Leadership in the Wilderness: Are you now ready to stand up and be counted?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

There has not been a moment in history, when the mission of God has not been at the centre of God’s purposes. Yinka Oyekan shared something along these lines with me recently and it’s stuck with me. It’s something I already wholeheartedly agreed with, as I imagine practically everyone reading this will also. For me however, the challenge of these words is not to my belief system or my convictions, but their outworking in practice, in real life.

The pandemic has done us (the church, across the UK) a favour in one sense, which is that we can no longer avoid facing the reality: the main thing is no longer the main thing. The main thing, whilst expressed variously, has ‘making disciples’ as the core activity of the church. I acknowledge there are many faithful individual followers of Jesus, there are faithful and authentic churches to be found in every context imaginable, but overall, in general, we are in desperate need. When either I or a local leadership team themselves, evaluate the extent to which everything they practice and do together or for others, results in people growing deeper in discipleship, there are always some surprises which shatter their assumptions. Just because we call something ‘worship’ …

Individually, do you feel you’re simply a national health number waiting for your vaccine to become available, a national insurance number waiting to discover whether you’ll be a net giver or net receiver to the economic system, or a very small chip in a very big system, who has no bearing on the outcome?

OR:

Do you believe ‘God has a name’? As God said to Moses: ‘I Am Who I Am’. (Exodus 3:14).

As a part of a church community, are you collectively more than the sum of your parts? Are you making an impact for the kingdom of God? Are more people discovering more of the life of Jesus because of, or in spite of, you being God’s people together?

Seventy-two has never set out to be an organisation and I still resist that. I believe we have more than enough para-church organisations and the means too easily become the ends with the need to fund, govern, keep the wheels of the organisation moving, but primarily, I believe Jesus when he says the kingdom of God is like a man who sowed good seed in his field (Mt 13:24), like a mustard seed (Mt 13:31 & Mark 4), like yeast (Mt 13:33), like treasure hidden in a field (Mt 13:44), like a merchant looking for fine pearls (Mt 13:45), like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish (Mt 13:47), like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants (Mt 18:23).

I also believe it’s people like you, who Jesus calls. It’s people who lead organisations for better or for worse. It’s us who grow, dismantle, plant and uproot, organisations, and whatever else the church is an organisation. I’m sure like so many, I’ve been tempted at various times to walk away every time I begin to nurture such thoughts, the Lord reminds me he will take care of his responsibilities, but I am called to attend to those he has given me.

Back to Yinka Oyekan’s word. In my case I have some degree of responsibility to do whatever I can to ensure the organisations I lead do more than craft a nicely worded, doctrinally-sound purpose statement. We need to look like what we say. A church, a network of churches, a denomination. Whichever it is, the challenge to follow Jesus remains.

What I observe is a church where the main thing is no longer the main thing. The time for passing the blame, although culturally on message, has passed. Now is the time to take responsibility.

Do our stated beliefs and purposes align with our budget spending and actual outcomes? Over the last twenty years I’ve been attempting to transition an organisation through what feels like 180 degrees: from a place of being purely administrative to a missional network.

I don’t think we’re there yet, although we’ve come a fair way round. I operate within Baptist systems who frequently appear to believe ‘wherever you have two, or three Baptists, you have five or six opinions and every one of them is equally valid’, this has not been an easy landscape in which to operate. It’s taken me a long time to recognise our real culture is very different to our assumed culture.

The recent announcement by The Methodist Church to approve same-sex marriage, as well as affirming cohabitation, should be proof enough we can no longer assume anything, simply because we use Christian language. The question arises: how much of the Bible can we not believe in before we cross the line into simply fooling ourselves? 1 John 1, for example, offers a critique and highlights the fallacy of pursuing the direction of popular, post-modern culture, which to coin a popular phrase, ‘doesn’t do God’.

“One generation believes something, the next assumes it, the third will forget and deny it” (D.A. Carson). We’ve had to revisit our core convictions. No longer can we assume conviction about the authority of scripture, about the need for personal repentance, or conversion. As a Baptist Regional Minister, no longer can I assume everyone who wants to be a pioneer has a deep concern to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ and follow him.

Sadly, the reality is that whilst these things are now my reality, they are also the reality for every local church. We’ve always said we believe the church is one generation away from extinction, but our practices and our budgets suggest otherwise. Having a ‘Baptist Minister’ may or may not provide a ‘missional leader’ (my observation is if they want to debate with you either/or the word ‘leader’, or ‘missional’ they’re probably neither). Calling yourselves a ‘church’ may or may not reveal a community of God’s people whose culture grows faith in Jesus.

If you’ve gone when Jesus says ‘go’ (Luke 10:1) you’ve become a leader by influence. Whether you have any formal leadership role or not, if you see yourself appointed by Jesus, as the seventy-two in Luke 10, you have accepted responsibility. The pandemic has revealed our reality. Now I believe, the Lord is looking for those ready and willing to stand up and be counted.

This is part 7 in the 7 part series Leadership in the Wilderness. You can find the first 6 blogs here.

The post Leadership in the Wilderness: Are you now ready to stand up and be counted? appeared first on Seventy Two.

Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to live in pursuit of the promised and preferred future of God?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

Moses said to the Lord, ‘You have been telling me, “Lead these people,” but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, “I know you by name and you have found favour with me.” Exodus 33:12

Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. Exodus 33:15

Then the Lord said to him, ‘This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, “I will give it to your descendants.” I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.’ And Moses the servant of the Lord died there in Moab, as the Lord had said. Deuteronomy 34:4-5

‘God’s preferred and promised future’ is language many people find difficult. I know because I use that phrase a fair bit and even on Zoom I notice the raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. We use it a lot through the Re:Imagine process. My observation is most local church leadership teams have given zero time to discussing their future in these terms before we raise the question. Once raised, there are a few hurdles for some to overcome before they can start the conversation:

  • ‘How do God’s promises impact how we lead?’
  • ‘Do you really mean God’s preferred future?’

The wilderness through which the people of God wandered is a perfect example of liminal space; ‘the space in-between’ two recognisable territories; Egypt and the Promised Land.

The space in-between denotes transition, in their case from one geography to another, but more significantly from slavery to freedom. Liminal events and periods typically produce recognisable and significant transitions, such as significant loss or a global pandemic (at least we now have an example we can all relate to). Moses had to contend with people who would struggle. They tried to step back from the tipping point of no return whenever they could (you/me/leadership team?). Fearing the realistic plausibility of death, the Israelites saw slavery as a superior alternative to dwelling in the wilderness, even with the divine promise of their own land. Throughout the wilderness story runs the constant thread of Moses’ relationship with the Lord. Moses is given a mission. It is by anyone’s assessment, extraordinarily difficult. On top of this, he was not allowed to reap the rewards of his and his people’s suffering: entry into and dwelling in the Promised Land.

I can’t remember my initial reaction on my first hearing this story. It must have been when I was eighteen and working for Barclays Bank, my eyes fixed on becoming the youngest ever. To my mind then (young, ambitious) God disallowing Moses entry into the Promised Land seemed unnecessarily harsh and an unreasonable punishment. Today I don’t see it like that at all. Today, I am also more aware of the cost and realities of chasing God-given dreams. Today I am aware, it’s the easiest thing in the world to shift blame for procrastination to the church, other leaders, other church leaders, the Trustees, or the Union (in my case ‘baptist’, not ‘trade’).

What is it, which distinguishes leadership, that takes people somewhere, from stagnation? If I had to choose one word, it would be ‘responsibility’. The Lord called Moses because in spite of everything (you know all those things you see clearly in Moses and identify with and think they get you off the hook?) he saw someone who would accept responsibility. Moses stepped up to the plate, which is why he frequently turns round to the Lord, recognising ‘I can’t, so you must’, because he felt responsible. In practice for me, it means I must hang onto the word, the question, the challenge, whatever it is, which in a moment I recognise is from God with my name on it. If you’ve read all six questions, which arose for me reading Exodus at the beginning of this year, then welcome to my personal spiritual therapy sessions!

It’s the nature of the kingdom of God. Now, but not yet fully. Yet in this in-between space, Jesus is my Lord, the kingdom has a King.

#I am content to live with the tension in the space in-between

What on earth’s going on? I frequently ask this question within my world, but the pandemic has caused us all to ask it on the global canvas. Never before throughout human history have so many of the earth’s population been so aware of so much so quickly of anything of such far-reaching global impact.

What on earth can I do? I frequently ask this question too. I don’t know about you, but it’s been a challenge I regularly raise in my preaching over the years for anyone else too. The pandemic has provided plenty of human examples of individuals doing something to make a difference in the charity sector: Captain Tom, Rob Burrow, Spiderman (well the dressed-up version, Jason Baird, from Stockport). If I can be honest about a deep concern I have across the UK church, it’s the scarcity of stories we’re telling about individuals in our own congregations who are enabling people to encounter Jesus, whether that be for the first time, or tasting and seeing how good the Lord is.

It’s not difficult to recognise we’re living in a world of desperate need, too great for any of us to meet. On a macro-level the biggest crisis we face globally remains the climate emergency. Add in a global pandemic, serious shortages of natural resources, plus an ever-increasing poverty gap, and we have more than enough to exhaust us.

On a personal level, I’ve lived with the never-ending challenge of Christian ministry and mission for thirty-five years now. Never-ending, isn’t it? The more fruitful you are, the longer the queue of those who want a slice of your time. This week marked five years, since we moved into our present home. I’ve been taking pictures of the garden to mark the change in the garden; it’s so good to look back and actually see what’s changed. I was speaking to a colleague last week, also a keen gardener, who told me he often takes a picture at the beginning and the end of a day spent in the garden. You can do that with people, before and after counselling, a pastoral visit, baptism, but playing ‘spot the difference’ is hard to say the least.

Then there’s the nature of the kingdom of God. The ‘now and not-yet kingdom’. Jesus inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth and whilst I’m grateful for every glimpse of the kingdom I’ve ever had, I know it’s simply the first fruits of what’s to come. If I then take a church-wide view, it’s the same reality. There’s my personal embodiment of the great commandment and the great commission. If I could take a photo, not of my garden, but my heart as Jesus speaks about it, I know it looks more like his than when I first encountered him, but I’ve a long way to go yet.

The view of the church is complicated at best, so I’ll stick to my own, the English Baptists. We are in the midst of our own crises the virus has simply highlighted. We began over 400 years ago, the result of straight-forward obedience to a Christo-centric reading of Scripture. Today we risk subverting Jesus as Lord, in favour of an ecclesiological construct, which is more focused on the perceived needs of the church, than the mission of God. Today we face crises of leadership, discipleship and fruitful mission, but it’s easier to ignore the specific commands of Jesus and join the rest of the world in pursuit of a world of our own making, one which has no room for God. (That’s my very superficial summary of a book, which deserves more reading and re-reading by me: Leadership, God’s Agency, & Disruptions. Confronting Modernity’s Wager’. By Mark Lau Branson & Alan Roxburgh.)

The church is living in post-Christendom, but that’s been true for centuries. We are living through post-modernity, but surely that’s the space in-between modernity and what, we do not know. Either mean turbulent times, but together they are luring Christian leaders towards post-Christianity.

You have said, “I know you by name and you have found favour with me.” Exodus 33:12 Wow! When I hear Jesus say to me: I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15) – I know I am more blessed and privileged even than Moses and so are you. That’s why I can keep on keeping on.

#My future constant: determined to be seeking the presence of the Lord

Then Moses said to him, ‘If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. Exodus 33:15 

It never ceases to amaze me how often I make the same mistake! ‘Seek first the kingdom of God’, ‘fix your eyes on Jesus’, ‘be still and know that I am God’. All easy to understand, all I believe in, so why do I allow so many things to blur my vision or simply get in the way? I’m not suggesting it’s an answer which translates into practice every day of my life, but I’m learning to focus more on today than tomorrow. I’m slow on the uptake, clearly, because this is an element of what Jesus is telling us on the sermon on the mount, which provides the context for his call to ‘seek first his kingdom’ (Mt.7:33): ‘do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself’ (Mt.7:34). It’s finally dawned on me; the sermon on the mount, is not for me to primarily preach to others, to study to understand, but to embody to live life in its fulness.

#I want to be a carrier of God’s future, today and tomorrow

I’ve become a little obsessed with this motif. ‘Carriers of God’s future’ is how Walter Breuggemann describes the people of God in the days when Jeremiah was almost a solitary mouthpiece for the word of God. However, unlike Breuggemann, I happen to believe ‘exodus’ is a more helpful metaphor for leadership in the UK church today, than ‘exile’. I’m not saying Breuggemann is suggesting this, but there is a real danger that pushing the ‘exile’ metaphor too much can suggest our aim is a return to Christendom, which makes the Church of God the focus, rather than the mission of God.

Re:Imagine is the name of the missional learning communities we began in the West of England Baptist Network and are attempting now to share across our Baptist Union churches. We talk a lot about transition and the subsequent, necessary changes, but at its heart the strapline ‘from doing mission to being missional’, has to become more of a reality. At the heart of what being a carrier of God’s future is about is intentionality. That’s at the heart of Jesus, who was both ‘full of grace and truth’. It’s both being and doing, it’s being a kind of friend of Jesus, he describes he lays his life down for, who also ‘do what I command’ (John 15;14).

#I shall listen for God’s voice above the busyness of the traffic

I’ve started a campaign: ‘Beyond Listening’ How many people get beyond listening, following a typical Sunday gathering? My best estimate is 10%. How many people get beyond listening following a typical small group, Bible study? My best estimate is again, around 10%. That’s my best estimate, so I’ve a long way to go. Of course, I have no means of really knowing, but I know my own heart. I know how I can deceive myself into believing because I’ve listened and heard to the point of comprehension, a particular word from the Lord, I’ve somehow obeyed. Because I read and understand intellectually and conceptually the subject of a book I’ve read, somehow, I can deceive myself I ‘know’ something. The word of God however, talks about ‘knowing’ and ’listening’ differently. Look at the parable of the sower. ‘Be walking Bibles’, as Spurgeon said.

#I shall pursue wherever the word of God takes me

Jesus only spoke what he wanted to see replicated in someone else’s life. He only acted in ways he wanted to see multiplied through the lives of all of us who are blessed to be called his disciples. I know this. I don’t simply believe it. I can see, looking back, my story since becoming a Christian has been far more about God’s faithfulness to me, than the other way round.

I’ve sometimes wondered why the Lord called me out of local Ministry. One thing’s for sure, I’d never have chosen what we now call ‘regional ministry’ myself, back in the day we didn’t apply for the job, rather responded to an invitation to interview, ‘we think you might be the person we’re looking for’, as David Coffey put it in the phone call. At the time, I was planning the celebration for welcoming our 300th church member, which probably expressed the reason, in my mind, I was called to Counterslip in Bristol. I was looking forward, anticipating another ten years of what God might have in store for us. I have wondered, both ‘why me’ and ‘why then’? Did the Lord remove me because the temptation to look at something as my achievement, might have been too great? It’s the closest I can get to identifying with how Moses might have felt when he heard the direction of God’s call, pursued for forty years towards the Promised Land, was not going to become his reality.

‘Strengthening the soul of leadership is an invitation that begins, continues and ends with seeking God in the crucible of ministry’. ‘It is a place where the quickest way is not always the best way, because the transformation that is happening in us is more important than getting where we think we need to go’. [1]

[1] Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Ruth Haley Barton. Page 210.

 

This is part 6 in the 6 part series Leadership in the Wilderness. You can find the first 5 blogs here.

 

The post Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to live in pursuit of the promised and preferred future of God? appeared first on Seventy Two.

Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to ‘not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

Each morning everyone gathered as much as they needed, and when the sun grew hot, it melted away. Exodus 16:21

Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Everyone is to stay where they are on the seventh day; no one is to go out.’ Exodus 16:29

Moses’ father-in-law replied, ‘What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone. Exodus 18:17-18

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ Exodus 34:6-7

Earlier this year I sensed six questions, the Lord was prompting me to ask myself as a result of reading through Exodus again. Five months on, the largest element by far which has stayed with me is the powerful connection with Jesus’ experience in the wilderness: the context of his battle with the devil. Moses’ journey with God through forty years of wandering in the wilderness was, make no mistake, hugely significant in the history of the people of God. However, I can’t help sensing the greatest significance for Moses was not in any sense the achievement of having been ‘the greatest legislator and commander-in-chief of the first liberation army’ (Elie Wiesel), but his relationship with Yahweh, the One, True, Living, God. As Ruth Haley Barton puts it so powerfully: ‘for Moses the presence of God was the Promised Land’. Wow – you mean I should stop striving to get somewhere I’m not and stop and acknowledge the Lord is with me, right here, right now? Pretty much.

I shall be defined more by my relationship with my heavenly Father, than my context

We talk and hear others talk a lot of about context today. I remember Tom Smail coming to speak when I was at Spurgeon’s back in the 1980’s. He was the first person I heard talk about ‘contextual theology’. We’ve come a long way since then, (almost forty years in fact!) but have we? I like to think I’ve learnt some important lessons about how to engage and operate as a missional disciple in varying contexts, but I’ve also heard a lot of nonsense. Jesus knew how to sift through words, words of God. Me? I’ve not always been so good, but I’m learning. Remember Jesus’ response to what is recorded as the first of a series of temptations:

Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Matthew 4:4 although it’s a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3.

Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land that the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors. Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. Deuteronomy 8:1-5

Here’s the thing. Neither Moses, Jesus, nor Bear Grylls allowed themselves to be shaped by their context. Bear Grylls? Me? You? I like Bear Grylls. Christian, adventurer, at last I can admit to being a Scout in public without people sniggering! This week he spoke again about the dangers of protecting young people too much:

“The ninjas of the future,” says Bear Grylls, “are going to be those who can learn how to navigate the fear. It’s like a firefight. You can’t move backwards. You’ve got to move towards it, you know?” (Interview with the Irish Times May 13 2021)

Today’s wisdom provides us with a choice invariably between play safe and avoid the danger or immerse yourself in the culture you want to identify with. Jesus offers a third way. The Jesus way is incarnation, full identification, yet without being changed by the culture, rather being transformed by the word of God.

I remember when I moved to North Cheam being told ‘it’s really hard ground for the gospel in suburbia’; when I moved to Bristol, ‘South Bristol is really hard ground’, when I became a Area Superintendent ‘you won’t be able to do it with a young family’. Basically, everywhere I go there’s someone ready to inform me, it can’t be done. I’ve developed a two-word answer: ‘but God’. Our context is important, absolutely, but it doesn’t change the good news of Jesus Christ. We need to be self-aware and not blind to our own limitations, but they don’t determine the call of God.

Here’s Ruth Haley Barton again: ‘Every time I read about Moses’ relationship with God I am filled with longing and it is not the longing to get somewhere – although there are always new places to get to. It is the longing to be a certain kind of person. A person who knows God. A person who is faithful against all odds and does not shrink back. A person through whom God can perform whatever deeds need to be done – mighty or otherwise – but also a person who can just be as content settling down beside a well or sitting on the side of a mountain in God’s presence. Someone whose face shines because he has been talking to God. Someone whose every move is a result of an attempt to listen to God and then do what he says’. (Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership. P219)

That’s me. I want to be more like Jesus. I talk a lot about Jesus’ DNA, but talk alone doesn’t cut it, I want people to get Jesus’ DNA themselves and that’s exactly what the Holy Spirit delivers in us all. Given space and permissive freedom, the Holy Spirit multiplies Jesus’ DNA in whoever allows him.

I shall trust whichever words from God, He speaks into my life, more than any others 

It’s an exciting week. We’ve been nudging towards launching an App based on The Discipleship Cycle. You can get an insight via the Seventy-two website:

In a nutshell, The Discipleship Cycle encourages everyone to go beyond listening to God, to looking to live out in practice, whatever God speaks into our lives. Listening is where we start, but not where we need to finish (how many of your Sunday gathering do you reckon get beyond listening any given week?).

My daily time in the presence of the Lord (anyone else remember that Eric Clapton song of the same name or am I alone in being that old!?) has become the most dynamic space of my life in recent years. I’m not proud of that fact as I’ve been a Baptist Minister for thirty-five years and I’m sure plenty of people might have assumed I should have said that a long time ago! However, I’ve come to the place where I intentionally seek to co-operate with what I now recognise as the process for transformation the Holy Spirit utilises in our lives. It strikes me it also happens to be the same process Clive Woodward employed, which enabled England to win the Rugby World Cup and Dave Brailsford used, which transformed British Cycling from the Olympic also-rans of 2002 to the dominant force of 2008 at Beijing. I’m not claiming any great Christian leadership insights for either guy, simply they implemented a process, which embraced how change actually takes place 99.9% of the time: incremental, daily, 1% at a time. Today I no longer stress about whether I’ll remember the content or background of the Bible passage I’ve just read, as long as I sense I’ve moved a phase around the Discipleship Cycle of listening, looking, living and learning. I don’t worry if I’ve not understood the impact of every facet of the culture clash between post-modernity and the kingdom of God, as long as I’m staying attentive to what the Lord is highlighting to me and acting on that. I’m not focusing on keeping the weeds down but nurturing every seed of the word of God he wants sown into my heart.

Every word because every day can be a step forwards on my journey towards the likeness of Jesus. ‘Every word that comes from the mouth of God’ is, for me, a seed which needs to be planted, nurtured and grown to fruition. ‘Every word’ can become a 1% incremental change, towards the likeness of Jesus in my shoes. Every word because they’re all fully aligned with who he is. They’re not just words from a God who says what he means and means what he says, they are who he is, they’re intrinsic to his very essence. His character and practice are one.

I had to laugh, or else I’d have cried. May 17th arrived. The most significant lifting of restrictions as a result of the pandemic, for what felt like ages. Also, the day on Sabbath rest we’d set up, as one of four for Webnet leaders, under this years’ leaders conference focus ‘rhythms of grace’. It was the worst attended of anything we’ve so far provided, since last March and lockdown 1. One by one, people cancelled, ‘I’m too busy’, ‘I’ve too much on this week’ were apparently the main reasons. How many decisions, conversations, plans have I made, which dissipate at the first opportunity?

I shall trust God is with me and for me, whatever the wilderness

The wilderness is good for me. Have you read ‘God Has a Name’, by John Mark Comer yet? You need to. I hadn’t until someone gave me a copy, but I am now hugely grateful for that lovely gift. It’s no new or novel theology and one might question the wisdom of anyone setting out to write a book, which is essentially an exposition of Exodus 34:4-7, for today’s generation. It is both fresh as well as refreshing. I love it. John Mark Comer has given me a renewed confidence to speak to young adults. He doesn’t get side-tracked by popular culture; he addresses it straight. ‘There are no short-cuts to life. You can’t microwave character. It’s more like a tree that you grow slowly, one season after another.’ (p213) I read it, slowly, alongside my Bible and it’s helped strengthen my roots. There’s a good reason: the whole book brings into focus my relationship with God as it revolves around the nature of God and his dealings with human beings and I’m one! I underlined plenty, but my summary was:

  • I can trust God more than I do, because God is who he says he is
  • I need to take sin more seriously wherever it appears, because God does

The thing that’s really grabbed me reading through Exodus is the relationship between Moses and the Lord. God calls Moses, he has a role, he has responsibilities, but where can you distinguish between his relationship with the Lord and his role, responsibilities, etc? You can’t. You can try, but you won’t find there’s any compartmentalising. Sure, there’s stuff here we might call our ‘day-off’ (Ex.16:29) or ‘self-care’ (Ex.18:17-18, but there’s no hint this thing called life in all its fulness is anything but a whole. Manna in Exodus and grace in the New Testament are sufficient, because God is. Every word because the grace of God is always sufficient for today.

Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. Dt.8:2

What is in my heart? Surely God knew what was in Moses’ heart, but he ‘led’ him ‘all the way in the wilderness these forty years’. Remember Jesus too was ‘led by the Spirit into the wilderness’ Mt.4:1. It was Moses, I think, not Tolkien who first came up with the idea ‘not all who wander are lost’. God led him daily for forty years. That’s not how it looks from the outside and maybe that’s not how my life looks from the outside. However, I’m looking to keep in step with the Spirit, day by day.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Great is Thy Faithfulness. Thomas Chisholm (1866-1957)

 

This is part 5 in the 6 part series Leadership in the Wilderness. You can find the rest of the series here.

The post Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to ‘not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’? appeared first on Seventy Two.

Am I willing to move on from where I’ve previously settled?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

On the face of it, it seems ridiculous to think of Moses ‘wandering in the wilderness’ for forty years, or is that just me? Apparently if they’d walked in a straight line it would be 5270.8 miles. Even today, even with a Sat Nav, that’s impossible, but forty years! However, when I factor in 603,550 men (Numbers 1:46), which easily equates to over two million people, it’s not so daft.

When I think about the shift from slavery to worship, for a whole nation, or from Israel’s bondage to Pharaoh to its bonding to the One, True, Living, God and especially when I think of how long it’s taken this single human (me) to get this far, it doesn’t seem so long at all. I like to think it’s my love of Tolkien and that quote from The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘not all those who wander are lost’, why I try and find such meaning in wandering, aimlessly. I suspect however, it’s more connected to my innate desire to settle, to stop moving, for a bit of comfort. But God…

But God is disturbing, disruptive, more concerned with why and how I’m going anywhere than where I want to go.

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people around by the desert road towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of Egypt ready for battle.Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the Israelites swear an oath. He had said, ‘God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.’ After leaving Sukkoth they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the Lord went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, so that they could travel by day or night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. Exodus 13:17-21

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, travelling from place to place as the Lord commanded. Exodus 17:1.

We are in a liminal space. The pandemic has created liminality around the globe for countless people in all walks of life. But for those of us in Christian leadership, especially across the Western world, the pandemic has merely drawn back the curtain on what was our present reality. The pandemic has revealed, not created, where we are.

I’ve been putting off taking some time to seriously reflect on this particular question, which I accepted on my list four months ago now. But I need to move forwards. I can be more comfortable teaching others how to navigate our cultural landscape than finding my own way. I get too settled. It’s not been a comfortable four months; the Lord has been continually at work, by His Spirit, nudging, cajoling, un-settling. I’ve made three commitments.

#commitment 1. I am re-focused on my ultimate destination

What kept Moses going? His relationship with the Lord, trust in his ‘commands’ and conviction about where he was headed. Terence Fretheim, in his commentary, talks about the wilderness wandering’s as a ‘community on the move from a past act of redemption toward a promised goal’. Keep that in mind. This is about people stuck between promise and fulfilment. I hear Jesus reminding me the reality of the kingdom of God is here, but not yet fully realised. That’s where I/we are called to live, to love, to laugh and to cry. Truth is, there’s no other place I can live and so many of the distortions, misconceptions and misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise), which I allow to cause me dissonance are if not of my own making, avoidable

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. Hebrews 12:1-3.

Is it as easy as this? Yes and no. Living it out is frequently far from easy, but staying true to keeping our eyes on Jesus, as our compass bearing, makes all the difference in the world.

I’ve not worked out the proportions, but reading Exodus again, it feels like it’s all about Moses relationship with the Lord. My feelings tend towards exaggeration, but don’t you recognise the sense it all depends upon you, the responsibility which weighs too heavily at times, as well as the exhilaration when the kingdom breaks through?

What I’m seeing in this wonderful adventure of Moses leading the people of God towards the Promised Land is providing significant encouragement to me as we start taking steps out of the pandemic induced restrictions. The wilderness period is a liminal period in the biblical narrative and carries the potential for being one of our most helpful guides in the present day.

Over a period of forty years the people of God transitioned from slaves to citizens, from a people with a nameless God to one who knows the personal name of their deity, and from a lawless people to a nation bound by covenant. They completed these transitions by following Moses through the wilderness, a period marked either end by water crossings at the start and finish of this liminal journey. Now if that’s not a gift for a Baptist, what is?

We are now living in a missional era. The most pressing need for the church across the western world is to transition into ‘being missional’, no longer relying on ‘doing mission’ to others, we must accept the calling of Jesus Christ to be as well, ‘as the Father has sent me, so I am sending you’. A missional church requires missional leadership. This is where you and I come in. Whether we consider ourselves primarily gifted as pastors, teachers, apostles, prophets or evangelists, we must all learn to lead out of our relationship with the Lord and our being, much more than our doing. It’s all about living faithfully according to Jesus’ call ‘come follow me’.

For Moses, it was his dynamic relationship with Yahweh and staying faithful, whether he felt like it and not, to the call from slavery to the Promised Land. For us, it’s towards ‘Christlikeness’ and the fulness of the kingdom of God we won’t dwell in fully until heaven.

We all need to wake up. If we’re asleep we need disturbing. Moses struggled with a lot but would not walk away from seeking to be faithful to God’s agenda. We are still living in a period of transition. It’s not called ‘post-modernity’ for no reason; we’re post/past something, but we can’t yet label where we are, because we don’t know when, or where we’ll land. If modernity lasted hundreds of years, it’s somewhat premature to try and be clear we’ve arrived at a new destination since the upheaval of the 1960’s in a mere sixty years!

A secular agenda, built around human beings at the centre, is not what it means to have arrived in the kingdom of God. I have not yet completed my call to follow Jesus. I have not yet experienced a total merger of ‘life in all fulness’ and the ‘normal Christian life’. Yet seeing Jesus changes everything, and we have seen Jesus. Keeping our eyes fixed upon him remains challenging, but re-focusing my eyes is essential whenever he gets blurred.

#commitment 2. I am re-aligned with God’s over-arching purposes

I’ve been approaching the question, “why did it take so long to get from Egypt to the Promised Land” from my own perspective. Of course, my perspective is always through the lenses of where I think (my understanding) I need to get to or how I think we should go about this (my personal traits). Note to self, “why do I always have my SatNav set on ‘quickest route’?”

Exodus 13:17-18 becomes more fascinating the more time I’ve dwelt in it. It highlights God’s concern the people might change their mind if forced into battle (‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt’. 13:17). The people of God, not for the last time, prove He had good reason for concern (What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? 14:11). God knew the people of God were not ready to take on the challenges a more direct route would have brought. I wouldn’t have wanted to listen to any advice suggesting delay. Whenever I believe I know what the Lord is calling me to do, I tend to get out and get on with it. I tend towards living in the big picture and not worrying about the details. That has occasionally led to impatience with those who have legitimate concerns about today, or how they fit in, etc.

This episode tells me, if planning for the future makes a difference for the Lord to the shape that future will take, then I must take care. Irrespective of whether I’m wired as a pioneer or a settler, I need to check what I’ve fed into my personal heart SatNav – does this sit comfortably within God’s purposes?

I find it easy to be critical of those I see keen to grasp hold of the ‘pioneer’ label when I don’t see any expectation or intentionality of people becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. But it’s not always so easy to acknowledge the same limitations in myself. So here’s my antidote list:

  • What’s my motivation here? Is it truthfully about honouring Jesus or myself?
  • Who am I relying on to fulfil this step? Can I fulfil this myself, in my own strength? If so, I need to be concerned: it’s either of me or not a big enough step.
  • Am I being and remaining open to being re-filled by the Holy Spirit?
  • Am I ready and quick enough to repent and adjust my compass bearing?

What about my development as a leader? I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had with my wife Maggie, (she works in education) about teaching staff promoted to a level of incompetence. Surely not me! Baptists are always going on about the fact we’re not a hierarchical organisation, but we’re immune from what became known as The Peter Principle. Apparently, Peter and Hull intended their 1969 book of the same name, to be a satire, but it became popular as it was seen to make a serious point about the shortcomings of how people are promoted within hierarchical organisations. Honestly, I see this in churches all the time. The mentality a Baptist Minister is a Baptist Minister belongs to a period of history we’re no longer living in, but churches make massive assumptions when they appoint … well, people like me (and maybe you too?).

Check out John Maxwell’s Five levels of leadership, for yourself. I find it a helpful grounding in reality to identify where I am and recognise:

  1. If I’m to grow up a level I won’t do that by neglecting those gifts, skills and capabilities already acquired and practiced.
  2. If I’m to grow up a level I won’t do that if I think I’ve moved past the need to pay attention, firstly, to myself!

John Maxwell states:

  • The first person I must know is myself – self-awareness.
  • The first person I must get along with is myself – self-image.
  • The first person to cause me problems is myself – self-honesty.
  • The first person I must change is myself – self-improvement.
  • The first person who can make a difference is myself – self-responsibility.

#commitment 3. I am re-committed to living according to God’s direction

We know a lot about the first two years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, but hardly anything is detailed about the next thirty-eight years. The presence of the Lord is not measured by the number of words:

The Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He has watched over your journey through this vast wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you, and you have not lacked anything. (Deuteronomy 2:7) What a testimony, I’d be happy with that!

However, the next reference is more discomforting:

It took us thirty-eight years to get from Kadesh Barnea to the Brook Zered. That’s how long it took for the entire generation of soldiers from the camp to die off, as God had sworn they would. God was relentless against them until the last one was gone from the camp. (Deuteronomy 2:14-15 The Message)

God’s roundabout route is sometimes the best route he can take us, as these verses are reminding me, for several reasons and any one is enough for me:

  • I am more likely to acknowledge His presence if I take my time. ‘Keep in step with the Spirit’ (Galatians 5:25) comes to mind. Following the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral, I had a chat with a man with a military past who reminded me (the army, navy, air force, plus representatives of the Royal Family all walked in step). He told me: ‘when you keep in step you walk forwards together, in unity’. I want to be at one with the Spirit of God.
  • I am more likely to rely on divine provision if I go at his pace and walk in his direction. Manna and quails were supplied super-naturally. My sustenance may not be as immediately, obviously, supernatural, but if I seriously believe (as I claim) this is God’s world of which we are but caretakers, my gratitude for daily bread and life will be a continuum of praise and thanksgiving.
  • I am more likely to co-operate with his purpose of transformation. The Father is intent on seeing through the ‘good work’ he began in me, which is about who I am becoming, much more than achieving any self-set targets.
  • I am more likely to live by the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:28-30 The Message) by having to rely on God.

I’m not sure what you think about the how of following a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day, but let’s think about this. A whole nomadic nation clearly didn’t break camp every single morning and move on. Maybe these thirty-eight years didn’t look so much different to my last thirty-eight years in one sense (only one, I hasten to add): we’ve lived in six different places, staying between one and fifteen years in each).

I can’t say I’ve moved a long way in four months, but I can say ‘here I am wholly available’. How about you?

 

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Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to embody what I’ve previously been unwilling to accept?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

Exodus 3:7-14

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’

‘Do not come any closer,’ God said. ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.’ Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey – the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’

But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’

And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’

Moses said to God, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” Then what shall I tell them?’

God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: “I am has sent me to you.”’ 

We’ve all been there. You discern God is calling you to do something, ‘but’ …!

Forty years previously Moses had a gut feeling the Lord wanted to set his people free from Egypt, but his feelings ran away with him, literally. He took things into his own hands, killed an Egyptian and then buried the evidence (Exodus 2:11-12). We have no real idea how clearly Moses either heard or saw God at work in the forty years which passed, until he hears the voice of God calling him at the burning bush. Forty years without any headlines, profile or leaps of faith. Forty years when, to the outside world, nothing significant was going on in the life of Moses. Sound familiar?

It’s always a huge mistake to assume nothing significant is going on simply because we don’t see the immediate evidence before our eyes. Remember Jesus, concludes preaching his manifesto of the kingdom of God in Nazareth, where he grew up, by quoting Isaiah and saying, ‘today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing’. This episode ends with his old neighbours and fellow Nazarenes ‘furious’ and they ‘drove him out of the town’ (Luke 4:1-30). What was going on in the life of Jesus during those thirty years?

For forty years in Moses’ life; for thirty years in Jesus’ life; they lived in relative obscurity, but we can be sure of one thing: I AM was working his purposes out. This is because the primary desired way for God’s purposes being worked out are in us, before they flow through us. The pandemic has pulled back the curtain on our reality, the spotlight is on. Now is the time to ensure what’s on the inside and the outside match up. Am I living on purpose?

No mistake these are big questions, but we all need to answer them. I need to answer them for myself. Here’s where I am with this one:

I want to pursue every step of the purpose of God

These are the kinds of words I pray … in my best moments! There’s a recognition here I must act. If God calls me in a particular direction, my job is to follow. If God calls me to stand up and be counted, my job is to step up.

Jesus’ all-embracing call is ‘come follow me’. [1] Paul tells us we have an ‘obligation’ and ‘those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God’. [2] John reminds us ‘we know that we have come to know him if we keep his commands’. [3] Peter comes straight to the point ‘just as he who called is holy, so be holy in all you do’. [4] I’m sure I don’t need to remind you of the biblical imperative to avoid compartmentalising Christianity and driving a wedge between doing and being, but I do need to remind myself. I find it interesting it is James who, I believe was the earthly brother of Jesus, warns us: ‘do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says’. [5]

‘Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God’ (Exodus 3:6). This is not very present day is it? We live in a day when the primary appeal to the world appears to ‘come and find a new best friend called Jesus and walk together with him’. I’m not suggesting that is an invalid basis for first encountering Jesus, but if we don’t get beyond this to recognise more of the character of God, we don’t end up following the Jesus revealed to us in our Bibles.

I’ve needed to face again, whilst I am influenced by and sometimes carried along by the cultural tide of post-modernity, so my feet don’t feel as if they’re on the ground, that God has called me to faithful obedience, or as Eugene Peterson put it, ‘a long obedience in the same direction’.

Mark Sayers makes me uncomfortable, because his words resonate so deeply within me when he writes about:

The disappearance of a mode of church engagement characterized by commitment, resilience, and sacrifice among many Western believers. In its place a new mode of disengaged Christian faith and church interaction is emerging. This new mode is characterized by sporadic engagement, passivity, commitment phobia, and a consumerist framework. [6]

When I boil this down to my ordinary life, pursuing the call of an extra-ordinary God, the daily time when I both listen and seek to discern my next steps, beyond listening, has become again the wellspring of my life. Covid-19 if nothing else has provided a wake-up call to the UK church: this is not a game; eternal issues are at stake; ‘apart from me you can do nothing’ [7] Daily, a step at a time, incremental change is what I’m committed to. If unforgiveness, bitterness, or any particular kind of sin is what I need to attend to, then that’s my next step.

When I think about my leadership of others, I have to recognise I’m limited in what I can achieve. I need to regularly work through in the presence of the Lord, my own issues (for which I need to take responsibility) and others’ issues, which are not my responsibility. However, sometimes I can shine a light, just a little ahead, to help another’s next step.

Evangelicals were criticised a lot when I became a Christian in the mid 1970’s, for making people feel guilty if they missed their daily quiet time and for not providing much guidance beyond ‘pray and read your bible’ to new Christians. I must admit, my experience wasn’t like that. But please take some time out to reflect on:

  1. What pathways do I/we encourage new Christians on today?
  2. What is the cultural framework new Christians are most influenced by today?
  3. How can I more clearly reveal the pathway of Jesus, ‘the way’?

Today I am called to be braver, truer and kinder than ever before. My conviction has never been greater: I can trust the word of God and I can trust the Holy Spirit. Both are true for me, so they must be true for others too.

I want to align my whole life with the purpose of God

Will I allow God to sift my heart, so the purposes of God are not eclipsed? ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ (Exodus 3:11) Where did Moses’ reluctance come from? Is he merely recognising who he thinks he is? Was it low self-esteem, a lack of personal ambition or a lack of leadership capacity? My hunch is probably a blend of all.

Contrast this day with the day he killed the Egyptian forty years before when outwardly he didn’t appear to be struggling with any of these (Exodus 2:11-14). As I ponder this, two conversations come to mind, this week: one where the person in front of me tried their best to convince me what a great job they were doing, which included a demolition of their predecessor. The other, with someone who appeared too keenly (in my opinion) aware of their own limitations but was determined to press on in pursuit of God’s purposes. To other people, what they see of me, tends to be the edited version I’m prepared to reveal. I know sometimes my weaknesses can sound like strengths and my humility can sound like arrogance. The truth is the Lord sees me, like Moses, for who I really am, plus who he’s called me to become. In his presence, I need to allow him to search my heart, because I find it too easy to allow either my strengths, or my weaknesses, to distract me from pursuing God’s best for my life, which turns out to be his purposes too.

I want to guard my heart, to make God’s purpose, my purpose

Will I recognise God has equipped me to follow him in my life? I am learning from Jesus to live my life as He would live my life if He were me. Plenty of people have said these words before me, but I don’t put them in quotation marks because I’ve made them my own. What has the pandemic revealed to me? Following Jesus is about following Him! It’s his way, not the Church way, I’m looking for.

‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it’ (Proverbs 4:23). I keep coming back to this one and I marry it up with what Paul says, in Philippians 4:7 when he says ‘the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’. This is how it actually works. Everything does either flow or get dammed up, depending on my heart before the Lord. It is the reality of our relationship with Jesus: it’s ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you’ versus if you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers’ (John 15:6-7)

If we fast forward through next forty years of Moses’ life, we see he comes up against two particular challenges time and time again: himself and the people of God. (oh no, this really is acting like a mirror). The reality is Moses’ journey was far from straightforward – ‘wandering though the wilderness was more than a metaphor! But then, when I stop and think about it, why wouldn’t it be? Here we have a human being, trying to lead other human beings.

What keeps Moses on track, or keeps bringing him back on track, is he keeps stepping into the presence of God. Moses does get drawn away by busyness, He does moan again and again about the people of God. He does get down, he does allow his reserves to practically run dry. But note this, it’s not so much the Lord has an answer for his every question, more his presence is the answer.

‘I will be with you’ (Exodus 3:12). God’s call is God’s enabling.

 

[1] Mark 1:17

[2] Romans 8:12-14

[3] 1 John 2:3

[4] 1 Peter 1:15

[5] James 1:22

[6] Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience.

[7] John 15:5

 

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Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to uncover what I’ve previously tried to bury?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.  Exodus 2:11-15

If you’ve read my previous episode, rooted in Moses and the burning bush, you’ll realise I’ve gone back in time. The journey back to the future however, has been essential in my life on occasions as it was for Moses and maybe yours? Although only one chapter, it represents forty years of Moses’ life. [1]

We’re all in this thing called ‘Ministry’, I may have been involved for many years, but then something pops up from the past, my past. What I do next is crucial. It never changes the past, but it has the potential to transform my future and also impact my present. What I’m always tempted to do is … anything, which avoids digging up what I thought had been buried, with time, with layer upon layer of avoidance, barriers of defensiveness, or just using the easiest excuse in my repertoire: ‘I’m too busy’!

Moses life falls neatly into three equal sections. He lived to be 120 years old (Dt. 34:7); the first 40 years of his life were spent in Egypt, learning first from his mother about God (12 years) and then learning from Pharaoh the skills needed to run Egypt. This particular episode in Exodus 2 takes place when he’s 40 years old. There’s a lot going on here, not least I imagine, in Moses heart and mind. Charles Swindoll called this episode, ‘God’s will, my way’ and that’s something I can identify with rather too much. [2] Moses then spends another 40 years working as a shepherd for Jethro in Midian. God needed to teach Moses patience and trust. It’s not until he’s 80 God calls him specifically to return to Egypt to free the people of God from slavery. The period in-between, (‘wandering in the wilderness’ and/or ‘en route to the Promised Land’) marks the third slice of 40 years.

One thing I do enjoy about reading Moses life is I feel relatively young, after all, I’m only 62! Other elements are scarier … I’d been leading churches for 14 years before I was 40 … before Moses had learnt patience, trust, or what Hudson Taylor spoke of: ‘God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply’ … before I’d learnt too many things to highlight here!

When the pandemic hit, in the aftermath of the panic to get online whatever we’d been doing offline, it was clear to me the virus was revealing, not creating, reality. Some of us thrived. Some of us love a crisis. Some of us simply went up a gear. Some of us were paralysed. Some of us dived for cover. I love the way someone put it early on, it’s as if ‘God has pulled back the curtain on our reality. (I wish I’d thought of that one first!) However, my question today almost a year on is not simply, how did I respond then, but also where am I now?

I remember a conversation with Ray Brown, who was Principal of Spurgeon’s College, the very first week I began studying there. He’d wanted to have a conversation with me about a mutual friend who’d left Baptist Ministry and almost split the church in the process. I came away thinking and committing myself to learning from other people’s mistakes, so I didn’t need to make them myself. Ray Brown taught me so much, not solely from his preaching and lectures, mainly from how he spoke and his posture. I’m still trying to learn, not simply from my own mistakes. I’d encourage everyone to do the same. The leader in the church down the road from you won’t get everything right first time, so remember that the next time you’re tempted to simply duplicate what appears to be working well for them. Use their experience as your experiment. It’s easier to notice anyone else’s reality, than our own, but don’t stop there, take a look. Look and learn.

Whilst there’s something to be gained from the above approach, it will never genuinely nurture your own growth in leadership unless you act on what you think they’ve got wrong (more often you think you could do better) yourself. After all, I can watch Liverpool playing football and, as I do frequently, shout at various players, deplore missed opportunities and goal scoring chances, but have never come anywhere near their performance levels myself, even when I thought I was a half-decent player. Leadership is a series of behaviours rather than a role for heroes or a place for spectators.

That idea is so fantastic. Stop talking about it and do it. Simon Sinek from Together is Better (with pictures!)

The virus has revealed the lack of fruitful evangelism, as well as the shallowness of our discipleship across the UK church. Our realities have become clearer than ever. When we’re leading a larger church our realities can become less obvious. We have, by definition, more people around than most churches (across the Baptist union for example, there’s only around 100 out of 1900 churches who have a formal membership over 180 people). What’s the biggest reality the virus has revealed to you?

It’s easy when we see our buildings full to overflowing on a Sunday, to make assumptions everyone who turns up is growing in their lives ‘in Christ’, pursuing the mission of God wherever they’re placed during the week and demonstrating the fruit of the spirit in all their relationships. But as the number of ‘views’ to our sermons and services on YouTube, or ‘likes’ on Facebook, have slid over the year, many of our assumptions have been shattered. It may be a harsh reality, but we’ve had to face it nonetheless: there’s more to someone growing in faith than turning up in a church building on a Sunday morning, even though they might express their worship with all their hearts and take notes during my sermon!

In my experience, the crowd and the filled or too few empty seats, were amongst my major obstacles in helping see the need for other people to come to know Jesus and receive his salvation. It was almost as if people’s eyes glazed over and a screen came down with the words ‘job done’. I used to work against the idea that the larger the church, the fewer proportion of new people come to faith. Sadly, although I’m yet to do enough research to be sure, it still appears to be the case. We may look like we’re growing in size, we may be accepting new members, but take a closer look at how many people you need per annum, to reproduce one new follower of Jesus.

You may or may not be aware of the wonderful children’s book ‘The Lost Words’ by Jackie Morris and Robert McFarlane. It’s addressing the fact  ‘there are words disappearing from children’s lives. These are the words of the natural world; Dandelion, Otter, Bramble and Acorn, all gone’. Today I infrequently hear, when listening to preaching, reading church mission/purpose/values statements, or general church communications some words, such as ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’. When I take a look at church websites or those of Christian organisations, I’d love to see the words such as ‘Jesus’, or ‘forgiveness’, or ‘obedience’ a lot more than I do. None of them, of course, politically correct. I’m up for finding language which communicates in any culture, but we need to ensure we’re communicating the same gospel, don’t we? It’s worth checking out your own communications, just to ensure you’ve not made too many assumptions.

What’s your leadership based on? I’m looking to help as many leaders as I can to take a step up, but I know we all need to take stock of what we’re standing on. Take a look, if you’ve not already done so, at John Maxwell, ‘5 Levels of Leadership: Proven Steps to Maximise Your Potential’, and Jim Collins, ‘Good to Great’, where he introduces his version of ‘Level 5 Leadership’. Whatever we think about the words and the language they use, my hunch is all of us know there’s another step we could/need to take, if we’re to fulfil our potential. Some of us may well have already discovered that’s not something, which happens automatically if you simply move church. One of the biggest lessons I’ve tried to take on board from John Maxwell is, ‘you can move up a level, but you never leave the previous one behind’. Once you’ve built relationships with people for example, and move to a higher level, do you abandon or neglect those relationships? As John Maxwell says, ‘you’d better not! If you do, you’ll find yourself back down at level 1 again’. I remember talking to one leader about their first day as the new Senior Pastor of one of our churches. They sat there in the church office, almost in awe of ‘having arrived’ and then wondered ‘what is there for me to do? There appeared to be a team with a team leader for everything I’d previously had to take responsibility for’. I won’t tell you what happened next, but to neglect anything on the basis we’ve moved beyond it, is akin to walking out on the lake near where I live, where there was ice which would hold your weight around the edge, but it didn’t go far across the deep.

Maybe, like me, you’ve often heard it suggested Baptist leaders are defined by what we stand against. The origins of such statements have neither a biblical nor historical basis (our Baptist origins arise out of obedience to God’s word and the recognition Jesus Christ is Lord). However, any leader who pays more attention to commenting on other leaders, whether they be spiritual, or political, than to their own leadership integrity and development, will risk contributing to a poor reputation.

Moses tried to do what his gut told him was God’s will and purpose, but in his own way. He tried to take the lead, but when we are called by God, our job is to follow. Jesus made no mistake in choosing his words: ‘Come, follow me’. Only this morning I had to pray about something: Lord, search my heart and show me where I need to repent, if I need to be re-aligned with you. I don’t want to do this, but I believe you are calling me. Lord, I don’t to be alone, but if I stand alone, I know you are with me.

Going back to the future, going back to look again. Returning to the scene, not so much ‘of the crime’, but the sin … to the place where I took my own way, diversion or short-cut has been painful. However, when I look ahead and I see Jesus out there in front, it’s the only way I can get going again, pursuing the mission of God in and through my life.

[1] Acts 7:23

[2] Moses. A Man of Selfless Dedication. Charles Swindoll.

 

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Leadership in the Wilderness: Am I willing to pay attention to what I’ve previously avoided?

This post by Nigel Coles was originally published at Seventy Two

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” Exodus 3:1-3

These are the verses which stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been dwelling in the Bible passages which relate the story of Moses for a few weeks and I’ve become captivated by the need to pay attention to whatever and wherever it is, where the presence of God is (just as in this episode of Moses’s life) ‘on fire’. That’s what I want to put my best energies into because as Moses recognised, ‘the bush does not burn up’.

When we entered the first lockdown of 2020 my primary question was ‘Lord, what is it I need to see and hear from you?’ Well, the Lord has spoken and revealed himself above and beyond my prayer on the global stage. It’s not been so loud and clear for everyone to hear and see, but as in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation: whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

The virus has revealed the reality. The reality of the nature of my/our relationship with the Lord either as churches, leadership teams or individual leaders. The curtain has been pulled back. From my perspective the church in the UK was deep in crisis before we’d heard of Covid-19, in terms of Christ-like leadership, authentic discipleship as well as fruitful mission. At the beginning of 2020, the beginning of a new decade, I wrote:

My sense, at the beginning of this decade, is we’re headed for some significant challenges. As Baptists our faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord will be tested in ways we have not seen for a long time. We face a crisis. This is not a warning we shall, but a recognition we are in crisis.

  • A crisis of leadership: we are not developing sufficient numbers of missional leaders to meet the need
  • A crisis of discipleship: the shallowness of our distinctiveness as followers of Jesus Christ is a deep concern
  • A crisis of mission: our confidence in the gospel is a reflection of our confidence in God and it doesn’t appear to be very high

To be perfectly honest, most people didn’t want to hear. I don’t recall anyone disputing any of my three areas of concern, but that’s not the same as hearing is it? That’s being polite, simply waiting for the next, hopefully more positive conversation. Those who did hear or could see clearly with their own eyes, were mostly similar to me, feeling paralysed, wondering what on earth could I do about it? But what about now? The pandemic has thrust us into a place where I tend to think the reality of all three are in plain sight, or are they?

At the turn of this year, I found myself reading the story of Moses again. Honestly, I felt I’d read/experienced enough about ‘wilderness’ during 2020, so I was either a sucker for punishment or desperate!

I also read alongside my Bible, ‘Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership. Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry’ by Ruth Haley Barton. She uses aspects of the life of Moses to illustrate what she describes as a book ‘about the soul – your soul, my soul and the soul of our leadership’. She quotes Gordon Cosby, who said, ‘when a local church loses its soul it begins to slip into mediocrity and is unable to give life’. [1]

The pandemic has revealed what deep down we already knew – there are too many mediocre churches out there. The deep, nagging concern is whether this is a symptom of too many mediocre Ministers, whether they be, like me ‘regional’, or ‘local’.

Looking closer at Moses has given me a growing list of questions. Top of the list is:  Am I willing to pay attention to what I’ve previously avoided?

I thought I’d already answered this one, but it turned out I’d not looked carefully or sufficiently enough. What was it I particularly needed to pay attention to? The One, True, Living, God grabbed Moses’s attention with a burning bush. With me, it was the state of the church. What is it for you?

Moses didn’t simply glance, he stopped and went over to examine what he had seen. Moses was willing to be changed by God and allow his life to be re-aligned by Him.

The ‘strange sight’, Moses was confronted with was outside his experience: how can a bush on fire not burn up? What’s your experience? My sense is too much of what I’m seeing in the church contains too much of the world. I’m all for being contextually relevant in terms of style and presentation, but the cultures of this world are often in conflict with the culture of the kingdom of God. Mark Sayers puts it like this:

‘Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit. Post-Christian culture attempts to retain the solace of faith, whilst gutting it of the costs, commitments, and restraints that the gospel places upon the individual will. Post-Christianity intuitively yearns for the justice and shalom of the kingdom, whilst defending the reign of the individual will. Post-Christianity is Christianity emptied of its content’. [2]

I’ve had to come face-to-face with something I’ve always known since I first encountered Jesus Christ, but had shoved closer to theory/theology, pushed away from practice/rootedness: without God, I am nothing. The big priority for my prayers right now is Lord without you, we’re done for. What will still be standing after the shaking? We are being shaken and my sense is the Lord is in the shaking and looking for our response. We have shifted authority to a gospel of self, in which the individual seeks to power their own development and salvation. That fits the government’s agenda, but it’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What about you? When God pressed the pause button what did you do?

No time to stop and think? It felt like that was the response I was being given by most leaders I talked with during the first phase, following the pandemic hitting our shores. Many of us felt everyone was looking to us to lead them through the crisis. And what do we do in that situation? We perform. Generally speaking, we’re all able to perform under pressure. I used to smile (only inwardly) when listening to a colleague leading a church who was ‘struggling with a couple whose marriage is in crisis’. What I wanted to say was ‘only one! That sounds more like you’re leading a holiday camp’! What if it is just that, however, a performance without substance?

During our experience of the pandemic here in the UK, I’ve seen many wonderful examples of heroic servanthood and I don’t want to ignore the green shoots of the kingdom I see springing up in the most unlikely of places. Yet I also see a handing over of God’s agenda into the hands of the government, the NHS, or social services.

The big themes of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic have been: the environment (remember March-April when people heard birdsong, which had always been around, again?); mental wellbeing (I’m all for it, yet ‘the peace of Christ, which passes all human understanding’ has the biggest impact on anyone’s life); human relationships (isolation, touch, proximity, support, an endless list of news and TV hours have been devoted to this). These are all vitally important, don’t get me wrong; they are potential signposts towards the kingdom of God, but they are not the kingdom itself. The biggest challenge of the pandemic remains the reality of death. For the first and only time in our lifetimes a subject, which the church of Jesus Christ has the answer to, has been the top item of news for almost a year now. It’s churches who don’t burn up, in-spite of everything, which reveal the presence of God. It’s leaders, like you, who create the culture which makes churches like that.

“Leaders create culture. Culture drives behaviour. Behaviour produces results.” (Edgar Schein). Edgar Schein is an expert in organisational management, but Damien Hughes, the Sports Psychologist who wrote The Barcelona Way about the winning culture of Barcelona Football Club, says the same thing. Damien Hughes talks about a ‘commitment culture’ being the essence of Barca’s success and ‘commitment’ is a word we’re danger of losing from the UK church. Whatever else disciples of Jesus are however, they are committed to pursuing him, whatever.

I see the need for the renewal of the Church, but I need to be willing to offer myself, wholly and sacrificially. Pay attention! Unless I’m aligned with the purposes of God, I cannot continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God and anticipate fruitful responses, which look like the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t do or say anything which he wasn’t wanting to see reproduced in the life of the person in front of him.

 

[1] Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton, p13.

[2] Disappearing Church: From Cultural relevance to Gospel Resilience’, Mark Sayers, p15.

 

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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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