Fanning the flames

Bonfire with woodpile in the background

Friday is fire-day and I’m now sitting by my second fire of the day. This one is a civilised affair in the living room fire-place, but the first was a proper bonfire as I cleared my lawn of the last of the cuttings from the trees which were keeping the sun out of the garden.

There were a lot of clippings, and over the last few weeks I’ve spent several hours watching them burn. While I’ve done this I’ve been reflecting on how tending a fire is a great illustration of how to lead a church.

What follows is not meant to be a serious theological treatise, but ten observations on church life and growth using the metaphor of fire.

#1 Wood that isn’t on fire only ignites when it is next to wood that is. So church growth 101 says that you need to have a church that is alight in the first place. And that people will only become christians by being exposed to people who have already made that commitment.

#2 If you throw an accelerant on the fire it burns, but the wood doesn’t. Sometimes a mission event or special course means that there are a lot of flames. This might not mean that the congregation are burning more brightly, merely that the effort you’ve put in is temporarily burning. Paraffin is only useful on bonfires when it has soaked into wood or paper, likewise special events which cause a big stir need to be backed up by Christians who are ready to use them to ignite those around them.

#3 Some logs are green or wet and take a very long time to catch fire. In a wood pile there will be twigs which with catch fire straight, there will also be logs which need more time to dry out and season before they will catch fire. In a church congregation, these green logs are often husbands or partners who have been on the fringes for some time, but show no real signs of interest. They need to be near the fire to dry out, and in contact with burring logs if they are going to catch fire, so find ways to keep them involved, and find excuses to get them into church.

#4 New wood needs to go on where the fire is burning. On a bonfire, it’s not uncommon to have one part burning strongly and one side fairly cool. On the bonfire you need to put the new wood on the side that is burning otherwise it won’t catch fire. Similarly, new people need to be put in contact with the parts of the church which are on fire. It’s no good adding new people to a ministry which is dead, they won’t revitalise it, they will just sit there.

#5 You need to keep moving to wood to keep things burning. In the same way that new Christians need to be added to the burning parts of the church, sometimes you need to move people around to keep them alight. As an example of how this might work: at my church during Lent this year, we’re giving people the chance to temporarily change home groups, this will hopefully have the effect of mixing up those parts which are burning and those parts which have got a bit cool.

#6 It is easy to put lots of very flammable material on the top of the fire, which will burn brightly, but will make no difference whatsoever to the bottom of the woodpile. And this is easy to do in church, all you need to do is start a vibrant youth or student ministry and everyone will see the flames. The difficult thing to do is to enable these flames to work their way through the pile when there is no cross-over between your new ministry and your core.

#7 It is possible to put a fire out by smothering it with too much new wood. However brightly a fire is burning, you can still put it out by cutting off the oxygen to the core. Initiatives which attract people in large numbers can have the opposite effect to the one you intend, as meeting their needs stifles the flow of oxygen to the existing congregation. Instead of the new wood catching fire, the core is starved of oxygen and begins to cool. (Oxygen is your attention, pastoral care and preaching.)

#8 If you take a piece of burning wood out of the fire, it doesn’t stay alight for long. Likewise if a Christian tries to go it alone, they will cool off very quickly. The writer to the Hebrews says ‘don’t give up meeting together, but keep encouraging one another’ (Heb 10:25) that’s because we need each other and the heat of the fire to keep up burning. This is an especial warning for evangelists, who are most effective among non-christians. The danger is that away from the heart of the fire, they  cool off quickly.

#9 Sometimes you need to use put the lid on an incinerator to really gets things burning. For the past few weeks I’ve been using a metal dustbin with a hole in the lid to burn my garden waste. My technique is to put green twigs in the fire and put the lid on, and then after five minutes to lift the lid. The dried out twigs then blaze up very quickly. Residential camps and intensive courses are like an incinerator, they get people burning much more rapidly, but you need to take the lid off to really see them  burn.

Woodpile#10 Your job is not to keep the fire alight, but to burn all the available wood. It really doesn’t matter how warm the little pile of remaining sticks gets, what is important is that your bonfire has the power to ignite the new wood around it. There are plenty of churches which are small and not really interested in growing but church leaders should not be content with palliative care, our call is to nurture churches which reach out with the incendiary Gospel of the Lord Jesus.

Ok, there are many more ways I could apply this, but that’s enough for now. If you want to add fuel to the fire, why not post a comment below?


Where are the stand-out preachers?

There’s been a lot of excitement this afternoon about the forthcoming interview with Mark Driscoll in Christianity Magazine in which he makes the following comment:

“Let’s just say this: right now, name for me the one young, good Bible teacher that is known across Great Britain. You don’t have one – that’s the problem. There are a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling the truth.”

Now, usually when this sort of quote is released ahead of the interview, the content is much less interesting than the hype. Without waiting for the full interview though, I thought it was worth saying that not having a “young, good Bible teacher that [sic] is known across Great Britain” is something to be celebrated.

When John Stott began to emerge as a nationally recognised evangelical Bible teacher, it was because he was one of a kind. In the generation that followed names such as Sandy Miller, Michael Green, Dick Lucas, David Jackman and many notable others were part of a growing cohort of preachers who followed in Stott’s footsteps. They were followed by countless others (now in their 50s and leading churches, theological colleges, missions and other ministries). So by the time I began to lead a church in 2010, (in my mid thirties, and in my mind still ‘young’) the cohort of well trained, gifted, passionate and ‘good’ young Bible Teachers was so large that few stand out from the crowd.

In addition to this, these preachers are not well known, because they are doing what they have been called and trained to do – leading church congregations up and down the country, not just pastoring mega-churches.

Far from being ‘cowards who aren’t telling the truth’, Bible teachers in the UK are often young men and women who are committed to telling the truth in places where the Gospel hasn’t been heard, and growing congregations that will outlast the transient culture of celebrity.

So I’m glad not to stand out as a preacher, but I’m still striving to be outstanding whenever I open up the Bible and bring God’s word to my congregation.

Christmas Preaching

This year I was on the rota to preach at nearly all our Christmas services at St. Pancras. For the past few months I’ve been moving away from using a full script for preaching and have generally been happy with the results. (PGP students should take note, however, this is a process that has taken over a decade, so I’m not advocating this for preachers who are starting out.)

With only scant notes saved for posterity (and in some cases, no notes at all) I thought it would be worth recording my sermon ideas and outlines somewhere, so here they are. Some were also recorded and put on the sermon podcast, but most were not.

15th Dec – Pennycross School Carol Service (Whole School)
Matthew 2:2 “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him”

Very short (I thought, they didn’t) introduction to the school carol service. Looking at seeking out ways to worship Jesus this Christmas.

15th Dec – All Saints Academy Carol Service (Compulsory for Year 7’s)
Luke 1:46-55 (Mary’s Song – The Magnificat)

Same main outline as the Carol Service on the 18th, but with more of an apologetics angle on ‘God is Powerful’.

18th Dec – Morning Service
Luke 1:39-56 (Mary and Elizabeth)
Audio Recording

  • Before Sermon: The Virgin Birth – Picking up on last week’s comments
  • Elizabeth is a model of:
  • 1) The Spirit’s Work (v39-42)
  • 2) Humility (v43)
  • 3) Joy (v44-45)
  • Verses 46ff were left for the evening.

18th Dec – Carols by Candlelight
Luke 1:46-55 (Mary’s Song – The Magnificat)
Audio Recording 

  • Introduction – Exchange between US warship and a Lighthouse
  • We can worship Jesus because:
  • 1) He is powerful (v46-51) – creation testifies to God’s power
  • 2) He is Just (v51-53) – he deals with the problem of sin
  • 3) He keeps his promises (v54-55) – he will return

Christmas Eve – Christingle and Messy Church
Standard ‘What does a Christingle represent?’ talk

Christmas Eve – Midnight Communion
Luke 2:1-20 (Jesus’ Birth and the Shepherds)

  • Intro: Occupy Movement – Why would God choose to be born in this way?
  • 1) Jesus chose the stable (even though it was beneath Him)
  • 2) Jesus chose the cross (even though he didn’t deserve it)
  • 3) Jesus chooses His followers (even though we’ve done nothing to earn it)

Christmas Day – Family Communion
Luke 2:8-20 (Angels & Shepherds)
Especailly: 2:12 “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”

The baby in the manger is a sign that:

  • Intro: The most overzealous security guard, a sign to recognise the sovereign.
  • Innkeeper Video
  • The baby in a manger is a sign that (Luke 2:12):
  • 1) What impresses us is not necessarily what impresses God.
  • 2) Jesus didn’t come to be served but to serve.
  • 3) ? (Can anyone remember my third point?)

Carols by Candlelight

This year our Carols by Candelight service at St. Pancras is looking at the theme ‘Come and Worship the King’. The Bible readings all pick up this theme and are as follows:

  1. Isaiah’s prediction of a ‘wonderful counsellor’ etc.
  2. Mary’s song
  3. The angels and the shepherds
  4. The Wise Men and Herod
  5. Thomas’ confession ‘My Lord and my God’
  6. John’s vision of Jesus as he is now in Revelation 1
Usually at this sort of event I pick one of the passages and preach from it, but this year I’m thinking of using the following outline and picking up themes for different passages.
Jesus is worthy of our worship because:
  1.    His birth split time in two
  2.    His death changed the course of history
  3.    His future holds all our futures
Any comments – or should I just go back to explaining one of the passages?

The DNA of Discipleship?

I’m enjoying reading Marcus Honeysett’s 100 Leadership Lessons blog series (not least to see if we get all the way to 100), and its no surprise to see that discipleship features heavily in the leadership mix so far.

Now I’m glad we’ve got 87 more lessons to go, because the Bible has a lot to say about how we train younger christians. But if we had to define what we are trying to do when we enter into this sort of intentional relationship, what would we say is at the heart (or in the DNA) of discipleship?

This weekend I’m giving some training for young leaders in the church (teenagers leading younger children’s groups). I was going to focus on growing the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5, but then I was reminded of this exhortation from Peter in 2 Peter 1:5-8.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness;  and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.  For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now there isn’t anything wrong with seeing these things as ‘fruit’ but I guess that Paul’s analogy is less meaningful today than when he first used it. When we think of ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ we are in danger of having the same attitude to this growing process as I have towards the apples in my back garden – i.e. I just expect to wake up one morning and their will be apples. And if I leave them long enough, eventually they will ripen and fall off the tree and I can collect them if I’m in the mood, or leave them for the wasps.

Friends at church run a small-holding and their attitude to fruit is very different. It takes time to plan, cultivate, prune, feed, protect and pick fruit, and the same is true for seeing transformation in our lives.

That’s why (on this occasion) I’m going to use Peter’s list of ‘fruit’ to explain what Christian leadership (discipleship) is all about. Faith is the starting point, but Peter is clear that unless we are actively seeking to grow in these areas (making every effort), we are in danger of being “ineffective and unproductive in [our] knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

So how do we nurture the growth of these qualities in the lives of young believers, and how do we ‘seek to poses them in increasing measure’ in our own?


Choosing worship songs for children

Every month we have an all-age ‘family service’ at church, and as in that service we try and include songs which are particularly suitable for children. At the moment we’re trying to increase our repertoire, but what are we looking for in a worship song for children?

Now I probably need to apologise in advance, because I’m not a musician, so I’m looking mainly at the words and content – I’ll leave the musical consideration to those who know what they’re talking about.

What makes a good Children’s worship song?

  • First of all I’m looking for theological substance. This sounds like a tall order for simple songs, but I want them to proclaim truth about God or express our response to Him in Worship.
  • Songs which make Bible verses memorable or easy to understand are a great way to get scripture on our lips.
  • Songs which tell a Bible story or parable.
  • Psalms.
  • Songs which lend themselves to actions mean that even children can join in.
  • As with adult songs, If the main premise is that we are praising God, I want to know why we are praising him. (Because of His work, His character, His attributes, etc.)

And which songs will be vetoed?

  • Songs which anthropomorphise animals. (I.e. singing about how much Mr Sheep loves Jesus.)*
  • Songs which don’t mention God.
  • Songs which try to use youth speak or trendy language. (Given how far behind the times the church often is, how long will it be before we have a song with ‘lol’ in it?)
  • Songs about being good (we’re not trying to create mini-morralists).
  • Songs which are boring to sing. (OK, I did include one about the music)

*Maybe this one is just a personal peeve, but I’m allowed to have one or two eccentricities.

So have you found any good new children’s songs recently?