The church of Jesus Christ and the latter-day Sims

I have a confession.

For the couple of months I’ve poured more hours than I care to count into The Sims 2. I even built this cathedral with the aim of turning young Jonesy Jones into a mega-church planter (for a while he was appropriately employed as ‘Cult Leader’). In a triumph of church architecture, I built him his own light-filled ‘crystal cathedral,’ with couches for pews, a cruciform layout, a podium as a pulpit, a buffet table as an altar, and state of the art musical instruments in the wings. Jonesy drives a not-too-ostentatious car (the second most expensive in the game, lodged between ‘people mover’ and ‘sports car’ in cost, but high on ‘approval’ from those who track his spending), which is parked in the driveway of his modest, though comfortable, manse, on site.

He, ironically, lost all his friends in the move to this building (I clicked the wrong button), so needs to rebuild his little human empire congregation; though he has maxed out his charisma skills, and he’s a naturally fun guy, so that shouldn’t be a problem. It’s dangerous, because Jonesy Jones also craves human affection, so his happiness is going to depend lots on how people respond to this project.

In short, I’m hoping Jonesy is nothing like me — but there’s a danger that, at my worst, he is a projection of who I think I should be in my darker moments…

It has taken me a little bit to figure out why I find the idea of clicking and controlling the lives of little simulated people so compelling; and to figure out what it is that drives the choices I make as to how they live, and the jobs they do, and the families they create and the homes they build.

So much of it is about control.

Unlike in the real world where I exercise almost little to no control over the lives and decisions of the real people around me — kids, family, colleagues, or congregants — and where that can feel like I’m flinging myself around a sinking ship trying to peg gaps if I’m not careful to remember I’m not God… the Sims lets you play at being God in a controlled environment. Though you’re mostly ‘in control,’ it’s still a matter of ‘life and death’ — a sim can die if you accidentally deprive them of the essentials of life — food, rest, friends, and fun — or if there’s some sort of ‘divine’ action where, for example, repairing an electrical device goes wrong, or a meteor strikes you while you’re looking through a telescope — but you know these risks and love your little sims, so you direct them away from harmful behaviour and towards the straight and narrow… mostly… I might have deliberately killed a sim or two in my time by swallowing them up with a meat eating plant, boxing them in to a room with no doors, or removing a ladder from a swimming pool — I mean, who hasn’t… but I’ve never killed a sim who didn’t deserve it.

I really have been pondering my addiction; there’s perhaps nothing more repetitive than the accretive clicking of the mouse required to build a little Sim empire, and so there’s something oddly liturgical about this game and the story it tells about what life as God is like, or perhaps what life ‘in control’ in the real world might feel like. There’s a danger a game like The Sims feeds a certain dissatisfaction about real life — not just that conflict in the real world can’t be solved by a few pillow fights, or hangouts, or some time around the pool table — but that other people aren’t so easily directed. I can’t just click a mouse and make my problems, or theirs, go away. I can’t organise the lives of others to achieve collective goals or to pursue my own personal narrative.

And, as dad, pastor, and colleague, this bothers me. There are so many spheres of my life where, if I were honest, I’d prefer life to be more like the Sims.  There has never been a time in my life where I’ve felt less in control of the decisions and actions of others, nor more like I’d like to be in control of those decisions in some sort of ‘ideal world’. I’ve been solo parenting two of our kids as part of a 13 day trip for Robyn and our oldest; and our house looks nothing like the carefully curated houses I build in the Sims (with excess space and plenty of distractions, plus a paid cleaner to keep things in order).

I don’t have a highly cultivated ‘personal influence’ ability that allows me to direct and influence sims who aren’t even under my Godlike powers as part of the ‘family’… I’m not a cult leader. I don’t cultivate a following because of my charisma which means people will literally stand for many ‘sim hours’ to hear me speak (I’m lucky if I can hold a room for 15 minutes of my allotted 25 and actual 30).

Our little church community doesn’t have a building to call our own, not a cruciform cathedral with a glass roof like my Sims one, or just a humble hall. And so we’ve been subject to the whims of other hosts (though God has providentially provided an alternative meeting place in fairly bizarre circumstances) — as of January 7 we’ll have moved venues twice in a four month period. We live, it seems, in a perpetual state of spatial flux. Never knowing where home is, and making the best of whatever spot we’re in (or looking for something more suitable), but it’s not ultimately up to us where we land. We don’t own a space, and buying one with the right zoning would require an act of powers greater than mine (both God and the Brisbane City Council).

I can’t click a button to make people sit in the (comfortable) pews. People are leaving our community for reasons from the practical to the political to the theological; and if I could click and send them somewhere — if I were God — I’d keep them and have those decisions resolved around a table and in conversation (or if none of that worked out, my Sims like temptation would be to find some button I could click to make them think like me). People are also joining our community and changing the ‘family ecosystem’ in ways that are great, but also part of the challenge of a dynamic and moving organism — ways that reduce ‘control’ for any one person (me) as we grow.

And yet, in these moments of uncertainty and this growing sense that I’m not in control, I guess I’ve had two options. I could’ve spent these many hours of ‘down time’ responding to these circumstances in many constructive ways (not just virtual reality contructive ways), and yet, I’ve chosen to play a stupid computer game as some sort of catharsis (I’m sure it has worked, and I’m not the sort to be negative about the power of games, or about their entertainment value and the need for rest and recreation). The Sims could teach me to be frustrated about life outside the virtual realm, or it could point me to the one who is in control.

In the midst of my addiction to The Sims I went along to a discussion night on James K.A Smith’s You Are What You Love, which, along with Smith’s other ‘Cultural Liturgies’ works provides a useful Augustinian (and Biblical) account of human behaviour and how people change; the idea that we feed our desires and our sense of how life is to be lived by repetitive action — or liturgies — the best, most powerful, and most dangerous of these liturgies, in terms of formation, are the ones that suck us in through our imaginations and our feelings, not through reasoned repetition… but the mindless stuff. When I was asked what habitual actions I hadn’t really assessed in a sort of behavioural audit, I was tempted to gloss over just how many hours I’d spend in this alternate reality. This fantasy world.

This made me wonder what it is my repetitive clicks and the story they are attached to in my imagination — my participation in The Sims and its world and stories — what it forms in my desires and my approach to the world beyond the computer screen. Am I picturing my little sims as real people? Projecting my control into the real world and assessing reality through escapism? Am I feeling dissatisfied that the real world is not like this virtual one? Perhaps not consciously, but am I turning to this game and others like it where I know I am totally in control to escape from a world where I know I’m not… probably… that’s what escapism is all about (and it’s not always a bad thing to escape — a point Tolkien makes brilliantly in On Fairy Stories).  Am I overthinking this? Perhaps… or does this complete control feed a dissatisfaction about the way things are in relationships with real people? Am I likely to idolise control — or a world where I wield godlike power?


Is this dangerous?


In exactly the same way as trying to play the superhero pastor… trying to be God, or any recognition that you are not… is absolutely toxic to a healthy life in the real world, but especially deadly in the context of Christian ministry where so many churches have fallen apart because of an approach to leadership that looks just like the pastor is trying to play the Sims with a congregation that isn’t ‘their flock’ but God’s. It’s this desire to be in control (and perhaps a belief a leader should be) that I suspect leads to abusive practices in both public and private. Feeding this desire is dangerous; especially if the desire is focused through a lens of self-pity, or the flip-side, entitlement and self-interest.

There are fleeting moments when I believe I want to be in control. To be able to direct people, to ‘helpful’ places of course. Those are the times when I am sinfully tempted to act like a cult leader, or to get a pattern for leadership from something other than the cross of Jesus. The cross isn’t just a pattern for good Sims church architecture. It’s a way of being in the world; of being ‘in the church’ that teaches me that it’s not by my might or power than anything happens, but by the willingness of God to send his son into the world in a picture of leadership that looks a lot like self-emptying service of others.

I am not in control. I am not the artist or the author — the creator — creating a world with the lives and images of other people.

Other people don’t exist to play my game or be clicked into place.

Other people should be thankful that life is not The Sims, and that I am not the mouse-like God in such a world.

I don’t type these as a mantra to remind myself of things I ought to believe are true (in case you’re worried I’m some sort of narcissist trying to talk myself out of cult-leading). I type these as truths that are fundamental to how the universe actually is… but that are counter to the bit of the human heart The Sims might feed if we let it.

I do not have the sort of control in the real world that I do in the Sims, and I do not want to…

But more than that, I should be thankful that I do not.

What a crushing responsibility that would be to bear — to be responsible for the decisions of every individual in my orbit, or of the rhythms and life of any community or family. I need more chaos in my gaming diet to remind me that I am not in control (so I started playing Zombie survival/horror game 7 Days To Die, which is reminding me that having literally no control over life or death is just as debilitating and frustrating), but more than that I need to keep prayerfully remembering that it is God who authors both my story and the stories of those in my life  — whether they’re in or out of the church community he has placed me in — as part of his story… Or as Paul put it in his sermon in Athens, from Acts 17… that he gives us life, and breath, and everything else — even the sense of how little control we wield — so that we might seek and find him, the grand architect of the cosmos.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” — Acts 17:24-31

I need to keep seeing my job (as parent, pastor, and person) not as exercising control (or even influence) but as pointing people to the one who is in control. I like another thing that Paul said about how he approached this task knowing that God is God, and we are not. He doesn’t click people into place, or persuade and manipulate through power, coercion, or deception. He lives and preaches the Gospel of the crucified Jesus, and lets God be God.

“Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” — 2 Corinthians 4:1-2


Next year…

For those who came in late (I’ve always wanted to start something that way), this year is my last year at Queensland Theological College.

My last year of being a “Candidate for Ordination” for the Presbyterian Church of Queensland. And it’s almost September.

It is traditional, at these times, if one is a college student, to be thinking about one’s future. To be thinking about next year – and the years after, and where one might end up serving the body of Christ, his church, and in what capacity.

Today I stood up in front of all four services at Creek Road, with my friend Joe, and we spoke about next year – and where we’re headed. For a bit more on what Joe is doing see this post on the Creek Road blog.

Long long time readers might remember some things I wrote in my pre-college years about ministry in regional parts of Australia. And might remember some of my passionate pleas for people to take the gospel to regional Queensland.

You may also remember some of my cynicism about missional theology centered on “the city” – as if inner city ministry is hugely transformative and thus, of more value.

You may remember some of the things I said about “church planting” and the types of people who are attracted to the glamour and excitement of not having to deal with “traditions” and stuff.

It’s all here in the archives.

You may know that Robyn and I have continued to champion the cause of Queensland’s regional areas in our time at college.

You’ll be happy to know – on the basis of these well documented commitments – that our immediate, and probably short to medium to long term future has been sorted.

God, it seems, has a sense of humour.

Next year, and beyond (subject to me passing college, my trials for license, and a congregational meeting) Robyn and I will be continuing to serve with the saints at Creek Road in a new campus. Creek Road is going multisite (don’t worry – all the stuff I said about video preaching and the need for a preacher to have a flesh and blood presence with his congregation still stands).

This campus is in South Bank. Brisbane’s cultural hub. Brisbane’s inner city.

We’re very excited about serving with Creek Road – it is a church that is serious about the gospel, and is serious about reaching the lost. It is a church that has a clearly articulated theology of ministry, and philosophy of ministry, and approach to ministry that I’m more than on board with. It is a church that makes sure Jesus is at the heart of each sermon, each song, each Growth Group study.

If you come to Creek Road on a Sunday – you’ll hear about Jesus.

Which is great.

South Bank is a really exciting part of Brisbane. It’s where a lot of the good cafes are. It’s where culture happens. We’re even meeting at the Queensland Theatre Company.

We’re going to be opening a campus, a church, in the heart of Brisbane – where stories are told – and we’ll be sharing the best story in the world – the gospel of Jesus.

Which is exciting.

This may all seem something like a slap in the face to regional Queensland – but it’s not. At least not in my head.

I still love regional Queensland. Especially North Queensland. I’m still keen to see great ministry happening outside of the south east corner, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to be a part of that in a more effective way than I would be were I to head somewhere else (and there aren’t a huge number of competing offers out there this year).

I’m particularly excited about Creek Road’s commitment to partnering with, and resourcing, churches all around the state, and even all around the country. There are concrete examples of this happening already – in regional Queensland and beyond. That is one of the things that really excites me about joining the team at Creek Road.

There are a heap of synergies in terms of things I’m passionate about seeing our denomination do to share the gospel and this role at Creek Road.

One of the things I’ve become really passionate about since I wrote all that stuff about regional ministry is the sort of public Christianity sphere this blog has started to occupy, that represents a significant aspect of my thinking about ministry, and there have been a few conversations I’ve had with people around the country in recent weeks on that front that make me think this is an area I should continue exploring and developing.

There’s huge scope for developing this stuff further in this role – producing things like this, and working with our team on things like this smart phone app, and helping think about how we share and distribute these videos.

A book (review) you should read

I’m not in the habit of reading books on church and ministry and stuff. I mean, I’m not an addict. I read maybe 6 a year. So take this recommendation with a grain of salt – this is the best book on ministry I’ve ever read. Other than the Bible.

The link is to a review I wrote of Creatures of the Word, a new book by a bunch of American guys, for the Bible Society.

It’s currently only $3.49 on kindle.

20% time and “working on your church, not in it”

If you hang around in the business world for long enough – especially with small business owners who are working really hard at growing, you’ll hear the phrase “I’m wanting to work on my business, not just in it”… this realisation that growth comes through changing and improving, rather than maintaining the status quo (generally), is what drives big companies to spend big bucks on research and development.

This was the sort of mentality that drove some friends I used to do PR for in my old role to do all sorts of cool things – two guys in particular were champions on this front – my friend Allan, who ran a cafe, decided to set up quad bike tours, a gift shop, a function centre, walking tracks, a bus tour, a furniture shop, and to start selling Kopi Luwak – cat poo coffee – a decision that netted him millions of dollars worth of media coverage. He was a big fan of this maxim. The other, my friend Ross, spent time looking into grants for solar power, and found a heap of other ways to not just cut costs at home, but become greener in a way that opened up new markets for his cabins. Working with these guys was pretty exciting – because they were always coming up with new ideas. Both businesses started off as family projects. Both Allan and Ross lived on site at their businesses and could easily have been caught up in the day to day operations, the mundane stuff – and the important. But they found time to develop and change through a bit of creativity. They kind of inspire me – I learned heaps from them, lessons that I’d love to apply to ministry. I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out how I’d do that. I don’t know for sure – but I reckon there was a reason they were heaps less jaded and likely to burn out than other people I worked with.

Big technology companies have worked pretty hard to foster this sort of culture and harness the creativity of all their staff by giving workers a certain portion of their week to work on their own projects – usually with certain parameters about being related to the core business of the company. Google has 20 percent time – one day a week – and about 50% of their current range of products have been developed in that time, Apple has just introduced Blue Sky Time – encouraging certain staff to think creatively, and perhaps most famously 3M, the company behind such ubiquitous stationery as the post-it note, has been driving innovation by freeing up their staff to develop ideas since 1949.

20 percent time

But what would this look like in the church context – to “work on your church, not for it”? I’ve got no idea – for full time church workers, or for the members of the body of Christ. I think this is a “priesthood of all believers” thing – the companies that do this best let everybody in on the action, 3M has patents produced as the result of ideas from administration staff… But I reckon it’d be pretty cool to figure out.

I’ve been a student minister in a couple of different shaped churches in Brisbane, a member of a few different churches in different places, and the son of a minister of churches that grew from small to big… but I still have no idea what the average week of full time ministry should look like. I’ve only experienced four years of reality outside of a life framed by full-time ministry – my family’s, and now my own, and all I know is that full time ministry is time consuming.

I’ve got no idea what a ministry week looks like other than that it’s busy. Very busy.

It seems to be a mix of the routine, and the reactive.

If you’re the sole minister at a church, regional or otherwise, you seem to routinely prepare a talk, write a Bible study, go to a meeting, teach RE, and you reactively pastorally care for people, take funerals, and deal with whatever else pops up. That all seems to take up a fair bit of time. All your time. It’s pretty much the same in a team context – it’s impossible not to be busy in ministry. Because all of life is ministry – in one form or another.

If the principles from the business world translate, then this seems like a recipe for staying the same. We’ve been thinking about this a bit at Creek Road – a couple of us were struck by a similar thought within a day or two of each other as we read and watched some stuff about Google. We’re trying to figure out what 20 percent time might look like in our team ministry, but the principles seem applicable to any ministry – by analogy – just as they are for small one man tourism operations, and multibillion dollar technology companies.

What I’m really keen to explore is how this sort of paradigm shift in thinking about ministry and how we use our already busy schedules when we’re talking about life as a church community. How we could start a culture of 20% time, or research and development time… how we could free people up to think about, and work towards, growth.

I’m a bit blown away by how well Luther got his base of supporters involved with promoting the Reformation – just by empowering people to produce their own material and modelling how to distribute new ideas in a really fast and effective way. How do we free the human resources at our disposal up to get people coming up with new ideas and opportunities to share the gospel – rather than just doing the same old stuff, and how do we control what ideas get legs and which ones are thrown back into the pool of ideas for refining… so that we’re not doing a million things badly.

Here’s a paper I wrote for our staff retreat that is trying to figure out what time like that would look like in our context – it’ll look different based on the shape of a church, or the people involved (both in your mission field, and in your team)… but for a creative person like me, this sort of freedom to think, explore, and fail – without it interrupting the flow of a normal week, is something I find really exciting.

“20 percent time” at church: building “blue sky thinking” into the work week

Big tech companies who value, and rely, on innovation to keep growing and developing new products, and who also value, and rely on attracting staff who are passionate about the vision of their company, have adopted an interesting policy – let staff work less on their “job,” and spend a portion of their time creating something new.

The idea is typically traced back to post-it note company 3M. The stationery company came up with an idea, back in 1948, to give staff a portion of time (15% of the work week), to dream big, and use the company platform to come up with new ideas that would help grow the company’s range, and bottom line.

The company is still, years later, a stationery powerhouse – with more than 22,000 patents. They’ve got a culture of creativity – and the Post-It Note itself, which you’ll find in offices, homes, schools, and just about anywhere that pen and ink exist, was a product of the 15% time of its inventor, Art Fry. Cool name.

Other companies have taken the idea to the virtual world – where it’s cheaper to develop new products, and even to the hardware world – Hewlett-Packard, Google, and Apple all have variations of the theme. They all want staff to feel like part of the company’s vision, and have the opportunity to pursue their passions and their own personal, but work related, projects.

Google call this 20% time. They give staff one day a week to work on new tech developments. Figures get bandied around a bit about how effective this has been for the company – but the conservative estimate is that 50% of their innovation has been the result of this time. Products that heaps of us use, like gmail.

Here’s something a google staffer says about the value of the program:

“We try to encourage this type of blue-sky thinking through ‘20 per cent time’ – a full day a week during which engineers can work on whatever they want. Looking back at our launch calendar over a recent six-month period, we found that many products started life in employees’ 20 per cent time.”

Blue-sky thinking is thinking free of the restrictions of your day-to-day job and routine. It’s the kind of thinking that’s needed for change and innovation to happen – but it’s only really valuable if you’ve also got time, and resources, to try to implement the changes – without it hurting your ability to get your job done.

Apple now has a “blue sky program” where certain employees can work on a “passion project” – something they’re keen to see get off the ground, they’re giving staff a block of time, rather than a regular window, but they too are keen to give their staff some room to experiment and try new things.

Blue-sky thinking in our context

We have a growing team with a huge range of gifts at our disposal, and all sorts of people who are passionate about different things. Hopefully all these passions are related to the gospel – our “core business” or “product.”  We passionately want to reach people with the good news about Jesus. Hopefully we’re all also on board with our philosophy of ministry – which wants to see people end up as mature Christians, with servant hearts, via our two pathways.

We’ve all got particular jobs to do, we’re all busy – and while we’re certainly passionate about the work we’re doing every week – it’s possible that there are huge untapped ideas and new ways of doing things, that we’d discover if we had the freedom to dream, to experiment, to get a bit creative, and to produce new things in a bit of time each week.

Blue sky thinking is something we can do alone – given the right environment – and having the freedom and time to put some new ideas, outside your core “job description” into practice might be a great way to connect, grow, or serve – or to reach people in our city, and around the world. Having the time to do some of this is just the first step.

But what if, like Captain Planet, we combined some of our powers. Some of our Blue Sky time. And came up with new things together.

It’s also possible that we’re greater than the sum of our parts – that mixing and matching some of our gifts and resources might produce new and exciting things that help us reach more people with the Gospel.

What if the kids team spoke to the media team about a video series to post on YouTube, that didn’t really tie in to the teaching program, but was something people might share that taught kids about Jesus in a clear and fun way.

What if some of the coffee snobs on staff came up with a way to connect the coffee snobs of Brisbane with some Christians, and the gospel, in a clever way.

What if the music team sat around with the youth ministry team and came up with a dub-step, spoken-word, fusion piece that would take the Internet by storm…

What if we all tackled some projects together – coming up with a stream of content for the website in a brainstorming session, or if we all jumped into the kitchen to make a batch of freezer meals for people in our neighbourhood, or in our church community. A one hour meeting with 30 staff could become 30 man hours spent on a project that makes a real difference.

One of the Google staffers realised the potential power of harnessing the “20 percent time” of some of his colleagues – he’s got an army of Googlers – 200 of the staff in his 1,000 person office – working on his “YouTube for Good” which provides technology solutions for the fight against AIDS, for clean water in various countries, and the United Nations World Food Program.

What next?

What would our week work with if we spent a day working on projects that help our core business – reaching Brisbane, and our world, with the gospel, in line with our philosophy of ministry – helping kids, youth, and young adults to reach maturity, and moving people towards Christian maturity.

What if we spend a few hours a week “promoting” things that we’re already doing – finding new channels to get information about Jesus, and our church, out to new people? What if we spent a few hours encouraging some people by giving up some of our time to catch up to read a helpful book together? What if we put some time into developing a clever and engaging video on the modern fight against slavery that we could share around the web? What if we created some pictures or social media campaigns using different hash tags that would get some of our big ideas from the term shared by people from our church on their social networks?

That’s just scraping the top of the barrel – the great thing about Blue Sky Thinking is that we’re only limited by imagination and time.

So how might we make this time a part of the work week at church – and what would it look like?

There’s a danger in just implementing this policy, that it’ll end up in wasted time, especially if the ideas are never put in to practice or development. Here’s what an author who studied the approach said:

“Many companies have tried to emulate the 20 percent time idea but failed because they remained conservative about supporting the new ideas.”

How do we use this time to create new resources, gospel opportunities, and growth?

More reading:

New beginnings

There’s a list somewhere in the world of the most stressful experiences in life. Top of the list, I think, is losing a loved one. Which we haven’t had to experience for some time. But the next cabs off the rank, from memory, and in no particular order, include:

1. Having a baby.
2. Moving house.
3. Changing jobs.
4. Changing churches.

By the end of next week we’ll have done all four of those.

We farewelled Scots Clayfield, and Andrew and Simone last Sunday. This isn’t really the time or the place for reflections on ministry at Scots, suffice it to say, the Richardsons have a tough gig, in a tough part of Brisbane to do ministry, and people leaving a small church sucks. We’ll keep praying for them, and will remember our time there fondly.

On Monday we started a new era – heading to the staff retreat for our new church – Creek Road – which, including students and trainees – was about half the size of the entire Scots congregation. So it’s going to be a very different couple of years.

Today we signed a new lease on a new house in a new suburb on a new side of the city. We’ll be much closer to church than we have been in the last two years, and a handy public transport trip to college.

I found a stress scale on Wikipedia – the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale – which suggests that I’m, given the time of year this is happening – a 292 on the scale, which means I’m at a moderate risk of stress related illness, and eight points off the high risk category. A speeding ticket would push me over the cusp.

But I feel pretty good, and our little family (complete with almost perfect baby), is collectively pretty excited about the year ahead.

Feeling like…

If a good job offer came today I’d take it. Pack this ministry thing in, and become jaded and burnt out before my time.

This feeling is not helped by an incredibly fun PR consultancy role I picked up a couple of weeks ago promoting a major motorsport event in Townsville which is engaging, and exciting, and takes ten hours a month, and pays monstrously better than church work.

This is the reality of ministry though. Right? Sacrifice. 1 Peter 3 is my theme chapter for today. This is how to live, and why… and how I need to work at responding when people disagree with me, or find me disagreeable.

“8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For,
“Whoever would love life
and see good days
must keep their tongue from evil
and their lips from deceitful speech.
11 They must turn from evil and do good;
they must seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous
and his ears are attentive to their prayer,
but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. “

Why you shouldn’t rebuke people by email

Al posted this thoughtful bit of pastoral advice the other day.

“Relationally it’s better to get on the phone. And if people are already against you then in my experience it’s best not to answer them in black and white.”

And then, just a day later, this video appeared on the Gospel Coalition blog.

It’s good advice. And all the points are valid. Especially in the context of ministry. I’ve got to say though, I found keeping an email trail was incredibly beneficial for protecting oneself from future recollections of a conversation – so sometimes it is worth having things in writing.

On Stress and Bible College and Ministry

I’ve never been the type for stress. I pride myself on my relaxed disposition and laissez-fair approach to life. Life on cruise control. That’s my default. But in the last few weeks I’ve been wracked by crippling stomach cramps and other weirdness of the belly. Well they weren’t crippling. That may have been hyperbolic. But they were bad. The source of such stress, so far as I can tell, is at least partly college. Bible College. I’ve spoken to a few other past and present students of Bible Colleges near and far. And they’ve reported similar symptoms and the knowledge of others also feeling similar symptoms. But why is it so. It’s Bible College.

Shouldn’t Bible College be an encouraging, edifying and nurturing experience full of grace and light? Well yes. And mostly it is. But for some reason the rationale that “what I’m doing has eternal significance” keeps creeping in. I want to turn every stone in every essay, I want to get every mark possible, not because I want marks, but because I don’t want to lose them lest they be the result of some deficiency in my knowledge that will find an outworking twenty years down the track. It’s almost worth becoming Baptist (simply because then I don’t have to get a degree).

When I studied Journalism I didn’t care. I just wanted the bit of paper, and the job. Uni was a breeze. I learned the essentials, came out (thanks to a natural inclination to journalism) able to do the job I was hired to do. I had matched certain areas of gifting with equipping. And it didn’t hurt.

Bible College, especially Bible College for the purpose of vocational ministry training, is ostensibly seeking to do the same thing, So what’s the difference?

Couple the stress of college with the increasing prevalence of ministry burnout, and stressed ministers (with all sorts of associated health problems) and I think we’ve got symptoms of a wider problem. Not to mention the burnout going on in the pews – roster fatigue, the problems associated with over-programming, and the burdens of underparticipation where the few do the work of the many.

Christian life is meant to be full of trials and sufferings, perhaps we’ve simply replaced external persecution with internal persecution in order to develop a whole new band of martyrs.

Something tells me that if ministry, training for ministry, and participating in church life is causing actual physical and mental health problems then we’re doing it wrong.

Augustine on thinking global, acting local

Further, all men are to be loved equally. But since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special regard to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstance, are brought into closer connection with you. For, suppose that you had a great deal of some commodity, and felt bound to give it away to somebody who had none, and that it could not be given to more than one person; if two persons presented themselves, neither of whom had either from need or relationship a greater claim upon you than the other you could do nothing fairer than to choose by lot to which you would give to both. Just so among men: since you cannot consult for the good of them all you must take the matter as decided for you by a sort of lot, according as each man happens for the time being to be more closely connected with you… – Augustine, On Christian Teaching

What would church ministry based on this model look like? Is this a good way to think? Thoughts? Responses?

DeYoung and the restless

Kevin DeYoung is nominally appropriately one of the faces of “the young, restless and reformed” movement. I like him. He writes and speaks with a clarity I appreciate and without (mostly) the hubris I’m uncomfortable with in other prominent brothers.

I like what he’s had to say about appropriately defining the missional movement in this post so much that I’m going to post this extended quote from his appearance at the Desiring God conference in the states recently

“(1) I am concerned that good behaviors are sometimes commended using the wrong categories. For example, many good deeds are promoted under the term “social justice” when I think “love your neighbor” is often a better category. Or, folks will talk about transforming the world, when I think being “a faithful presence in the world” is a better way to describe what we are trying to do and actually can do. Or, sometimes well meaning Christians talk about “building the kingdom” when actually the verbs associated with the kingdom are almost always passive (enter, receive, inherit). We’d do better to speak of living as citizens of the kingdom, rather than telling our people they build the kingdom.

(2) I am concerned that in our new found missional zeal we sometimes put hard “oughts” on Christians where there should be inviting “cans.” You ought to do something about human trafficking. You ought to do something about AIDS. You ought to do something about lack of good public education. When you say “ought” you imply that if the church does not tackle these problems we are being disobedient. It would be better to invite individual Christians in keeping with their gifts and calling to try to solve these problems rather than indicting the church for “not caring.”

(3) I am concerned that in all our passion for renewing the city or tackling social problems we run the risk of marginalizing the one thing that makes Christian mission Christian: namely, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Now, having raised those concerns, I need to make sure you know what I am not saying. I do not want:

  • Christians to be indifferent toward the suffering around them and around the world.
  • Christians to think evangelism is the only thing in life that really counts or that helping the poor really only matters if it results in conversions.
  • Christians to stop dreaming of creative, courageous ways to love their neighbors and impact their cities.

But here’s some of what I do want:

  • I want the gospel—the good news of Christ’s death for sin and subsequent resurrection—to be of first importance in our churches.
  • I want Christians freed from false guilt, freed from thinking the church is either responsible for most of problems in the world or responsible to fix all of these problems.
  • I want the utterly unique task of the church—making disciples of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God the Father—put front and center, not lost in a flurry of humanitarian good deeds or environmental concerns.”
  • Preach it brother.

    An online pulpit? Ministry and social media

    A couple of conversations online in the last two days, and a couple in the real world, have caused me to think about the pastoral implications of being part of the oversharing generation.

    I have many politically motivated friends on Facebook who happen to be in vocational ministry. Conventional ministry, from the generation above mine, is that ministers shouldn’t be endorsing any particular political view (I think Peter Jensen articulated this best in his ABC interview a few weeks back).

    People in ministry are in positions of influence. There’s something about the pastoral or discipleship relationship that inherently imbues strongly held personal opinions with a possibly unhelpful significance. We’re not good at splitting our personal convictions from our theology – partly because most of our personal convictions flow from our theological presuppositions (which are also personal convictions, but hopefully biblically based).

    Anybody in this sort of relationship needs to maintain a detached objectivity and the ability to put forward views with nuance. But we also need to be able to speak of our convictions on non-essential issues without being slammed or defriended.

    So the question I’m grappling with is as I move towards holding more “influence” as a vocational minister is how do I do that and remain a person of conviction who is prepared to put forward views on controversial issues like politics or education.

    I have a real problem with people equating what Christians in ministry say online – either in their Facebook statuses or their blogs – with a “thus sayeth the Lord” statement on reality. We need a diversity of voices speaking on complex issues in order to nut out an appropriate position. I’ve spoken to people who’ve suggested it’s inappropriate for anybody in ministry to critique non-essential decisions of those they are pastoring because it’s not pastorally sensitive – but how do we critique the prevailing consensus, if we believe it’s wrong, without speaking our mind. So, for example, if your church has a culture of advocating for one particular method of educating children. If there are parents who look down their noses at other parents who don’t send their children to a particular brand of school (this is a purely hypothetical situation), then how do we put forward our views without causing some offense? How do we do it right? How do we maintain our humanity? We don’t want to be the “toe the party line” drones who are dominating our political landscape too afraid to say anything that might lose votes.

    I don’t think a blog is the pulpit, but it is a pulpit. It’s a bit like Tony Abbott calling on people to only trust his carefully worded statements rather than his off the cuff responses. Sermons are tightly prepared exegesis aimed to teach people the word of God. Posts on a blog are opinion pieces that are hopefully not contrary to sound exegesis – but I don’t think the burden of responsibility is the same. We should be careful with how we use our tongues, and our keyboards, and should steer clear of slander, malice, dishonesty and gossip. But to suggest that we can’t speak out on issues that we feel strongly about by equating blogging with being a called and appointed “teacher” is a little wrongheaded, and opens up a can of worms. Should I, for instance, read a woman’s blog if blogging is teaching?

    Conversely, I think we need to be really careful to present our personal views with appropriate nuance. When we speak out in favour of a particular methodology, or political party, we need to frame it somehow as personal opinion in an issue of liberty. And I think blogs are a terrible forum for this. Controversy is inherent to the medium. Controversial posts get more hits, more comments, and are more fun to write. Controversial posts are also a much better corrective against opposing views. They make people think, they prompt discussion. But controversy is often not pastorally sensitive (though I reckon Jesus, Peter, and Paul were all pretty controversial). It annoys me when people post such controversial ideas when I disagree with their fundamental views. I get a bit narky.

    Here are some thoughts around this subject, in list form.

    1. We all need to be careful to frame our views appropriately on issues of liberty.
    2. We need to be prepared to participate in discussions in a loving manner when we agree and when we disagree in order for discussions not to be bogged down in player-hating.
    3. We must recognise the limits of the medium – both in terms of non-verbal communication, and in terms of the form and function of blogs as dialogues primarily based on personal opinion not produced primarily as ministry, but rather as personal reflection and possibly the pursuit of wisdom (unless somebody deliberately sets out to have a ministry blog – but even then the medium needs to be taken into account). We interpret based on medium everywhere else. Peer reviewed journal articles are interpreted differently to the opinion column of a tabloid newspaper though both are ostensibly written communication.
    4. We need to frame our disagreements in love and with a desire to be reaching the same goal. A more nuanced view (because most of us start on extremes, most of the time).
    5. We need to be encouraging people to speak their minds on issues as part of the online conversation, and we need to be prepared to speak the truth with love if we think they’re wrong.
    6. Any outcome  that leads to those in ministry, who are hopefully generally well thought out theologically (and hopefully more broadly), being too scared to voice their opinions is less than ideal.
    7. People in ministry need to be sensitive to those reading their thoughts and not create unnecessary obstacles.

    Ministers, ministry, and semantics

    Stuart doesn’t think paid ministers are anything special. I agree. Though “special” is as “special” does. Stuart commented on, and linked to, my post about raising non bitter ministry children. He didn’t like that I used the word “ministry” because we’re all meant to be ministers. Well, yes. But at that point it’s a matter of semantic differences, not theological. I don’t think you’ll find anybody linked to in Stuart’s post who disagrees with him on the fundamental point that those in paid ministry positions have a responsibility to be training and equipping the church to bring the gospel to those they are in relationship with.

    What this all boils down to, and I’ve been looking forward to using this phrase here, is an illegitimate totality transfer.

    Ministry might be the task of all Christians, but it is only the paid vocation for some. This is the problem with the Presbyterian church and the word worship – worship has a broad semantic range. It’s meaning is dynamic, though each meaning is linked an fundamentally the same. This is true too for the word “ministry” – it’s the best word we have to describe the role of Christians and the job for those we pay to work for the body. A payment that Paul encourages and even mandates (for all but himself).

    English words have pretty wide ranges of meanings (I recommend reading Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue for an exploration of just how English functions, and our church “jargon” (complete with Biblical terminology) is the same. Language is tricky to pin down, and pinning down one word with one specific (minority) definition makes for problematic discussions.

    I’ve been reflecting lately on whether Paul’s ministry approach is normative – either for the Christian, or for the paid worker. I think it’s clearly not the case for either. Paul is an apostle, he’s single, he’s schooled in the law, he’s a Jew, he’s different to the other apostles (who have wives, and are paid). He calls the Corinthians to imitate him as he imitates Christ – but he doesn’t call them all to do ministry the way he does, he seems to see his own ministry as a special case. I certainly don’t think we should be expecting everybody within the church to minister in an apostolic fashion. We are (1 Peter 3:15) to be prepared to give an account for our hope, but we’re also a body of Christ with diverse roles and giftings, called to love and serve one another.

    Stuart frames the purposes of his posts in the comments on the current one:

    Precisely what I want to do in this series is to ask, “Given that paid pastors exist, how can we think of their work (and help them think of their work) in a way that avoids some current problems?”

    I have three pastoral concerns here:
    1. for pastors, many of whom (at least anecdotally) struggle with overwork and consequent neglect of their wife and children;
    2. for church members, who rely too much on paid pastors to do the ministry;
    3. for the world, whom the church cannot bless if it is too reliant on paid pastors.

    Worthy concerns, and I’m interested to see where Stuart goes while I try to build my own framework and philosophy for ministry (though it’s been pretty heavily influenced by those who came before me…).

    I get the feeling that some of this helpful conversation gets bogged down in semantics – we spend so much time defining, or redefining, our terminology in order to engage with one another’s ideas. Izaac reflected on a conversation with one of his fellow students (who is part of the Joshua Tree church plant) mentioning similar issues:

    One of our problems was that we were using the same words to describe very different things. When I said church it was not what Danny was thinking when he said church. I wanted to talk to Danny about his role as a student minister – but I prefaced the statement with “For lack of a better word…” and many other things like that.

    This has highlighted for me part of the great thing that Stuart, Danny and others involved are trying to do. That is, groups such as these of which they are a part, which seek for radical rethinks of what we are doing, could easily define themselves by what they aren’t. Instead they are working hard to define what they are.

    It’s a great conversation, but we need to make sure we aren’t (or are) at cross purposes on the basis of language.

    How to not bring up bitter ministry children

    Mikey has posted helpfully on work and rest in ministry recently (while Al posted on play, generally). Mikey’s “ministry as lifestyle” framework is pretty on the money I reckon. But someone in this picture has to think of the children (he did respond (as did his wife) in the comments on that post with some wisdom).

    I like claiming to be an expert on things based on my own personal experience. I’m not claiming to be unique here, just claiming that I have a possibly relevant insight as the “son of a preacher man” – if I can’t reach you, then what hope do you have? My dad is a minister at a fairly successful church, he would also somewhat unfairly be described as a (possibly reforming) workaholic. Both he, and my mum, invested their time pretty heavily into their ministry. It’s taken quite a few years for them to appear comfortable taking holidays (and now they can’t get enough of them – they’re currently blogging their way through Europe). I am not bitter, though I can’t speak for my sibblings, in fact I’m in the process of entering the family business… So if you’re in ministry and you’re asking “how do I get my kids to grow up not hating me for making sacrifices for ministry” then this might be a post for you. I don’t want to endorse everything my folks did, nor paint them as perfect parents the nature of raising a headstrong lad like myself meant there were plenty of “interesting” moments. But here are some things they did that I think were helpful (and some things I would change).

    1. Make sure your children know the eternal importance of the Gospel – this is a bit of a given, but it will help them to understand why you (possibly) gave up a much more exciting and lucrative career in order to tell people about Jesus. Frame it as a job of eternal significance. As a little kid there’s nothing cooler than thinking your parents are doing something as cool as the guy whose dad is a fireman or rocket scientist.
    2. Read the Bible together – I’m pretty sure mum and dad test drove some of their Sunday School material on us (including, if I remember our little Bible/craft folders they made for us – the Bible in Ten Easy Lessons/King, the snake, and the promise).  You want your children on board (especially as kids) and other kids will inevitably ask them hard questions running around after church.
    3. Everybody is looking at your family as standard bearers. Everything from the clothes they wear, the shows they watch on TV to how much they know is an area of comparison. And they’re fully aware that this is happening. Other kids tell them. It was my fault that my friends couldn’t watch the Bill, and I was used as a justification in another friend’s campaign to watch the Simpsons. Make it clear to your children that you don’t judge them like other people do, and discourage this paradigm.
    4. Involve your children in your ministry – ask them for feedback, listen, take their ideas on board – two of my proudest moments as a child are suggesting a lolly jar in church, and spotting something significant (a comparison between Psalm 23 and the feeding of the 5,000) that dad used in a sermon (with attribution). Developing some sort of sense of involvement (though a balance) is useful.
    5. Try not to talk about them too much – either in the context of your parenting, or in illustrations where they look silly. For a long time if you googled my name the top result was the text of one of dad’s sermons that said “Nathan Campbell has lost his shoes“…
    6. Make sure your children understand pastoral sensitivity – if you practice hospitality it’s likely your kids will overhear stuff they shouldn’t (especially in a small house with thin walls), or be involved in awkward moments. Don’t leave these unexplained – and make confidentiality a big deal.
    7. Encourage your children to get involved with their own ministries as they get older, let them know that this makes you proud. Don’t ever take their participation in church stuff for granted. Encourage them to participate as members and as leaders, and let them know that you like that they do.
    8. Be available – while your children will no doubt want to take advantage of your presence (probably for games of table tennis) take advantage of the fact that you work from home and recognise that your flexible hours free you up to say yes to doing some fun stuff during the day. Particularly do things that allow for conversation. Talk about theology stuff, answer questions, that sort of thing. This is one of the greatest privileges of being a preacher’s kid – you’ve got your minister on tap.
    9. Give your children access to visiting speakers who are staying with you – access to your own father is a plus, but access to a network of incredibly gifted guest speakers for your own post-event question time is without doubt one of the things I’ve appreciated most. I’ve shared a room with Chappo. I’ve picked the brains of guys like Mike Raiter, David Cook, and dad’s contemporaries, and once I played a game of table tennis with Leigh Trevaskis.
    10. Try not to make sacrifices on your children’s behalf in every area – One of the things I am the most bitter about is how frugal some decisions my parents made were (they once bought me brown shoes and black shoe paint for school – saving $5 on a pair of black shoes and forcing me to paint them fortnightly). For a long time, I attributed this to the terrible pay ministers get, in hindsight we probably sacrificed in some areas so that we could do extra-curricular stuff like sport and music… which has turned out to be pretty valuable.

    On the whole I reckon mum and dad maintained a pretty good balance, we always had food on the table and the assurance of their love. In less lucid and more emotive moments I probably felt a bit ripped off by how much time (and other stuff) their ministry took away from me. But the more I understand point 1 the easier that is to forgive. It’s easy (as a kid) to watch how much time your parents are spending solving other people’s problems and how little they’re spending on yours. So I think it’s pretty important (as a parent) to know what’s going on for your kids and remember that they’re members of both your church and your family.

    Jesus was way cool*

    You know. Jesus was pretty darn awesome and he hung out with all the movers and shakers in first century Jewish society – so we should totally do the same with our ministries… no wait. That’s not right. An Acts 29 church planting screener has pointed out that a number (all is a number) of the planting candidates he’s interviewed have the same missional passion – the desire to see cool people saved.

    It’s amazing how many young pastors feel that they are distinctly called to reach the upwardly-mobile, young, culture-shaping professionals and artists. Can we just be honest? Young, upper-middle-class urban professionals have become the new “Saddleback Sam”.

    Seriously, this is literally the only group I see proposals for. I have yet to assess a church planter who wants to move to a declining, smaller city and reach out to blue collar factory workers, mechanics, or construction crews. Not one with an evangelsitic strategy to go after the 50-something administrative assistant who’s been working at the same low-paying insurance firm for three decades now.

    His conclusion is just as on the money.

    It could be that we’re simply following in the footsteps of the church growth movement that we’ve loved to publically criticize while privately trying to emulate – we’ve just replaced Bill Hybels and Rick Warren with Tim Keller and Mark Driscoll.

    In the Australian context it’s probably not so bad – but it’s just something to remember. Jesus loves city people, young professionals, farmers, retirees and the homeless. Our ministries should love those people too.

    * Check out the King Missile song by this name if you haven’t already discovered it.

    How to come up with a ministry job title

    Mark Driscoll just wants to be a pastor. No. Wait. A preaching pastor. His executive pastor can do the other stuff…

    Ministry titles are dumb. The title “pastor” is pretty dumb too. It’s a role not a title. Mikey ranted about this the other day. I agree.

    But back to Driscoll – who is sick of people not wanting to be a pastor. So he put together this little tool for selecting a hip and relevant title so that you can “shepherd” your merry band of “Christ followers”…

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