Archive for August, 2014

The Word and the Power

Posted: August 27, 2014 by J in General

In Mark 3 Jesus goes up the mountain, and calls twelve apostles. He authorises them for two tasks: to announce the good news, and to cast out demons. Of course the two tasks are related: the message is that the kingdom of God is coming in power, bringing release from sin and Satan. Exorcism is a natural expression and sign of this new state of affairs.

In the West, we feel comfortable with half of the apostolic ministry, but not the other half. Teaching stuff is ok, spirit stuff is not.

In our tradition, since the early centuries of the Roman church, the Holy Spirit’s role has been minimised. Father and Son have usually been to the fore, sometimes the faith has seemed to teach a Duad or Binity. Power tended to be seen as invested in the church and her priests, rather than in the transcendent movements of the Spirit. The gospel was felt to need to authorising stamp of the state. One symptom of this Binitarian tendency is that Jesus’ death has always been invested with more theological significance than his resurrection.

The Reformation put the spotlight on the church’s teachings, especially regarding justification. Justification was now seen to be the action of God through Christ towards those who believed the message. Where the Roman church taught justification as a result of the Spirit’s transforming work, for Protestants justification had nothing to do with anything in us: i.e. the Spirit had little role in justification. In other words, the traditional biases of the Western church were not challenged but rather reinforced. The authority of the sacramental priests became the authority of the teachers. Father, Son and teaching were given primacy. The Spirit was minimised again. One symptom of this is that Protestants in general have found it comes naturally to listen and read, but not to pray.

There is a gnostic tendency in all this: we in the West have always liked the idea of a message which is powerful, in and of itself, to bring us to a place of enlightenment and salvation. If we can learn and know the hidden truth, we can attain eternal life.

Ironically, this emphasis on the role of teaching to the neglect of Pentecost left the church open to having its message challenged. For if the message is powerful in itself, then why couldn’t a different message also be powerful? – perhaps even more powerful. Just as the Reformation had challenged the Roman church’s teaching, so at the Enlightenment rival messages infiltrated the faith: ideas of progress and the evolution of Man towards Utopia. Having cast out the old pagan demons, the Western church had failed to embrace the living sovereign person of the Holy Spirit: so the Spirit of Man and the Spirit of History came in to fill up the void. New priests arose to challenge the authority of the old Christian ones. Now modern ideas and modern education were seen as the best way to enlightenment and freedom. They still are.

Notice that although the content of the message has shifted profoundly, the structure of thought has remained the same: we are still looking to a teaching that can of itself empower and save us. The West is still gnostic in orientation.

Where the apostles might have challenged these rival teachings in terms of a demonstration of power and of the Spirit, the best the Western church has been able to do is to claim its teaching is better, truer than the Enlightenment doctrine: an abstract claim that is hard to prove.

The Eastern church, always more clearly Trinitarian than us, did not experience an equivalent overthrow.

This sort of psycho-theological analysis of our tradition is not easy to prove. Much of the trouble goes on below the surface of consciousness: everyone always subscribed to Trinitarian doctrine and thought prayer was important. No doubt some readers will be saying, ‘But Calvin taught the Holy Spirit’. (True, he did!) But on the large scale, the signs are there, the emphases are there, and the result in our Western culture is plain for all to see. We are the only civilisation to have developed a thorough-going atheism.

In Mark 3 Jesus sends out messengers to teach and cast out demons. To bring the light of truth authenticated by the power of God. ‘If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (Matt 12). I wonder how we in the West can overcome our age-old unease about the Holy Spirit, and reclaim our Trinitarian gospel heritage? In an age when our message is no longer the default belief of our society, that might kinda come in handy?


I was lately privileged to spend a week at the snow staying in a nice lodge. The guests ask each other, what do you do? When they heard that I was in Christian ministry, some of them expressed a struggle to understand. Why would an intelligent young man go into something so strange and unpromising and, well, out of date? What I was doing was so far outside their experience, they just couldn’t connect with it at all.

How does a leader maintain morale in such an environment? I don’t mean the ski-lodge, I mean our society. Because those people were normal well-to-do Aussies – and to them my life and work was a complete irrelevance.

How do you wake up every morning and get out of bed and get motivated to do a job that your neighbours neither comprehend nor value nor care about? We spoke in the previous post about the mental health challenges for church-leaders today. Jim commented, graciously sharing his experience of working hard to see a net growth of one person over a year or more in his church. How do leaders avoid discouragement and depression, and persevere with energy and hope and joy over the long haul, in such dry times?

I’d love to know what other leaders do to ‘stay strong’. I’ll offer a few thoughts of my own here. These are my top four:

1. You choose your area. The people in that lodge were too rich and too self-satisfied. If life is feeling a bit tough, there’s always another holiday to Paris to distract them. They had no sense of needing outside help – or if they did, they weren’t admitting it to themselves. Our traditional protestant support base has been the upper middle classes, but they have now turned away from us. They don’t want to know about Jesus.

Our Lord’s advice was not to keep banging your head against the brick wall. If you go to a town and they won’t receive you, shake the dust off your feet. Go somewhere else. If the good folks of Mosman won’t listen, try Merrylands, or Moorebank. Go ‘down-market’. Invite the blind and the lame. They will listen!

It’s too hard to keep slogging on in areas where no one is interested. It’s not wise. It gradually erodes your confidence and your mental health. It’s also not a good use of your time and energy. Life is short, and you are not bullet-proof. But there are places in your city where people are open to the gospel. Move on.

Lots of our leaders in Sydney get trapped in suburbs that are not interested, and the resulting toll on morale is unacceptably high. Eventually they come to expect failure. That’s a hard place to come back from.

2. You get a good team around you. Solo ministry is a recipe for exhaustion and discouragement. A team helps you stay strong. A shared vision is much more robust than an individual one. We all have weak times: at those times the team can carry you. They can believe and pray when you can’t. I wouldn’t have made it this far without our team.

3. There are two things I tell myself regularly to help me keep going. I think most guys in my scene tell themselves, God is in control. His hand is behind all this, even the failures. It’s all part of his plan. That’s ok by me, but it’s not in my top two. I don’t find it that much of an encouragement, to be honest. It can even feel like I’m saying, God intends me to fail.

So what do I tell myself? I tell myself Jesus has already won the victoryMy little patch is a local battle in a much bigger war, and even though today I feel like I’m getting my butt kicked, although I might feel like the French Resistance in a hostile land, thankfully I’ve got a map of the whole campaign. And in that campaign, Jesus is winning. He defeated death itself and got raised up to inherit all power and authority over the creation, forever. That’s what we mean when we say, Jesus is Lord! His gospel is spreading through the whole world. Though we don’t see that fully yet, his victory is assured. VE day is coming. We win. 

I find that helps. It helps a lot. It gives me hope and purpose in my little efforts in my patch. I might not be the sharpest tool in the shed. My church may not be the most effective missionary force in the city. We might be working hard and seeing only a little fruit. But I’ve got this perspective, this larger frame around my little picture: the team we’re on is the winning team. The future is ours, in Christ.

4. The other thing I tell myself is, my work may not impress the people at the ski-lodge. It may not impress my neighbours. But if I am faithful to my calling, then God my Father is impressed. I can please him by my weak little efforts. Although I invest in  person and love them and share Jesus with them, and then they move away and I lose contact, and they didn’t get converted yet, and I don’t know if they ever will – still the time was not wasted. My Master was pleased. We may spend a lot of our time and energies laying down our lives in costly service, making mission efforts, and it only has a small pay-off. But our labours are not in vain. God is honoured in the eyes of our neighbours, through what we have done. Our Father is proud of us.

Our labours are not in vain. The day of Christ will bring our reward: ‘Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful with a little, receive ten cities!’ On that day the honours will go to everyone who fought for Christ, whether their local battle was a win or a washout. We will all share in the glory of Christ the Victor. Personally, when I remember that day I find the thought highly motivating. The thought that something I have done has pleased God, pretty much feels like its own reward.

Well, those are my top four. There are more things than this that we can do and tell ourselves to maintain morale. But for me, those are the irreducible minimum:

1. choose an open area to work

2. get a good team around you

3. keep remembering that Jesus has already won the victory, and

4. labour to please and honour God rather than for immediate ‘success’.

If those are in place I can function as a leader and persevere in a post-collapse environment. Without them, I find I can’t.

How about you?

Most of this series has been from the point of view of the whole church, living after the collapse of church involvement in Australia. But the issue of leadership has also come up. One other aspect of leadership is well worth considering: what’s it like leading the church at this time in history?

Think about this chain of factors:

1. Our leaders are generally employed full time as church workers.

2. People in general derive a fair bit of their sense of identity and self-esteem from their work.

3. We are asking our leaders to find ways forward for effective mission. We expect them to make our churches to grow.

4. Our churches are mostly small, not growing much, and most people in Sydney are not remotely interested in joining us.

Putting all this together, our leaders are experiencing ineffectiveness and failure in a key area of the work that gives them their identity. In our post-collapse setting we are looking to them for answers, and they don’t have answers. For ways forward, and they don’t know the way forward.

That’s not a comfortable situation to be in. At the existential level, it’s pretty stressful to be that leader. There’s a level of strain in just being, as a leader in this climate, quite apart from any specific demands or tasks that you might have to deal with. We all feel disappointed about the collapse in Australia. But for our leaders, it’s personal. It’s a threat to their identity.

Of course it’s true that a few of our leaders ares seeing growth in their churches. But many don’t. And even those who do, you’d be surprised how much failure and confusion they experience in their ministries. Our leaders often feel powerless and baffled. They don’t feel too good about themselves.

Over the years this takes its toll on mental health. Inevitably. We’re talking erosion of morale. Feelings of lostness and lack of purpose. Worthlessness. Ultimately, depression and anxiety.

Add to this, most church leaders don’t have a fallback occupation they can switch to. They have no option but church ministry, if they want to feed their family. So on top of the above feelings, they feel trapped.

Pastors struggle under these burdens for years. Sometimes it shuts them down completely, and they have to drop out. Other times they limp on, in self-protection mode. Waiting for retirement. Others manage to still function, but they are carrying mental health troubles, their energies sapped, their joy dampened. Often for years. Generally they hide these disorders from their people.

What I’m describing is not an occasional or rare experience. It’s a common problem. This is what it’s like trying to lead the church, post-collapse. It’s like trying to lead the army when the enemy has been kicking your back side for years and you’ve been in retreat, and you feel outgunned and outflanked. You feel a massive weight of responsibility, and not a whole lot of hope.

One thing that makes all this worse is the constant stories of success in the church magazines. Their MO seems to be, look around for the few bright spots in the dark scene, and focus on them relentlessly. Create the impression that those successes are the norm, that they are the story everywhere. That should cheer us all up!

Of course these magazines actually have the opposite effect on our leaders: a corrosive effect. It tends to sap the little strength they have. It isolates leaders in their feelings of failure. By creating the impression us that everyone else is on the front foot, bolding going where no man has gone before, seeing lots of converts and generally prosperous, these stories make our leaders feel alone and ashamed. The others seem to know what they’re doing – why do I feel so confused? They’re all pushing forward with energy – why am I treading water? What’s wrong with me? All of this makes the burden twice as heavy for already-struggling leaders.

Our failure to discuss our post-collapse situation openly, only perpetuates this isolation. If we could admit openly that we’re all facing these times, we could have a sense of facing them together. We could get some perspective on our lack of success – it’s part of a much bigger picture and it’s not my fault.

That perspective is going to go a long way to help sustain the mental health of our leaders in these difficult times.