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

 

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Why I love Holy Week

Holy Week is a great time of the year because we get to focus on all of the events leading up to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is an opportunity to prayerfully slow down as the Church reflects on the Cross and the empty tomb.

Every Sunday of the year the Church celebrates the Good News of Jesus Christ in church services.  Sometimes there are special feast days but normally we remember the Lord’s supper, his death and resurrection in one short service. Yet in Holy Week we have the opportunity to take an entire week to reflect deeply on each part of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

What are the key parts of Holy Week?

  1. Holy Thursday – this is where we remember the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  In the Lords Supper we see Jesus giving his body and blood to the Church as a sacramental sign of his death and resurrection.
  2. Washing of the Feet – this symbolic act of lowering oneself to the position of a servant to wash someone’s feet shows us that Jesus humbled himself to serve humanity rather than claim the privileges that a King deserves.
  3. Good Friday – this is the chance for us focus on the Cross and the atoning sacrifice that Jesus made for our sins.  We can let the full weight of this sacrifice rest on us as we realise that the price has been paid for our sins.
  4. Holy Saturday – this day represents the time between the Cross and the Resurrection, which also reminds us that the Kingdom of God is both here and yet to come.
  5. Easter Sunday – without the Resurrection the Cross has no meaning; this is the high point of Holy Week.  We should come to Easter Sunday with great joy because our God is faithful.

I really love Holy Week, some of the most spiritual moments in my life have occurred in Holy Week.  The best sermons I have ever heard were preached on Good Friday and Easter Sunday in 2009.  Holy Week will be a deeply spiritual week if you see it as a special occasion and not just another ordinary week.

To help you get the most out of your Holy Week here are a few thoughts:

  • Focus on Jesus – it is not just about attending services, the services are meant to draw you deeper into a relationship with Jesus.
  • Try to get to everything – this is one week in the year where you should make an effort to get to more church services than just the Sunday service.  
  • Have some quiet time – normally church should be a place where we connect with people, talk to visitors and welcome new people.  However during Holy Week give yourself and others some quiet time.  Let people sit in quiet prayer to reflect on what the Gospel of Jesus Christ means to them.

There are some denominations and churches that don’t do Holy Week because they live in the Post Easter period and theologically I acknowledge that.  However I think we can always be reminded of the significance of the various events leading up the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.  My hope and prayer is that you allow God to speak to you this Holy Week as you reflect on the Good News of Jesus Christ.

markoffaith, MarkofFaith, Mark of Faith, mark of faith, mrmarkmcdonald, markoffait.net

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Is your ministry getting ready for Christmas?

Is it really time to be thinking about Christmas, it is only September?  Before you panic, this post is about working on your environment now so that you are welcoming community by Christmas.  We know that many people come back to church for Christmas so you need to start working on creating a welcoming environment so that you can keep them into the new year.

It is a well known that attendance numbers drop off during the winter months, especially at Sunday night services.  People think it is too cold or too dark to got out, it might be raining or they want to somewhere warmer than a cold church building.  So it is likely that your ministry has dropped a few people over the winter months but now is the time to start welcoming them back.  Just as the trees and plants spring to new life around this time, perhaps the ground work you do during September and October will prepare you for a growth period over December, January and February.

Here are a few common sayings in ministry and how you might need to address these at the moment:

  • People always come back to Church at Christmas: each parish has a group of Christmas and Easter Christians that you will see coming back to church this Christmas.  Whilst you might not like it but if you don’t ask then they won’t come; if you are not welcoming then they won’t stay.  Recently I heard that the biggest growth group in Australia is the unchurched who don’t love or hate the church; they just have never been asked.  We often listen to the vocal minority who are vocal about their opposition to the Church but the majority of Australians don’t hate the church; some of them will return this Christmas.
  • Vision leaks:  has your ministry grown tired and lost the energy that it had in the beginning of the year?  Whilst you might know where you are heading you need to tell the people in your ministry as the vision leaks.  Some leaders say that when you get sick of reminding people of where you are heading then people are just starting to get it.  For more on this topic check out the article, Where are you heading?
  • Good habits drop easily but take months to re-establish: perhaps you were a welcoming church at the start of the year but with no new people coming over the winter your team lost the habits associated with a welcoming church.  So in the coming months you need to re-establish these habits so that it comes naturally when the Christmas season rolls around.  For more on this check out this article, Creating a Welcoming Church.
  • Narrow the Focus: whilst you might want to stir up energy by adding new programs to excite people you probably need to narrow the focus rather than widen it.  Sometimes people get confused with where they should put their focus, as the leader you need to target one or two things for people to focus on.  Don’t bring in 50 strategies for creating a welcoming church, perhaps just work on a good greeting before the service/event and unexpected hospitality after the service or event.
  • Good branding just makes bad products fail faster: if you spend a lot of time and effort on marketing your service and events without improving them then they will only fail faster.  Some leaders wait until people turn up to start improving things, which only shows new people how bad things really are.  Improve your Sunday services and midweek events first then invite people to experience the revamp.
  • A good spring clean makes for a good summer: perhaps this is more a gardening image than a ministry one but I think it applies well here.  Some teams plan to leave all their cleaning up for the “downtime” in January but that is when you need to be taking a break and a holiday.  January is not just about your members taking a holiday, you need one as well.  Perhaps a good spring clean in September and October will bring much needed focus and energy ready for the Christmas season when people feel like coming back to church.

So whilst you might think it is too early to think about Christmas, just remember that you need to give November over to thinking about the New Year, which I will post on shortly.  If you need to start your planning for next year in October and November then it is better to start preparations for Christmas now.  Remember we are not just talking about the Christmas Service but the welcoming atmosphere that you hope comes naturally around that time.  A little bit of extra work now will reap better results for your ministry come Christmas.

Please leave a comment about how you are getting ready for the Christmas rush.

How NOT to promote events at Church

Have you ever sat through a talk at church where someone was promoting an event and you thought “they are butchering this chance”? Even worst have you heard someone do such a bad job at promoting an event that you thought “I won’t be attending that event”?  There are some basic mistakes that people make when promoting events, perhaps because people are new to a position or maybe nobody has ever workshopped their presentations.

One time that really sticks out in my mind was a ministry leader who was promoting a youth camp at our church.  This person kept referring to the ministry as “my ministry” which straight away made me feel distant as though I wasn’t part of this.  Then they complained to the church that they didn’t get enough helpers last time and then said “I can’t do this all alone, if I don’t get more helpers I might have to cancel”.  At this point I wanted to encourage them to stop talking before they did anymore damage.  Whilst the dates of the camp were clear this ministry leader didn’t give any clue as to how we could help out or how the youth could register for the camp.

Recently we looked at three styles of promoting events, so now lets look at four things to avoid when promoting events:

  1. Don’t be vague – sometimes you only get one or two shots at promoting your events so be very clear about the information other people need to know, which is:
  • When is the event
  • How do people register
  • How can people assist with the event
  • Where they can find out more information (website, Facebook, foyer etc)

2. Don’t doubt the event – it is so important to sell the event with confidence.  Never say that the event won’t go ahead if we don’t get numbers because people won’t register until they know you have the numbers.  Don’t promote this as the best event in the world but you should promote the highlights of the event in a way that is attractive.

3. Don’t be disorganised – if you haven’t got a flyer, Facebook group or webpage set up then never get in front of your church or ministry to promote an event.  You should present a well prepared talk or video clip to your church or ministry when promoting events, don’t make it up on the spot.  The minute you say “more details to come later” people switch off and think “then I will pay attention later”.

4. Don’t make it about you – you are trying to get other people to attend an event so make your presentation about how others can attend rather than how much help you need.  You have to convince the audience that they should either attend the event or ask someone in the target age group to attend.  Don’t make people feel sorry for you having to do all this work to host the event.

Perhaps you can extend this list by leaving a comment on the mistakes you have made in promoting events.  Whilst we learn from our own mistakes, perhaps your mistakes can help someone else get it right the next time they have to promote an event.

How to promote ministry events when speaking

Let’s face it, if you are involved in ministry then at some stage you will have to promote an event.  It may be an event that you are running or it may be an event hosted by another group.  Either way there are three different ways to promote events:

1. You should go – some people promote events where all the work is on the other person.  This style of promotion usually involves phrases like:

  • There is a great weekend coming up, you can check out all the details on the website
  • If you want to attend the event then registration forms are in the foyer
  • The talk is going to be awesome you will really love it

This style of promotion places all the emphasis on the other person to get involved.  Whilst you might be keen for people to attend, this style can come across as impersonal.  However you can use this style effectively to pass on all the invitations you get via Facebook and email.

2. I am going – some people use this style to promote events in a way that is more personal, I am going do you want to join me.  This style encourages others to attend because they know at least one other person is going.  Many young people don’t want to go to an event alone so it is wise in youth ministry to say that at least you will be attending.  This style of promotion usually involves phrases like:

  • I am attending this event and I can tell you more about it in the foyer
  • On the weekend I am attending the camp, if you need a lift come and see me

This style of promotion is great for building a team.  As the ministry leader it establishes you are the peer leader; you are on board with the event and you want others to join you.

3. We are going – when your ministry gets bigger (bigger than your core group of leaders) then you should move to this style of promotion.  This style states up front that this community/ministry is attending the upcoming event, if you belong here then you will be going too.  It might seem a little bold but people want to be part of something popular and this style implies “everyone” is going.  This style of promotion usually involves phrases such as:

  • We are attending the camp next month please think of someone new that can join us.
  • We are hosting a guest speaker, please sign up to help set up or pack down the event.
  • On the weekend we are having an event for all those we haven’t seen for a while so pick up some flyers off our team in the foyer.

Whilst this might be the best system to use when promoting events, you need to have some track record of “everyone” attending events.  If this is the fifth time you use this style and nobody has turned up to any of the events before, then perhaps people may doubt that “we” are really going.

Pick your promotion style wisely so you know when to use each of the three styles.

  • Use the “you” style to pass on community events that you get in the mail.
  • Use the “I” style when you are attending an event and you want some others to join you.
  • Use the “I” style to build a core leadership team as it builds your place as the leader
  • Use the “we” style when your group is bigger and you want everyone to attend.

In the next post we will look at some things not to do when promoting events.

Leave a comment of how you have had success in promoting events.

Attendance vs Commitment

“Sitting in a garage doesn’t make you a car anymore than sitting in a church makes you a Christian”

I am not sure who first said this but I have heard many ministry leaders use it.  Sometimes in ministry we judge someones level of commitment by their attendance at our ministry events.  We think that someone is more committed as a follower of Christ if they attend everything we offer in our church or ministry.  Yet really wise ministry leaders go beyond attendance to look at someone’s heart.

As a ministry leader here are four questions to ask about attendance:

  1. Is this person a Christian who is overcommitted? Sometimes the most committed Christians have over extended themselves and they don’t have any spare room in their schedule.  These might be people who have their finger in many ministries rather than committing just to your ministry.  As a ministry leader of this group of people you have to acknowledge that they serve God not you.  You have to help these people live out their mission and appreciate any small amount of time they can give you.  Perhaps you might even encourage them to skip your ministry to take some sabbath time.
  2. Is this person learning to follow Christ?  Sometimes the people in our ministries don’t get that they should serve the Church because they are still learning; they don’t get it because they don’t get it.  Some people may have been around the church a long time but they are not a follower of Christ, they just are doing what their family have trained them to do.  As a ministry leader of this group of people you have to have a lot of patience.  With people in this group you need assume nothing and go back to basics, explain that being a Christian means serving more than attending.  Some of these people may never have seen good ministry in practice so you will have to role model it for this group.
  3. Is this a Christian with a lack of commitment?  Many people have a lack of commitment, some people are graced with a commitment to the church others aren’t.  With this group of people you might have to be a little stronger and a little shorter in patience.  As ministry leaders we don’t often feel comfortable saying “that is just not good enough”.  I have met some young people who are always on time for their job, always upfront with teachers/lecturers yet they feel the Church should be happy with what ever they give; the Church should be happy with the left overs.  The best thing you can do for these people as a ministry leader is raise your expectations of them. 
  4. Is this a Christian who has lost their vision?  Sometimes we come across a committed Christian who has lost their focus, lost their passion or is discerning a change of direction.  As a ministry leader to this group of people you need to help them explore where God is calling them.  Perhaps you need to encourage them to take a break for deeper level of prayer, perhaps you need to be their spiritual director for some time or perhaps they should serve in a broader range of ministries.  As a ministry leader to this group of people you can help them by sharing why you are passionate about you area of ministry.

These are just four examples and we know people are more complex that just one of these four categories.  But these four groups of people do exist in your church/ministry and you need to be aware of their different understanding on attendance.  As ministry leaders we have to go beyond attendance, seeing the mark of faith on someone and help them grow deeper in Christ.

Please leave a comment about the examples of attendance vs commitment that you have seen in your church or ministry.

The atheist environmentalist

Recently I was talking with a friend about a presentation that he sat through at his work.  The presentation was from a secular organisation about how their workplace could be more environmentally aware.  The two presenters showed a number of ways that my friend could recycle, reduce or reuse in the workplace.  My friend raised the topic not because of the great presentation but because he said it was obvious that one of the presenters was an atheist and he commented “how could you care for the environment and not believe in God?”

I have sat with that question for a whole week now, “how can you care for the environment and not believe in God?”. If a person doesn’t believe in any spiritual being why care? I am sure that there are many reasons that atheists care about the environment but the environment shows so many signs of the wonder of God it is hard for that not to rub off on a person.  But it also highlights that our beliefs system should determine our actions or else people will judge our belief system by our actions.

Before he was a federal politician I heard a talk by Peter Garrett, the front man of the Aussie rock band Midnight Oil.  When asked which can first his care for the environment or his love of God, he replied that it was his belief in God that compelled him to care for the environment.  For this environmentalist his faith lead him to care for the environment, it seem natural to him that one lead to the other.

For any person with the mark of faith on their life, it should be obvious from their actions what their belief system is.  Whether you care for the environment or not, do your actions match your beliefs?  Or like the atheist environmentalist do your actions seem confusing to others when they find out you are a Christian?

Sometimes we fall short in acting out what we believe, but if we never reflect on this then others will always judge our belief system by our actions.

Please leave a comment.

Faith in “uncertain” times

We often hear that we are living in “uncertain times”.  Perhaps people use this term to refer to the economic uncertainty that started two years ago when the economic bubble burst.  Since this time many economies have slumped, retails sales have dropped, property prices have flattened out and many companies have down sized.  The landscape of many industries has changed forever after the record growth rates of the previous decade came to an end.

It is important to realise that only a week before the economic downturn, we were living in “certain” times.  The economists were confident in their predictions, property investors were certain of growth and many industries were expanding their workforce.  With the advantage of hindsight it seems that there was nothing certain about those times except that we didn’t feel uncertain.

This got me thinking, for people of faith are uncertain times really uncertain?  Are these times any less certain than if things were stable?  Perhaps we’re are living in a new paradigm rather than uncertain times.  The economy functions a little differently, property prices may not rise and retailers can’t expect record sales to continue but could things keep growing forever?

In certain and uncertain times in our economy we can be certain that God is looking after us.  Our faith gives us the ability to face all conditions because of Christ who strengthens us (Philippians 4:13).  A person who has the mark of faith will be able to follow God no matter what the conditions or circumstances they face in life.  The person marked by faith does not seek a life without difficulties because they seek a life with God.

  • Nehemiah – when he began his mission to rebuild the city wall, he faced difficult and uncertain times but he stayed doing the work of God.
  • Paul – when he began preaching in some towns they made him so unwelcome they ran him out of town, yet he persisted to run the race and fight the good fight.

So the next time someone calls these “uncertain” times, remind yourself that we are always certain that God loves us.  As a person with the mark of faith, how are you being a light of hope in a world that feels uncertain?  Feel free to leave a comment below.