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!)

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!

10 top Christmas gifts for Christian travellers

Coming up to Christmas, here’s 10 top gifts for those with a heart for travel and for Jesus.

  1. A travel experience

Experiential gifts are not everyone’s cup of tea, but travellers will normally respond well to them.  A voucher for a stay at somewhere stunning.  Money off flights.  A particularly unmissable experience in a place they are going to.  Yes, it’s money quickly spent, but we all have things we value, and its so often memories for a lifetime.

2. A holiday for a single missionary

Sound weird?  In my introduction to my book, I mentioned a lass who was in an Islamic setting who couldn’t holiday by herself without cultural shame or danger.  All she needed to get time off was someone to come and say that they were happy to go somewhere with her – easy!  Even male missionaries can be like that (much to my surprise).  I was in a classy holiday resort with a male missionary recently and was solicited by so many local female resort workers, that I was very glad to have someone else to point me to Jesus!

3. Reading vouchers for something they can take with them

Dan’s solo cycle round the world was enhanced greatly by his pastor giving him a reading list of all sorts of incredible things to read.  He grew so much in his faith through reading, particularly in the countries where no-one spoke English and he had hours to spare!  Why not buy some Kindle books for someone?

Books and pictures in one….

4. Money for photos to be printed/framed/put on canvass

Travel memories will be incredible, but having a few photos rarely goes amiss!

5.  Travel resources for those with kids

Travel can be easily perceived to be a thing for single people.  But the percentage of the industry revenue that comes from single parents travelling with kids, or families travelling, is increasing and very significant.  But what about those who do find it hard to travel with kids?  Well, I’ve already mentioned these incredible resources from Immeasurably More Designs, made to increase their knowledge and enjoyment of the world, as well as being mad fun to play with!  Check them out here.

6. Travel experiences for those not able to travel

How about doing something to take a disabled friend out on a trip, or an experience that let’s someone less privileged capture the magic of the world around us?

The local train from Cork to Tralee is disability friendly for most, has some stunning mountain views and is only 13 euro – a great day out.

7.  Shaping your travel plans around visiting mission partners 

It may cost you a little more, but why not visit that mission partner of your church, and find out about their lives and context, so that you can better pray for them in future?  Or how about sending their kids a prezzie or two, so that Christmas day away from home can still be exciting for them?

Visiting CUI mission partners in countries that are allowed to be named.

8. A gift of hospitality

What money do you ever set aside to serve those who visit our lands?  Most people mentioned in the book of Acts came to faith while they were away from home.  If you don’t have time to meet such people yourself, why not donate regularly to the local International Student Cafe outreach near you, or to a River Community that reaches travelling people with the good news of Jesus?  They’d love to even hear of people supporting them!

9. A gift to those we meet

For myself, as a student or young professional, I always cringed when (and if) I made it to a church service of an amazing church where I was visiting as a holidaymaker, and the offering plate was passed around.  I knew that I was spending several hundred on my week away, and would continue to do so that day on things.  But I would never dream of putting money in the collection.  Similarly with those I was visiting – rarely did I think of going out of my way to give them something lavish, instead of treating myself.  Or simply to the needy person I encountered on the street in one place.  Buying them lunch would be no harm to them, to my pocket, or society.  But I hadn’t budgeted for giving money to others.  I touch on ethical situations like this in Appendix 1 of the book.

10. Oh go on then…

Well you’ve probably guessed by now.  Number 10 might be a certain book on Travel that I recently wrote.  Or if you’ve read it already, why not buy a copy for a travelling friend and read it with them?  Oh, so you’ve done that too?  Well, hosting an evangelistic gathering on the theme would be easy to do and not too expensive!

Can we be good without…Christianity?

Interestingly secular historian Tom Holland came out a few days ago in the New Statesman to say that he’s increasingly realising how much of our western ethical thinking is still grounded in Christianity.  Of course, he’s just slowly repeating what many others have said before him (as we all do), though at least Nietzsche tried to be consistent and rid himself of the Christian morality:

“When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident: this point has to be exhibited again and again, despite the English flatheads. Christianity is a system, a whole view of things thought out together. By breaking one main concept out of it, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands. Christianity presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it. Christian morality is a command; its origin is transcendent; it is beyond all criticism, all right to criticism; it has truth only if God has truth—it stands or falls with faith in God.”

Whether we can rid ourselves of such a moral basis and still have an “ought” behind our morals?  It’s been a great philosophical question in recent decades.

By that I suggest we mean we want to call evil wrong.why  But why is evil wrong and good right?  Well it ought to be so.  We can try and define evil by harm caused or injustice or inequality but we’ll always face to annoying two-year-old master question “why?”.  Why is injustice or harm wrong?  I know it is in virtually every culture.  But what if we all have it wrong?

And in my mind such questions have never been answered sufficiently since we moved on from deontological frameworks (where morals are rooted in divine being), though the intuitionist may want to argue.  And I’m not talking about poorly formed divine command theories (of which most we were given at undergraduate level were straw men!).

I’ll happily listen to someone who’ll give us a moral basis outside of a divine being, but for now, I see it being necessary if we’re going to be able to call ISIS evil in any proper way.  Time won’t allow take us the full way to seeing whether that being is a Christian divine being or not.  Perhaps for later…