An Honoured Name

A month or so ago I had the privilege of reviewing Ken Manley’s most recent book, a biography of one of my predecessors here at Collins Street. The review is published in Our Yesterdays, a journal of history among Victorian Baptists.


As the 16th pastor of the historic Collins Street Baptist Church, I work each day surrounded by portraits of those who preceded me. Though most inhabited a different age to my own and faced challenges unique to their time, I find an odd sense of comfort knowing that I minister under their gaze. Each of these predecessors brought a distinct mix of gifts and passions to the role. Some of their stories resonate more immediately than others. One of those is Samuel Pearce Carey, pastor of Collins Street from 1900 to 1908.

Though a gifted man of impeccable Baptist heritage – great-grandson to the pioneer Baptist missionary William Carey – Pearce Carey arrived at Collins Street in a period of incredible change.  The twenty-three year tenure of the great Samuel Chapman had come to an end; and so, too, the period of the church’s most sustained growth. The turn of the century saw the burgeoning of the suburbs with new churches flourishing beyond the city centre. Collins Street’s membership suffered. Regardless, Pearce Carey arrived with a strong sense of vocation and led the church with great energy. In the face of ample challenge and more than his share of opposition, Pearce Carey was a pastor and preacher of considerable impact. He is a man I’ve long admired.

2611d76c0998456b8e226c869eddbabdUp until this point, all I have known of Pearce Carey is related to his years at Collins Street. I have written about them here. Now, through Ken Manley’s biography, I have a broader appreciation of the man; and my admiration is deeper still. Manley, a significant Baptist scholar and leader in his own right, has done us a tremendous service in telling Pearce Carey’s story in full, from his Baptist roots and English childhood to his ministry as pastor, writer, social activist, missionary ambassador and denominational leader. There is so much in Manley’s telling of this story that is fascinating, but it is two challenges to the nature of pastoral ministry that I found most rewarding.

First, it is clear that Pearce Carey understood his ministry as both particular and broad. In each pastoral appointment he gave himself with energy to the wellbeing of the congregation. He was an effective pastor, a fine preacher, and a man who invested intentionally in strengthening and uniting the church’s leadership. At the same time, Pearce Carey reached beyond the church to the denomination, the city, political and cultural arenas and issues facing society as a whole. What’s more, his love of literature and his commitments to scholarship found room to flourish. Pearce Carey’s identity as a minister of the gospel was not one that narrowed his interests but broadened them.

Second, Pearce Carey managed to hold together a deeply evangelical allegiance to Christ with a progressive and open theology. It was a mark of this ministry from beginning to end. It seems there was never a tension in his mind between a spirituality shaped by his love of the Gospel and a critical evaluation of the scriptures and theological thought.  Mind you, this was not an easy path for Pearce Carey to follow and one that drew criticism from within his churches and his denomination. Regardless, he would not be swayed. There is an integrity in the man I cannot help but admire.

Of course, there is much more to Manley’s biography than this, but if such stories of the past can play a role in critiquing and shaping our ministry today, then we are well served by books of this calibre. I commend to it to you.

Ken Manley, ‘An Honoured Name’: Samuel Peace Carey (1862-1953), Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2016.

Tim Foster and the ‘burbs

FosterCover_Catalogue_Screen_WithBorder-180x273When there’s ‘bugger all’ on the bookshelf that addresses the unique challenges of Australia’s urban and suburban neighbourhoods for the mission of the church, the arrival of a book like Tim Foster’s The Suburban Captivity of the Church is worth cheering for.

Books like this one flow in a steady torrent from North America, but the cultural differences are vast. Given that we are among the most urbanised societies on earth and take first place in the propagation of suburbia, it’s always frustrating to me that we’re content to let the thoughtful missiology of other places set the agenda for us to the extent it does.

Tim is an Anglican minister who currently shares in the leadership of Melbourne’s Ridley College. His book arises out of his own transitions in ministry, from the leafy surrounds of Sydney’s middle suburbs to the cultural and social diversity of the inner city. With this move comes the challenge of understanding the nature of ‘the good news’ in a community whose values and perspectives on the world contrast so starkly with those of the near but distant ‘burbs. Given how much the values of suburbia have shaped the church’s understanding of the gospel, Tim makes the case that we are pressed ever more urgently to the work of contextualization.

In part, I would think, the test of a good book it that it spurs a reaction. Tim’s book does this for me. Though we have never met, I have a suspicion that Tim and I might have some theological differences. Perhaps Tim has a clearer sense of the gospel as ‘a message’ — a clearly defined and methodically presented outline of truths —than I do. The book is written in two parts. As helpful as Part 1 might be, I came to the end of it feeling as though Tim’s priority on a right ‘understanding’ of the gospel message and a better ‘presentation’ of its truths was not one I could embrace with enthusiasm. To be honest (and probably unfair), his alternative readings of ‘the gospel’ left me feeling as though those ‘four spiritual laws’ were hovering ominously in the background.

That said, Part 2 was more engaging read. Tim’s attempts at exegeting the cultures of the inner city ‘yuppies,’ ‘hipsters’ and ‘battlers’ (among others), points the reader to the importance of taking our contexts and communities as seriously as we do our sacred texts. What’s more, it’s here that Tim looks for ‘gospel themes’ that emerge from this engagement. There is much here that is challenging for an urban pastor like me. I would only long for a more sustained engagement that Tim can provide here.

As someone who attempts to write about similar issues, I commend Tim for the book. If it helps practitioners like me to engage more intentionally and intelligently with our own neighbourhoods, and from a distinctly local perspective, then it has served us well.

Tim-Website_370x370Tim Foster, The Suburban Captivity of the Church: Contextualising the Gospel for Post-Christian Australia, Moreland: Acorn Press, 2014.

No Home Like Place

NHLP-coverJust two months ago the book No Home Like Place:  A Christian Theology of Place was launched. The work of Canadian scholar of Christian mission and formation Leonard Hjalmarson, it’s a book worth commending.

Though I have never met the author in person, I have long admired Len’s voice in  significant conversations on the nature of Christian mission and the role of the local church.  His early books — including Missional Spirituality and An Emerging Dictionary of Gospel and Culture — have been thoughtful  contributions to my own thinking, so when asked to add some words of endorsement to this one, it was an easy ‘yes’.

Here’s what I said:

‘There are many of us in places far and wide, practitioners seeking to live God’s call to the neighbourhood. We are committed to the most local expressions of discipleship because we have a gut sense that place matters to God and to the nature of Christian mission. What Len provides in this book a wonderful resource to those of us committed to the neighbourhood, a cogent, carefully researched and sensitively written theology of place that will sustain and strengthen our commitments.’

There are many more notable responses to the book,  some of which you can find here. I can only assure you that for those committed to deepening the church’s most local commitments to mission, this is a book worth reading.

‘The New Parish’: a book worth reading

Some time back I was asked to endorse the book The New Parish: How Neighbourhood Churches are Transforming Mission, Discipleship and Community by Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight J. Friesen. It was one of those times when a ‘yes’ was easy.

book-image12I’ve followed the ministry of these three from afar for some time. The growing influence of their Parish Collective in calling the North American church to rediscover its local identity has been significant. Back when my own God Next Door came out, I was heartened to hear stories from people far and wide who were similarly passionate about the neighbourhood identity of the church and the renewal of rootedness in local place and community at the heart of  Christian mission.  Sparks, Soerens and Friesen were three of those.

My own words of endorsement were these:

‘The New Parish is a gift to church leaders like me. Though the authors challenge the most fundamental understandings of the church’s mission and its presence in the neighborhood, they do so as practitioners deeply invested in its flourishing. This book sets out a challenging agenda for the local church, but with such encouragement and hope that one is left in no doubt that the challenge is within reach. In fact, it’s right outside our front doors.’

But you don’t need to take my word for it. Others of far greater insight have said much more. I certainly recommend it to anyone seeking to better understand the mission of the church in our day and the distinctive impact that genuinely local communities of faith can have on the wider city and, indeed, the world.

There’s an introductory PDF here, including excerpts from the first chapter.  And you can purchase the book here.


What he said …

‘Most of the noise in our world these days is divisive: we are labeled red or blue, black or white, right or left, right or wrong, us or them. War has become the descriptive metaphor of choice for the media. But listen — listen to the strain of hope underneath the cacophony of chaos. Listen to the daily fidelity that is marked by all of those who get up every day and keep their promises. Hear the quotidian rhythm that is essential to the recipe for our connectedness. You can hear it in the clink of a cup or the word of a friend, in the bold marching of an earnest throng and the small gathering of people coming together to create a memory.’

13795928Milton Brasher-Cunningham, Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal, Moorehouse Publishing, 2012, 40.

You can read a review of the book here

De Botton’s Religion for Atheists

Just last week I mentioned to a friend, one I hold in high regard, that I read Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and found it helpful.  His response was sharp, withering, and his body language severe. Though he ‘d not read the book, he used words like ‘pompous’, ‘pretentious’ and others I can’t repeat. I was so taken aback by the strength of his reaction I was almost too frightened to pursue it further. Best to move on, I thought.

Clearly there is something about de Botton, in both his writing and presence, that you either love or … don’t. Perhaps his style is an acquired taste. For me, the ease and clarity with which he communicates is appealing, and his philosophical attention to the things of my own life encouraging. His earlier reflections on work, love, happiness and architecture have all been engaging. Though I don’t treat him as the final word, he never fails to send me off in new directions with courage and interest.

For a person of faith, there is certainly much in the assumptions of Religion for Atheists to critique. De Botton’s reduction of a comprehensive narrative of faith and life to a set of ‘consoling, subtle or just charming rituals’ that the discerning unbeliever might find ‘sporadically useful’ is more than slightly frustrating. That said, throughout the book there is a level of appreciation for religion’s role in society that I would so much prefer to Dawkins’ arrogant dismissal. I reckon people like me do well to listen to those who see my faith–its history, institutions and rituals–from the outside. They may well help me to see, critique and value it in new ways.

What’s more, de Botton’s much publicised School of Life is booming. The waiting lists for the Melbourne version are extraordinary. For many, de Botton and others are connecting with perceived needs in our culture in ways we do well to notice.

The pastor as curator

Questions of purpose and meaning are my Achilles heel. They always have been. Those deep questions of ‘why?’ and ‘what for?’ that make getting on with it far too complicated. I can’t operate in an existential fog, nor any fog for that matter. I need clarity and a sense of purpose. I need vision.

It’s partly why I’m drawn to ministry. The Christian faith provides a ‘big story’ in which to locate my own, a vision of life and a sense of meaning that transcends and enfolds everything. I love it. Still, it doesn’t stop me getting routinely shipwrecked in a puddle of vocational angst.

The catalyst for my current puddle was a conversation a few weeks back. I was visiting a family who’ve begun attending our services. They are the most delightful people, but expressed concern about the church’s ‘empty seats’. We meet in a grand old building at Collins Street, one built to seat hundreds, but hundreds don’t come. ‘Whose job is it to get more people?’ the woman asked directly, leaning in expectantly for the answer. ‘Um,’ I said, weary and without thought, ‘that would be me, I suppose.’

I have pondered that question since, and even more my response to it. In typical form, I make it more complex than it needs to be. Simply put, the numerical growth of Collins Street is God’s business, not mine. But the question touches on all manner of things: So what is my job? What responsibility do I bear? What shapes the core of my contribution to Collins Street’s life and future?

As I’ve been pondering these questions, I’ve been reading two books, the first Andy Root’s The Relational Pastor and the second Mark Pierson’s The Art of Curating Worship. I know … I need to get out more! But I’ve found them helpful in a related way.

Both books talk about the role of the pastor as curator.

Relational-Pastor-Th-4102-200x300Andy’s book is really quite biting. He identifies the instrumentality of much that happens in the name of pastoral ministry. Driven by the need to grow our churches, get more ‘bums on seats’ and increase program participation, we so easily render the person before us as ‘someone to win loyalty and resources from rather than another to encounter, a person to see and be with and for.’ Our primary task becomes manipulating interests so they dovetail as closely as possible with our own. Ouch!

Andy reminds me that the essence of ministry is relational and that the church is a community of persons not a gathering of uniform interests. I do not care in order to nurture brand loyalty. The church is a community of encounter in which, through community, we all discover something of God and grace.

8951758Mark’s book is a completely different read but equally challenging. One of the early voices in the alt. worship and emerging church conversation, Mark writes about his passion for the church’s worship and especially the role of those who shape it. He’s an advocate for expressions of worship that lead people into genuinely sustaining encounters with God. It’s not about orchestrating experiences or manipulating feelings. It’s not even about particular styles of music or liturgy. It’s about enabling encounter.

There is so much in these books that I can’t do justice to here and these brief paragraphs undersell their worth, but it’s the image of the pastor as curator in both that resonates most helpfully for me. Mark’s focus is on curating worship; Andy’s on curating spaces where we can meet each another in our need. Both are about encounter.

The curator facilitates an encounter. As I understand it, the art curator gathers and arranges artworks in a particular way—as intelligently and sensitively as possible—and then stands aside, allowing the encounters between art and audience to happen. In language more familiar to me, it’s a bit like a maître d’ who oversees the elements of a fine dining experience and then steps discretely aside for the meal to unfold as it will. The pastor/curator creates the space, sets the table and makes encounter possible.

Neither Andy nor Mark let me off the hook when it comes to my responsibility. In fact, each in their own way, they lift the bar not lower it. But in doing so they remind me that Collins Street is God’s church not mine. I cannot fill it … God knows, I try. And I can no more determine the community’s encounters with God and each other than I can leap tall buildings. But I can set the table, create opportunity and facilitate encounters of openness, honesty and interdependence.

Perhaps that’s purpose enough for now.

The bishop and the atheist

I am not often moved by a book, not one of this genre. I am intrigued, challenged, educated, infuriated or bored, but rarely moved. Pitting the perspectives of atheism and religious faith against each other can be occasionally stimulating, often frustrating, but moving? Hardly. This book is different.

400_1357603557Graeme and Jonathan Rutherford’s Beloved Father Beloved Son is a very personal book–a series of letters between Graeme, a bishop in the Anglican church, and his son Jonathan, an atheist. By personal, I don’t mean it’s one that wades in the intimate biography of their relationship. Not at all. What they write about is what they believe, drawing rationally on very different world views, multiple disciplines, and articulating their disparate perspectives on life and how they understand it. With rigour they debate the origins of human life, the place of suffering, the veracity of religious texts, the incredulity of divine interventions, and the human search for meaning. In this sense there is nothing new here. Such debates have a long and often tiresome history. What sets this book apart is the nature of the interaction.

The pull of the book is in the very intimate nature of the conversation. One is never far from the fact that these two are family. Both are well read, articulate in their beliefs, and can disagree vigorously, calling a spade a spade when necessary. However, their very honest conversation is soaked in mutual respect. That respect results in a genuine listening between them, one that has been learned through years of intimate and, I suspect, challenging relationship.

I am moved by two things. First, to be honest, I identify. I know firsthand the pain of parenting a child who will not have a bar of my religious beliefs. Though I have suffered my own long nights of fatherly ‘guilt’ and ‘failure’, in my better moments, and especially when listening to a conversation like this, I am encouraged. There has never been a moment in my own family life where we have not been able to talk, debate and wrestle with our understandings, disparate though they be. What’s more, I have watched the deeper values of my faith blossom in the life of the one I love regardless of creed. It is interesting to me that it’s in the last two chapters of this book, ‘the human search for meaning’ and ‘spirituality’, that the common longings of father and son dovetail most closely. Though they disagree vigorously about so much, what they aspire to in the deeper recesses of their lives is not so far apart.

Second, I am challenged. The nature of public debate in this country has deteriorated. The same is true within the church. The stones thrown between the new atheists and people of faith and large and bruising, the language dismissive and sneering. So, too, the trenches of the religiously ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ are dug ever deeper. Try for a respectful conversation on something like marriage equality and things get ugly. We stop listening. Our language deteriorates. Relationships are marred, sometimes destroyed.

For me, this book demonstrates another way. When we disagree within the church, we do so as family. Just as Graeme and Jonathan will never cease to be father and son, so even when our perspectives and experiences vary, we people of faith never cease to be family. We talk. We listen. We argue. We listen. We disagree with passion and vigour, but then we regather at the table and break bread. As Graeme says to his son in the closing paragraphs of the book, ‘Wherever our journey leads us from here, we must both continue to resist the temptation to turn knowledge into ammunition.’

Graeme Rutherford & Jonathan Rutherford, Beloved Father Beloved Son: A conversation about faith between a bishop and his atheist son, Preston: Mosaic Press, 2013.

Dorothy, John and me

I didn’t know until now, but apparently I have a John allergy. I must have. How else can I explain my aversion? By John, I mean the gospel. You know, Matthew, Mark, Luke and … that one. With four to choose from, I clearly have a preference. I wouldn’t have guessed it, but ferreting through my sermon files (yes, we pastors have them … riveting stuff) the evidence is overwhelming. Luke and Mark are looking positively rosy, Matthew less so, and John … well, let’s just say he’s a bit lonely.

hallowed-in-truth-and-loveI only know this because I’ve just finished reading Dorothy A Lee’s book Hallowed in Truth and Love. It’s an exploration of the spirituality of John, both in his gospels and letters. I picked it up some time back, more because I’ve met Dorothy and respect her scholarship than out of a passion for the subject. But now I’ve read it I wonder why I waited so long. It’s an inspiring read, so much so that I was propelled to my files to make my sobering discovery.

It makes no sense really, this John aversion. As the product of a robust evangelicalism, I was formed in a tradition with a clear preference for John. I remember the advice to new converts: ‘read the bible … start with John!’ After all, it’s full of the most compelling stories of encounter with Jesus along with beautifully poetic descriptions of his role in the life of faith. What’s not to like? But it’s clear I have stayed away. As for why, that’s probably best left for my therapist and me (I do need to get one of those). Regardless, Dorothy has called me back and I’m glad.

I suppose the path was made easier by the focus of this work. As a pastor and preacher, I struggle a bit with commentaries. In my experience they often treat the text more as a problem to be solved than a source of truth to be discerned. As a bit of a spirituality nut, it is wonderfully refreshing for me to find a New Testament teacher of Dorothy’s ability listening intelligently for the experience of God in the text and allowing that experience an authoritative voice in understanding its truth . Too often, the spirituality of the text, its author and audience, are important to the scholar only in a derivative way if at all. But that’s not the case here.

I do not mean this is an easy read, heavy on the devotional and light on scholarship. Certainly not. But what I valued most as I read was the sense of the writer as more than a scholar. I wrote in the margins of the first chapter ‘preacher, scholar, pilgrim.’ And it was this sense that carried through the entire book. One cannot help but sense the author knows something of this spirituality herself. Not in an overt way. It’s simply there in the text. What’s more, her affirmation of the gospel’s imagery, its acknowledgement of both light and darkness in the way of discipleship, and its appeal to and affirmation of the senses … all of this reminds me of John’s worth.

There is so much in this book that inspire me back to the gospel, and, even more, back to the pulpit. For one who does not often relish preaching, that’s quite a feat.