Category Archives: Reviews

Everything I “review” will be put in this category

Real Christianity :: A Christian Country? Ask Wilberforce!

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I can’t quite get my head round the current debate – unwittingly (or was it?) kicked off by David Cameron – about whether or not Britain is a Christian Country. Letters from secularists to newspapers, twitter is all a flap – many comments appear to be either ‘of course it is’ or ‘of course it isn’t’ and then there are comments writers who are proclaiming that Britain both ‘definitely is’ and also proclaiming that it most definitely ‘is not’ in the same articles!

Thankfully, as with so much debate that appears to be very much of its day – we have been here before. I say that, with a few caveats – which I will get to . . .

But, before that, my own context and understanding as a children’s and youth worker for both local church, regional and national Christian organisations over the last 28 years tells me that:

:: Firstly, We are engaged in children’s and youth work in a world that is no longer ‘Christendom’ – books have been written about this in recent years, my three personal favourites would be ‘Postmodern Youth Ministry‘ by Tony Jones; ‘Ambiguous Evangelism‘ by Bob Mayo and ‘Youthwork After Christendom‘ by Jo and Nigel Pimlott. If you are after a ‘primer’ on the challenges of Christian children’s and youth ministry today – start with these. Follow these up with ‘Almost Christian‘ by Kenda Creasy-Dean. This book, although American – gives a pretty accurate picture of the state of the church in the ‘western World’ in particular, The States, Canada, Australia and the UK . . .

:: Secondly, I am also taking the view (because it is mine!) that ‘Christian’ means being a Christ follower, a disciple of Jesus. Someone who has acknowledged their need of a Saviour, given their life to Christ and is seeking to live for Him daily. This is not someone who knows some stuff ABOUT Christianity, or ABOUT Jesus. I am talking about a Christian as someone who KNOWS Jesus and desires to put Jesus at the centre of their whole life.

So, with those two caveats – I don’t know what to say about the current debate. It seems to me (frustratingly) to be about Religion, about ‘values’ and where we have got our ‘morals’ from and being proud of our history – and, obviously, a focus (by some) of all the rubbish done in the name of Christianity or Religion or BIG institutional stuff . . . . Jesus did not break the power of sin and death to lay the ground work for religious institutions – but to reconcile all things to Himself!

Anyway . . . . I don’t want to get lost in having a debate with a few people about my tiny perspective (my view point) on this huge subject – but, would like to refer ALL those interested in this debate (the exasperated too, like myself) to Wilberforce!

He wrote a cracking book, 200 years ago – uncannily he could have written it in response to SOME of the articles and thought and comment going on right now about whether we are a Christian Country – it has commonly been known as ‘Real Christianity’ but has the longer title of, ‘A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians in the Higher and Middle Classed of this Country contrasted with Real Christianity’ (a bit of a mouthful, so you can see why it was shortened!) . . .

Essentially, Wilberforce was encouraging his readers to throw off a kind of ‘cultural Christianity’ and pursue what he saw as ‘authentic Christianity’ which was a life of faith, lived after Jesus Christ. Not something that a person is simply born into, neither was it something to benignly be a ‘part of’ without fully grasping what a person believed and why they believed it. He sparked a debate, a fair bit of repentance and laid some of the ground work for seeing the slavery of the time banned!

This isn’t the debate that seems to be happening. We seem to be sat in that cultural malaise and discussing the cultural ‘merits’ of Christianity – which seems to be totally missing the point of being ‘Christian’!

Lord God, how I pray for men and women of God like Wilberforce to be raised up in this generation and have the kind of influence he had on this nation – would that such a book could be written today (and find a publisher!)

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Frozen? Perfect Love drives out fear

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Anna and Elsa are two inseparable sisters (I have two daughters a lot like them!) in the latest Disney animated comedy musical drama . . . They are different – the younger being adventurous and mischievous, the older more cautious – but, because she loves her sister and hanging out with her – gets drawn into her crazy schemes. Oh, and one other thing – the older daughter, Elsa, has a special power – she can make snow and ice with her hands just by touching stuff or shooting ice and snow from her finger tips . . . It is a great gift to have as kids, they both love it – until, there is an accident and Elsa almost kills her younger sister Anna (her life is saved by some cuddly, cute trolls). At this point there is a warning for Elsa about her powers – she must watch out that fear does not master her and take control – her powers could go crazy. She must control it and – especially her emotions as they make the snow and ice go off the scale. Saying to a child ‘don’t let fear grip you.’ Is a bit like saying don’t touch that big red button, or don’t think about ice cream – it’s going to happen! Anyway, Elsa looks herself away – Anna, the younger sister, although saved by the trolls – cannot remember any of the adventures with snow and ice and the special power her sister has (and does not get why her best friend now won’t talk to her or see her). . . .

Years pass – the girls grow, become young princesses – finally, the elder sister is crowned queen.

Elsa still can’t control her power, it controls her – the fear, the need to hide her feelings and emotions – some thing at the coronation party pushes her buttons and BAM – everything is ice and snow. Horrified at what she has done, Elsa rushes off to the libations and builds herself an ice palace (as you do).

Anna, her plucky younger sister leaves the kingdom in the hands of an devious and scheming prince (though she doesn’t realise that at the time) and heads off to find her sister.

They meet. The crazy ice power is unleashed once more – this time, unlike when they where children, the ‘ice strike’ hits Anna’s heart and is deadly. Elsa cannot see what she can do to control this power. It has consumed her.

Finally, out on the ice that used to be the sea around the kingdom, an incredible act of sacrifice brings healing and peace. Anna – in her last moments – leaps to defend her distraught sister from the fatal blow of a sword from the devious prince. The sword shatters as it hits the solid ice that is now Anna. Elsa embraces her sister and weeps. Then the miracle happens, slowly Anna thaws and is restored. Love, and sacrificial love at that – has dealt with fear and death!

All of this story telling (in case you haven’t or don’t watch the film).

– Have you ever been ‘frozen with fear?’
– Have you ever felt the chill of absolute terror?

Maybe nothing frightens you. Ha! I don’t believe it – we all get frightened by something – fear of failure, getting old, death itself, fear that we will never find the right relationship, fear that nobody actually likes us, fear that if we actually succeed at something there will be no more excuses for our mediocre life, fear that one day we will be found out, fear that we will never amount to anything . . . Etc.

Well, don’t be frozen by your fear. Don’t let your fear dominate your thoughts and actions. Elsa could not see a way out or through her fear and the need to always be in control broke her – and she lost control. We are not made to hide who we are. We are made for freedom and beauty and delight and laughter and absolutes joy!

A great scripture, that needs contestant mediation is this, ‘perfect love casts out fear’. It is from 1 John Chapter 4, in the same passage of scripture that just states, ‘God is love’. Fear, you see has to do with punishment. Get that? Punishment. What have I done wrong? I am no good. I can’t do any better, this is all I deserve, I am nothing. We deliver the punishment – we punish ourselves – even after we are forgiven and redeemed – we sometimes don’t accept and receive God’s perfect, indescribable, life nourishing, all for us, abounding, endless love!

In Christ, nothing is hidden – in God, scripture says, (1 John 1 verse 5) ‘there is no darkness at all’. If we are in Him, then what incredible joy is ours! His light and life and perfect love drive out and banish our fear. We are free to love and be loved!

Don’t be frozen by fear – don’t let fear hold you back from the incredible love of God – step in to all that He desires for you and your life. Be loved today and loose the fear!

Christianity at the CROSSroads – reflections on the Theos Debate

Considering this debate was  titled, “Christianity at the Crossroads”, there wasn’t nearly enough about the cross.  Apologies if I ramble, or don’t give due credit to different statements or full arguments – as a listener, this is what struck me about the debate and what was (and wasn’t) said.cross roads

I borrowed the next two paragraphs from the Theos website to save me writing it all out myself:

With the election of the new Pope and the enthronement of Archbishop Justin Welby coming within a week of one another, the church stands in a significant (and historically unique) position. On the one hand, there have been child sex abuse scandals, ecclesiastical cover-ups, and falling congregations, each posing an enormous challenge in its own way. On the other, there has been a severe breakdown in public trust in public institutions – banks, Parliament, police, media, even the NHS – all of which present an opportunity for the church to speak into society. Is Christianity at a crossroads?

This was the theme upon which four panellists – Catholic theologian, Dr. Anna Rowlands; Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Revd Canon Samuel Wells; former Conservative MP, Matthew Parris; and author Sarah Dunant – debated on Monday evening in front of an invited audience at Methodist Central Hall in a Theos/ BBC Radio 4 debate chaired by John Humphrys, entitled ‘Christianity at the Crossroads’ Christianity at the crossroads / Or Christianity in crisis . . .

OK, so having set up a debate about where Christianity is at, immediately the question discussed seemed to be about the Church.  Christianity and the Church are not the same thing.  Variously, the panel seemed to talk about “Church” or “Religion” not so much about Christianity . . . so we kick off:

Does Christianity have a role?  Was not really asked (at least, it wasn’t answered – as we then had various views about the Church).  Sam talked about Goliath and David, referring I guess to David being full of faith and agile, whilst Goliath perhaps represented the institution.  What was missing from Sam’s comments was the fact that David was completely reliant upon God, had absolute trust in Him; it was not his five stones, nor his agility that brought victory – but that He trusted God.  The Church needs to re-discover its faith in God; we need to re-discover our saviour and we need to be confident in talking about Jesus Christ.  David found that God’s people were cowering, scared and had either lost faith, or just could not get over the size of Goliath – Goliath did not represent the “church” (and it doesn’t today), Goliath is all that stands against God – and maybe in our own lives the “Goliaths” that would enslave us in our own lives that we have to tackle and face, with God’s help each day.  Agility did not win it – it was God what won it!

Anna talked about the church at the crossroads, (changing the title of the debate).  What does it mean to be human, secular and religious accounts of what it means to be human and also the role of religion in secular life, a “shared space”, not a space devoid of religion?  Anna made a good point here, shared space is vital for mutual understanding.  We all share that space, nobody should be excluded from being part of dialogue or a conversation.  Sarah’s contributions I found fascinating.  Seeing this time as a moment of opportunity – whilst also recognising the need for the church to get its house in order though.  We cannot be white washed tombs, proclaiming the good news, whilst decrying things that are not good news (at least, our interpretations of what is “good news”, which can unfortunately sometimes be incredibly narrow) IF, within we stink and are rotten – with a hypocrisy of pointing 1 finger whilst ignoring the 3 fingers pointing back at us (go on, point your finger, you know what I mean).

John Humphreys asked if the church had lost its moral authority, and – I have say at this point the Christian representation on the panel suddenly talked about general things like the nature of being a human being, and – to be frank – stopped talking about Christianity and started talking about our shared humanity.  Anna talked about the nature of the church and people called to recognise the goodness of our own nature – how do we learn about ourselves and how we fail to be a community of learning sometimes.  There was in this conversation the painful recognition that people had made mistakes, got things wrong in the church – much like the rest of the world etc.

To some extent, Mattew P, attempted to ride to the rescue amidst this doom and gloom – bad people don’t make the Christian message wrong, he said.  Sarah talked about the nature of confession being a powerful thing, with a genuine wish to change . . . wow, the best comments coming from these two!  Matthew P talked about our obsession with sin, and how the church seems to have lost a strong abiding sense of the divine.  The sin and the fuss about the sin being, in his view, a symptom of losing faith in the divine presence and the belief that this being can make a difference to our lives.

Sam spoke about the issue of the Church not approving legislation that would lead to the appointment of women bishops, saying it was a sad blow for the church, God has given the church an incredible blessing through the leadership of women.  We then had a comment from the floor regarding the need to respect the “conscience” of those who cannot agree.  Matthew Paris again waded in on this comment, suggesting that the gospel trumps personal conscience . . .

Anna admitted that there remain massive questions, functional questions about “adding women” and then deeper theological questions about “what it means to be a woman”.  Sarah said we need to blow it open, the power and the authority “sacramental” and “theology” – we need an open discussion about what some of these things mean.  

Still revolving around John Humphreys question about “moral authority”, we hit – for me – possibly the most interesting reflections in the debate as a whole.  Matthew Paris asked, “What would Jesus think of us?  Are there not more important things to consider.  definitions of virtue, right and wrong, our own moral development – about what is right and wrong . . about our changing times and changing understanding about what constitutes moral authority.  In response we had some confusing comments from Sam, A list of moral truth, a kind of ethic.  Tablets of stone, ethics out of a particular tradition, all other ethics is bunk.  Christian morality?  We are in a fourth act of a five part play . . . ?  Christians want it be right, but if we faithfully fail, or fail to receive all the gifts, the horror of what we have done.  The kind of things that have put Christ on the cross.  The factors that put him on the cross.  Yes, we finally get to the crux of Christianity, literally.  To which Paris replies, “I haven’t put Christ on the cross”.  (There was not a long pause after this, but I was hoping someone would have the guts just to say, “yes you have – and so have I!”)

There was much more banging on about morality and behaviour, Then monks were mentioned by Sam, as he spoke about their tradition of hospitality and, unfortunately focused in on the fact that they might be entertaining Jesus and not know it – which he was suggesting was their primary motivation.  A kind of holy hedging your bets, we better feed the poor – that might be Jesus.  This might have been part of it, but surely the law and the prophets being summed up “Love God and love your neighbour as yourself” is sufficient?  No suggestion that my neighbour might be Jesus!  It is just what we should be doing!  

Matthew homed in on the “it might be Jesus” and said, I think it is the right thing to do – not because some plain clothes policeman maybe there . . . or holy invigilator.  Absolutely!  Anna then said, Christ is present to us in the person, what a faith tradition gives us is part of the means of raising ourselves to high standards.  Christ is present to us in the Eucharist and in each other.  A faith tradition gives us the means of raising ourselves to high standards?  Then why haven’t we consistently done that?

As the debate drew to a close, and I am sorry that the above comments are an inadequate representation of the whole thing. . The panel were asked to comment on the biblical injunction from Paul, in Be ready to give an answer for the “hope you have”.  1 Peter 3 verse 15.  This was then the most depressing bit of the debate . . . Sam said A hope for the future focused largely inter-personally, the human crisis is not so much mortality as isolation – the gift of the gospel is to overcome our isolation.  Anna – General hope for the church to talk about hope.  A sense in which, with great humility – we can find a language around hope.  Sarah D.  I am not very hopeful; I think we are in bad shape.  Break down of moral authority in church and state is pretty desperate.  The energy of young people and their appetite for social justice and, as she grows older, charity and kindness . . . Matthew Paris, said there was too much about charity and togetherness, the energy and drive of individuals, that is his hope for the future – in people (individuals) . . .

Well, the hope we have then, is not in Jesus Christ.  Maybe it is nobody’s fault we didn’t get to this, even Bill Hybels (Willowcreek Church dude), has said, “I believe the hope of the world is the local church.”  (that was not all he said, but that phrase is often repeated, the local church has the potential to bring hope but only is right at the centre of that community is Christ.  Christ being loved and worshiped and proclaimed.  It’s like saying the box your Easter egg is in is more exciting than the egg inside it.  Talking about what we hope “the church” does, because of Jesus is not nearly the same as talking about Jesus himself, surely!   Throughout this debate it felt, at times, that there was a reluctance to talk about Jesus except in some abstract ways.  Throughout the discussion about morality, the emphasis was on what we need to do to sort ourselves out – Christianity has given us a framework or tools or whatever, but the emphasis still seemed to be about what we must do.

The essence of Christianity is that we cannot do anything to help ourselves.  We are lost, we are like sheep without a shepherd.  From a spiritual perspective, the whole discussion about morality felt like a nonsense.  Jesus Christ did not come to earth, live a holy life and then die on a cross and then rise again – simply so that we might “found a faith”, or “have a framework for understanding our humanity” or so that we might use his teaching to give us a “moral framework” – no, we were (and ARE if we have not confessed Jesus Christ as Lord) dead.  Spiritually dead.  Jesus died to bring us to life.  He exchanged his life four ours, he bore it ALL for us.  Everything.  Not to make us good, but to make us holy.

The bond that all humanity share is the desperate need each one of us has for Christ.  The book of Romans unpacks the whole thing, eight great chapters of what God has done for us and enabled through the work of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, and then another eight chapters about how to live out this NEW life.

We have passed from death to life.  Jesus has conquered death; we have been bought by his precious blood!  Paul sums it up in terms of what life in Christ looks like, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  Galatians 2 verse 20.  We can do nothing, except die to self and allow Christ to fully live, fully reign, fully live in us and through us – not just “individually”, our faith is not all about our personal response, it is not “Christ in me” that is the hope of glory . . But, “Christ in us” (Colossians 1 verse 27).  It is a mystery, as Paul also says – but any debate about Christianity is a one dimensional and lacklustre attempt at justification – when our only justification comes through faith in this Jesus Christ, who – as we celebrate this weekend, changed everything we know and turned the world upside down and inside out 2000 years ago.

What a hope, what a saviour, what a Lord!

20 Essential Ministry Books // #7 “Authenticity” David Boyle

In ministry, and in life, it can be hard work sifting through the  dross, finding the intelligent, quality comment from the inane cliche . . . or christian soundbite.  Books (even Christian ones) can be like this, which is why I am doing this list.  This next book is not a Christian Ministry book, but it is on my essential reads . . . . its  called “Authenticity” by David Boyle (check it out here)

“how do we bring the light?” rather than make things more murky and unclear ?
All that glitters in our Christian fermament might not be actual light – we live in a world of artificial light, bulbs, tubes, flickering screens . . . we can almost be blinded by ACTUAL light, never mind its warmth and life bringing properties . . .
Well, this great book from David Boyle taps into the desire that we all seem to have for something REAL – even Atheists, like Alain DeBotton seem to be hankering after something that might help people have an “authentic” EXPERIENCE of Atheisim (with “Religion for Atheists“) and, as atheism is not life enhancing or enriching . . . he has decided to plunder religion to try and bring more meaning to what it is to be an atheist!
We all want something REAL at the end of the day . . . we may even look in the wrong places, and even in the Church . . . we might chase after what someone else has said or written about the AUTHOR of life, rather than seek Him for ourselves.
As Christians we all have “a friend in Jesus”, but when it comes to sharing our faith or being a natural evangelist we get a bit odd.  In any other context it would be strange – if we had a good friend, people knew that this person was our friend – but, if they ever asked for an introduction . . . rather than do it ourselves, we suggested they speak to one of our other friends who also knows the person . . . weird!  Yet, we do that quite often with Jesus.
How can we be REAL about Jesus, REAL about the Church . . . how do we live, breathe, have . . . an authentic community life that others are attracted to . . . the “natural” light of Christ and our love for each other draws others in?
Well, from “Authenticity”, here are ten things that David says . . . (I don’t know if this guy has a faith, the book was written about authenticity – not about the Church – but, lets ask ourselves, “If my church practiced these things – would it be attractive to others”?
#1.  Real means ethical – we have some great social justice campaigns in the Church, we need to strive for ethical living – but also ethical governance of all things “church” . . .
#2.  Real means natural – got that forced smile on for church?
#3.  Real means honest – we need to wake up!  Honestly, we are in trouble (church growth etc, generations missing) we also need to acknowledge when we make mistakes . . .
#4.  Real means simple – do we make it hard for people to join?  How many hoops do people have to jump through before they “belong” in your church . . . ?
#5.  Real means unspun – ha, ha!  Do we spin our numbers, our influence, our engagement . . . ?
#6.  Real means sustainable – how many “pet projects” can the church get involved in over the course of one year, there is a new fad, new expectation, new national initaitve from somewhere in the Church every other week it seems . . . we can’t do ALL these things, what will we DO that we can sustain – we WILL sustain what we really value, maybe that is why so much in the church comes and goes . . .
#7.  Real means beautiful – what is this about?  Well, so much of design is about function – purpose.  Have you noticed how “new build” churches could be any kind of community building?  You look in an ancient church, high up – where nobody can see there are intricate designs, amazing pieces of work . . . these artists, architects and designers were not doing it to show off to the congregation . . . they were making and creating (sometimes for YEARS before they finished) to the glory of God.  What, about our places of worship inspires awe and wonder . . .
#8.  Real means rooted – This is a hard one, we live in a transient culture – with people who move around A LOT – but we need rooted leadership, rooted volunteers, rooted groups and activities . . . we need to change the culture of volunteering for a couple of years with youth work and then doing something else – lets be rooted in each others lives, and together rooted in Christ (Ephesians 3 says, “rooted / established in love” . . . this is in Christ, but we are also a body living in community . . . – I believe that greater commitment to the place we are IN will bear fruit in our own lives and the lives of those we seek to reach with the light of the Gopsel.
#9.  Real means three-dimensional – Real experience has depth, a book a few years ago was called “The McDonaldization of the Church” (check it here) – in this book John Drane is concerned that we have created a homorgenous kind of experience . . . worship, liturgy, preaching etc . . . where is the light and shade?  where are the dimensions where we can plumb the depths . . . ?  Where can we honestly wrestle with stuff that makes NO sense?
#10. Real means human – I am writing a blog, I will tweet about it – it will then appear on my Facebook page and on my Linkedin network . . . others might comment (or not) , all this can be done with no human contact.  I believe social media is a great tool for communicating with each other, sharing ideas etc – but NOTHING can make up for actual human contact.  If we can reach millions with our profound thoughts online about the importance of relationships – but struggle to make eye contact or string a sentace together with someone in front of us – we have LOST what it means to be real.
Finally, at the end of this great, great book, David Boyle recommends things that organisations can do in this “age of authenticity” . . . this is also great stuff – think about your own context.  Would trying to do these things, or thinking about them – make your light shine more brightly and more naturally?
#1.  Make it personal.  Who are we aiming at?  The more local, the more specific, the more we are likely to connect with people . . . you might NEED to run a bunch of small groups for young people that 4-6 attend rather than do a “one youth group” for all model.  The days are gone when we had 100 on the register and 95 turned up every week.
#2.  Maximise human contact.  Quantity is just as important as quality.  I have two amazing daughters, it matters when I get home if we play together . . . but, just as important to them in terms of their sense of peace about their world is my “being there”.  In the house, around, bumping into eac other . . . contact is contact – it counts – whether we are “doing something” together or not.  It also means they see me just being “me”, not just trying to be “super dad” . . . our young people in our churches, youth groups need to just be around us and we need to be around them.
#3.  Split up the organisation.  This is a challenge for the church – I don’t just mean lets all worship together – I mean with the para church organisations, some of the national initatives that the BIG players insist we are all “in on” . . . meanwhile, in the world that has moved on . . . localism is THE agenda, more local, more geographical, more specific.  Unity is not found in us all being the same, or all agreeing – unity is found in BEING in Christ.  It is not a state we bring about.  Yet there is a persistant call to “join” to be seen to be “united” in specific acts.  Some of this is good . . . but, why is it that we have not seen (in predominantly white churches) churches with 10,000 plus in this country?  Well, in many other nations a whole church may never get together . . . there a re loads of pastors and leaders released to effectively lead “mini churches”, we are not geared up for that – but, also, we have not dealt with some of our issues to do with controlling power . . . lets “split” and see more happen, lets plant and see more grow . . .
Boyle mentions a load more things . . . get the book!
Final, final thought . . . God lived an authentic life on earth, He came and actually lived, He sought out – understood and encouraged human contact among his followers – He didnotencourage them to disappear up their own backsides arguing over theological differences . . . in his calling of the 12, he tried to bring someauthenticityback to the people of Israel – this so called “light to the nations”, who had lost their way . . . God then died a real, actual, horrible death – God suffered, really suffered.  God died.  God was then ressurected.  Actually, came back to life.  In the risen body the marks of death remained as an authentic reminder of what had gone before.
We need to live deep, real, authentic lives – we need to live those lives together, we need to recognise that SO MANY people in our society – especially so many of our young people are after something – ANYTHING – real, authentic and life giving.
Lets bring the LIGHT.

20 Essential Ministry Books // #5 “Your First Two Years In Youth Ministry” Doug Fields

Doug Fields is probably best known for “Purpose Driven Youth Ministry”, which was written back in the mid 90s.  This book, still written 10 years ago, isn’t really a follow up – in some ways, it is more a book that gives each of us involved in ministry a context, the values and the ethos we should have before we start thinking about which tool; which youth ministry teaching book; which resource we are going to use in ministry.  This is why, as I look at this whole list of my essentials, there is not really a book for running a programme or doing youth ministry with young people – it is not the most important stuff.  The best thing we can offer young people is a healthy US.  This book from Doug seriously helps with that.

The book is split into chapters around particular topics, all with a view to helping you have a healthy view of ministry, our role as youth leaders and – especially helpful – we can drawn on the experience of others throughout the book who are honest about their mistakes and some of the pitfalls we might avoid with their generously offered hindsight.

I did not read this book in my first two years of youth ministry – but, it is an essential read, at whatever time you get your hands on it!  The most helpful chapter (which I wish I had the opportunity to read back in 1986) is about working with parents.  Seriously, if you read nothing else in the book, or browse the other chapters with the “i know this stuff” feeling . . . don’t skip through this chapter!  As a single guy from the late 80s to the late 90s, I spent a decade ignoring parents almost completely – duh!  Parents, and their faith and values, are essential to the spiritual health of their children, we ARE NOT.  Doug shares from his own pain of missing this, but doesn’t wallow – through what he has learnt along the way, he helps us get to grips with why this needs to be a priority of ministry with young people and how to go about it.

You may not see a chapter heading that stands out to you, maybe as I write this it is because I have a particular desire to help others (and myself) get it right with parents – maybe it is because I am a parent myself now.  This is another reason this book is so critical, Doug has this “360 view” of the place and purpose of youth ministry – I think, so often, in my own practice, I have just been looking at what I am doing right now (barely thinking to the next session, never mind the impact of the work with young people in 3 or 4 years time).  I guess this has been emphasized at different points in ministry – I have worked for churches where the senior pastor has young children, so the kids work is “vital”; a senior pastor with young teens, so the 11-14s work is “vital”; a senior pastor who’s kids were about to go to university so the key question was, “what are we doing for students?” . . .

This book helps me reflect across every area of work and, rather than focus on the work itself, get me to focus on ME and what I am prepared to bring to every piece of work, every relationship, in the pursuit of reaching and discipling children and young people.

Further highlights that mean I keep returning to this book – for a “pep talk from Doug” are:  Dealing with discouragement // Establishing (or recovering) a strong spiritual foundation // Time Management! . . .

The area of the book (for me at least) that I keep returning to is right at the back . . . Doug’s recommendations for what to practically focus on in your “first two years”, the thing is – they are not “jobs” to be ticked off a to do list . . . they are habits, actions that need to be kept up.  So, whether you are brand new to youth ministry (or any kind of ministry, the same applies!) or been doing it in various ways for 27 years (yep!) this is the kind of gold dust book that will keep reminding you, in an encouraging way like a good friend, to keep going, to have hope and to love ministry . . . not just for now, but for as long as God has called you to it.

Get this book.

20 Essential Ministry Books // #4 “Awareness” Anthony De Mello

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It’s well over twenty years since this book was published – “Awareness” is a collection of material from Anthony De Mello, a monkish guy who encouraged people through retreats, workshops and therapy courses to discover their true selves.  To become aware of who they truly were and their potential.  This great little book is one I keep coming back to – to remind myself of some of his great stories and illustrations, but primarily for his ability – with incredible brevity – to sum stuff up.  For example, I have been to a shed load of conferences and seminars where someone is trying to define or articulate exactly what “spirituality” is (an hour long seminar with death by PowerPoint and I am more confused than I was before), De Mello tackles that in the opening line of this book,

Spirituality means waking up.”

That is it.  Becoming aware of this beautiful thing we call human existence.  This is a difficult book – you will find yourself saying “what!”  (Surely he can’t mean that!), but just as you are getting ready to throw the book at a wall he comes out with a piece of brilliance . . . De Mello makes spirituality incredibly practical, it is not some ethereal feeling, he doesn’t even make it about the transcendent, the “other” who we worship.  De Mello makes it about us, how we live, how we treat each other, what we value and – ultimately – whether we are awake and aware of what we are doing, or whether we are asleep . . . The following quote is one of the best (but most challenging) things I have ever read,

I challenge anyone to think of anything more practical than spirituality as I have defined it – not piety, not devotion, not religion, not worship, but spirituality – waking up, waking up!  Look at the heartache everywhere, look at the loneliness, look at the fear, the confusion, the conflict in the hearts of people, inner conflict, outer conflict.  Suppose someone gave you a way of getting rid of all that?  Suppose someone gave you a way to stop that tremendous drainage of energy, of health, of emotion, that comes from these conflicts and confusion.  Would you want that? Suppose somebody showed us a way whereby we would truly love one another, and be at peace, be at love.  Can you think of anything more practical than that?  But, instead, you have people thinking that big business is more practical, that politics is more practical, that science is more practical.  What’s the earthly use of putting a man on the moon when we cannot live on the earth?”(page 11)

Through the book he talks about our need to listen and unlearn some of the things we have come to believe – how many of us are only listening for something in a conversation that confirms what we already think – rather than engaging in genuine listening?  How true is the following statement he makes, think of this in relation to a whole variety of challenges the Church faces at the moment,

We hate the new.  We hate it!  And the sooner we face up to that fact the better.  We don’t want new things, particularly when they involve change.  Most particularly if it involves saying, “I was wrong!” (page 18)

In leadership, in ministry we just don’t like saying we were wrong – we live in a world of personal theological, ministerial, this-is-how-i-do-things – and, (men especially) find it so hard to say “I was wrong”.  When we do, we usually stuff in a whole load of caveats (because etc – which of course we can trace right back to the garden of Eden).  Awareness that De Mello opens up for us is staggeringly unusual, but we should be living in a place of open awareness to ourselves and others!  It should come with the territory of being a leader, of being in ministry.

In some ways, this book is looking at the same kind of stuff, thoughts, the world, how we live and how our lives are guided and determined as Freire (in Pedagogy of the Oppressed), he challenges our desires for programmes or techniques or tools that will aid our thinking – as this limits our ability to “self-observe” – some of this thinking might take up to crazy places, our ability to have compassion and be empathetic with those we serve and minister to might be challenges by the following,

The trouble with people is that they are busy fixing things they don’t even understand.  We’re always fixing things, aren’t we?  It never strikes us that things don’t need to be fixed.  They really don’t.  This is a great illumination.  They need to be understood.  If you understand them, they change.” (page 37)

This is not (I don’t think) about huge injustices that need challenging and just observing them changes nothing, good people need to ACT and bring about change – but, in our daily lives, in leadership and ministry, our time can be spent trying to be the answer and trying to fix things (whether in our own lives or the lives of those around us), understanding needs to be part of this picture before we blunder in and try and “fix it”, but – to understand we need to be aware, to be aware we need to be awake!

As you can see (hopefully!) this is a challenging book to read – there are more ideas, challenging thoughts and moments of amazing insight that in any other book I have read of its size (just 184 pages) – this observation has nothing to do with De Mello as such, but have you noticed how slim many spiritual classic books are – in comparison with much that is written today?  What does that tell us?  Those with spiritual insight (like De Mello) don’t need 500 pages to get their ideas across, they don’t need bluff and bluster and padding.  Every sentence is saying something meaningful that requires our attention.

It would be easy to read bits of the book and, in isolation, dismiss the whole thing.  I don’t agree with De Mello’s conclusions on everything (but then, maybe I am simply pulling out the bits I already agree with than genuinely listening to what he is saying!) – however, when I think of ministering to young people and equipping others to do the same, there is much in this book I have found essential fuel for the journey over the last 25 years – not necessarily embedded in my practice, but – having read “Awareness” there are moments when I can see exactly what he is getting at.  My final quote to share with you,

think of a little child . . . this is what your society did to you when you were born.  You were not allowed to enjoy the solid, nutritious food of life – namely, work, play, fun, laughter, the company of people, the pleasure of the senses and the mind.  You were given a taste for the drug called approval, appreciation, attention.” (page 162)

Being a disciple, and seeking to nurture that desire to follow Jesus in others, we are constantly coming up against the things “of this world” that tell our young people what will make them happy, successful and popular.  The disastrous thing in our own attempts at being disciples is that we want to be happy rather than holy, we want to be in a successful ministry, church, team, etc (and often measure success in a way that seems to lack Kingdom values) and we want to be popular in the Church or Christian ministry circles.  Who cares!  Seriously, does this matter – we exchange one drug from society for another when the Church places similar values and ethos around “Christian things” . . . we are in a mess, we need to wake up.

This funny, challenging, hard, inspiring, crazy little book is an essential tool on my shelf – I suggest you get it.  Become aware, wake up!  Paul got it,

Wake up O Sleeper and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)

 

 

REVIEW // Worship Central: Let it Be Known

imagesIt does not seem five minutes since “Spirit Break Out”, the previous album from Worship Central . . . but hey, that’s me getting old.  What is not OLD is the sound, the songs and the sense of the Spirit on this great new album.

Kicking off the album, “Ready for You” is a track that sets up the rest of the album, we don’t have to do a bunch of things before we come into God’s presence – we are His children, we are welcome, we have this freedom!  Lets, come, lets be ready – as God works in us . . . hearts open, “ready for you” . . . “God Most High” driven along by the drums, this upbeat track lifts the eyes and spirit as we recognise who we worship and praise God, declaring His worth and glory.  The title track is deservedly so!  A cracking tune (which I played to a bunch of children at our midweek club . . . they loved it at first listen!), “Let it be Known” is released as a single on 17th Feb 13, just go and get it – because it is an infectious, pop infused, joyful track – it is impossible to listen to without worshiping and without moving!

Now comes a track which leaves me with goosebumps and is my stand out favourite on the album, “The Cross Stands” . . . the lyrics are stunning, every line receives a silent (not always silent) amen from me.  There is a longing cry within the song, but it ultimately fueled by hope, “Christ has overcome . . . it is finished, He has won” being the bridge that needs to be shouted from the rooftops, from the streets, in our homes and our lives . . . this track is among the best I have ever head on the Cross.

Dry Bones” a devotional song, both gentle and demanding at the same time.  The gentle rhythm of the song cannot hide the demanding lyrics – do we want to change? do we want God to have His way in us? . . . and as the song builds, YES, “these dry bones can live – we’re nothing without you” a song that takes us on a journey from hopelessness to a place of life and possibility!  “Kingdom Coming” follows and is a declaration of what has, and what is happening when the Kingdom of Jesus is present . . . I also LOVE the bridge with “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy” (In the Greek, known as the Kyrie Eleison), the mixing of the ancient with the contemporary should form a greater part of our worship . . . LOVE IT!  

Guardian” A song I already knew, and – my first thought actually (which was a surprise to me!) was this is an absolutely cracking track for a mens gathering.  Although I don’t personally  have an issue with singing songs about Jesus being beautiful etc – I know that some men do.  Well, seriously guys, sing this song – you will be able to belt it out – the words are true, it is proclaimational and nails where our hope and our confidence should reside – in our Guardian!  Also great is the way the lyrics echo great prayers of the past with the idea that God is before us and beside us and around us . . . an anthemic, congregational crowd pleaser.

Draw me close” an intimate and atmospherically rendered track on the album, acknowledging again our weakness, our need, a song of promises too – God being our comfort, our sustainer – this is not a song about triumphantly overcoming the pain in our lives, but about recognising that in the midst of our pain, suffering and the human condition that “He is here with us”, I love the honesty reflected in these lyrics, especially, “EVEN now”, (with what I have done Lord?  with how I feel Lord?) YES, even now.

The Constant” I am loving the mixture of devotional intimacy and proclaiming it LOUD who Jesus is and where we need to put our trust and confidence.  If ever we needed to sing these words, is it in the World (and the Church) right now, everything else might change . . . but we have a God of Hope and a God who is Constant.

Hallelujah”  it is apparent from the short passages of praise and adoration in Revelation that we do not need loads of words to make our worship meaningful, I can imagine this tune be sung around the throne – and when we sing it here on earth, that the angels are joining in.  A mantra of a song of worship that is praise but also a reminder to us of how our lives and our thoughts and our attitudes should be lived . . . be glorified!

Our Generation”  A different song, but reminded me of “Can a nation be changed?”  We need to be reminded to sing these songs, and thankfully they keep being written too – UNTIL we see it happen, much like the persistent widow – this is a song for justice, a song for freedom – and – like many of the songs on this album, this needs to be more than a song to be sung but a song that sends us to our knees . . . naturally following on from this is what sounds like, on the album at least,  the spontaneous “Set me Free“, a prayer as much as a song . . . and an illustration of the wholeness of the album, this is not just a bunch of songs . . . I feel like I have been on a journey as I have listened to it straight through, growing, progressing, discovering and learning about worship as I worship.  I don’t know if that was a plan or not (maybe it is just me!), but these songs hang together and the right stuff is in the right place on the right album . . .

One of the stand out verses in scripture for me is Romans 8:11, the title of this track, “The Same Power“, another great song about the REASON we can sing about the Cross, because Christ rose again and conquered death . . . powerful, punchy and an Easter Sunday song if ever I heard one!

There is so much in this album, great Bible filled and Spirit fueled lyrics, tunes that stick – both the congregational and the quiet personal devotional alongside just some great stadium filling tunes.  I am not knocking songs (and even albums) of the recent past – but, as I have listened to this – by comparison some have felt lightweight  fluffy, and churned out . . . this is a rich, deep, album for disciples of Jesus – and wherever you are on your journey – buy this album, play this album, sing these songs – but more important than singing “Let it be known” is if we allow songs like these to be the breath of our worship and – as we worship and encounter God – that we might be transformed increasingly into the likeness of Christ.

Album Rating: 5/5