Why should we break growth barriers?

Recently on his blog Karl Vaters posed the question “why break church growth barriers?”  The idea of his post is that church leaders often think about how to break growth barriers without asking why they should break those barriers.  Karl Vaters always writes great blog posts that really help small church pastors, so follow his blog to stay up to date with all his content.

Rather than writing a critique of the blog post, I think it is a good post, I thought that I would answer the question posed in the blog post.  Here are a few reasons why your church or ministry should think about breaking church growth barriers:

  1. Grow to make more disciples– as many bloggers and church leaders have stated the reason that a local church should grow is that you want to keep the disciples that you currently have and make new disciples. If your church remains at the same size it currently is and but is making new disciples then it must be loosing disciples.  This might happen due to people movement out of your neighbourhood rather than people walking away from the faith.  However if you find that most of your current church members have been in the church for a long time, then you need to look at barriers that prevent new people joining your church.  Sometimes when you remove these barriers you naturally grow.  As new people are invited to your church they stick around because you have removed some growth barriers.
  2. Grow to move out of the family style – a family style church is a small church that operates more like a large extended family where everyone knows everyone. Often the only way into a family style church is to be born into the church.  We might also refer to this style of church as having a “club mentality” where you are either in or out of the club.  This growth barrier is not a numbers barrier as much as it is a growth barrier created by cliques.  A family style church is often uncomfortable with change or new people and it becomes exclusive. Whilst your church might not be called to grow larger numerically it is called to be more inclusive.  If you break down the exclusive style of your church then once again visitors might come back and your church might grow.
  3. Grow to offer more programs– the small church is not as program driven as bigger churches. The bigger churches in your neighbourhood attract more people because of the programs they offer such as kids ministry and youth ministry. If the saying is true that “like attracts like” then offering a few additional programs might attract more people.  However it is important to introduce these new program one program at a time rather than stretching your small church too thin.  Also have the courage to recommend visitor to another church in your neighbourhood that offers the programs they are looking for.
  4. Grow awareness of your church in the community– this is not so much of a numbers barrier but a market or community engagement barrier. Many people look for a church that is either well known in the community or someone they know attends that church.  So how can you grow the awareness of your church in the community?  Perhaps on a small church budget you need to check out the advice at Prochurch Tools “how smaller churches can dominate social media”. Removing this growth barrier will not only help your church be more well known in the community but also more engaged with the community.
  5. Grow to secure your funding model– the economic reality of many small churches is that there are a high number of regular financial partners moving to a low income fixed aged pension. The people who may have given to your church for decades now live on a modest pension that they have to stretch for the rest of their life.  You will need to either shrink the expenses of your church to the size you can afford or grow your income to a size that helps you maintain healthy ministry.  Perhaps you could ask people to give more or you could ask more people to give. Growing your church will hopefully lead to more people bearing the financial burden of running a church.  The reality of maintenance costs on old church building means that growing your number of financial partners is a far more sustainable model that reducing expenses.  Breaking this funding barrier is one way to secure the future ministry of your church.
  6. Grow to increase diversity– again this is not a numbers barrier but could be a barrier established by the lack of diversity in your members. Growing the generational diversity of your church will not only future proof your church but may help you represent the diversity in your community.  How many generations are represented in your church? A small church of 50 people who are all seniors is a lot different to a church of 50 people with four generations represented.  How many ethnic groups are represented in your church?  Increasing the cultural diversity of your church to represent the cultural diversity of your community is a healthy thing to do.

Whilst a particular church might need to think through some growth barriers at their church, there will always be some barriers that limit the growth potential of a church.  In these cases the leaders need to work within the growth barriers rather than trying to be something else.  Here are a few reasons why your church should not try to break a growth barrier:

  1. Limitation of buildings: there are lots of stories of mega churches who sold their small church buildings to build bigger facilities, but what about the church that feels called to keep a church presence in their particular location? There are some churches that were built when people would walk to church, so there are lots of small church buildings in many locations throughout the neighbourhood. These small church building will limit the growth potential of your church.  Rather than selling your church to go to a new building perhaps you desire to keep the church doors open as a sign that the Church is not dead but alive and well.  If your facilities are a barrier to your growth then consider planting a new church or creating a multisite church rather than building a bigger building.
  2. Limitations of finance– some churches are located in areas where the community doesn’t have as much income as other areas.  Whilst I know churches in low-income areas that give generously, the amounts don’t add up to the income levels of churches in high income areas.  When looking at growth barriers consider the finance of new staff and new facilities would add to your congregation. Some church growth writers suggest that you need to staff for growth, however Tony Morgan at the Unstuck Group suggests that growing churches have more volunteers and less staff.  Perhaps instead of trying to break a growth barrier work on engaging your volunteers in ministry, it might lead to growth but it won’t cost more money.
  3. Limitations in your style– Sometimes your church offers something to the community that no other church does.  Rather than copying the larger churches with their diverse programs perhaps you just need to offer what you offer and do it really well.  If you feel that your facilities are under utilized then consider a partnership with another ministry rather than growing your own church.  Could you partner with a church plant that is looking for a start up location? Is there an ethnic church that reaches a different migrant group in your community? Consider partnerships to use your facilities rather than changing your style to be something you aren’t.

It is a good and healthy thing for your church to growth in health, size, influence and community engagement.  Not all the growth barriers in your church are numerical.  Perhaps what you need is intentional thinking about why barriers exist, if you should aim to remove or break those barriers and then how you might achieve the growth.

Please leave a comment on why you think your ministry needs to break a growth barrier

Post image – by Stanislav Kondratiev on Unsplash

markoffaith.net, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald revmarkmcdonald

 

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The Gospel is Good News

Have you ever been in a room full of people from a different profession to the one you work in?  Ever been with doctors or engineers who use jargon terms and acronyms to speak to one another?  Often times when others are speaking in jargon terms or using industry language the rest of the people in the room feel confused or left out.  Unfortunately the same is true for new visitors to a church; the Christians in the room speak “christianese” to one another.

Ministry leaders and theologians can be the worst offenders of using jargon and industry language.  Sometime in my preaching and speaking I use words that I think everyone understands but they are words more common to a seminary classroom than everyday life.

The word “Gospel” is one word that we don’t use that much outside of church circles.  One minister might say “our church has grown because we preach the gospel” while another minister might say “our church is small because we preach the gospel”. What does this important term in Christianity really mean?  At the time the bible was written, the word “gospel” was a term to describe a herald of good news.  For example a Roman soldier might bring a gospel of good news from Rome to one of the cities in the empire.

The Christian gospel is the herald of good news about Jesus Christ.  The gospel is the good news that Jesus came as one of us to announce the kingdom of God. In many ways to understand the enormous power of the gospel takes a lifetime of reading, listening and discovery.  In writing this article I don’t want to imply as though we can reduce the gospel down to a catch phrase or a slogan to use in our church marketing.  However when we try to share the gospel with our friends and family, it helps if we have a brief description of the good news that we can share in 1-2 minutes.

Here are five key points of the gospel in a nutshell; or the introduction to the gospel that you can share over coffee or on public transport when time is limited.

  1. We are loved by God– the writer of the Gospel of John begins his account of the good news with God rather than with us. The Gospel of John reminds us that God loved the world (John 3:16) and God sent his Son to bring this good news into the world.  In the past we may have started our gospel presentation with our sinfulness, unfortunately some people heard this but never understood that God loves them.  In 2019 we need people to understand that God loves them; the Gospel begins with God not with us.
  2. We are called into a relationship – in the Gospel of Matthew and Luke we read that Jesus called fishermen to follow him … and they did so immediately. So often people believe that the church is about a set of rules to follow not an invitation into a relationship.  In 2019 as we share the gospel with people, we want people to know that God calls them into a personal relationship with him.  We must not expect people to know how to behave before they believe.
  3. We are forgiven and healed– each of the four Gospels gives an account of the crucifixion of Jesus.  The cross and resurrection of Jesus is central to the gospel because without the resurrection we don’t have any good news to announce.  The resurrection reminds us that we are forgiven and healed by Jesus so that we can be in right relationship with God.  When we understand that we are forgiven, we no longer desire to live for ourselves but we turn away from sin and seek to be like Jesus.
  4. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit– in the book of Acts we read that the disciples knew about the resurrection of Jesus but were stuck in fear until the Holy Spirit empowered them. Jesus calls us into a relationship but doesn’t abandon us, he sent the Holy Spirit to lead us and empower us.  Many Christians know that they are forgiven and healed by Grace not works, but they live like it is their effort as a Christian that makes them a better Christian.  The power of the Holy Spirit is the only true source of power in our lives.
  5. We are sent – someone shared the gospel with you in order that you would believe it and then share it with others. In many ways the church has retreated back into a holy huddle rather than being a group of missionaries who go out into the world to share the good news.  The gospel should be such good news to us that we share this joy, hope and love with the people we work with and the people we live near.  A gospel that stays stuck rather than goes out is not the gospel of Jesus.

In many ways this short overview of the gospel will work as an introduction to new Christians or non Christians.  As we go about our lives, look for opportunities to share the good news that God loves us, we are called into relationship with Jesus, through this relationship we are forgiven and healed, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit as we are sent out to share the good news with others.

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In many ways I learnt this “gospel in a nutshell” from a friend of mine, Tony Neylan. Tony died several years ago and I am sure he is enjoying his new life with Jesus.  In his lifetime Tony shared the gospel with thousands of young adults. Tony was never a Christian celebrity or a world famous ministry leader because he believed in sharing the gospel not building a name for himself.  Tony was the most humble Christian leader I have known and his wisdom empowered thousands of others to share their faith.  In my ministry today I see so many signs that it is humility and patience that God uses to build his kingdom, something that Tony taught me when I was young, arrogant and often impatient.

—–

You can also read a previous Blog post on the Preaching that sounds like Good News.

Please leave a comment on how you think we can share the gospel with others in 2019.

 

markoffaith.net, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, revmarkmcdonald

 

Small church vs church planting

Leading a Small Church vs a Church Plant

Since starting in my new ministry placement this year I have come to realise that leading a small church is a very different style of ministry to either medium church ministry or church planting.  When I say that I’m in a small church, I’m talking about an average Sunday attendance of 25 people.  There are some real joys of small church ministry, namely the sense of connection with the people I’m in ministry with.  Yet there are some unique differences to ministry in other settings.

Small churches and church plant have small numbers but they are very different styles of ministry.  It was almost ten years ago that I tried to plant a church with a small group of 25 people.  Whilst the church plant closed after three years of ministry I learnt a lot from season of ministry.  Being with a small group of 25 once again, it might be tempting to borrow some of the lessons from church planting with my small church.  Yet I’ve noticed that there are some key differences between leading a church plant and pastoring a small church. 

The point of this post isn’t to suggest one style of ministry is better than the other.  This post is suggesting four ways that leading a small established church might be different to leading a small church planting team.  Even if both ministry settings have a similar size group there are some interesting differences to make not of.

Whilst I don’t really want to pit small church ministry and church planting against each other, here are four big areas where the two style of ministry are very different:

  1. Newbie or Founder – are you the founder of your ministry or are you the newest member?
    • Small church – when you take on a small church ministry placement it is likely that you are the newest member of your church. Some of the existing members of your small church may have been around a long time, it may be their only church experience.  These people have seen past leaders come and go, seen many styles of ministry come and go.  Your church members may not be that impressed with what you consider the new bright idea about ministry.  Whilst these established members can provide stability to your ministry, change management in an established small church will be much slower than in a church plant where everything is new.
    • Church plant – when you plant a church it is likely that you are the founding member of your church. You might be the first person to have a vision for your church plant; nobody knows the vision and the dreams of your church plant like you do.  As a church planter you will spend so much of your time explaining and casting the vision of your church plant to onramp others to the vision.  Whilst this can be repetitive, it can also be energising to share your vision with people and see them take hold of the vision.  The small group of people you are ministering to in the early stages of the church plant are relying on you to grow the vision.
  2. Legacy or Vision – are you running on the legacy of the past or the vision of the future?
    • Small Church – it is likely that the past is a dominating factor in your ministry in a small church setting. There is often a period in the past when the church was at its strongest and as the new leader you must find out what hold the past has on your church.  You need to discern if there are elements of the past that you can leverage for future growth in your ministry.  Is there some part of the DNA of your small church that is the key to future health in your ministry?  Perhaps there are ghosts of the past that are holding your church back until the church finally deals with them.  Small churches don’t lack vision however you need to build on the legacy of the past so that you can cast a strong vision of your future. 
    • Church Plant – it is likely that future hopes and dreams are dominating your ministry as a church planter. You have hopes and dreams of being bigger that you currently are, drawing more people into the ministry and having a strong future.  Your church or ministry doesn’t have a past so there is not much baggage to deal with, except any baggage from previous churches that your members may have belonged to.  The challenge for you as a church planter is to build something that can become a legacy for future generations to build on for a healthy vibrant church.
  3. Age or Youth – is your membership dominated by age and experience or youthful enthusiasm?
    • Small Church – small church ministries often are small because it got stuck with an older generation that didn’t hand off to a younger generation. Therefore, your church will have people with wisdom and experience but not a lot of intergenerational connections.  If you don’t want your ministry to die out then you need to get some youth and new Christians into the ministry to bring in fresh perspectives.
    • Church Plant – church plants often begin with young adults because of the youthful enthusiasm to start something new. Therefore, your church will have a lot of enthusiasm and drive but perhaps not a lot of Christians with wisdom and experience.  I’ve often heard church planters pray for one or two mature Christians who can mentor and disciple the new Christians.  If you don’t want your church ministry to be a flash in the pan then you need to get some mature Christians who can mentor and disciple the young people into your church plant.
  4. The burden of Maintenance or Poverty – are you struggling under the weight of maintaining your existing church buildings or the weight of no resources?
    • Small Church – if you are taking on a small church ministry in an existing facility then be prepared to spend a lot of time on maintenance and/or renovations. It is likely that you have facilities that you can use for ministry right away but the facilities are often tired or run down or outdated.  They might be built in a previous era when what was trendy is now considered ugly.  It can be hard to create a fresh look for your ministry because of the capital it takes just to maintain the current facilities let along renovate them to bring them up to date.  Whilst your church planting friends might be struggling to find facilities to use, your struggling to use the facilities you have.
    • Church Plant – if you are planting a new church then it likely that you are struggling to find the facilities and resources to grow your church. You need to buy everything and you can’t seem to get enough of money to buy everything you need to grow.   Whilst your small church ministry friends can use their old equipment until they can afford to replace it, you don’t have anything to use unless you buy it.  The challenge for a church planter is to decide what can you borrow, what can you buy second hand and what is the best option to purchase for now that will also work as your ministry grows.

Small church ministry is not always a bad thing, research suggests that 90% of churches have less than 200 members.  Church plants might be a great growth strategy but the first five years of a new church are very different ministry in an established church. Taking a church planter and imposing them on a small church just because they have the same number of people can be a recipe for conflict. Both styles of ministry are a blessing to the church if you know what leadership style to apply to each setting. 

My hope is that you can lead your church to be a health church.  If you church is a fresh new church plant then I hope it becomes a healthy sustainable church.  If your church is a small established church then I also hope that it continues to be a healthy sustainable church for future generations.  Using the right style of ministry for the right context can make all the difference.

Please leave a comment on how you see small church ministry….

markoffaith, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, Mark McDonald

God does not need Lent, but we do

“God does not need Lent, but we do” these are the words in the opening paragraph of the Lenten resources of the General Synod of the Anglican church.  It describes Lent as a period of waiting and preparation for Easter.  The document says, “the rhythm of fast and feast taps into some elemental need of ours, where denial creates longings to be satisfied so that we come to deeper appreciation of God’s great gifts”.  These words capture why lent is important in our spiritual walk with God.

In Daniel 9:3, Daniel says that he turns to the Lord God in prayer and petition, in fasting and in sackcloth and ashes.  Ashes have become a symbol of turning to God in humility, acknowledging our need for God’s grace.  Lent should remind us of God’s grace; Lent is not a season of earning God’s favour, we can’t be good enough, but it is about returning with humility to our reliance on God’s grace and mercy.

Perhaps you don’t come from a tradition or belief system that observed the season of Lent.  In my childhood, we would not only observe Lent but give up something for Lent.  As a child, I remember heading to the fish and chip shop during Lent to line up for our fish with crowds of other Christians.  It would be fair to say that as a child the observance of Lent was more cultural than spiritual.  Yet I have come to realise that this cultural legacy can easily turn into spiritual disciplines that draw me deeper into my relationship with God.

So, if you want a fresh perspective on the season of Lent or you want to understand this season for the first time here are three things to remember for Lent:

  1. Giving up or Taking up – the focus of many people during the season of Lent is giving up something for 40 days. Perhaps you need to give up something that you enjoy as a  trigger to reminder you to pray or read the bible.  Giving up something for Lent should not be about giving up something that is bad for you or bad behaviour that you should have already given up.  Giving up swearing for Lent is not the point of Lenten disciplines.  The Lenten disciplines are meant to be spiritual exercises that draw you closer to God.  Reading, writing and reflecting are all good practices that we can do at any time of the year, but perhaps during Lent you could take up these spiritual exercises or disciplines with renewed focus. Acts of generosity are also traditional during Lent where people might give up buying something so they have extra money to give to missions or ministry.  Whether you give up something or you take up something focus on how it will draw you closer to God, not the activity itself.
  2. Private disciplines – In Matthew 6:16 Jesus encourages us not to show off about our spiritual disciplines. These spiritual disciplines should not draw attention to yourself and your sense of piety.  These spiritual exercises should not be held over other people to make you look better than them.  Lent should not be something that makes you crumpy and difficult to be around.  It is like the person who gives up coffee for Lent and everyone around them wishes they would just have a coffee.  The spiritual disciplines that you practice during Lent are between you and God.  You might choose an accountability partner who supports you during the season of Lent, this is useful and helpful.  But Jesus reminds us in Matthew 6 that when we fast and pray in secret our Father in heaven will reward us.  This reward is surely closeness to God rather than any earthly treasure.
  3. Sharing the Good News – the subtle thing to remember is that our spiritual disciplines may be observed by others which then present an opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus with others. For example if you are pausing at a set time every day for prayer this might be obvious to others and they ask you what you are doing.  Whilst we don’t wish to draw attention to ourselves if someone askes what we are doing then we can draw attention to God.  We can use the opportunity to talk to people about the hope we have in Jesus.  We don’t have to deny that we are involved in Lent if someone asks us.  So, if someone asks me what I am doing for Lent then I’ll tell them that I’m writing in a Lenten journal that our church has produces and can give them a copy if they want one.

In some circles of Christians Lent seems to have gone out of fashion, I understand their point of view.  Some people say we celebrate the resurrection and God’s grace every day, which is true. However I think that the standard of living in our society today is higher than many people experience during their periods of feasting.  We could all use some balance in fasting and feasting and perhaps Lent is a season to remind ourselves of this rhythm.

In finishing read these words from the Anglican Prayer book:

So, by self-examination and repentance,

By prayer and fasting,

By self-denial and acts of generosity

And by reading and meditating on the word of God

Let us keep a holy Lent.

Please leave a comment on how you observe the season of Lent.

 

markoffaith.net, Mark of Faith, mark of faith, Mark McDonald

 

Biblical Landscapes – Sea of Galilee

Sometimes we read our bible and we skim over the geographical details. If we are not familiar with the biblical landscapes then we can over look some of the details that help us understand the biblical narrative. Some of the gospel stories take place around the Sea of Galilee, a body of water in the north of Israel. From the fresh waters of the Sea of Galilee flows the Jordon River which flows south, past the baptismal spot of Jesus, into the Dead Sea which is 33% salt.

In understanding the significant landscapes of northern Israel at the time of Jesus, we need to understand that there are two sides to the Sea of Galilee:

  1. The Jewish side – the people known as Galileans are the Jewish people that live on the western side of the sea. Their towns were adapted to their Jewish culture with synagogues and ritual cleansing baths. The farming and work practices on this side allowed the people to follow the jewish law and cultural practices. Many of the jewish people stayed in their area of Galilee to avoid the unclean habits of non jewish towns and cities. The Jews also reduced their payment of taxes to Rome if they did not cross the borders into the other regions.
  2. The other side – many other people lived and worked around the Sea of Galilee that were not practicing Jews. There were some hellenized or secular jews living in these towns The towns on the other side of the sea were formed around roman culture and roman styles of building. The towns often had pagan temples, secular bath houses, amphitheatres and cultural buildings.

In the gospels we read stories where Jesus got into a boat and traveled to the other side. Perhaps we might have over looked this geographical detail in the past. If we understand that this also means Jesus is taking the disciples into gentile areas then perhaps there is deeper meaning to the travel log given by the Gospel writers.

For example in Matthew 8 and Mark 5 we hear that Jesus is talking to teachers of the law, this places Jesus in the Jewish areas of Galilee. Jesus heals sick people here showing that He has command over sickness. Jesus and the disciples then cross the Sea of Galilee in a boat. On the journey across Jesus calms the storm, showing that He has command over the elements of nature. Final Jesus arrives on the other side.

When we read the narrative that takes place on the other side, we might notice that this is a pig farming area which indicates it is a gentile area. In the Matthew account the people of the region (gentiles) are not impressed by the loss of their pigs and force Jesus to leave their region. This was perhaps a good learning opportunity for the disciples to have an encounter with non-jewish region. In the gospel of Mark the reaction is a little different because the man who was healed goes back to “his people” and shares the good news in the Decapolis, a region of 10 roman cities. Mark states that all the people were amazed; gentiles were amazed at the work of Jesus.

So why did Jesus cross over to “the other side”? Maybe Jesus just wanted to go for a sail and he just happened to land on the other side. It is more likely that Jesus saw this as a training opportunity for the disciples. Perhaps Jesus knew that the good news would go to all the nations and therefore he needed to form the disciples for cross-cultural ministry while he was still with them.

In our world today there are secular forces that would love to push the church back into its shell, to keep the church on its side. The temptation for Christians is to stay out of the public and stay on our side of the public debate. Yet Jesus didn’t just cross over to the gentile areas, he sent the disciples out to the ends of the earth to make disciples of the whole world. Are we prepared to go to the other side to spread the good news? I wonder what the other side looks like in your work and ministry setting.

My hope is that this insight into the biblical landscape might help you take notice of other geographical details in the biblical narrative. Even if you need to read your bible with a map in your hand, there is often one in the back of the bible, hopefully you will gain new insights into the stories by locating them in the Jewish or gentile areas.

Please leave a comment.

Israel landscapes - Sea of Galilee 002Israel landscapes - Sea of Galilee 003

Markoffaith, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald

Biblical Landscapes – The Desert

If you have ever seen pictures or movies set in the desert they are usually dry, hot and barren landscapes. My mental image of the desert come from the classic movie Lawrence of Arabia; lots of camels walking up and down hills of sand. In Australia we have lots of stories related to the harsh desert and wilderness areas of inland Australia. In the early explorers period of European settlement it seems that explorers died in the outback due to the heat and lack of water in the desert. Perhaps like me you have an image of the desert as a harsh and dry place.

The desert areas in Israel vary in their geography. Many areas that we might think of as desert are called wilderness areas because almost everywhere in the middle east is dry. In the bible, the desert or wilderness might just refer to areas outside the city. For example some translations say that Jesus withdrew to the wilderness, others say he withdrew to the desert.

Rather than debate the geographical definition of a desert. I want to look at the biblical significance of the desert or the wilderness. There are three key insights that I want to share with you from my recent visit to the wilderness or desert in Israel.

  1. The desert as an image of simplicity – when a person or group is in the desert within the biblical narrative it is an image of simplicity to life. In the desert people would live in tents so there isn’t the complexity of buildings as there is in the city. In biblical times the desert was a simple working life rather than the complexity of the working farming communities. In the desert the food choices are much more limited, for example during the biblical Exodus the people of Israel complain to Moses about the choice of meat they had available to them in Eygpt compared to the basic food in the desert.

The desert can be a place of danger even death if people don’t know how to find food and water. There were people groups in the bible that preferred the desert nomadic lifestyle. Today in Israel there are a lot more options for living in desert areas but it still represents a much more basic lifestyle than that of the city.

  1. The desert as a quiet place to hear from God – the complexity of noise in the city can sometimes drown out the voice of God. In the bible God often calls people out into the desert in order to speak to them. Abraham lived in the desert and heard from God about his future as the father to a great nation. Elijah headed out into the desert to hide from his enemies but it was here in the desert that God spoke to Elijah and strengthened him (read 1 Kings 18-19). Jesus often withdrew to the wilderness or the desert to spend time with his Father in prayer. The lack of distractions in the desert makes it easier to listen to God.
  1. The desert is the place of preparation for a future mission – the book of Exodus and Numbers the people of God were being formed into a nation as they wandered through the desert. In the book of 1 Samuel David was being formed for Kingship as he ran from Saul through the desert. In the gospels Jesus was preparing to begin his earthly ministry during his 40 days in the desert. And Jesus withdrew to the wilderness before he headed to Jerusalem to accomplish his mission on the Cross.

In many biblical stories the desert is like the modern day retreat centre. Just like the desert in biblical stories the retreat centre is usually a quiet place where people head for some time away to reflect on their life. Most contemporary retreat centres are comfortable without being luxurious; the person going on the retreat doesn’t need the distractions of a 5 star luxury resort. Just like those who were called into the desert, many people spend time in a simple retreat centre to listen to God as they transition into a new period of ministry or mission.

My desert experience was visiting a retreat centre prior to my ordination as a Priest. We were asked to spend three days in silence to listen to God as we prepared for the ordination day. We were given a small room with a basic desk so that we could write in our journal. To add to the wilderness experience the retreat centre was off the mobile phone coverage area so we couldn’t check Facebook or email.

The retreat centre is a special place not because of the place but because of the transition that takes place. Just like the desert in biblical times, the transition that God takes people through is what is important. We might not need to go into the desert ourselves but we do need a simple place that we can go to hear God. Where is your desert place?

The desert was an important image in the bible because it was an image of seeking out God. At times in the bible the desert is just a physical landscape that people travel through, not every reference to the desert is a reflection of the thoughts listed above. Yet if we open our minds to the idea that the desert is the biblical equivalent of our retreat centre then perhaps we will gain new insight into the biblical text.

Please leave a comment about your thoughts on the desert in Biblical narrative.

Israel landscapes - Beersheba Israel landscapes - Dead Sea Israel landscapes - En Gedi Israel landscapes - Jordan Valley

Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, markoffaith, markoffaith.net Biblical Landscapes

Back to the Future of Gen Y Youth Ministry

According to all the Back to the Future references this month, we are now living in the future. So many people have made comments about the lack of hover boards, no self lace up shoes and where is my flying car? It seems we love to predict the future, but we also love to identify how those predictions were wrong. So how did we go with our youth ministry predictions for October 21st 2015?

I will admit that I am old enough to have been around youth ministry when we would use sentences like “millennials are those teenagers that will graduate high school post 2000”, notice the future tense of that statement. Some Generation Y or Millennials will now be 15 years out of high school, so I hope that they have moved on from youth ministry into the adult body of the church.

So how did our predictions go for the “radical” change that would take place in youth ministry because of Gen Y? How many of the predicted changes did we get right and what did we get wrong? Here are just five reflections from someone who was around in the 1990’s when these predictions were being made:

  1. Social Justice – I remember hearing that Social Justice was going to be the new “in” for Gen Y. Youth Ministry was going to shift towards Social Justice to engage the Gen Y who were supposed to more socially minded than other generations. Without denying the attempts by many Gen Y, I would say that they have shown themselves to be no more socially active than other generations. Facebook “likes” don’t count as social justice nor does reposting a tweet about some global issue. Even if Gen Y are more socially aware, the Youth Ministries around today in my opinion are not the hot beds of Social Justice activity that we may have predicted.
  2. Conservative – There were also predictions that Gen Y would be more conservative than other generations. This doesn’t seem to play out in the way we thought. There has been some return to tradition forms of worship, but contemporary praise and worship has never been more popular or normative. The styles of dress and social interaction are not that conservative or traditional. The role of women and the attitude to homosexuality don’t seem all that conservative either.
  3. Music – I remember some of my friends telling me about this music from a church called Hillsong and they predicted that music would be essential for ministry with and to Gen Y. Not only has the Hillsong style become more normative but the Praise and Worship music seems one of the key draw cards for Gen Y. Youth Ministries have transitioned into Young Adult Ministries as Gen Y age and they seems to appreciate good music more than good preaching, though the sermons still have to be good.
  4. Podcasts – not many of us in the late 1990’s would have predicted the impact of the podcast on church life, I remember some churches in the early 2000’s trying to sell their own sermons on CD. To think that young people can download a talk or sermon from anywhere in the world to watch/listen to on the bus ride to school or uni means that their expectations of preaching sermons has been raised. Young people can now listen to the “best” preachers in the world on a daily basis, meaning they could be sermoned out by the time they get to church on a Sunday. Some may have predicted this but I never heard this prediction in the late 1990’s.
  5. Communication – In the late 1990’s we knew that the Gen X grew up in a boom of entertainment technology and that Gen Y would grow up in a boom of communication technology. However we never predicted the impact of the iPhone, Facebook, Twitter or the creation of the “selfie” for thousands of Instagram posts. Believe it or not many people used to like being behind the camera in the 1990’s. Whilst we predicted that youth ministry would change due to a growth in communication technology, youth ministry is really enhanced by this ability to contact young people outside the youth group time slot.

Were you around in the 1990’s? What did you think youth ministry with Gen Y would be like? Did we get it right or were some of our predictions off the mark? If you are Gen Y was this what you thought youth ministry would be like when you were in primary school?

As a member of Generation X I was always one step removed from being in the youth ministry culture of Gen Y. Whilst I’ve engaged in it for the past 25 years, it is a long time since I was an actual young person in the ministry. Leadership positions tend to make you bias. So I would love to hear your opinions in the comments section below or tweet me on @mrmarkmcdonald (so high tech!)

markoffaith.net, Mark of Faith

What is your comparison point?

We all compare new experiences to a benchmark we have in our head.  When we try a new cafe and we compare their coffee to our best coffee experience at our favourite cafe.  When shop in a new shopping mall we compare it to the benchmark that we have in our mind about our ideal shopping experience.  When we visit a new church or ministry we compare it to our ideal church or ministry whether we know it or not. 

So as the leader in your ministry what is your comparison point?  Sometimes it can be another church or ministry.  We tell ourselves if we could just do it ministry like church X or church Y then we would get it “right”.  These other churches may have totally different circumstance and resources to us but that doesn’t stop us from comparing our ministry to theirs.  The key thing is to know what your bench mark is so that at least you are honest with yourself and your team.

Perhaps your comparison point is not another church but a previous era at your own church.  Remember the good old days when we got ministry “right”.  Church members often compare your current situation to a previous golden era where everything seemed to work so smoothly.  The trap with this style of thinking is that our world and culture has changed so dramatically.  Imagine comparing youth ministry pre Facebook to the Facebook era; let alone comparing ministry practices from the 1980’s to ministry to youth today.

What ever your comparison point is you need to identify it so that the unconscious comparison becomes more conscious.  Comparison is not a bad thing as long it it encourages us to be better rather than it weakening us.

Finally it is most important to compare our ministry to what God is calling us to.  The Holy Spirit is moving your forward not trying to recreate the past.  Compare your ministry to what God has in store for you, not the previous golden era.

markoffaith, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald

The Welcoming Team

Some ministries have a real sense of welcome but often ministries miss the mark on this one. Often times the leaders are busy getting the service or meeting ready instead of being available to welcome people as they arrive for your event. Whether it is a church service, a ministry meeting or an event in your church you need to have a welcoming team. Perhaps in your ministry you have a dedicated group of people who are part of your welcome team or maybe you don’t. Either way every church and ministry could improve their sense of welcome.

There are two important principles that should drive welcoming in your ministry:

  1. Everyone is responsible for creating a welcoming ministry
  2. You need a specific group to enhance the welcoming procedures

Before we get into the role of an effective welcome team, I want to shift your thinking a little. Instead of thinking of the usual welcomers who just hand out bulletins before the service, could you think of your welcome team as customer service staff? Rather than recruiting people who can smile and shake hands, could you recruit people who will go the extra mile and help people feel a part of your community. A member of the welcome team should never say “I just hand out the bulletins ask a staff member”. Perhaps you might need to privately call them the customer service team so that they know they are not just welcoming people but serving the people who attend your church or ministry events.

So what should this customer service team or welcome team do? Is it just about a friendly smile on the way into church or into your ministry event? The welcome team should do much more than smile and hand out bulletins. They should make people feel welcome, look out for visitors, locate toilets for people, explain the children’s ministry to parents, connect young people with the youth ministry and even help people find a seat if needed.

Here are some important things for the welcoming team to focus on:

  • Be available 20 minutes before the event – whether people arrive late or on time at your church, your welcome team need to be there before anyone could turn up. Someone is always running early and these are the people the welcome team have the most time to talk to.
  • Look out for visitors before and after the event – the welcome team should be looking out for visitors who are not familiar with how your church or ministry does things. They can look lost, unsure of where to sit. Visitors will check out your notice board more than the regulars do. Many visitors to churches and ministries make a first impression based on how they are welcomed and whether the first people they meet are open or closed to new people.
  • Be available 20 minutes after the event – if the welcome team do their job of connecting with people before the service then they are the best people to follow them up after the event. If your welcoming team think their role is about handing out bulletins then they tend to check out once that task is done. The welcome team needs to see their role as beginning before everyone arrives and finishes after everyone has left.
  • Focus on parents – having kids and working in youth ministry I really believe that our churches need to engage children and youth. Yet the reality is that parents drive children and youth to and from church events so make them feel welcome. At your youth events have someone on your welcome team that welcome visitors and some who talk to parents. The more you can engage the parents the more they will support your ministry. For sunday services the parents are often the most confused as to where there kids need to be or how the service engages kids so be available to answer their questions.
  • Help with logistics during the event – great welcome teams will also assist with moving and seating people during the event. Perhaps you need to arrange more chairs or simple ask people to shuffle in to free up seats. Perhaps you need to help move children in and out of the children’s ministry. The welcome team should be looking out for how they can help during the event not just before the service.
  • Know about future events – the welcome team will often be asked about the events in the bulletin or on the notice board so find out about other events in your church. The welcome team should never say “I don’t know about that ask a staff member”. When someone is part of the welcome team it is like they are a staff member.

There are many unique things that churches do for their welcome teams. Some have fancy tshirts, special name badges or set up special visitor desks. Often the welcome team at children or youth events also need to collect forms, sign people in or collect money. All of these elements are unique to your ministry and church setting so be intentional about tailoring the welcome team to your setting. Irrespective of your local context it still doesn’t change the fact that your welcome team are there to serve the people attending your church not just hand out bulletins.

Please leave a comment with tips from your welcome team.

markoffaith, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, Mark McDonald

Does the Good News sound like good news in your public speaking?

When presenting the gospel to people in your ministry setting does it sound like good news? Sometimes as christians we get so used to our christian language that we present the gospel as it was presented to us, not realising that culture and language has changed. Recently I heard an evangelist say that is so hard these days to get people to understand how sinful they are and much they need a saviour. Whilst this is the heart of the gospel perhaps it is an outdated style, it certainly doesn’t sound like good news to me.

Our culture has shifted and we are no longer living in a christian society. The phrases and language that used to make sense to christians no longer has the same meaning in our society today. The self help industry doesn’t promote sinfulness and our inability to help ourselves, it promotes self help and your ability to work yourself out of any situation. The 24 hour news cycle promotes a constant flow of negative news and stories or horrific tragedy all the time. Perhaps people don’t need more negative news such as “you’re a sinner”, but that need some good news such the God who created the universe loves you personally.

For example Judah Smith, the pastor of City Church in Seattle, presents and speaks in a way that seems to captivate a younger audience and even the hipsters. When you listen to him he is constantly talking about Jesus yet it is hopeful, positive and motivating. Recently at a conference Judah Smith stated that we have to preach the gospel in a way that sounds like good news to an audience who doesn’t understand “christianese”.

As ministry leaders we have to be aware of the trends in language and culture so that we can speak into it. We need to communicate the Good News in ways that people understand. It is very clear in the New Testament, start in 1 Corinthians 1-2, that the gospel can make sense to everyone; you shouldn’t need a theology degree to understand it. So my suggestion is that the next time you have to give a talk, a keynote or a sermon ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Would a non-Christian think this is good news? Even if you are speaking to a room full of christians we need to constantly practice speaking in a way that non Christians will understand. This will also train our audience to invite non Christian friends because they can trust that you will speak to them.
  2. Is there a sense of hope? Some ministry leaders are technically correct with their theology but there doesn’t seem to be any hope in their message. You can’t fault their theology but people don’t put into practice that theology because there doesn’t seem to be any hope. Being constantly reminded of our sinfulness doesn’t teach us to be new creations in Christ or that we can do anything because Christ strengthens us (Phil 4:13).
  3. Have I motivated people to want to know more? Some sermons leave people feeling “if that is what christians are like I don’t want it”. You need to motivate the audience to find out more about Jesus and the Gospel. Perhaps you can share your passion for the gospel as a way of motivating them to learn more. Perhaps you need to be upbeat and positive rather than factually correct. Perhaps you need to add in life based examples rather than examples from Christian history.

A word of warning – the bible is very clear that we are not to “tickle the ear” of others when we present the gospel. Whilst the Gospel should sound like good news to those who hear it, we still need to present the truth of gospel and not some feel good pop psychology. No matter what language we use, the gospel is going to be difficult for some people to hear because it challenges then out of their comfort zone.

Presenting the Good News is not easy in a world with so many conflicting messages. However if we are truly going to make an impact in your ministry, you need the Good News to sound like good news to an audience who doesn’t understand all the christian buzz words and images. Try to think through your language and adapt it to the community and setting that you’re ministering into.

Please leave a comment on how you have done this in your ministry setting.

markoffaith, Mark of Faith, mrmarkmcdonald, Mark McDonald