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a gospel ecosystem for the city

October 2, 2017

I live in Dundee, and I think it is a great city! I realise not everyone agrees but here are some reasons to celebrate the city…

we have a brilliant heritage. From this City great women and men of God have been brave enough to step out into ministry. From Mary Slessor to Murray M’Cheyne, there have been great stories which have resulted in many thousands of people being changed by the power of the gospel…

Today in the city there is a great social conscience, and there are many people doing great work among those disadvantaged. For example someone without the means to prepare a meal can find somewhere to go every day and be given a free meal. Funders like the Rank Foundation have targeted Dundee and fund some of the 200 plus initiatives across the City.

Now – just because I have said the city is great doesn’t mean all is perfect – we can do better!

Consider the numbers – Dundee has about 50 churches, and a couple of these are large and vibrant, others are struggling with a few elderly members doing all they can to keep things going. Most attract 50 or so people on a Sunday morning:

If we do the maths this gives us around 2,500 Dundonians who are active attenders of local churches. The population of the city is 148,270. So that is 1.7% at church on Sunday morning.

Our churches are the usual mix of denominations, mostly parish churches (Church of Scotland) which was established as distinct from the Church of England formed by splitting from the Catholics due to King Henry’s argument with the Pope about his marriage(s). We also have Episcopalians which is the Church of England in Scotland. And we have some of the original Catholics – established in Britain under Rome after the Synod of Whitby.

Then we have the Free Church of Scotland which split from the CoS because they didn’t want the local lairds to appoint the clergy; and the Pentecostal churches who were formed when the established churches didn’t welcome the move of the Holy Spirit, and the new charismatic churches who welcomed the Spirit in the 1960’s onwards- but weren’t Pentecostal enough to join them. and I mustn’t forget the Baptists, who broke away from the Catholics over how people are baptised, and the Methodists who formed when Wesley’s many working class converts were not welcomed in the CoE, and the Salvation Army for similar reasons:

So all of us are “gospel” churches, we all hold to the truths of the ancient creeds of the church, we all worship a trinitarian God, and celebrate the salvation won for us by Jesus on the cross… There is so much that unites us.

The trouble is that most of the good people of Dundee, 98.3% don’t get our differences – and are actually put off by our lack of being able to work together. To them none of these things matter – and they are not big enough things to fall out over!

So how do become relevant to all these people? The people that are supposed to do just that are our clergy – we have appointed them – (and all the churches reley on a model of having someone to lead and be in charge of the congregation) to speak for God to the people of the City. They are specially trained to be able to say wise things (although 98% of us simply aren’t listening to them!)

As churches we pay them, averaged out this costs our 50 churches somewhere around £1.2 million pounds each year. And so as active members of our churches we give [these days we don’t all manage a tithe or 10%] and this combined giving for our 50 churches is around £2 – 2.5M each year. Then we have to maintain the buildings we have,  50 very special places that have architectural and historic interest. We must spend at least £500,000 on these buildings to keep them warm and well lit and do the necessary maintenance. So actually there is precious little left to fund all of the other things that we want to do as vibrant churches.


more to follow…


new ways of doing church 2

September 30, 2017

Have you ever wanted to get involved with Church, gone along on a Sunday morning and, at first, found people really lovely and welcoming; only to find after a while that actually these people are quietly judging each other – and have no time for the other church down the road, and are likely to refuse to get involved with other groups.

If you have – and sadly I have from time to time – you will know why many people just don’t do church – at least, not the way we do it!

I have explained that Church should be a place of absolute acceptance and welcome in “Why I love the Church”, more often than we would like it isn’t anything like that “rainbow” place of welcome and there are actually a number of reasons that make this likely: here are three of them –

  1. We really just don’t get Grace
  2. We act as if our cultural and theological preferences are actually absolutes
  3. we don’t make room for the creatives and challengers in our church structures

first and most difficult for us is that we don’t really get grace: OK, I am more than willing to accept that we understand it, we know that the perfect Jesus took our wrongdoing and faults in a way we could never deserve – and that we are given new life! But I think we fail to actually get grace in how we live:

Let me give you an example, a working class man comes into church and gets involved, we are welcoming and make room for him – but over time we gradually put our expectations on him. As a new Christian he should be reading his bible (despite never having learnt to read), he should now be able to concentrate for the whole of the sermon – up till now he has never listened to anyone talking for more than 10 minutes. As he gradually disappoints our expectations of him we begin to think of him, and treat him, as someone on the edge of the church – not in our clique… We just don’t get grace.

Or we start working with young people in the neighbourhood, and because it takes time and effort we begin to think of ourselves as the ones who do the work, which becomes we are the core of the Church, which gradually morphs into we are the real Christians, cos everyone else is simply not committed… We just don’t get grace.

The truth is that nothing we do makes us any more loved by God – not more prayer, or being at more meetings, or reading our bibles more, NOTHING!

when we finally begin to understand that we are as messed up, and as uncommitted as everyone else, but God still loves us – then we begin to get grace. When that happens we suddenly find ourselves giving people allowances, understanding their reasons, giving them a break!

2. we love to do church with people like us. When we have invested so much into church – meeting these same people every Sunday morning and through the week. Of course we “naturally” like people that we have loads in common with, so our church end up monocultural. We allow this to happen rather than choosing it, but the result is the same, we have young (student) churches, we have black churches, we have working class churches (occasionally), we have churches that have hymns played on organs and chants sung by choirs, and we have churches where worship is led by a band, but mostly we have middle class churches.

The sad thing about this is that the average person just doesn’t understand why we have so many churches – many struggling to survive – instead of simply coming together as one rainbow people!

the last reason I want to highlight is that even within our mono-cultural church institutions we edge out those who will disturb the status quo. Mostly in church structures we don’t like change, so we quietly ignore and sideline those who suggest different ways of doing things. Ironically it is these very people; the prophets, evangelists and apostles who could help us most to recover what we have lost by being tied into our church structures. These people are often just outside what we think of as “real” church in “para-church” organisations, doing mission, or campaigning on important issues, or doing good in the world.

Yes I know it is uncomfortable to admit we need grace and forgiveness, that our preferences are not actually as important as welcoming and serving the people we find difficult, and that real church has to be a place where change is happening. But if we are really to be the church that God designed we have to make room.

As ever, I am hoping to prompt your thinking and debate – so please use the comments box to share your thoughts.

new ways of being church

September 28, 2017

over the last couple of blogs I have talked about Church being the “only ball game in town”, and about how the way we do church being really destructive to our being church. Of course it is easy to rant about all that is wrong, but we need to think about how we do it different, and better.

first place is to think about how we change church being something that makes us focus in on what we are doing, to being something that opens us out into what God is doing. Or to put it a different way how do we move from building (local) church to building the Kingdom?

Alan Scott has helpfully pointed us to an understanding of the parable of the prodigal son to begin to understand how church should position itself in terms of the city (or town/village) where we live. In the parable are three characters: the younger son, the older son and the Father. The younger son takes resources from his father – and in many ways churches take resources from the city. We suck in the time and talents of people who could be making a real difference to the city if only they weren’t so involved in church activities. These churches also suck resources from the city ~ often unwittingly ~ as they ensure that their activities and programmes are funded. The tragedy is that often these programmes are competitors with the city! How often do we ask if we need a church based youth club, mums & toddlers, food programme or whatever. Maybe we should be resourcing the local charity or community group rather than doing our own thing?

The older son takes a position of judgement – condemning his brother for waste and immorality, and condemning his father for acting unfairly. Like the brother churches can set themselves as judge and jury over the way things are done. quick to condemn, quick to campaign against the things that are wrong. But slow to act out the solutions, and slower to make peace and bring reconciliation

last of all comes the Father who shows a generosity to both sons, even though the older son does not accept this. In the same way we can as churches be generous “fathers” to the city. Lending our best people to organise community events, to work for practical solutions to local issues, to find time to befriend the lonely, assist the poor and bring opportunities for the city to flourish.

So my question is – what is your church known for? Is it for it’s fundraising – for putting o great entertainment/events, or is it known for its campaigning – speaking with a moral authority to condemn what is wrong, or is it known as a “go to” resource to make things better in the community.

If we are not known for the last thing – how do we reshape church to give and invest in the community, rather than just competing to be a better church?

Please leave comments and enter the discussion if you have ideas of how we make this happen in our churches!

I just don’t get church anymore

September 27, 2017

In my last blog I explained why I love Church – but I have to be honest, it is a love-hate relationship.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been getting to know my neighbours. Lovely people, great company, couldn’t do enough for you – and then I started thinking should I invite them to church – and to be honest, panicked. I thought of the ordinary sunday morning church I could take them to.

The traditional services are too boring, enough to put them off God for ever, the special services – cafe church, and guest services are still too – well Churchy. The trendy charismatic churches, not sure they would cope with songs from the latest worship band, and there is still the talky bit…

I could of course bring them to a social event, a quiz night or concert so they get to come to church and gradually get used to the way it is,

Then I realise how STUPID I am being. Why don’t I just make friends with them and be a Christian. talk to them about God on their terms, offer to pray for them, be a real friend. But… It can’t be that simple can it!

Ultimately it is! The problem I have is not with Church, all the lovely people I know, who happen to be followers of Jesus. The problem is with Church as a place, as an event, as an organisation. But it is so hard to un-think the way I  have thought for most of my life!

We don’t intentionally do it, but we still do it. I have lost count of the number of pastors/church leaders who have shown me around their church – meaning the building. As they do so they talk about the numbers of people who attend and usually have great faith that they will fill the building again (like it was in the old days). But the reality check is that they are unlikely to do so – because most people (98% in the UK) simply would never want to go “to church”.

We have never got it so wrong: The church was created to fill the world, we have tried everything to get the world to fill the church (building)

and even when it happens, as very occasionally it does, and someone walks into the church building on a Sunday morning, what is their experience? it is rarely of encountering God’s rainbow people. Churches – yes, even in the UK – are usually divided down ethnic lines, they are mostly middle class – yes, even in working class cities, and if they have young people at all they are likely to be a young persons church, leaving many church struggling to survive with a few older people.

What amazes me is that we think this is acceptable. How can we think by doing what we have always done we will get a different answer?

Then, the way we do church – on this come and find us model is exhausting. There are some churches that manage to attract crowds – that is wonderful, but those churches are mostly so busy putting together the perfect service to entertain the congregation on a Sunday morning that they fail to be the heads and feet of Jesus outside of the church doors. The other churches, the ones just managing to maintain what they have and hoping and praying that God will send some more people – are too exhausted to do life, let alone do it with their neighbours.

Yes I love church, but I am simply disillusioned with the way we “do church”

why I love the Church

September 26, 2017

I am going to share some of my frustrations with Church over the next few blogs, but before I do, and long before I get criticised for church bashing, I want to set the record straight:

I love the Church. It is a place where I have spent a lot of my time in one way or another. I have been a member of one local church or other for the last 40 plus years, I have led churches and served churches – and let’s be honest, earned my living from churches for most of my adult life. So when I get to blog about some of the things that could be better (in my view), it is completely in the context of loving the Church.

1 The church is Gods plan for the universe.

When God set out to rescue the world he had made, to save it from itself – the wrong decisions we make as humans, and the disasterous consequences of them. What the bible names as “sin”. He came as Jesus firstly to identify with us (he became as human and flesh bound as I am!), then to rescue us by paying the penalty for my wrong doing. By doing this Jesus is not just rescuing individuals – but making a people (somethimes described as a nation – but not the nation state we think of today) – and this people, made up from people rescued from around the world and throughout time, is called the Church! But this is not the end of the rescue plan! The bible tells us that one day creation itself will be rescued, it describes it as waiting “for the sons of god to be revealed”, it also mentions that when KIng Jesus is crowned and the earth put right that the church will be an integral part of Christ filling the universe with himself. In everyday language this means that the church will be at the heart of the new Kingdom of God when the world is re-made.

2 The Church has Gods fingerprints of reconciliation and unity all over it.

The church that Jesus made when he rescued mankind is made up from people “of every tribe and language”. It is an amazing rainbow people who – if they hadn’t been rescued would have absolutely nothing in common with each other. Even if the language wasn’t a barrier there would be loads of different reasons why they (we) wouldn’t get along!

Frankly, we do treating people different well! We love to find some reason to treat others differently, to exclude them, to ridicule them, to persecute them – and this happens over age, gender, race, culture, class, and wealth (or lack of it). But the church is the place where all these differences mean absolutely nothing: Paul writes in the bible that in the church there is “neither Jew nor Gentile (non-Jew), neither male nor female, neither slave nor freeman. The church is a community of Gods rainbow people.

3 The Church is the way Jesus is made real in the world today.

Jesus said to his first followers that they were to be salt and light in the world. Within the church we find ourselves quoting this often – but maybe we don’t get how radical this is. For those first followers it meant that they were to travel to villages (places they may never have been before), and do what Jesus was doing. Specifically this includes announcing that the Kingdom of God was breaking in – and inviting people to enter it, to pray for the sick to be healed, (and they were), and to cast out the demonic spirits that troubled people. This radical way of doing things won them – Jesus – followers, and caused trouble.

The church since has – at it’s best – continued to do just this. People encounter Jesus in the church and find that their lives has changed, they find that they are loved, accepted and cared for, they find freedom from sickness and addictions, they find peace where they were troubled and they also become followers of this Jesus.

The church is the hands and feet of Jesus today – being Jesus in the world, in humanity, in “flesh” just as Jesus was the human form of God in the world of his day.

4 The Church is the place where people grow as followers of Jesus

All this becoming something and someone new and different is not automatic, but is a process that follows a decision. That process can take years as we gradually learn how to live our lives in the way God had intended, and therefore flourish. This process is called “discipleship”, and it is made possible by the church. It is in the church that we learn to rub along with people different from us, to forgive and be forgiven, to find our place and serve – doing our bit for the greater good. It is in the church we find our mentors, our role models, or encourager’s and our friends and fellow travellers.

Church is the place where all this is true, we are part of the future and purpose of the universe, we find our place alongside all the other rainbow people, we make Jesus visible in the places where we live our lives and we gradually become more like Jesus.

AS Bill Hybells (Pastor of Willow Creek church in America) said “Church is the only ball game in town.

no extra tunic. Missional marks #5

June 28, 2017

The final thing in the list of things not to take with us into mission that Jesus gives his followers in Luke 9 is an extra cloak. We have seen how each of the things on the list; staff, bag, bread, money and cloak points us towards our stance or posture in going to people with the good news of the Kingdom of God.

The cloak provides warmth and shelter, and as this is so basic we need to have one, yet Jesus tells us that we don’t need a spare. This points us towards living for justice, or sharing what we have extra to meet the needs of those who simply do not have enough.

At the heart of this value is a profound simplicity, we are to live our lives with gratitude that God gives us enough – and resist the temptation to want anything more that enough. If we are able to limit ourselves to enough we are also freed from worry about looking after our possessions.

So these five values underpin our attitude to mission, we need to have a vulnerable honesty, live generous and hospitable lives, embrace relationships rather than exchange and simplicity.

no money

June 27, 2017

as we work through the list of things that Jesus tells his disciples NOT to take on mission – in Luke 9. We have looked at how Jesus wants us to have a stance that means we are honest and vulnerable, that we learn to give and receive generosity, listening to those we meet, and learning to watch out for what God is already doing around us.

Today we think about why Jesus tells the disciples not to carry a purse, or money. If we stop and think at all we soon realise that money is worthless. We can’t do anything with it other than exchange it for things that are more useful or beautiful. By forbidding us to take money Jesus is pointing us away from one of the most common mistakes that we fall into.

I need to be careful in how I say this because we live in a world where exchange is part of how we think and act, we take it so much for granted that it is difficult to see how we can live differently. But the Kingdom of God that was announced – the good news that we are entrusted with is about gift and not exchange. But our tendency is to treat people as commodities, to count the number of people who turn up to our meetings, who have made a decision to follow Jesus, to count the numbers rather than listen to the stories of individual people.

Or we see church as a commodity, demanding that it entertains us so we can justify giving our time and money to support it.

In listing money as something we must not carry Jesus points us towards real relationships marked by an economy of outrageous gift, rather than the exchange mindset that the world around us squeezes us into.