Thursday, December 21, 2006

Blast from the Past: On knowing when to stop

3 cricketers are in the news for retiring today: the great Shane Warne, the almost equally great Glenn McGrath, and the fairly good Steve Harmison (only retiring from one-day cricket so he can focus on tests).

Warne has retired because Australia have won back the Ashes - he admitted in interview that if they'd lost again, he would have carried on playing until the next series. Warne seems to have recognised that without the Ashes to win back, his zeal for the game would have waned, so now is the right time to stop. Harmison has recognised that it's better to be very good at 1 thing than ok at 2.

Robert Warren, writing about healthy churches, says that a healthy church is something that 'does a few things well', and Harmison seems to be following that kind of path.

Knowing when to stop, or when to prune back our activities so that we can do what we do well, rather than skimping on it, or losing focus because we have so much else do to, is quite an art. Jesus knew when to stop preaching in villages by going off to pray. In conversation with his Father, he reminds himself that success is not the only goal, and that he cannot be a slave to it. The biggest factor for Jesus was a clear sense of what he was here for. As one writer (I think it was Bill Hybels) put it: what enables us to say no is that we have a bigger 'yes' burning inside of us. In other words, we're able to stop things, prune back, or resist the urge to take on more, by being clear in our own hearts and minds about what is important and what isn't.

This is a challenge at a personal and a corporate level. There are lots of things running in churches which were once very good, and are still very good. There are other things which were once very good, and are now struggling on in the vain hope that God will wave a magic wand and former glories will be restored. The days when the Sunday school was bursting at the seams, or when we had a great choir, or when the worship was really inspiring etc. etc. So the Sunday school ploughs on with 2 members, the choir dotted around the choirstalls are drowned out by the congregation, and the music group sings the same songs in the same way as they did 10 years ago because that was what worked then.

The church, in one respect, is still living in fairy land. Somewhere in our psyche is the belief that if we just do what we normally do in church, but do it really well, or with a bit more prayer, or with a bit more commitment, that that will push a magic button and people will flock from all over.

There are 2 fundamental problems with this
a) Many people, even if we were the best church ever at everything, still wouldn't come. 7m are working on a Sunday, others are having their access times to their children, others are in bed after the night shift. Loads more just don't like the music, or find church buildings scary, or aren't interested in what we have to do and say.

b) This goes completely against the grain of the way Jesus and the apostles operated. Jesus went from place to place preaching. It was because he had gone out of his way to be with people where they are, that they then went out of their way to be with him. Fishing is a good illustration: you catch fish by bringing the fish into the boat with the net, but before you bring the fish in, you have to go to where the fish are. Some churches are like fishing boats on a hillside, throwing their nets onto the grass and praying 'bring them in Lord'.

Yes, people do come to us, and Christmas is the main time of year that this happens. Lets admit it, we rely on the season to do some recruiting for us: we're running an Alpha course in the New Year and have got invitations to give out to folk who come to our Christmas services. But once the nativity set is back in its box, we will go back to doing on a Sunday the same things we were doing in November, and 95% of the population will not come.

Back to Shane Warne. Do we know why we are doing what we are doing? Is the fire still burning? Is there a 'yes' burning inside us, a passion to worship, witness, comfort and heal? Or are we repeatedly photocopying an ancient glory, hoping that by magic it will come out in 3D colour instead of the usual black and white? Do we need a New Year resolution as churches to stop things, and do less? Like Harmison, do we need to divert our resources into what we're good at, and stop using them on what we're average at?

Jesus stopped residing in heaven to be born on earth. He stopped being a carpenter to preach the good news. He stopped preaching and healing in Carpernaum to minister somewhere else. The disciples stopped fishing to follow Jesus. Jesus stopped preaching and teaching in order to give himself to death on the cross for us. Maybe the starting point of mission and ministry is to stop.


  1. I see the point you're making and agree to a certain extent, but do you think there is a difference when you are looking at the life of a church with many members, it may be that individuals need to stop aspects of what they are doing but not neccessarily that the whole church needs to stop. The challenge is then to find the people within the church with the gifts to develop the work of the church. With your example of Shane Warne, he is giving up test cricket, but Australia will still be playing (and probably still better than us!)and so the personel changes but the game is still there.
    Mind you then there's the comment about the choir.......

  2. I agree, though we have to know what we're talking about when we say 'church' - church is expressed at small group, congregation and mass levels, as well as the life and ministry of individuals within it. I guess at times individuals will stop but the church will carry on, at other times it will be the other way round (e.g. the church Sunday school closes so the individuals get involved with a different childrens ministry)

    Back to Warne: when he quits, he'll be replaced with the best person for the side, not necessarily with the next best leg spinner. Leg spin is not a ministry to be kept going at all costs, no matter what the quality. I still feel that we can cling on to ministries because of the past. And not just choirs. Healing ministry, small groups, you name it, they can get 'stuck' too.

  3. What an exciting thought maybe that's what is needed to stop and then reconsider mission.
    Wesley etc.. went to the people.