to speak Irish, to play GAA or to live in a nationalist area. That does not make sectarian or make me responsible for the problems you write about.” (about 6 people messaged, though many more have similar feelings that I’ve chatted to)

In our individualistic western world, we speak a lot about “callings” and individual responsibility. Some of that is Biblical of course, but a lot of the Bible was written to groups of people. But our trouble is, that as The Church (capital C), we do not enjoy what our groom gives us to enjoy. If we all sit back and say “it’s not my responsibility”, we miss the fact that Christ thinks that for our good and His glory, we could enjoy his heartbeat for all peoples – most of all, His enemies (us all, at one time). We are not all called to “go” to the areas with less Christian presence, but we all should ask ourselves what part we are playing in showing Christ’s love to such places, and consider why we are not willing to go. (There are many gospel reasons to not go.) I’ve written about this a lot here. Ulster has generally shown great vigour in going to the ends of the earth (praise God!), but hasn’t figured yet how to go to Samaria.

GAA – the Gaelic Athletic Association of Ireland, as exampled in this picture of a Gaelic Football (taken from here: all copyright)
  • “Sinn Fein/Westminster are blackmailing us. I will never give in, even if thousands of lives are at stake (through abortion). The blood is on their own hands.” (few were brave enough to express what two readers did, to this extent, but several agreed)

Politics is a messy game, for sure. But I would think twice about gambling with thousands of lives. If I was a hypothetical unionist supporter (which I’m not revealing here whether I am or not), and I could save thousands of lives for giving up an Irish Language Act Bill which I resented, then surely even if I felt I was being blackmailed to do it, I would? One is demanded by scripture, the other is not. In Biblical times, they were called to primarily serve God and flowing from that, to honour the King, regardless of who was on the throne, even when their tax money went to corrupt and evil men (c.f 1 Peter, Rom 13). God will be the final judge of who is responsible or not but I personally will do my best to stop them and be vocal about it, even if I’m blackmailed for it. But as I said before, perhaps we lost this one when we voted perpetually for sectarian division, year after year.

  • “Playing GAA has too many connotations with political things for me to touch it.”

Let’s go back to Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well. Firstly, as a Jew, He deliberately goes via Samaria (he didn’t have to). Choosing to go to Samaria, when war-like hatred was shown between the people, had its connotations. Secondly, as a male, he chose to sit with a lone, promiscuous woman in the heat of the day at a well (see here for the history of wells). That had its sexual connotations in middle eastern culture. Jesus didn’t seem too concerned with connotations. What He did seem concerned for was mission, flowing from a pure heart. For us, that might mean we choose not to go up to women in nightclubs and offer them a drink as a means to show Christ’s love (perhaps a parallel modern situation). But it will mean we cross borders (metaphorical ones and real ones) for the sake of the good news.

  • “You are secretly just promoting your [insert political thought here eg: nationalist, globalist] politics and forget that you yourself are highly political and are only asking those of a certain political view to pipe down.” (three people publicly, many more privately)

I will happily admit that nobody is neutral. I have my politics, and people may assume what they wish. Nationalists in the north think I’m Unionist because of my schooling and sport association. Unionists in the north assume I’m nationalist because I’ve lived in Cork and write blog posts like this.

But my argument does not lie on any political view. I argue neither to downplay national sovereignty, nor to advocate a nationalism of any sorts. Setting aside John 4 that we’ve already considered, let’s turn to Galatians. Paul (in chapter 1) sets our his stall that he has received this good news by revelation, and that He hasn’t spent time anywhere else to learn such an unusual gospel (chapter 2). It demands that righteousness comes freely from outside of human action – circumcision makes no difference! Titus is relieved – he sits in the corner of this debate, wondering whether he’ll need to be circumcised as a new follower of Jesus. The answer resounds clearly – no! Salvation is a free gift, needing no such thing added to it. But turn to Acts 16 and we suddenly see Paul circumcising Timothy! Why? Has Paul changed his mind?! No! It’s because they are going to a Jewish area to reach out.

Was Paul advocating a type of globalism that stuffs Jewish national identity when he dismissed the need to be circumcised? No! Was he advocating a nationalist perspective when he circumcised Timothy? No! He was doing all that he could to reach the people at hand, while sacrificing what was secondary importance. I’m sure Timothy minded – it’s painful! And it’s not even needed as a Greek – so why bother? Hardly as if many people check! But he was willing to lay down his identity to reach others. Nothing to do with politics. But at the same time, utterly political. And I could go onto other passages. Me advocating this has nothing to do with what politics I support. (But it is utterly political in action)

  • “By speaking of a mission organisation like that, you are doing something very unhelpful. They are not like that in general. You will put people off going on mission through writing such things.” (4 people)

May I suggest that the only people I’ll put off going on such teams, are the people looking for a perfect mission organisation or experience? But I hate to tell you, they don’t exist. But they don’t exist because the one true mission organisation that God has given the world, is The Church (from which flows these Acts 13-like mission teams). And it’s a bunch of messy (but both sanctified and being sanctified) people, who all make cultural mistakes and place their identity in many false places, all too often.

I lead teams year after year for that mission organisation and would flag-wave endlessly for them (not that kind of fleg). They have taught me so much of what I know about evangelism. And as I said in my first blog post, I LOVE that these mistakes are being made (if we learn from them). Like my colleague Izzy says, we must not be paralysed by thinking we must be perfect. And I am the first to have made, and still make MANY mistakes in my own culture, never mind in others. And I pray that my team members and others will forgive me my mistakes, will point them out to me, and help me change to have more of God’s heart too, as they have done even in this (I hope).

Finally, let me tell you about one of my friends.

She is my age, was brought up in a protestant, unionist home, and continues to live round the corner from me, under the shadow of Windsor Park, where the kerb-stones are painted red, white and blue and my car arriving with a Cork-registration plate gets the neighbours out to their windows. She works a normal job. She has never learnt a word of Irish, couldn’t tell you who is playing in the GAA All-Ireland final this Sunday, and attends a protestant church in the heart of east Belfast.

But she does this, whilst enjoying Jesus, dying to herself, and living for Him. She is still thoroughly British, but her friends (non-Christian) when asked about her all say “she is the only person who loved us when we moved house here”; “she loves different cultures like I’ve never seen before”; “she is one of us”.

Because every morning she wakes (when she remembers), she asks Jesus, in light of what He’s done, to help her lay her life down to love some of the most unreached people in the world on her doorstep. She abandons some of her clothing choices, to fit in with them. She eats differently, so that she can share meals with them. She changes hobbies, to enjoy what they like to do. When asked about Israel and Palestine, she side-steps questions or asks good questions back again, even though she has views of exactly what’s right and wrong. She finds they don’t find her sense of humour funny the same way her close friends growing up did – she suffers it. She finds a church community, who will welcome outsiders, or learn how to do so with her help. She even learns their language and takes all her annual leave visiting their country, to do so. Yes, I’m not talking about nationalists. I’m talking about Arab neighbours.

Arabs in Belfast welcomed, as reported by the Irish Times (here). Photo credit IT.

Somehow that makes sense for her. But if it makes sense for her, why doesn’t it make sense for us, even in our normal jobs and normal lives to support and have such a heartbeat, even when we can’t be the ones “going”?

Sadly my non-Christian friends (the ones who I’ve been close enough to give them opportunity to speak into my life) have seen all too clearly where my identity has seemed to lie, at times:

  • You’re so busy rushing around doing Christian things, we never see you. (My identity was perhaps in missional activity rather than Jesus)
  • You never come on nights out with us. (In first year of uni, my identity was so busy trying to be holy by abstaining, I forgot to love people well, perhaps by staying up to help them when they came home drunk, or in other ways)
  • You get far more passionate about [insert topic] when we talk, than anything else – is that what you value? (Caveat: let’s remember some cultures are more direct than others – let’s not try to “out-Jesus” each other in our speech)

But ultimately it’s God’s Word, applied to God’s World well, that will expose our hearts and convince us that finding our identity and worth in who Christ is, and what He has done, will be ultimately satisfying. Though sometimes God even uses our non-Christian friends to do that through His common grace!

A little booklet written to counter the common claims of “For God and for [insert political identity here]….”

So my prayer for both you and I today, in light of this whole discussion about British identity and culture, is that God will help us travel this earth, in tandem with His heart. And that it will radically alter how we live here on this island. None of us can pretend we’re not enculturated (/bathed in a culture). There are no people who see everything and act neutrally. But there are those who pray that the Spirit would illumine and show them what is their culture and what is the gospel, and seek to live in light of that distinction, deliberately amongst many who are “not like us”.

I merely echo words of many who have more succinctly and beautifully said things before me on this topic. The work of ECONI summarised by a QUB researcher and respected cultural analyst, comes to mind, even if ECONI broadened its views later. I will happily send anyone a copy of “For God and His Glory Alone” who wishes, in the post.

Sounds from round the world

As my last post generated lots of controversy (not something I try to do on blogs posts, nor was it something that ought to have been controversial) and still has discussions ongoing of various natures, I thought I’d post something that we can all have our hearts warmed by, that unites us all.

I love world music, and from a secular level Nitin Sawhney opened my eyes to the spectacular diversity within even an individual culture, nevermind all cultures! His compositions, curations and investigative journeys into other cultures through the world of music, are something I’ve loved over the years. He gives a taste of incredible musicality mixed with his intellectual intrigue here in his TEDx performance.

But from a Christian perspective, I came across this, thanks to a friend who sings in the Sydney Missionary Bible College band “Badminton Road” who are about to launch an EP later this year. What a beautiful glimpse of Heaven! Would it make you want to travel differently in regards to language and visiting believers where you travel? I hope so!

And if I’m allowed to mention the Irish language twice in a row, it’s fantastic to see a verse as-Gaelige.