Archive for December, 2012

The Christmas message

Posted: December 18, 2012 by J in Bible, Church, Mission

What message will there be at your church this Christmas?

After preaching Luke all year, I’m going with Matthew’s Gospel this time, for a change. Here’s the main things I’m finding there.

Matthew 1


The genealogy sets up the whole story (Mat. 1:1-17).

1. This is the final chapter in a very old, Jewish story. We’re still in Israel’s history, salvation history.

2. Matthew’s real interest is in the three phases of that story (v.17) Abraham’s, King David’s, exile. Those 3 phases can be summed up as 3 questions:

i. What happened to Abraham’s promised son who would bring blessing to the nation? The blessing never came.

ii. What happened to David’s heir? God promised David’s son would sit on the throne of Israel forever. But they’re lost.

iii. What happened to Yahweh? He promised to always be with his people, but he went away and has been gone these 500 years, living the nation unprotected.

Matthew gives pretty big hints that his story is going to answer these questions: check out his intro, v.1

The genealogy of Jesus Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham


Jesus’ birth (Mat 1: 18-25)

This story mainly tackles the third question: where is Yahweh? Mary and Joseph seem as lost and messed up as the rest of Israel: child out of wedlock, wedding off, etc. But it turns out something new is happening. Joseph gets a visit that completely changes his view of events. What did he hear? Matthew emphasises two things about this unexpected development:

i. The Spirit of God is back, present and active again, bringing new life. The Spirit is mentioned twice, highlighting this point.

ii. The child is the fulfilment of the Isaianic prophecy about Immanuel, the son who would be ‘God with us.’ By quoting and then translating this for us, Matthew gives it special prominence.

These were the words Israel most needed to hear. If the Spirit is back and the son has arrived who is ‘God with us’, then the long years of exile are finally over.

God has not just returned, he has come close in an unprecedented, extraordinary way: taking on human flesh and human existence, to be among us as a child. This child is the place where God is fully present and can be fully known.

In our society where God has been pushed so much to the fringes of life, people are wondering the same question as the Jews: where is God? People are even afraid he no longer exists. Not many people want that. Most people want to know where God is. Now that Jesus has come and God’s Spirit is active and present, there is an answer to people’s longings. Where is God? He has come right up close to us, so we can know him. He’s done it by his Spirit and in Jesus.


Old style leaders in the church aim to make the most of their gifts, but Jesus’ new leaders maximise other people’s gifts.

27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.   Luke 22

The traditional model of church leadership is shaped like a pyramid. The congregation is at the bottom, supporting the ministry structure; lay leadership is in the middle, and at the top, at the cutting edge of ministry, are the clergy. They are the  key players, the important ones who do most of the ministry. Teaching, ideas and instructions filter down from them to the laity. The laity provide a solid financial base for the whole enterprise. They also provide manpower for occasional whole-church projects which the clergy initiate. At the dining table, in the prominent place, are the leaders. Hovering in the background and providing support, like the table waiters, are the lay people.

Jesus re-definition of power turns the model on its head; he reverses the roles at the meal. The important people are the congregation members. They are the ones at the table, the main characters in the story. Serving their needs are the table waiters, the church leaders.

The pyramid is now upside down. The top-most layer of church life, the ‘coal-face’ of ministry, is the congregation. Their ministries are the ones that ultimately count. Supporting them for their ministry are various leaders, and supporting everyone, serving the whole church, are the pastors.

What does that look like in practice?

Old style leaders go with their strengths. In the church, this means a concern to make the most of their gifts. Going with strengths ensures that the leader appears in the best possible light – capable, efficient, successful. It maximises the leader’s personal job-satisfaction. And it just happens that few leaders are gifted in sweeping the floor – so they leave such things to those whose gifts are more ‘blue collar’.

New leaders value ministry gifts, but they are happy to go with their weaknesses. They don’t mind operating in areas where they do not appear to best advantage. Because they are less concerned about their own gifts, and more about the gifts of the congregation. After all, the congregation are the important ones. It’s their ministries that count. The pastor is just the table-waiter. Like Jesus: the cross didn’t maximise Jesus ministry gifts.

New leaders work up a sweat doing what needs doing so that the congregation can function well. They don’t think too much about job-satisfaction. They are happy to do lowly tasks when the need arises. They are modelling themselves on the man who was ‘among you as one who serves.’ The cross probably didn’t represent job-satisfaction.

Decision-making in the old model was concentrated in the hands of the leadership. In Jesus’ model, of course that is reversed. The people at the coal-face, the ones sitting at the table, they are the ones who get the say. They are the ones gifted and authorised for gospel ministries by the Holy Spirit. Since when does the servant tell the important people what to do? Does he imagine he’s the boss? The servant can serve by providing the nourishment of the gospel word. He can encourage, equip, advise when asked to – but the decisions are generally going to be made by the important people, the congregation members. That’s as it should be.

This is the new leader’s approach to using his (considerable) power. He uses it to make others powerful.

27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.   

Jesus does not abolish power. Instead he turns it completely on its head:

25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactor’.  26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.        Luke 22

The setting is the Last Supper. Jesus has just told them he will pour out his own blood for them. He is God’s chosen King, called to inherit all power  – yet he will stoop to the lowest place for their sake.

And this is not some random, one-off act: rather it is by this stooping that leadership in God’s kingdom is defined. John sums up this new reality in Revelation: he sees at the centre of creation the throne of God, and on the throne a lamb which has been slain. At the very heart of God, core to his identity, definitive of his power, is this lamb. Where is God’s sovereignty seen? – in Jesus crucified. In this stooping, suffering act of self-giving. Eye-opening as that image is, it is equalled by Jesus’ game-changing words here: ‘But I am among you as one who serves.’

Leadership can never be the same again. The goal-posts have been shifted once and for all. Leadership is now a radically self-denying, self-giving, humbling business in which leaders are called on to suffer willingly in order to bless the people. The status that comes with leadership is intended to be given up, sacrificed again and again as the leader takes the lowest place in his or her community. In this new leadership, the one in power does not merely give service – he gives himself. If necessary, his blood.

This giving is distinct from the giving of ‘the kings of the Gentiles’ who call themselves Public Benefactor. They give from on high, letting their largesse trickle down, creating obligations and debts among their followers. Those who are blessed from above, are then bound to repay the debt with loyalty. The new leader gives from below, like a slave. Those who serve from below do not get thanks or praise or reward. They just do their duty. Those they serve are not bound, but freed.

New leaders are always ready to go lower, to raise others. They give special honour to those in their charge who are the least important and powerful: to the children and the old and the sick and the poor. New leaders get joy from seeing their people growing and achieving and gaining recognition, and don’t much care whether they themselves get any. “For we rejoice when we are weak and you are strong” (2 Cor. 13:9). The praise of men is not their love language.

New leaders are always ready to bleed. When things are difficult or stressful or distressing, they are not shocked or surprised.  When experiencing disappointment or betrayal, they don’t go home to their wives and say, “I just can’t believe it!” And they do not give up. After all, they are following the one who was betrayed, who poured out his blood to the last drop. Tradition has it 11 out of the 12 apostles were killed in the line of duty. In the early church, leaders expected to become martyrs.

New leaders are people of great power. Not everyone will see this: those who think in terms of the old leadership of Gentile kings, will probably find them weak. But in fact, these leaders have enormous influence. They do not boss, rouse or threaten – yet everyone around them is shaped and changed by their leadership. Many people become richer through their poverty. Through their service many are made free. They leave behind them a lasting impact.

This is the new way power works, what it’s for, since Jesus. It has been completely reconfigured. Power is for giving away to make other people strong.

BIG MAN Leadership

Posted: December 7, 2012 by J in Church

Leaders love to be praised. All of us!

We’re thinking over the implications of Jesus’ teaching (Luke 22) on sinful human leadership approaches. 1. was leadership of domination. 2 is leadership that makes a big name for the leader.

25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactor’. But not so with you.

Leaders naturally like to be famous. They like to be known and admired. They want everyone to talk about them, and say how great they are. Big name leadership is leadership that aims at this praise.

One variety of this approach is Babel-style leadership. To have a big name a leader needs to get a big group together. If he can pull in a lot of people under his leadership, he has a bigger base on which to raise his pyramid. He can go higher. Think Yurtle the turtle.

This means creating BIG CHURCH. No one is impressed by leaders of less than 100 people. In Sydney it needs 2-300 minimum.  Then the leader starts to get an aura about him. If smaller churches will serve the area better, he can still do it: create a conglomerate of smaller churches, with him as the HEAD MAN over them all. All the pastors must report to him. None of them will make a big name, but the head man will.

If the leader can’t create a big church, he can probably still get a big name by transferring to a pre-existing one. This is why, when ministers shift, they always try to go to a church bigger than the one they left.

Even at a smaller the leader can make a name for himself, within the congregation. It’s easy for us leaders to convince the congregation we are superior: spiritual stuff is the stuff that counts, and we do the most spiritual stuff. Easy. Bible teaching is the most important thing. And we do all the bible teaching. So which of us do you think is the most important?

The leader doesn’t have to teach people to think this – it happens automatically. As long as in his teaching he emphasises the value of gospel work and neglects the value of all other work – the congregation can join the dots. I mean, who’s the dude that’s giving his all for the kingdom, round here? He is!

It does help, though, if he can make sure his activities are well-publicised. If everyone knows how busy he is, and how hard he’s working for the kingdom, he should get heaps of awed admiration. A blog can help here!

He can also get a reputation as a sage. If a leader can convey to his people that he has stacks of higher knowledge that others don’t have, he gets the aura. A large library, prominently displayed, is invaluable here. A few choice comments about greek or hebrew in the sermon. The people want him to be an expert, it’s not necessary to push here. He can get it so they won’t trust any ideas unless they’ve been OK’d by him.

Obviously not everyone can achieve a REALLY big name. That’s usually for those with exceptional gifts. Teaching or writing or  organisational/motivational or academic gifts. If you are lucky enough to have one of these, you can so overshadow the gifts of the rest of the church, that it will seem like all the gifts are concentrated in you. You can make a BIG name – maybe even become famous worldwide.

The rest of us will have to be content with a relatively big name. But we can still be at least ten turtles above the swamp.

This is BIG NAME Leadership. It’s the second category that Jesus warns against.

The main alternative to this is, of course, to be more interested in the gifts and life-calling of the people than in your own.

Leadership of domination

Posted: December 5, 2012 by J in Church, Theology

There is a subtle agreement in many churches: the pastor needs people to tell what to do, and some people want to be told what to do. This combination makes many churches work perfectly. David Hayward, at The Naked Pastor

It’d be good before pressing on to more positive matters, to let the negatives sink in a bit.

What sort of leadership does Jesus warn us against? From our last post on Luke 22 we can say

1. Leadership of domination.

2. Leadership that makes a big name for the minister.

1. Leadership of domination:

This is where the people, instead of gaining freedom through their church involvement, actually lose their freedom to the minister/s. They become helpers in his ministry.

People come in two sorts: clergy and laity. Clergy has the vision, laity are expected to buy in. Clergy makes The Plan. Clergy articulates The Plan. Laity listen and follow The Plan. Clergy ideas are good ideas. Laity ideas are bad ideas, to be avoided. Clergy knows they’re bad ideas, because they did not come from clergy.

Laity are a necessary part of the church because clergy have neither time nor energy to do everything. Volunteer helpers are needed. It’s not a perfect world we live in. Laity are thus a kind of imperfect extension of clergy.

But laity need careful handling to make sure they further and do not disrupt The Plan. This generally means giving them responsibilities but witholding authority to make decisions. It is not safe for laity to make decisions. They are not qualified. Decisions are for clergy.

There should be love between laity and clergy. Laity should love their clergy as a child loves its parents. For in truth, laity are like children. They mean well, but they need a lot of careful supervision. The more impressive the clergy are, the easier it will be for laity to love them in this way. If this love has a drop of worship in it, that is natural enough.

The best laity are the ones most like clergy. They are not clergy, but if they are willing to shape themselves to be like their clergy, they can becomes very useful. Those that share their leaders’ doctrinal views most closely can even be allowed teaching roles. Those who most support The Plan, show that they can be trusted with responsibility.

The most effective tool for dominating a congregation is a weapon of overwhelming power. Like the Bible. If clergy can maintain control of the Bible-discourse in the church, they hold all the cards. Their voice will be difficult to distinguish from the voice of God. Then laity will know that they ought to submit.

Where laity do not behave properly, such as asserting ideas of their own, questioning The Plan, or other dangerous behaviours, there is no need for painful confrontation. After all, clergy hold all the power.  Sidelining has been found to be a particularly effective, non-confrontational approach: clergy can simply stop giving responsibilities to these laity. No bible study groups to lead. No service-leading or bible reading or other similar gigs. Clergy interactions with the offender are minimised. The person quickly becomes aware of their unsound status, and can then take steps to rehabilitate themself.

This, put in Anglican terms, is leadership of domination. At the heart of it is the built-in divide into two kinds of church member, which is not at all unique to Anglicans, but is found in most Christian churches, whatever they call their leaders. The category ‘clergy’ is a power structure, which mainly functions to enable a leadership of domination.

A theology of power

Posted: December 4, 2012 by J in Church, Theology

It’s naive to think our church leaders, left to themselves, will use their power in good ways.

In the gospel, Jesus calls us to seriously rethink our approach to power:

25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them style themselves ‘Benefactor’.  26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.   Luke 22

Sobering words. According to Jesus, leadership is about power. The natural human approach is to use power abusively, to aggrandise ourselves. Rulers tend to dominate or ‘lord it over’ the people they are supposed to be leading: that’s the fallen human version of leadership. Instead of providing an environment that allows the safe enjoyment of life and freedom, rulers naturally enslave and oppress. They make the lives of those under them a misery.

And at the same time they claim to be the best thing that ever happened for the people. In Jesus’ time the word Benefactor was a title assumed by the powerful, to proclaim the blessedness of their rule. At the same time they were crushing the life out of the weak, they wanted to enjoy the honour of being a public benefactor.

In this saying of Jesus are the makings of a theology of what humanity does with power. We use it to elevate ourselves to the place that belongs to God: rule and honour. And we rise by treading on the weak.

This should be enough to function as a serious warning to us. Unless our human approach to power is radically challenged, in fact completely overturned, than we too will end up using the power we gain for abusive ends.

In other words, hints of ideas about a different way of handling power will not do the trick. The problem is deep in our human sin-structures. We are hard-wired to abuse. Nothing less than an intentional, direct, forceful shakeup of the way power functions in our minds and communities, will be enough.

And Jesus’ words here provide just that forceful shakeup:

But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves…But I am among you as one who serves.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the new structure of power Jesus establishes.

But for our scene, and especially our colleges, we can say this: Alan commented lately that in our colleges there are lots of helpful ideas about power, but that the threads needed pulling together. Exactly. Loose threads will not be strong enough to pull us into line.

What is needed is serious attention in our training colleges to the subject of leadership,  starting with the understanding that leadership = power.  We need a curriculum of leadership studies, which

  • develops a theology of power, and then
  • examines the practical imperatives of that theology for church leadership and ministry

At the moment I think the approach in my scene is to downplay the importance of power in leadership, to say in effect, ‘No, leadership is not a power role, it’s about service.’ We kind of hope this will be enough to keep a lid on the whole thing. We hope power will take a back seat.

It’s an understandable approach. But it’s naive: power is powerful, it takes the driving seat. You don’t neutralise it just by denials. Our leaders are men, not angels. The theology of what humans do with power, outlined above – that applies to them (ahem, to us).

Really what we’re doing is sticking our head in the sand. This weak stance stops us from facing the dangers of the power we wield, and working out how to handle it differently for Jesus. It insulates us from hearing his radical challenge, and leaves power to drive where it will. And we know where power drives us: into abuse.

Jesus doesn’t call us to deny power, but to face it and reconfigure it. And that means (at the least!) some focussed thinking.

I’ve been in pastoral ministry for a couple of years now, so I reckon it’s time I had a go at that!

Rowan Williams and the ‘women bishops’ vote

Posted: December 2, 2012 by J in Church

How uninspiring to hear the supposedly liberal-minded leaders of the Church of England venting their spleen on their lay leadership.

Sarah Coakley, Canon of Ely Cathedral, was bad, dismissing the house of laity as “contain[ing] more than its expected share of conservative, elderly or bureaucratically-inclined church people.”  Telling them that thanks to them to church has “signed its own theological death warrant.” Over-dramatised, disrespectful and bullying words.

Rowan Williams was worse. Assuming he was reported accurately – how unseemly for the Archbishop to be seen berating the church’s lay leaders publicly for not toeing the clergy line! They have caused the CofE a ‘loss of credibility’. For a man normally so sensitive to power issues, this was a sad lapse. Couldn’t he sense the delicacy of the situation – with the clergy pushing ahead and the laity resisting? Wasn’t this a make-or-break moment for exposing what the clergy really think of the laity they ‘serve’? How sad to hear him issuing these reprimands to those weaker than himself.

Saddest of all was his comment that the worst aspect of the thing was  “it seems that we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities in … wider society.”

Crikey. Is that what the church is here to do? Make sure it keeps pace with the priorities of wider society? Is that the path the clergy have taken, which the lay leaders are now expected to follow? These are not well-chosen words from the Archbishop. It is most regrettable that a man of the stature of Williams was driven to speak so unwisely in the public arena. He knows better.

If the CofE will has a bigger credibility problem than it did before, it is from these public expressions of clergy hubris and weakness, not from a laity which refuses to be hard-selled. I hope Rowan Williams can recover some of the lost credibility soon, with some more-sensitive public remarks on the situation.