Further, Faster … Or Fewer, Deeper?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

My life during this pandemic has been like living on a pendulum. Challenges and opportunities, losses and gains, sorrows and joys. It’s neither one thing nor the other for long. I know I’m not alone, but hopefully the balance for you is tipping in the right direction.

One thing I either regret not having so much of or am glad it’s hardly present varies from day to day and that is the amount of time I spend in the car on my own. Since March I don’t miss the average of around twelve hours a week spent driving from person to person or team to team. However, I do miss the oasis of time it provided; to think, pray and listen to music and podcasts. It’s the lost listening time I’m yet to adequately find an answer to. One of my favourite podcasts is the Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast. The tagline he uses is ‘conversations to help you go further, faster’. That’s me, I want to go further, faster. However, the lessons I’m learning from following Jesus right now are more akin to ‘fewer, deeper’. My reflection, from numerous recent conversations with other Christian leaders is we’re so addicted to ‘further, faster’, we don’t know how to step off that particular treadmill.

The virus has pulled the rug from underneath us, so if our leadership has been too reliant on people feeding into our need to be affirmed in our strengths (which have often revolved around up-front-performance in preaching & one-to-one ‘likes’ from pastoral care), then we’ll be questioning why we are here leading a church. The virus has been challenging where our personal identity and security really lie, or is our problem the virus is revealing our realities?

For me, when circumstances begin to reveal my weaknesses to the point they start pricking at my awareness bubble, I invest even more energy into that, which is becoming more and more obvious, is not working. A simple example, which has acted like a mirror for me is my MacBook. For some reason my storage capacity has been getting less and less. I’ve deleted as many things as I can, but it seems as though data breeds like a virus on my laptop, so no sooner do I delete files, they appear to breed, until I get the dreaded message ‘you do not have enough memory to remain online, Outlook is shutting down’. Even I was shocked to just check my diary – it was on May 4th, no less than six months ago, I was advised by a guy from AppleCare, to get a complete, ‘clean re-install’. I said then I’d do it ‘next week’. It seemed OK next week, so I didn’t bother, pretending the problem had gone away.

During this same period, I’ve listened to the near euphoric accounts of the number of views Ministers have been notching up from their streaming of Sunday services. In many situations, although not all, euphoria has been replaced by realism, realism has been replaced by disappointment and now disappointment is being challenged by anxiety: ‘what if no one comes back’?

My question to anyone who’s willing to listen is the same I ask myself: where do I need to go deeper, even if that means impacting fewer?

In terms of my personal leadership, that’s meant intentionally cutting hours, reducing appointments, risking frustration from other people. In terms of challenging others, I’ve seen relief and release, almost as if people needed permission from someone else.

For church leaders the out-workings of such conversations has revolved around small groups. It’s been hard to penetrate the defence mechanisms many of us have been building for many years. We’ve invested a lot in gaining real ‘likes’, collected on the door after preaching on Sunday mornings or visiting over a cup of tea on a Thursday afternoon. It’s hard breaking the co-dependency between many a congregation and their Minister. There’s a powerful, collusive, bond between a congregation shaped by a consumerist culture and a Minister who’s keen to serve (and please?).

Nurturing small groups where we receive little feedback, equipping people to facilitate others, which don’t give us any credit, investing in other leaders, which is more likely to profile them, are all skills we weren’t trained for, or anticipated needing. But during the Covid-19 season, need them we do and so does the church.

As many people have commented, it was as if God pressed the ‘pause’ button back in March. I believe he’s now asking us to do what we can do: press ‘re-set’. If we truly believe we are called to make disciples, then maybe we will take time to slow down and observe how Jesus went about it. Mark 3 is a graphic reminder how Jesus more typically withdrew from the ‘crowd’ and opted to invest his best time and energy in twelve people through whom he changed the world.


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The Rule of Six and the Gift of God

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

The rule of six. Are we being offered a gift or is our activity simply being constrained?

I am a bit of a weirdo when it comes to number patterns, I kept daily stats on my computer throughout lockdown, and I’d already been having conversations with whoever would listen, about multiplying small groups and how six seemed an ideal number on Zoom, even before social gatherings of more than six people became prohibited by law.

Physical or virtual, the UK church can maintain a focus on the seed of the word of God taking root and flourishing in the lives of a growing number of people, even and especially in these times. Whether you’re a church leader of many years’ experience or a day one follower of Jesus Christ, we all have a part to play and some responsibility to take.

Step one: Determine to be shaped by faith, not by fear. It’s a heart thing. The virus is revealing the object(s) of our passion. If we over focus on our circumstances, whether good or ill, our relationship with God and the character of God will become blurred.  The virus has brought into focus the reality of the spiritual health of the UK church. I wonder what you’re seeing as a result. At the end of the day the ‘church’ is made up of individual followers of Jesus, we are the ‘living stones’ being built together. Let none of us be under any illusion; we are all a part of both the problem and the solution.

Step two. Pay attention to the core spiritual disciplines. ‘You can trust the word of God and you can trust the Spirit of God’. That’s the mantra I keep repeating to groups, especially those starting or leading them, when they get concerned about the shape not looking like their traditional Bible study. My counter-question: ‘how have people’s lives been shaped to become more like Jesus by how you’ve previously operated?’ tends to make the point.

Alan Hirsch highlights five things as ‘core spiritual disciplines’ in “Forgotten Ways” (is the virus revealing what we’ve forgotten?):

  • Engagement with Scripture
  • Prayer
  • Worship and service
  • Stewardship
  • Community

I’ve been a Baptist Minister for thirty-four years now, which means I’ve been a regional Minister longer than a local Minister. Consequently:

  • I’ve come to see our main Sunday gathering more through the eyes of a member of the congregation than as a provider/leader
  • I’ve not been reliant on whatever my local church serves up on a Sunday morning, to sustain me.

I realise I have a myriad of opportunities to engage with other Christians every day, which help me deepen the roots of my faith and relationship with God, which is both unusual and an immensely enriching privilege. However, lockdown brought no new challenges to my growth as a disciple, because I have been in the habit for many years of taking responsibility for my own life in God. Sadly, the virus has revealed a large slice of the UK church have become reliant on someone else opening up their Bible for them.

For anyone who’s not aware, we’ve developed The Discipleship Cycle as a mechanism to help individuals engage with God’s purposes through their lives by engaging with scripture. The app will be released in the new year, so watch this space.

Step three. ‘Do not give up the habit of meeting with one another, as some are in the habit of doing’. My hunch is, when the writer to the Hebrews first penned these words, our small group was more what would be brought to mind, than the typical Sunday gathering I attended pre-March 2020.

For me, our small group has been the most significant source of spiritual encouragement and rootedness out of anything, since the pandemic hit our shores. At no point over the last twenty years have I succumbed to the temptation to believe I can do this alone.

If I’m tempted to despair, it’s when listening to the desperation in people’s voices to return to meeting as they once did. Please don’t mishear me; I’ve no issue with meeting on a Sunday. I love being a part of the large gathering, vibrant worship, big-scale encounter experience. Yet I have to say honestly, being part of a small group enables and nurtures life in God, in reality, day-to-day, more than anything.

If you’re in a position of leadership my plea would be: maintain your focus on making and growing disciples, but think smaller not larger, for your delivery slots. If you don’t have any formal leadership responsibility my plea would be: ask to join with a few others to engage with scripture together and pray the life of God into one another. If you can’t find a group to join, start one.

The rule of six is a gift.


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Never Waste A Crisis

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

‘Never waste a crisis’, a quote attributed to Winston Churchill, is something I’ve heard a few times in recent months. Listening for the voice of the Spirit amidst the myriad of voices clamouring for our attention in the midst of the pandemic, has not always been easy.

What has the virus revealed about who and where we are? Once into lockdown, ‘what is the virus revealing?’ became a key question, both for myself and in relationship with others.

However, we’re now in another phase. Restrictions are easing, mobility (hurry?) is returning … to ‘normal’/’new normal’/????  If we did not spot what the virus was revealing about ourselves and about God during lockdown, we shall return to whatever shape and model of new normal is determined by the pre-dominant cultural tides of our day.

A model from organisations involved with disaster relief provided a helpful understanding in those initial manic two weeks. It highlights what we now recognise, but were then unaware of; there are phases, periods of time, and we need to match our responses and actions appropriately. Response, recovery and reconstruction were the three phases highlighted and it’s a helpful framework to work with … provided our responses and actions are in relation to the right crisis.

Pre lockdown we had begun to talk about a crisis in leadership, discipleship and mission. This is something bigger and wider than Baptists in the UK, but we are far from immune as churches. The virus has revealed more acutely, the extent to which this is apparent. NB the virus has not created these elements of crisis, but merely revealed what was already there.

What this means for me, both as an individual follower of Jesus with personal responsibilities and as a Christian leader with wider responsibilities, is if I simply move into a phase of ‘recovery’ without having examined the foundations, I am increasing the risk of the whole building falling down. We must not invest in the future, without being clear what we’re building on today has sufficient foundations.

I want to highlight two elements of this, namely, the Church and the Bible.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I hope you are committed to the Church of Jesus Christ. There was a time it would not have been necessary to say that, but these uncertain times don’t solely relate to a global pandemic. Frankly, there’s been too much negative energy expended and too many negative words spoken against forms and experiences of church, which suggest we can by-pass and ignore not simply two thousand years of church history, but also the bride of Christ:

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.                                         (Ephesians 5:25-27)

Anyone who suggests the church is finished, when Jesus himself clearly still has plan A very much in focus, reveals the extent to which our biblical foundations have been shaken by the cultural tsunami of post-modernity. In practice, the small group of which I am a member has been much more significant for me than the Sunday worship gatherings (NB. plural – after all, we can think we are a part of practically any one local church, anywhere in the world). In my life, that’s nothing new, as I’ve lived for the last twenty years without being in the same place every Sunday, due to having an itinerant preaching ministry.

The question we should have been asking (pre-pandemic) is: how does belonging to this church empower everyone identifying with it, to grow as a disciple of Jesus?

Our problem has been highlighted. The virus has revealed too frequently this is far from the reality. Therefore, to ‘recover’ where we were in February 2020, is not my focus.

I’ve lost count of the number of conversations over recent years, about the extent of biblical illiteracy among Christians in the western world. However, the virus has revealed in three months what survey after survey, has merely indicated. What percentage of Christians don’t open their Bibles for themselves between Sunday gatherings? I’ve no idea, but it appears to be way too high from what I’ve seen and heard. It’s not surprising therefore, there is a new rising tide of what we used to call ‘liberalism’, but naively thought had disappeared.

As Seventy-two we’ve not been inactive during lockdown. Some of you are already finding the Discipleship Cycle a useful framework to help listen to God through scripture. In relation to the Bible we also believe Jesus is sticking to Plan A:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3: 16)

If we are committed to doing what we can (and we are) to nurture an environment for missional movement, then covenant faithfulness and biblical obedience remain non-negotiables.

Seventy-two is nudging towards releasing an App to enable more and more people who don’t habitually open the Bible for themselves, to not only do so, but to hear God speaking to them through scripture in the regular, everyday rhythms of life. If you would like to be involved in piloting the field-testing the App then please get in touch with us.


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Pursuing The Mission Of God

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

I’m hugely impressed by the rapid responses so many individuals and churches have already made, since the escalation of the impact of coronavirus. We talk a lot about innovation and adaptation during Re:Imagine and as one leader said to me last week, following the launch weekend for another group of churches in our region, ‘last week we were recognising we needed to re-imagine, this week we’re doing it’.

The story of the people of God is one of thriving in adverse circumstances. The majority of the Bible was first written out of contexts of adversity or persecution. Truth is; it has never been easy, but the UK Church may have been tempted by the lure of the cultural tides of post-modernity into beginning to think it should be. That was two weeks ago.

Asking the right questions is vitally important, I’m sure you’ll agree, as those pursuing the adventure of the mission of God wherever he’s placed us. One of the biggest questions is ‘what is God saying’? Listening to God, first and foremost, is critical for us all in taking our next step in pursuing the mission of God. It remains critical, whatever our circumstances.  A friend of mine has just  told me of a conversation she’d had when out walking with her husband, which another lady began: ‘I’m not a religious person, but don’t you think God is trying to tell us something about what our priorities really need to be’? I’m noticing that more of those ‘not-religious’ are asking our questions, aren’t you?

As someone already convinced I need to be more engaged with people who are a long way from the kingdom of God (my perspective), I’m wanting to lean into God’s purposes for and through my life. This season, however long it lasts, will end. We shall survive. Rather than re-imaging how we’d love things to become, let’s grasp the opportunities as God brings them to our awareness to be the change now.

My daily practice is to give a few minutes to listening to whatever God might be saying to me. The most consistent and reliable mechanism I have to hear him is the Bible, God’s word.

If you’re not already making regular use of the Discipleship Cycle, please take a look and try it. We’re in the process of developing an App to make working round it even easier for everyone, so please pray for this – that it might happen and become a widely used tool, which is a source of blessing.

This week we’re starting a passage for the week – you’re welcome to use it in addition to your regular readings, or to use the Discipleship Cycle with those.

You may also want to grasp the opportunities of more regular contact, albeit virtual, which others can bring, and use the Discipleship Cycle with a small group, so do feel free to share it.


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