Today begins my 14th year.

For thirteen years I’ve been pastor of a city church, one of the nation’s oldest. Fronted by tall white columns, it stands temple-like on Melbourne’s most prestigious street. With neighbours like Versace and Prada, we’re surrounded by theatres, gleaming office towers and clubs full of old port and even older money.

It’s not always been that way. When the settlement’s first residents lived down by the river, they complained about the churches being out in the bush. Back then our street, Collins Street, was nothing but a dirt track. There are stories of potholes large enough to swallow a horse. But not anymore.

I often wonder how I ended up here. The church’s heritage is one of great names and influence. Its ornate pulpit attests to a grand tradition of oratory and the calibre of its ministers to leadership far beyond the church’s front doors. I’m a decent pastor, I know, but my skills in oratory are middling at best and, if I’m honest, my influence as slim as the railings on the front steps.

What I have in spades, though, is a love for this city and a continuing belief in the role of the church at its heart. Certainly the church’s place in the public square is different today than it’s been. Though still a privileged keeper of real estate and tradition, its historic ‘entitlement’ to voice and political influence is mostly spent. What a local church like Collins Street maintains is its God-given identity as an embedded community of courageous faith and generous belonging. We may not be as prominent as we once were, but we persist as a living sign of hope and of God’s all-embracing grace in this neighbourhood.

There are moments when I crave just a little of the church’s past glory. But I know much of that is driven by self-interest. The church does not function for itself and certainly not to stroke the egos of those that lead it. In whatever place it is, the church exists to glorify God and love its neighbours. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others.”

Perspective is the rare benefit of age. For 185 years this church has shared Melbourne’s journey from fledgling settlement to thriving city. We have tracked with its ups and downs — we’ve not just watched the roller coaster; we’ve ridden it. And now as our city claws its way back from the disabling impact of the last few years, we are here, as committed to the city’s flourishing as we have always been. Another year of that sounds good to me.

[My thanks to Geoff Maddock for a beautiful image]

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.

Some thoughts on Whitley and the role of theological education

When a church faces a change of leadership, it is prodded to ask important questions about its identity and mission. To determine the pastor it needs, it needs first to know the sort of church it is and the church it wants to be into the future. In times of change the local church is reminded just how key leadership is to its mission.

Institutions of theological education are no different. When a seminary or college faces a change of leadership, it’s time again to ask the hard questions: What is the purpose of theological education within the wider community of churches? What is God calling this institution to do and be into the future? These are questions my own denominational college is facing right now. As the retirement of Whitley College’s current principal looms, the prospect of new leadership prods all those with a vested interest in its mission to voice their hopes and express their concerns. And so they should.

Addressing these questions is a complicated business. A college’s constituencies are as diverse as the expectations they bring. There’s the denominational structure in which the college sits and was founded to serve. There are the local churches that demand well-trained pastors. There are the agencies of the denomination and the wider community that require people skilled for a diversity of cross cultural and intercultural work. There is the academy of higher education to which the college belongs and is dependent for its ability to provide reputable degrees and quality research programs. And there are the lay people in churches looking for a place to discern their vocation, work out their discipleship, or wrestle with persistent questions of faith.

In all of this, theological colleges face their share of criticism. Whitley certainly has, and with a particular intensity this past year. There’s nothing new in that. I have been a student in three denominational colleges here in Australia and in one of the largest evangelical seminaries in the US. What’s more, over the past two decades I have taught in and been associated with many more. And in all of these, no matter where they sit on the theological spectrum, the criticisms are much the same: the perception that these institutions are removed from the hands-on mission of the church, of professors disengaged from the needs of practitioners in the field, allegations of theological compromise, and of a creeping disregard for the orthodox teachings of the Christian faith.

In my experience, criticisms like these often hold a kernel of truth mixed with a good dose of ignorance and hyperbole. Too often such criticisms are leveled by those who have never sat in a class, never pursued a sustained conversation with a teacher, and never read anything of substance written by those they deride. Sadly though, when mud is thrown it sticks, deserved or not. That said, theological colleges deserve critique — intelligent critique. In fact, they need it, especially from those sympathetic to their mission. As pastor of a church, I know too well that theological teachers can be their own worst enemy in communicating with churches and in addressing the needs felt most deeply by those who lead them. Though I want to be stretched in my thinking and practice, I, for one, and sick to death of having theological ‘experts’ list everything that is wrong with ‘the church’ without ever asking an intelligent question about the neighbourhood I inhabit or the particular challenges my congregation and I face.

In my view, theological colleges are at their best when they embrace their ministry as two fold: priestly and prophetic. As a priestly community, the theological college is one that nurtures and enables the local church. It is concerned for the church’s wellbeing and for the enrichment of its people. As a priestly community, the college speaks directly into the deepest needs of the churches and their leaders – those felt and those unnamed. By listening to and engaging with the churches, it determines the best forms of training: training that nurtures leaders who understand the faith of the church; who rightly handle the scriptures as the revelation of the truth of God; who administer the church’s rites and rituals with excellence; who lead with competence and preach with conviction; who draw deeply on the spiritual resources of the faith; and who are able to provide the best possible expressions of pastoral care. If the theological college is failing in its priestly role, the churches have every right to call it to account.

That said, the best theological college is more than a priestly community; it is a prophetic community. In my view, it is here that the more poorly understood responsibility of theological education lies. Theological educators must be prepared to stand on the sidelines of the church and call it to account. Like those pesky prophets of old, courageous theologians call the church to be different than what it is, a challenge to a radical transformation and a critique of the status quo. If the theological college is simply made in the image of the churches it is called to serve, it has failed to embrace its vocation. Even more, it has failed its churches. Prophets smell bad. They say things we do not want to hear and they press us to see things we struggle to see. If the theological college is not drawing criticism from denominational leaders and the churches of its tradition, chances are it stands on shallow ground.

As we Baptists of Victoria launch into this period of discernment about our college’s future, I want to say publicly how very grateful I am for Whitley College. Though my beginning with Whitley as a reluctant undergraduate in theology was six shades of awkward, my thirty years of study, teaching and association with the college have been one of the most formative influences of my life. It is through Whitley that I discovered that Jesus’ call to discipleship is more far-reaching and all-embracing than I could ever have imagined. It is through Whitley that I learned to read the Bible as the life changing Word of God and to wrestle with its truth. It is through Whitley that I was invited to breathe again as a person of faith, open to a theology that’s alive, obligating, and wonderfully relevant to the world I inhabit. And it is largely because of Whitley that I remain a Baptist, actively engaged with and committed to our particular way of being the church and embodying the good news of Jesus.

Whatever lies ahead for us, I pray that Whitley will remain a life-giving, life-interpreting and life-challenging community within our Baptist family.


City church

Not long ago, I agreed to meet a church leader with a vision. Her passion was a new church plant here in the city centre. As an established pastor in the neighbourhood, and with a community that’s been around since 1843, I was clearly a person of interest.

I have to confess, I’ve come to approach conversations like this with a dose of skepticism. Though a naturally trusting soul, I’ve learned caution these past few years. The fact is, calls from large church franchises are reasonably common — those who want to use our sanctuary as their newest place to meet. It’s understandable: venues in the city centre are rare and the challenge for newcomers daunting. What troubles me, though, is that these enterprising leaders never want to talk.

Whether on the phone or in person, the standard approach of prospective ‘tenants’ is to sell me on their ‘kingdom vision’ and the numerical growth of their movement. But so rarely do they want to know about us: who we are, what we do or what we’ve learned. It’s as though they have the formula for church success, and all that’s required is an empty space to make it happen. The underlying message is barely veiled — If only you old, irrelevant city churches with property would get out of the way and let us at it, we’ll show you how it’s done.

Honestly, it feels like terra nullius all over again. There is scant regard for what’s already here and for the rich story of faith and struggle that fills this place. Even worse, it’s as though our neighbourhood is nothing more than a cool new venue for the latest brand of hipster church. Cue pictures of graffitied laneways, apartment towers and sidewalk cafes. The slick invitation is to come into the city and do church like you do a shopping mall or a Saturday night bar. Then afterwards you can head back to your suburbs, until next time.

Frankly, the city doesn’t need any more big-box franchises that drag people in for worship and fair-trade coffee only to see them leave again. If there’s no real investment in this city as a flesh-and-blood neighbourhood, then what’s the point? The challenges of the CBD are complex and layered. Inner-city clichés abound, but the reality is so much more demanding.

No doubt, old city churches like mine come with baggage galore. Believe me, we know that. Our history and property are tremendous gifts. And at the same time they are weights that hang around our necks. But take time to look beyond our organs and stained glass windows, and you’ll see faith communities with a longstanding commitment to this city and its people. And with some rungs on the board too. If you judge us only by what you see in a Sunday service, you’ll likely miss the bulk of what we do and who we are and how we struggle. But press in and you could be surprised.

This plea is not about protecting territory. I am delighted when new churches flourish in our patch. I really am. Our neighbourhood is growing and changing like you wouldn’t believe and the possibilities for new initiatives are extraordinary. As it happens, the pastor I met with this time around was really interested in us and in what’s already happening in the city centre. Her vision is for a model of church that is genuinely organic in form and focus. I left the conversation deeply encouraged, affirmed in my own ministry, and ready to cheer this pastor on as a potential colleague in the gospel. My concern here is only that we all do a better job — those who are here already and those who want to join us — at real engagement with the neighbourhood God has called us to.

Anything less is ecclesial froth without substance.

We Baptists need to talk

A few weeks back Victorian Baptists had a difficult conversation. It was all to do with marriage, more particularly our response to the possibility of same-sex marriage in Australia. Anticipating future change to the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples, a motion had been tabled to affirm our Baptist commitment to marriage as between a man and a woman; further, to ensure that pastors who marry according to Baptists rites act within that definition no matter what legislative change lies ahead.

Breaking previous records, our attendance at the delegates’ assembly illustrates the importance of the issue. While we may not all agree, when it comes to matters of sexuality we are a zealous bunch. Understandably, our Union leadership struggled with the best way to frame and conduct the conversation. Consequently the possibility for open debate was minimized. Prior to the gathering, two one-page documents were circulated to the churches, one making the case in favour of the motion and the other against. Similarly on the night, one person was asked to speak in support and one opposed. Discussion was then limited to the tables at which delegates were seated after which there was a secret ballot. As expected, the motion passed.

It is no secret where I stand on this. My appointment to Union Council in 2014 drew considerable opposition, and I was also the one who made the case against the motion on the night. Though disappointed by the outcome, I was not surprised. I understand that I hold a minority view on this issue and as much as I personally grieve the implications of the decision, I remain committed to our Baptist community. My purpose here is not to argue the case any further, but to name my concern over the continuing tenor of our conversation.

As much as I would love to simply move on – to conclude that our talk is done and our decision made – this is not an option. Firstly, the conviction of those Baptists who believe marriage equality is a gospel issue is not so easily shelved. When it comes to the gospel, we Baptists are a stubborn lot. And secondly, a steadily growing majority of our neighbours consider this an issue of some urgency. Whether we judge it to be so or not, the strategy of labeling the issue ‘non-core’ or blocking our ears to community views won’t flush. The conversation, internally and externally, has to continue. How it continues is crucial. In a context where sensitivity to issues of perceived discrimination and the violation of human rights is heightened, our neighbours are listening. Indeed, I would go as far to say that how we have the conversation is as important as the conclusions we argue for. In light of that, I reckon there are some things worth holding onto.

We Baptists listen: By conviction, we are a listening people. Without a formal creed or governing council to guide us, we have always had to take the tasks of listening and discerning seriously. We listen in our congregations and communities, and we listen within our wider fellowship of churches. That said, I fear we are losing opportunity for this sort of listening. Forums for rigorous discussion – discussion that takes us beyond one-liners and one-pagers to a more nuanced conversation – have almost disappeared. Our aversion to conflict has whittled away opportunities for real and respectful debate. While I certainly don’t want to return to the ‘good old days’ of denominational trench warfare, the loss of opportunities to listen to perspectives other than our own diminishes us.

We Baptists reflect deeply: Most Baptist would agree that the days of ‘the bible says it and that settles it’ are gone. We have had to wrestle with too many issues, culturally and theologically, to be so naïve. That said, as those who continue to hold to the authority of the Bible, the business of its interpretation is deeply challenging. Early last year a pastor who holds a different view from my own on homosexuality contacted me. He asked is we could meet periodically to talk through our approaches to the Bible on this issue. We have done so now several times and it has been one of the most enriching and challenging disciplines I’ve experienced. Each time we have prayed, read the scriptures and laid our questions on the table. While our differences remain, we have pressed and honed each other along the way and with a common commitment to the gospel. What’s more, neither of us has asked the other to check our critical faculties at the door. I long for more of this in our Baptist community.

We Baptists are sensitive to the power of testimony: The truth is, whenever we talk about these issues, there are those within our own communities – sitting at the same tables, hearing the same arguments, even within our own families – for whom being gay is not an issue for debate but the daily reality of their lives. Some may be open about this while others keep it hidden. Even in that meeting of delegates, there were men and women who could not so easily separate themselves from the issue. Their personal testimonies are deeply entwined. Whatever our view on marriage equality, we do well to remember that our words, inferences and convictions are heard and felt. Indeed, each time we talk about these things we could do worse that imagine a person from the LGBTI community sitting at the table. The question is important: how would this change the tenor of what we say?

We Baptists preference faith over labels: On both sides of this issue we have an unfortunate propensity to label those who oppose our position. Clearly labels make dismissing those in disagreement so much easier. I often cringe at the ease with which those in favour of marriage equality dismiss the opposition as ‘bigoted’ and ‘homophobic’. While I have no doubt that bigotry and fear are alive and well within segments of the church, in my experience the majority of Baptists who oppose same-sex marriage do so out a genuine desire to be faithful to God and to the Scriptures. Similarly among those opposed to same-sex marriage, to speak routinely of ‘gay lobbies’ and ‘liberal agendas’ simply dismisses those who come to their affirmative position out of a genuine desire to follow Jesus. Of course, lobby groups exist on both sides of this issue and agendas run rampant in all corners of the church. But assigning labels does nothing but shut down conversation and push fellow Christians further into their trenches.

We Baptists pray … together: Earlier this year I received a visit from some Christian leaders who had asked to meet with me to discuss issues of concern. I agreed. Once we sat down it was quickly evident that this was an intervention. They were grieved by my public position on the issue of marriage and felt compelled to call me to account. Once I realised where we were headed, I asked if we could begin in prayer. The leader of this group was quick to respond, ‘We cannot pray with you, but we will pray for you.’ With that he led a prayer outlining my errors in dot point and asking for the conviction of the Spirit. On one hand I am pleased that these leaders came to me rather than speak about me from a distance, but I was deeply troubled by their perception that I was not someone they could pray with, as though my perspective on this one issue rendered me spiritually suspect. At its essence, prayer is an act of humility, a means through which all people of faith bow in submission to the presence of God. If we cannot begin there, I wonder if the conversation is really possible.

All this said, we Baptists do need to talk, and keep talking. More important still, we Baptists need to listen, and keep listening. If we are to find ways ahead on this issue that honour God and flow out of our common allegiance to Christ, there really is no other way.

Bunnings and the Church

Twice in the last year I’ve listened to respected business leaders share insights from the corporate world with church leaders. Clearly, we are not their typical audience but their presentations were well made. Both identified characteristics of ‘high performing’ companies and prodded us to explore the implications for the local church. Given we pastors lead the outposts of an institution that fuddles along in varying states of irrelevance, we need prodding. And we have much to learn from those outside our own walls.

That said, both presenters began with reference to Bunnings. Clearly, its a retail story of extraordinary success. As well as becoming the nation’s premier retailer of hardware, Bunnings has worked its way into our psyche. In a relatively short period of time, these sprawling house-and-garden megastores have mushroomed across the nation. On weekends we pour through their doors en mass to stock up on garden compost, tap-ware for the bathroom reno, a DIY demonstration, and a sausage on the way out. No doubt, we love shopping there and, from all reports, employees love working there. They’re doing something right!

If I’m honest, though, this whole Bunnings-and-the-church thing is fraught. While I’m happy to discuss how the church can become a more welcoming proposition for our neighbours and a more rewarding place for those who are part of its ministry, the model of Bunnings for a ‘high performing’ church is shot through with awkward.

Our local Bunnings is in Port Melbourne. Since its arrival, almost every other hardware store has closed. The multiple family-owned businesses that used to dot the landscape around South and Port Melbourne — the ones where owners knew their customers’ names and lived in the same neighbourhood — have all but disappeared. It’s the same elsewhere. In a recent issue of The Monthly, journalist Malcolm Knox traced the demise of hardware stores around Sydney’s northern beaches: ‘There was Hurstwaites at Balgowlah; Harders at Harbord, McIlwraiths in Manly … There was Fairlight Hardware, Seaforth Hardware, North Balgowlah Hardware, two in Brookvale, Collaroy Hardware, Narrabeen Hardware, Wheeler Heights had one, and there was Hayman and Ellis in North Manly.’ What was an ‘ecosystem’ of 15 stores, he concluded, is now down to three Bunnings and one Hardware and General.

In the course of his research, Knox talked to one of the store owners who fell victim to this process. He had a business employing 25 staff and strong relationships with the local community: ‘When Bunnings came, it signed exclusive agreements that stopped suppliers from selling to [competitors]. … The suppliers were sinking everything into Bunnings, which is what they wanted at first, but then Bunnings screwed them down so far they couldn’t make a buck, and they couldn’t make it competitive by selling to anyone else either.’

Bunnings is not alone in this. It is widely considered best practice among the so-called ‘big-box retailers’ to saturate the market through a strategic process of clustering and cannibalising. The longer term goal is to have the playing field to themselves. Consider the ‘duopoly’ of major retailers that cover just about everything we buy in the Australian retail market — Wesfarmers/Coles and Woolworths. According to Knox, ‘we can’t go to a shopping centre without being hauled in by the duoploy — apples from Woolies, cereal from Coles, beer from Liquorland, wine from Dan Murphy’s, a hammer from Bunnings, shoes from Kmart, ink from Officeworks, a toy from Target, a pillow from Big W, petrol from Coles Express.’

Of course, none of this is especially surprising. Corporations exist to make profit for their shareholders not wellbeing for communities. According to professor of law Joel Bakan, ’the corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others.’ For people of faith, these changes in our retail landscape raise issues worth considering, but the idea that we emulate a successful retailer like Bunnings in the way we do church leaves more questions than it does pointers for church growth.

For small-church pastors like me, this argument leads too easily to cheap shots being made across the bow at the so called ‘mega-churches’ that surround us. While appropriate critiques should be made of all church models, that is not my point. Rather, I would hope that in reaching for inspiration in the pursuit of successful ministry, we would do so with more theological nous than this. For me, there are at least two elements in the church’s DNA that run counter to the Bunnings model of success. They are two elements I cannot bypass.

First, the church is local. It is the body of Christ enfleshed in a particular neighbourhood. There is nothing ‘big-box’ or generic about it. It lives, breathes and responds to the particular challenges of its locality. When it comes to the church, one size does not fit all. Second, the church is an embedded community. It rises and falls with the neighbourhood around it. The local church cannot be a world unto itself, providing a one-stop shop for successful living cut off from the ebb and flow of life around it. Rather, it’s a household of faith within a neighbourhood of life. The church is not about pulling people out of that neighbourhood for its own ends, but enabling its people to live more fully in it.

So, while Bunnings might be my only choice for light bulbs, I’ll need to go elsewhere for guidance in nurturing the church.

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.

Measuring success

How does a pastor measure her success? How does a church leader rate his impact week by week? As ignoble as they sound, questions like these are with us all the time. In rare moments of honesty, I hear them in the confession of colleagues struggling with their adequacy. I hear them, too, hidden in the bravado of the over-confident — the ones who need to tell you all the time just how successful their churches are. For both, I suspect, the questions are the same: Am I doing any good? Am I kicking goals? Am I really up for this? And how can I know?

The ‘right’ answer is obvious. I’ve heard it before: ‘It’s not about success, Simon, it’s about faithfulness. Be faithful to God and let success take care of itself.’ Yeah, ok. But honestly, faithfulness? Isn’t there something a bit more … countable? Frankly, we crave more than a ‘chestnut’ to assess our impact, no matter how truthful. What we want are numbers!

Numbers tell us things. Numbers make success measurable. If there are ten more people this Sunday than last, that’s good, right? If the pews are more obviously full this year than they were last year, that’s a goal, right? If the offerings are on the up, that’s a clear indicator of success, right? To say no to any of this is disingenous. Whether we like it or not, numbers matter to us. Numbers are tangible and, given they’re headed in the right direction, they make a pastoral report look so much better! That said, numbers like these are also the bane of a pastor’s life. They are extraordinarily fickle things — slippery, and so very hard to hold for any length of time. Numbers can be used to stroke your ego one day and hit you over the head the next. Numbers can hurt.

Years ago, as a young pastor-in-training, I spent time in the US. I stayed with a seasoned pastor and his family, sitting at their dining room table for Sunday lunch over several months. After each Sunday service and on his way out the door, the pastor was handed a little slip of paper. On it were three numbers: the day’s participants in all-age Sunday School, the offerings for the morning, and the number of worshippers in attendance that day. The slip of paper would sit just to the right of his lunch plate as we ate, and I would watch his mood rise or fall week by week depending on the trend of those figures. The truth is, he was a far more gifted pastor than I will ever be, but as I watched the weekly impact of those numbers on his sense of worth, I remember thinking, ‘God, save me from this!’

Collins Street Baptist Church

Certainly the desire for numerical measures of success in the church, while not always nobly inspired, is human. In the midst of all the vagaries of pastoral ministry, it’s good to have something we can count. Besides, aspiring to growth through what we do is surely worthwile. Without vision, longing, aspiration, ministry can stagnate. It can even start to smell. Occasionally, as I walk through our old sanctuary at Collins Street (when no one else is around), I stop and imagine. I imagine the sanctuary full of people, the gallery overflowing with worshippers. I hear the stories of the golden days, the days when you had to have a ticket to get a seat, when neighbouring theatres had to be booked to cope with the crowds. Yes, it was a long time ago, a different age, but it’s still a great story. Who wouldn’t aspire to the visible signs of a vital and growing congregation, no matter what the context?

I suspect an important question for pastors is around just what the signs of spiritual vitality are in a church. After all, if we’re going to measure things, we need to measure the right things. What’s more, any measuring we do needs to be done with a generous dose of humility, for there’s a good chance that, held captive by numbers, we become blind to more significant truths. In my experience, there is so much to the deepening of faith in a church — things that cannot be tallied on a spreadsheet. Indeed, there’s a great deal about the church as a living, fragile organism of faith that is intangible and defies the simple trajectory of graphs and charts. While numbers can tell us things important to ministry — things to which we need to pay attention — they can also be deceptive. Numbers can hide as much as they reveal.

Frankly, I don’t know how one measures success in church leadership. What’s more, I’m rarely comfortable with those who say they do. While I suspect there’s a legitimate need for doing so — a place for KPIs, numerical targets and counting things — I am also conscious that the church I lead is not a business and that I dare not reduce our evaluation of mission to measuring market share. What I do know is that the call to follow Jesus is a call as much to loss as gain, as much to a downward journey as an upward trajectory. Because of this, a pastor’s self-evaluation demands a level of rigour and grace that numbers alone will never provide.

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.

Leonardo Boff on sacrament

‘The sacraments are not the private property of the sacred hierarchy. They are basic constituents of human life. Faith sees grace present in the most elementary acts of life. So it visualizes them and elevates them to the sacramental level.’

‘Daily life is full of sacraments. In the archeology of everyday life the sacraments thrive … they have become sacraments. In other words, they are signs that contain, exhibit, recall, visualize and communicate another reality, a reality different from themselves but present in them.’

‘A sacrament does not tear human beings away from this world. It addresses an appeal to them, asking them to look more closely and deeply into the very heart of the world.’

UnknownLeonardo Boff, Sacraments of Life, Life of the Sacraments: Story Theology. Washington: Pastoral, 1987, pages 7, 11 and 32.