Friendship & Travel

Jim went off to university aged eighteen. He’d grown up in his hometown, been popular in school, his sports team and in church but leaving home was one of the rites of passage that he was looking forward to, even if it meant not being able to stay in touch with a few of his friends as much. At university he was thrown into halls of residence with about 200 other first year students, and soon was socialising most nights of the week with them, or with his new sports team or church friends.

“Halls” as they were known, were the social hub that couldn’t really be replicated again in life at any point. Everyone wanted to make friends, everyone felt vulnerable, everyone had huge amounts of freetime (between lectures, and particularly as first year grades didn’t really matter), and there were thousands of other people nearby, just like Jim.

3 years of his degree flew by, and soon Jim faced the reality of the working world ahead of him. Very few people stayed in the city they lived in for university. Jobs weren’t abundant and although relational roots seemed deep, the tie to the geographical place was nothing more than a fond memory, and perhaps a church community. Campus was only good when you knew the people on it. The city was only special when you were there with friends.

And so Jim moved again, off to the capital for his first ever full-time job. Settling into the capital was far harder, as not everyone was in the same position as he was and he only knew a few people and they still lived over an hour from him. Back again at square one, it felt like a lonely world without the “halls” experience, and by the time Jim made friends in a new church, a new sports team and the odd person at work, it was a year or two onwards.

One of the big challenges of that period was to know whether to embrace loneliness or to run from it. To run from it (the socially acceptable option – no-one wants to appear lonely!), would be to constantly try and live life in his previous communities – going off to visit the lads from uni, or popping home to visit childhood friends, family and church. All could be very good uses of time, energy and intentional spiritual/missional living, but none would connect him long-term to a community locally in any real way. Was he to embrace loneliness for the sake of making friends and settling in his new home?

But Jim decided that he’d never settle in a job or a place, if he didn’t intentionally make friends and connections in his new setting, even if that meant he couldn’t see so much of his uni friends and church. So he committed to being around at weekends to find a new church community nearby, and he tried his best to make friends at work (awkward as that always is) and to join a local team (even when making training after work was nigh impossible at times and friendships were slow to form).

Like many have found, he soon was surrounded by a warm, welcoming church community that felt like family to him, which was a huge relief, after months of embracing loneliness in his new setting. No longer needing to appear to be a social reject with no friends, he now had Christian friends (even if they were a little weird at times and didn’t like his politics). Occasionally he felt a bit guilty when anyone in church brought up the topic of evangelism – who did he meaningfully know who wasn’t a Christian? But quickly he excused himself…perhaps he could speak to his awkward work colleagues? And besides, had anyone tried to move to a new city and start new church, new work and new friendships all at once?

Judy also grew up in a smaller town with no university or college nearby. When she reached 18 she was the first in her family to ever go to college, as seemed the norm for everyone to do these days. As the family weren’t well-off and couldn’t afford separate accommodation in the university city nearby, she instead got the bus in and out to college each day, travelling 90 minutes each way. To finance her course and whatever else she wanted in life, she worked a part-time job with a local business who she’d worked for as a teenager.

Her friends remained the same (most of them also going to this uni). Her family were still there (even if that annoyed her at times). And her church remained constant (even if she’d rather have been treated a bit more like an adult by them). Making friends wasn’t really a priority at college for Judy, as she already had many deep friendships with old school friends and at the local sports club back home (who she still played for). In fact, between work, sport, church and travelling to college, she barely had anytime for herself, let alone anytime for adding more people into her life. It meant that although she helped at the local campus ministry’s international cafe, befriending international students, she was never really able to spend much time with any of them.

Upon finishing college, she had enough saved up from her years working part-time that she decided to spread her wings and go for a round-the-world trip on a budget, alongside one of the few new friends she’d made from her course at uni, Jordan. The world was their oyster as they thought about where to go. And there’d be no rent payments, car insurance or parents breathing down their backs – freedom! And far cheaper than staying at home. They even got to visit a few of the international students from the college international cafe too!

That year they had the time of their lives. Backpacking in Australia and New Zealand. Visiting the paradise islands of Vanuatu. Helping an orphanage in Thailand for 3 months. And a host of other breathtaking experiences. And as well as that, everyone they met on the road seemed to be quality people – just like them. Maybe travel does that too you? Makes you more open-minded and less judgmental.

Judy arrived back home after a year on the road and immediately had the travel-bug and wanted to be away again. After a few short trips round Ireland and across Europe on cheap flights, she resigned herself to her parents’ nagging – better get a “proper” job! No-one seemed to understand how amazing her year had been, and she didn’t want to be “that” person who never shut up about it. But she really struggled to settle back into life at home. Even some of her close friends seemed to have moved on a bit, although they welcomed her in again of course, as much as they saw her between her trips.

For many winter evenings, Judy would while away the hours chatting to friends she’d met all round the globe. Many of them were Christians and gave her a taste of faith that went beyond her culture. At times her church at home seemed quite dull compared to many of the vibrant flavours of Christianity she’d experienced round the world – was this really all church was meant to be?


Jim and Judy’s stories are combinations of stories I’ve heard, seen and experienced for years in the student and travel world. Hyper-individualism is combined with the online world opening up boundaries, and good intentions for living out our faith. It often leaves many of us with questions that don’t appear to have easy answers. Here are just a few statements I’ve regularly encountered:

  • “I’ve just too many friends. How can I keep in touch with them all? I certainly don’t want to meet anyone else.”
  • “I’ve thousands of followers, but I seem to have lost the deep friendships I had in childhood. Strangely, despite this, I still lack the motivation or mental strength to get out to meet people in person.”
  • [full-time Christian worker] “I feel like I have to stay in touch with all these hundreds of people – they support me in prayer and I hope some of them may financially support me. But it exhausts me. I’m paralysed by it all.”
  • “I’ve moved cities several times now, and my work are talking about moving me again – I feel like a nomad who struggles to form deep friendships, because people know I will move on soon.”
  • “I feel like I have to keep trying new things and playing new circles if I’m ever going to meet someone I want to marry – there’s soo many people in the world, and I know everyone in my town already.”
  • “My family want me to do this, but we don’t get on amazingly well – I’d far rather spend the holidays with my friends.”
  • “Church people are so naff. I mean, they’re lovely and I love them, but I’d never introduce them to my friends in life – they’d make them run a mile!”
  • “God’s given us amazing church community, and I really struggle with the things my colleagues talk about and do, so I’d rather just focus on the few friendships I have in church.”

Society has changed.

Previously, a few generations ago, you might have grown up in the same town, with the same people and not had a choice in what job you had. The questions about friendship probably would have been very different. Elsewhere I’ve noted how the same individualism that brings us choice, also paralyses us. Amidst the great benefits from the freedom to travel, come the hard consequences for friendship that I’ve never really heard anyone offer us any help with. What truth might there be in the statements above? But what problems are arising or might arise if we fully went with any one of the statements?

I’d love to hear if you know of any good resources on friendship that speak into our individualistic western culture and help us grapple with what true friendship should look like for traveling people.

Or does travelling fly in the very face of having true friends?

Answers on a postcard! Creative guest posts welcome.

Opportunity in adversity

The lockdown period has been different for everyone. Even different for the same person on different days. How easy it is to know that the gospel should give us perspective in all of this. Yet how hard to bear that in mind when our world collapses in on itself and we feel stuck in a rut.

Some days I’ve felt capable to try new things, to imaginatively create new patterns of life and to grow in godliness. Other days one is satisfied if a half-day of work has been done and one is able to fall asleep trusting a sovereign God, looking forward to better days!

But there are opportunities to look outwards and upwards, that may help us as well as grieving what we have lost. The road ahead could be hard for churches – social distancing will make things hard, and even when we have social distancing, it still appears we may not be able to have congregational singing for a while, if our recommendations are anything like other nations. The volume of air projected out of us when singing is bound to be different to when we’re sitting quietly apart from each other. For those longing to get back to congregational singing, this will be a painful realisation.

Rarely have I been moved more than being up in the Scottish islands, listening to the songs of the Bible being sung by young and old alike – a truly moving experience.

But its been encouraging to hear of one church in Italy who are seeing opportunity in this adversity. An adversity, I must add, that is not unique to this season for the worldwide Church – many settings will not be able to belt out Christian anthems together, due to fear of being reported by Police (secret or otherwise).

Rather than campaign for us to be allowed our rights far quicker (which may be questionable health-wise), or having people focus on the vacuum that is left by not singing (or for that matter, disobeying potential guidelines and singing anyway), this church have decided to do something positive:

Learn a new language

What?! How is that replacing singing? And why on earth would one expect a whole congregation to learn a new language? Isn’t that a bit unrealistic?

Well, a church near Turin have decided that they can sing congregationally, if they use sign language! Perhaps “learning a new language” is a bit of an over-statement. I’m guessing it’s learning some basic words from a simple song or two, or perhaps a chorus that can be repeated. And before anyone tells us that they could never do that, let me suggest that we learn plenty of similarly big things as whole churches, without batting an eyelid. What a humbling thing that brings parent, child and single person onto an even footing as we learn things together – in fact, I would fancy the chances of the young ones being far better at this than we are! What joy!

Irish Sign Language

Here’s 3 other ways I think they’re on to something!

  1. We can raise awareness of some of the neediest communities in the world for the gospel. You see, although the Church is gradually awakening to the great needs of the gospel amongst Unengaged People Groups and God’s heart for the outsider – the least reached – the population of said groups is growing fast enough that it’s a hard task to ever make a dent into the numbers. And then in most of those people groups, one has subsets like deaf peoples, who sometimes (depending on culture) are dis-connected from the dominating culture of those around them (given they don’t share a common language). It means many like the Joshua Project, count them as separate peoples.

But what are the chances of them being reached? Well even if the main predominant culture within that demographic is eventually reached with the gospel (which we’re still far behind on), the chance of a small sub-section of that community (one that tends to be quite insular, for obvious reasons) being reached, in this different language, is hard to imagine in many places. So many of the deaf communities fall high up on the least reached lists. They may not be the most strategic numerically, but then again, when was Christ’s Kingdom ever primarily shaped by reaching the most people, as quick as possible? King Jesus has a very different outlook on life, which by many of our models, seems weak, ill-advised and utterly frustrating.

  1. What a great way to engage or to make ourselves aware of the deaf communities on our own doorstep too. Who are they? Where do they meet? Do any churches in the local area provide sign language interpretation or assistance? One small church in Carrigaline, County Cork has been giving their devotionals on Facebook with an intrepretation too (they’re uniquely equipped to do so, but have shaped lots of life round being able to serve the deaf community as well).
  1. In learning some basic words about the gospel in another language, you’ll often find yourself thinking afresh about the meaning of it, and how best to communicate such. Could we be brought to marvel at the gospel again, by being children and struggling to learn some basics in another language like this? For those that wouldn’t be keen on this taking place in service, I suggest we teach other new forms of language and communication to people already, in our services, and expect them to pick it up and learn. Taking it slowly shouldn’t disrupt the tone of the service.

But wherever you are, and whatever your congregation may be able to manage or not manage, can I encourage us to look outwards and upwards, and to perhaps in doing so, start to see opportunity, amidst the adversity and loss.

In the meantime, let’s not forget what we lose: it is massive.

May this international collective warm our hearts as we reflect:

PS: Thanks Kim for flying the Irish flag in Sydney!

Microadventure day 4: voices of the world

Part 4 of our microadventures series continues but you can find the rest (as well as an introduction to microadventures) by clicking here.


What travels all the way round the world but never leaves its corner?
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A stamp!

Or so the old joke goes. But having simply taken us out for a walk to the unknown yesterday, I thought we’d go round the globe today, whilst remaining in our own little corners!

What many relish about travel, is the educational perspective it gives you, as you often see the world through other lenses. And as Christians, being united to our brothers and sisters in Christ around the globe, this world perspective can theoretically come without leaving our houses or towns – as we join with the global Church and learn from each other long past any fleeting chance to meet with each other in person. Here’s a few ways I’ve done that today from my living room:

  1. Surfing USA
    I’ve been chatting with the Christian Travelers’ Network leader in the USA, hearing what Coronavirus in the States is like, the challenges of life there and how the Church is responding. The bit that was recorded (alas) was me waffling on about microadventures, the future of the travel industry and many more travel related things that you can listen to, here.

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  2. Learning from our African friends
    A fellow IVP author shared this on Twitter recently:
    “A group of African Christian leaders once said to me: when you western people suffer, it is unusual for you. You think you need to know why. This reveals your temptation towards rationalism. When you can’t find out why, you are tempted to question, doubt and then dismiss God.

    When we suffer on the other hand, it is normal to us. We don’t think we need to answer questions about why. It is common in a fallen world. So our instinct is to seek God, humble ourselves and worship.

    One of the lessons from the book of Job is to not ask the wrong questions in the face of catastrophe. As if getting answers and understanding is what we need to help us.

    The necessary answers to catastrophe are rarely academic ones, regardless of whether they are correct.

    There is no doubt about God’s agency in Job’s story, but it turnedout not to be profitable to speculate much more than that. What was needed was not THE Answer, but lamenting, support and most of all – God.”


    I’m not sure I have much more to say. How we have robbed ourselves of a theology of mission being participating in suffering! Rather than the ultimate goal of our prayers/lives being our comfort. Teach me O Lord what this might look like!

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  3. Race the World: South America
    I’m one who doesn’t watch many things on screens (because why would you watch someone else doing something, when you could be experiencing it yourself? And on-screen entertainment is so slow-moving compared to reading, if one wants to learn.) but I have succumbed to a few travel documentaries/soaps recently. BBC have Race around the World, 4od have Travels of a Gringo (and of course for those outside of the UK, there’s plenty to enjoy on YouTube, Netflix and many other places).

    I’d probably categorise them in different ways – I turn to some places to learn in intentional ways, I turn to other things to relax and inspire me, and some are a mixture of both, like the two aforementioned series which are giving me a hilarious overview of South America – the continent that I know least about (probably because it’s so ‘Christian’ that I’ve never thought about its needs very much?).

    The one thing I tend to stay clear of, unless I’m wanting marketing tips or videography demonstrations, is pleasure travel videos on YouTube. Sitting watching carefully curated videos of professional travellers, of infinity pools in sunny resorts, luxury ice hotels in the arctic, dare-devil cliff jumps and other such things, while stunning, don’t tend to create in me a healthy love for the world or how I can serve God in it. Perhaps the hashtag #travelporn or #wanderlust says an awful lot of what’s behind the fast-paced fake reality we long for, leaving me lusting after the travel brochure picture, the perfect travel video and forgetting the messy reality behind it. I’m not saying there’s anything objectively wrong with these either – I just don’t find a diet of them, helpful (or that creative – after a while of watching).

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  4. Praying from pole to pole
    Starting a tour of the 5 continents was always going to end in trouble with Antarctica! Did I really engage with people from there that day? Well, no. But I did get an email from a Christian friend who lives up in the Arctic amongst the Sami people in northern Norway. She reminded me that “isolation” isn’t really at all painful to them there – some quite often go days without seeing those outside of their family and so life goes on as normal! I suppose my regular contact with Christians round the globe by email is a little like letter-writing of old – ‘snail-mail’ to the modern-day individual!

    Still, I do love a deep email, speaking of the Lord, what God is doing, sharing photos and memories and spurring each other on. I was encouraged that day when it arrived, and I learnt yet more insights into the churches in such places and how we can pray for them (which let’s be real – I don’t do often…though I do like the habit of daily getting out Operation World, IFES World updates, or Joshua Project Unreached People Group of the Day and daily upholding up a radically different place and people).

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  5. An up-side-down videocall (Australia)
    I was meant to be off work and travelling this week with an old colleague visiting from Australia, my fiancee and a few other friends. But…of course I’m at home, sitting in my room for yet another evening. But it was a joy to at least call Australia and catch-up without the usual timezone constraints (as most of us can get away with flexi-hours, if we’re still working). Sadly, she had lost more than just a holiday when her trip was cancelled, but a trip that was to visit some future possible teams/locations to minister, and a visit to support missionaries working in hard places. Do you ever have those people who you call, who leave you humbled, in awe of God’s sovereign hand at work in the world, and delighting at Christ more, despite our sinfulness? I hope you do. And I love that this conversation was one of those.

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  6. A rebuke from Asia
    Well to be more precise, this one was actually from one of my own church community, in Europe, but the quoted voice was an Indian tweet that has done the rounds on social media, and that is worth reading the full thread by clicking below…

It’s times like these that put into perspective our cries that “we’re bored” isolating. Or even our very real fears that someone we know may suffer. It’s voices like these that we could do with shaping our lives more from day to day – when we know many in the world are not asking “will I die with the virus?” but “will I die of hunger or of the virus first?”

Dr Hiremath vents (as an Indian consultant) that rich travelers are to blame for the spread of such disease to poor places which can’t cope and don’t have the privilege we have. Should this put an end to our constant travel talk here and elsewhere? Will we wake up to what we are doing to our fellow human and to our climate by our travels? Such questions do indeed need to be wrestled with, as travel enthusiasts. There are serious questions to how we travel, which are to be thought through. But I’m not sure banning travel, or stopping talking about it, is the answer. Did less pleasure travel stop the Spanish Plague a century ago? Is it only certain western pleasure travel we should legislate against (only a fraction of all flights)? What would that look like? What about the Indian air industry which is (I’m informed) the third largest in the world?

These are complex questions with no easy answers. They deserved to be talked about more rather than less, if we are to reason with the world traveler and come to answers that will help all in the world, especially the least privileged. I hope this blog can continue to be a place for exactly that. Soon I might write on why we’re “micro-adventuring” in the middle of a world crisis.

  1. Coming Home (Europe)

But should these 6 visits to various cultural contexts and continents, all regularly happen in one day, we’d be all too exhausted to invest in local community where we live. And I know many who do ‘church’ with like-minded people online around the world, because they find the community more understanding, deeper and more authentic amongst open-minded travelers. The preaching bears in mind various cultural contexts, so keeps the main thing, the main thing. The prayers are made in light of world events and the darkest of dark in the world, but also the incredible things God is doing in various places – experienced first hand by many. The expectations of what Christ-like-ness is, are not culturally bound to political systems or culturally ingrained ways of living.

Yet, local church is what it is, for a reason. A random bunch of completely different, broken people, filled with His Spirit. Yes, every local church community would benefit from people who are aware of the world, can see clearly the strengths and weaknesses of cultures, and live out their connection to the worldwide body in very real ways.

But every traveler like me, would benefit from being humbled to serve people who are not-like-us. To learn to love the conservative individual who never leaves their home village. To be challenged in my extreme independence and use of time and money for my own goals. To sit under the authority of God’s Word in a community of people who know you well, rather than getting frustrated by the endless cultural faux-pas of sermons, and only meeting with those online who can’t really see your heart and life.

But thankfully, today was an unusual mix of experiences. And one that hopefully won’t take away from serving my local community here in my neighbourhood (and my church) in these hard weeks for many.


So what about you – how are you travelling the globe this week, learning about the world, joining with the global Church, and hearing voices that challenge you in your living? I hope you can #travelintandem

Enjoy!

Are Unreached People Groups Biblical?

It was the “Introduction to Mission” module at a local Bible College, and I was lecturing there for the first time. A bit out of my depth, in a room full of people who had far more experience of mission than I did, I sometimes (rightly or wrongly) resorted to my favourite topics, tangents or strong points, to fall back on familiar territory.

Nearing the end of day 2, I went off briefly on one of those excursions into a short bit about “Unreached People Groups” as I’ve written about here before. As I turned back round to the class, I noticed a blank face or two and a voice spoke up:

“But where is that in the Bible, Sir?”

And it was at this point, I admitted that indeed the exact definition and outworkings of Unreached People Groups, as defined by the Joshua Project, International Mission Board (of the Southern Baptists) or other major organisations, are not in the Bible. That’s why this was only a passing mention in a far fuller Biblical course. Something I hold lightly to, though perhaps for the number of times I mention it, you wouldn’t think so!

Yes, we’d seen aplenty that God’s heart was for all nations, right from Genesis onwards. Even as we read prophecies about the coming of the Lord Jesus, around Christmas, many of them have this “all nations” scope.

“His greatness will reach to the ends of the earth”

Micah 5:4
(speaking of what the eternal God would do, being born in “little” Bethlehem)

“My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people – a light for revelation to the Gentiles…” 

Luke 2:30-32
(Simeon realises the significance of this birth is far more than just for his own people)

And we could go on…(instead, why not get your hands on Chris Wright’s “Mission and the People of God” or Chester’s “Mission Matters”?)

But despite these constant mentions of the nations or all peoples, it still doesn’t help us define what that looks like. And that’s where this article on The Gospel Coalition (and this one too) strikes back at current tendencies in missiology.

And what the authors mention is certainly true. Three things struck me from 10 years taking trips to more unreached, unengaged parts of the world:

  1. The “Unengaged” world (as defined here) has comparatively few resources (it used to be around 1% of all evangelical mission giving), and few seem to care enough to shape their church mission policies and individual lives, to sacrificially prioritise these peoples. There are great needs that brought about the wave of thinking about “unreached people groups”, that still exist. Let’s not shy away from this area, thinking it is the “sexy” topic of the time.
  2. We cannot zap Jesus back by completing the great commission, as soon as the last tribe hears the last word of our good news presentation in their language. Mission is about far more than gospel presentations, Discipleship (Seeker) Bible Studies or responses. The great commission speaks of teaching people to obey all that Christ has commanded, and the New Testament develops the idea of God’s people – now, the Church.
  3. If we do not take a stronger emphasis on what the Bible emphasizes in discipleship (that discipleship is messy and growing Godly character is never quick), in local church (that a meeting of 3 people looking at the scriptures is not necessarily a church), in evangelism (that pragmatics of hunting “people of peace” and other such strategies cannot define us), then we will not have healthy churches that will survive long-term. We may have exciting stories of dozens of “church” plants. But we may simply be inoculating the culture against Christianity (by making them think they’re Christian), rather than seeing genuine conversion.

So let’s not take our foot off the gas/pedal. There are great needs. But may we steep ourselves first and foremost in the scriptures, to know what to grasp as first importance, and what human principles may be useful but not essential. May we tie our seminaries to our mission-fields and see that it is Godly, equipped people we are sending to plant sustainable, indigenous churches.

How our going to church is destroying the church

How can going to church, be destroying the church? Isn’t it the people who aren’t going to church that we should be worried about?

Let’s take a step back and come with me to the area I have just moved into in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

For security reasons, I’ve made my location slightly unclear, but otherwise this map gives you an accurate picture of my area.

Within 1 mile of my house, we have:

  • 2 Presbyterian Churches (with 2 more just outside the mile walk)
  • 2 Roman Catholic (with another 2 just outside the mile)
  • 2 Church of Ireland congregations (with another just outside the mile)
  • 1 Independent Methodist (with 1 denominational Methodist just outside the mile)
  • 1 Congregational church
  • 1 Baptist
  • 1 independent evangelical church
  • 1 pentecostal church
  • 1 Brethren Gospel Hall (with another just outside the mile)

Without visiting them all, I could fairly confidently say that within a mile of me, at least 7 of these churches would hold to historic evangelical doctrine. 2 would be reformed in their understanding of doctrine and practice.

I go to none of them.

Instead, I choose to drive 6 miles into the city, to a church which has its membership on average commuting similar distances.

What difference does this make to church life?

Dr Carl Trueman in his (free) lectures on the Reformation, famously said that the greatest impact on the church post-reformation, was the invention of the motor car. In our cars, we become the arbiters of churches.

In our cars we can get to churches miles away in minutes (I travel to mine in 12 minutes on a Sunday).

In our cars, we can be tempted to go elsewhere. Many of those who I’ve sat beside in church recently (deliberately sitting beside new-comers where I can), said they’re just popping in to visit from their home church – miles away.

In our cars, church discipline (in the positive sense of the term), no longer is effective, as we can jump in our cars and drive to the next church, where the elders know nothing about our character or actions.

In our cars, we no longer see each other as much, as we all live so far from each other. Scripture has 52 “one-another” actions which the church community are called to practice. Can we do them from distance? Debatable.

In our cars, if we were to do these “one-another” practices, we would spend a good chunk of our time driving, and thus dwindle our time with non-Christian friends (who are unlikely to see the need to drive the same number of miles, past perhaps past 50 other churches, in order to go to one which meets our theological niche or stylistic preference).

Is geographical proximity necessitated by New Testament Church principles?

Of course not! You don’t find Paul stating that the main problem in the church was their lack of geographical proximity. But you do find the New Testament authors giving 52 “one-another” practices they see the Church ought to be fulfilling, whilst living as a missional community together. I could imagine geographical proximity was never a problem in NT times, apart from, for example, Ethiopian Eunuchs passing by, who might need to go and plant their own church amongst their own servants and people.

Take a look at this next picture, in the same city (Belfast) that I live in:

Lots of churches still here, but now the breakdown might be more like:

  • 3 Roman Catholic Churches (with another just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 evangelical church
  • 1 brethren Gospel Hall (just outside the mile walk)
  • 1 Church of Ireland hall (1 Church of Ireland just outside the mile walk)

Here, for a similar density of population, in a Irish Nationalist community, we have only one evangelical church (that I’m aware of). I could imagine some places in West Belfast where there would not even be this.

Is it really a problem?

In some ways, no. Middle class people, due to cars/transport, are not geographically bound anymore, particularly in the cities. Our friends are not our nieghbours (often). Consider 3 scenarios:

  1. If I was to live in London, the people I see most during the week are my colleagues in central London, or my friends I meet with after work. Not as many are bound by the area they live in. Many travel on the Underground 30 minutes to meet for coffee or a pint.
  2. If I was to live in Ballingeary or Goleen in rural West Cork, it would take me over 30 minutes to drive to an Evangelical Church. But many farmers, although tightly knit to their communities, drive this distance to the shops or for other things.
  3. If I was to live in Khemisset, in central Morocco, with a population of over 130,000, I might have to drive well over 1 hour to find an accessible underground church community (given as a local I may be not allowed to attend a foreign-led one). This may be an advantage to me, as I may not want to be seen going to a local fellowship.

But really, is there not a problem?

Could I suggest there are several problems here, which are destroying the church, because of travel. We can come back to each in due course.

  1. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in “one-another”ing, each other (discipleship)
  2. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we put ourselves at a major disadvantage in evangelism because we turn it into an individualistic burden instead of living out authentic community: “that they might know that you are my disciples by your love for one another”
  3. By traveling miles to church, when we could go to a closer evangelical (or in my case, reformed) one, we refuse to keep the main thing, the main thing. We divide over secondary issues and often form our identity round them (great as they may be). In this, we fail to prioritise the most unreached areas, instead prefering our own style or theological nuance.
  4. By traveling miles to church, we are telling some communities (whether linguistic, geographical or cultural) that they must become “other” in order to believe. The trouble is, this “other” isn’t often commanded by scripture.

Now all this I say with two caveats. (1) I am part of the problem and (2) I have no intention of moving house or church right now. I would like to think I’m a bit of a unique case (don’t we all??) but lest I get caught up in justifying myself, I’ll refrain from telling you all about it, and allow my elders and church family to ask those questions, my neighbours and friends to decide how effectively I’m living for Jesus amongst them, and my friends of other denominations to see whether I’m dividing us all by placing too much weight on secondary things or not.


You can read more about these specific issues numbered above, here:

Pastoral authority in a travelling world

“All my congregation are travelling.  The older generation visit their children and grandchildren.  And the younger generation for work and just about everything from music gigs to sport to pleasure travel in and of itself. What should I say to my travelling congregation?  That’s what you should write on next.”

It’s what I’ve been told or asked several times in the last week or two.  So what’s my response?

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Travelling for the bank holiday weekend in Ireland: I made sure I went with other church family, and with the goal of mixing and mingling Christians with non-Christians too.

Well, although I didn’t write the book primarily for the church pastor, I hope that what I say can still be very helpful at demonstrating how to speak to someone with their heart set on travel.  In chapter two of the book, I touch on a [borrowed] metaphor for humanity that my blog name actually derives from – beautiful ruins.  Everyone on earth is beautiful but broken.  Everything on earth is beautiful but also fallen, to some degree on another.  But it creates life hard for us all.  Because it’s far easier to see the extremes of the spectrum in anything.  To brand people, things or viewpoints as entirely bad or wonderfully good.  And so pastors who have travelling congregations could quite easily do the same.  They’re looking for a quick fix to tell people to stop travelling and start committing to church.

“…quick fixes aren’t available in the Christian spiritual world.”

But I wryly smile, because quick fixes aren’t available in the Christian spiritual world.  Convictions of what church is, and other such things are taught and caught over years of pastoral ministry.  Even if I did think it was the answer to tell people to sit down and stop travelling (which I don’t, primarily), a book that told everyone to do precisely that, wouldn’t exactly be a best seller to travelling people.

But because there’s far more to travel that just “is it good or is it bad?”, I write to help people think for themselves and see both the potential and the harmful sides of travel in their life and the lives of others around them.

So the way I identify with my fellow travel-lovers, the language I use about it all, the emphasis I take and much more, will hopefully be an example or a sharpening to those who teach and those who lead churches, in how they can do similar.  A book about that, would only end up exampling and repeating so much of the same things again.

But a final note to pastors or those who are frustrated at the amount of travel their congregation or certain individuals do:

If I can boldly say so, I think in saying this, you’ve often been steeped in the same individualism as your young travelling congregation have.  Pleasure travel has thrived in the extreme individualism of the western world.  But so has pastoring-from-a-distance.  It’s amazing how we have churches now where everyone drives in from miles around, and never sees each other from Sunday to Sunday (or occasionally at the midweek).  Living out the tens of “one another” commands in Scripture (love one another, forgive one another, confess to one another etc) which seem to dominate the discipleship patterns of every letter in the New Testament, seem virtually impossible without seeing people from one week to the next!  Relationships will never thrive and sin can always be hidden from each other in such contexts.  Conversations will always be shallow after church on Sunday, if we don’t know each other better than that.

“So how was your week?”

“Oh, alright thanks.  I had a cold on Tuesday and work has been busy but good apart from that.  Did you see the football on Saturday?”

“Oh sorry to hear!  Yes, great game, wasn’t it?”

Etc.

But many of the younger generation won’t go to this type of church – they want real community.

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“They want real community”

And so as a pastor/elder, gone are the days where you can get away with saying “I’ll meet with you if you have a problem or if you’re new, but apart from that, I’ll focus on other things” (if you ever could say that).  I’ve heard it numerous times from students, that the student finds it impossible to get to know their elders or feel like they’re accountable to them, because they’re not known by them.  It’s led many of my students to find their church leaders authoritarian (because rebuke comes outside the context of deep relationship), or for them to not respect local church at all (just leaning towards a worldwide church and taking “elders” to be those who they respect across the city/world, because they actually feel understood and known by these people).

Now of course it’s a two-way thing.  And to willingly forsake a regular Sunday local meeting of God’s people around His Words and His sacraments, is just silly.  But I’ve rarely found young travelling people to be away so much when there is genuine connection and community.  It excites people, despite the messiness of true community being with people who aren’t like us.

What this means for city centre churches in big cities, or for churches that aren’t made up of geographically proximal people, is hard to see.  I think we have to be more creative than to tell people that they must just go back to the old way of life of living and spending time with all our physical neighbours (chapter seven of my book touches on why I think this).  But in other ways, I’m increasingly convicted there has to be more geographical proximity than we currently have in most churches in Ireland.  We must preach the gospel to ourselves and to each other regularly.  It’s partly why I believe Christian Unions see so many coming to faith, because of the beautiful [geographically proximal] community that models the good news for onlooking people.

(It’s also why, although I’ve been away from my Cork church two Sundays in a row launching this book, I’m quite content that I’m not forsaking the gathering of God’s people.  Not only am I visiting my sending church, and at a friend’s church on those Sundays, but I’m also intensely involved in the lives of my Cork church family during the week, often spending whole days with some of them (partly due to the flexibility of my job, admittedly) in ways that I can be vulnerable even with my elders).

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So in short?

Elders, please do be involved in your congregation’s lives and seek to know them and “one another” them regularly.

Travelling friends, please do seek to get to make yourself and your schedule open to rubbing shoulders with your elders and sharing your life with them.

It’s a two way thing.  The fault is rarely just in those we point the finger towards.

Further thoughts or advice?  Get in touch or comment below.

Afro-Irish contextualisation

I met up with one of our graduates the other day to talk about this key topic for the Irish church.  Travel has both caused the “problem” and may also help us solve the “problem”.

We cover:

  • whether racism is an issue in the church?
  • why the church in Ireland is largely split racially
  • what can be done to help this issue?

And much more.  It’s a very basic start to a complex topic.  Check it out here:

“Some want to live within sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell”

[This is part 4 of a 5 part series on seeing God’s glory across the nations.]

“Some want to live within sound of church or chapel bell. I want to run a rescue shop, within a yard of hell”

These are the famous words of CT Studd, England cricketer, and missionary from Cambridge University off to China and then to Africa, pioneering mission in unreached and unengaged places.

These words have inspired thousands to live recklessly for Jesus’ sake, refusing the comfort of where there are many Christians, for the wilds of pioneering life, going where Christ is not know.

But sadly in the individualistic world we live in, quotations and mistakenly applying thinking like this, have also inspired one of the main reasons why unengaged peoples remain unengaged.

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Mulling over the nations from the hill by Loch Hyne (July ’17)

Because people love to distinguish between church (the building or the people) and us as those who go to unreached peoples.  In this quotation, many will be fed up with church (the people) and use it to justify lone-wolf evangelism, with an organisation that knows more about their mission or understands better their heart.  Instead, rightly reading Studd, would give us a heart to go (as the church) beyond our walls (of a building) to those who don’t have the gospel.

And so the world of mission can quite often be divided:

CHURCH (local) vs: MISSION ORGANISATION

The advantages of church based sending:

  • This is God’s means of working in the world (His wise means Eph. 3)
  • They should know us best (if not, why not?)
  • Churches plant churches (who else has Jesus given authority to?)
  • Others, who maybe don’t have your heart for mission, are brought with you in your journey, the more you keep them on board
  • They are better equipped to partner in encouraging and disciplining us
  • They would send unified teams theologically

The advantages of mission organisations:

  • They have vastly more experience and expertise in particular cultures/settings
  • They have a wider connection base to many round the world, that enables teams to form quickly, without waiting for small church groupings to send people
  • They are often there on the ground, far closer to the action that sending churches
  • They form teams which allow for great diversity and learning, yet keep the main thing, the main thing

And so often the local church will adopt an agency to partner with, to get the best of both worlds as churches are planted.  So far, so good.  What’s the problem?

Well the problem comes on the field.

If you’ve gone solely with a denominational church mission (eg. Mission to the World, a reformed and confessional organisation, I believe):

  • how that “unity” in theology works out in practice is rarely easy!  In fact, sometimes it’s harder to work out, because you come in with expectations that you all are on the same page!
  • it is hard enough getting anyone for the unengaged world, never mind those who are theologically on the same page as you and willing/able to go to the same setting.
  • there are so few Christians around that what will be your response be to other ex-pat Christians in that area?  Often such teams turn inward-looking and are a bizarre witness to new believers, who don’t see why you don’t live out a practical unity beyond reformed and confessional walls
  • How quickly do you really expect your new believers (from no background or prior knowledge of the scriptures at all) to be signing the confession, believing what you do about baptism, or seeing why such things are any way important at all?  I suggest you’ll be three generations before that is likely.  Do you have succession plans on church leadership, so you can pass on to like-minded people after you have to leave?  If not, why are you bothering to take a stand on it primarily?
  • Similar to the above point, how can you ensure that, in many settings where to see anyone professing faith is incredible, that you don’t prioritise secondary issues?
  • it takes great patience to keep your home denomination on board and decisions take far longer

If you’ve gone largely with a mission organisation team having authority on the field (eg: Pioneers):

  • who are your Biblical “elders” who you’re submitting to?  The mission team?  Your sending church?  Your international (overground) church elders locally?
  • If local people, how are you connecting and submitting to your sending church and seeing them grow in this partnership?  If sending church, how are you making decisions locally for things that can’t wait til the sending church understands the situation?
  • what are you going to do about secondary issues within your team?  Much as folk like to say they’re not important, you have to practice something!  Holding unresolved tensions can so often kill a team dynamic and make like hard.
  • what are you going to do about secondary issues among those who come to faith in the culture around you?  Leaving it to new local believers to decide for the future of that church, will always be a disaster, much as it’s a nice ideal!  You’ll need to lead by exampling something to them before they come to decisions themselves.

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Many will think that sitting on our own shores to answer such deep questions will never suffice.  The answers must come from an experience of the pressures of the cross-cultural settings.

And added problems have arisen in virtually every mission organisation recently, as they dictate theologically the direction of missions:

  • if your seminary and church denomination aren’t shaping the theologically mission direction of your team, then who is and who are they accountable to?
  • what are the procedures for not being led astray by pragmatism on the field, which so often result in experimental mission that teaches falsehood (by example) to thousands?
  • how can you close the gap between the “ivory towers” of seminaries and the evangelists on the field?
  • how can you hold such a high view of ecclesiology that you avoid breeding lone-wolf evangelist pr theologians who care little for the church at large and bringing the church with them (or being corrected by the church)?

I’ve already written of one such major problem on the field, that has supposedly led to thousands of “churches” being planted in rapid multiplication.  Yet, few of these “churches” have anything but a group of people who are starting to respond to Jesus’ words, like any evangelistic setting has.  To call them “churches” and essentially say there’s revival happening, is a big call to make.

And I could describe far more practices in other settings too.  Several missionaries in another major mission organisation have recently decided to leave the field because their organisation had asked them to speak to [x] number of people a day about Jesus or be fired.  Such pragmatism and unbiblical requirements end up making a mockery out of sound Biblical teaching, even when the motive is good.  And they in turn will teach the next generation of believer in that place, the same thing.

Down the line, you’ll not only have a warped church scene in many places, but you’ll have a bunch of disillusioned missionaries, feeling they need to work miracle-numbers in order to meet modern trends.  You’ll also have a bunch of disillusioned supporters of world mission, who were being enthralled by these latest methodologies until the lid was lifted and they see the reality beneath it.

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It’s easy to present a picture of dramatic things that says all is well.  (Picture: Inchydoney Beach, West Cork, July ’17)

Don’t get me wrong, new ways to contextualise are needed, and great things have been happening, including in some communities that have been pioneering some of these more controversial “techniques”.  But let us think longterm of the Church, before we usher in the next pragmatic program for church growth, at home or abroad.

May the gap between our sending churches and seminaries, and the mission field be an increasingly small one.  For the sake of unengaged peoples.

 

Travel: escaping God (2)

I wrote earlier today about the futility of escaping God.  Here’s just a final word on that for Christian travellers that I thought was a necessary postscript, given those I’m living amongst.

One final word to the Christian traveller.  Since God has given us His chosen means of working in this world (His Church, presiding over His Word and Sacraments and guarding them by healthy church discipline), who are we to complain if we suffer when we choose to neglect it?

What do I mean by all that religious language above?  Well, if we choose to travel on weekends and deliberately forsake the local church: the people of God who we’ve committed ourselves to (for their good and for ours); who will preach God’s word to us; celebrate his death and resurrection with us and guard and guide us; then we leave ourselves in a dangerous place.  Because when we neglect the grace he has provided, in His Son’s body (the church), in the intimacy of His Son’s words (the Bible) and in the brokenness of His Son’s sacrifice (the Lord’s Supper), we reject Him.

That’s right.  We reject Him.

“Oh but I can have fellowship anytime abroad or with the global Church” you may say.

Perhaps for a short while yes, but they won’t know you the same way, point you to Christ the same way, preach God’s word to you in your heart language the same way, exercise church discipline if you go astray (if these things aren’t happening in your church at home already, I’d start thinking).

“But I always get back for homegroup in midweek” you may pushback.

Fantastic!  And I don’t belittle that.  But he uses the preached word particularly, and his sacraments that aren’t often found midweek.  Nor do we often fulfil commands to encourage each other by singing to each other in midweek gatherings (perhaps you do), or come across our elders/church leaders as much.  And that’s not to start to mention that Sunday may be a special day for God’s people.

It’s in sombreity that I say these things because my heart needs to hear them.  I sit here always so tempted to book that next flight.  And all for good reason.  “What about those friends I haven’t seen in so long who even support me in my work?”  “what about my family who I am called to love?”  “What about that other church who wants me to share about my work with them?”  “What will one more Sunday away do?” I think to myself.

So this semester to keep me around, I’ve agreed to lead a Life Explored course each Sunday afternoon so as to keep me from thinking I can waltz off on my travels and it won’t affect anyone.  I can think it will have no affect on my spirituality, but I’d be wrong.  There’s more freedom and joy in community as God meant it to be.

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Sunrise on Juggartha’s Table, Tunisia, looking over the Algerian border.