A few weeks ago I attended the first Summit gathering of the International Society for Urban Mission (ISUM) in Bangkok. Two hundred Christian missionaries, mostly those working in slums around the world, came together to consider the challenge presented by the rapid rise of urban poverty. It was easily the best conference I have attended for a very long time. From the start, the theme, Integral Urban Mission, sent a clear message that there should be no artificial distinction between a ‘spiritual gospel’ and ‘social gospel’. Rosalee Velloso Ewell from Brazil gave an inspiring opening address unpacking the positive and negative aspects of cities from a Biblical and theological perspective, and reflecting on how the Biblical concept of ‘dwelling’ impacts our understanding of incarnational mission in an urban setting. All of the speakers were excellent, but we did far more than sit and listen. Over 30 site visits were offered for delegates to choose from, each one an opportunity to interact with amazing people working in situations of need in Bangkok. The conference delegates broke into seven working groups addressing different aspects of urban ministry among the poor. Each group produced material for a 10,000 word briefing paper, all seven of which will be gathered into a major resource to be published later this year. It was my job to chair the first Annual General Meeting of ISUM, which a small group of us formed just a year ago. We now have many more members and a great sense of being fully launched!
I found the conference to be extraordinarily well-designed and executed, but the biggest positive for me was in the general atmosphere of joy. Two hundred Christian workers, most of them living in extremely tough conditions, and not one word of complaint or moaning or whinging. Sure, there was a realistic acknowledgement that working among the urban poor is challenging and requires sacrifice. But as one young woman said to me, ‘This is what I’m made for. I’m having the time of my life and wouldn’t want to do anything else.’ Nigel Branken is a wealthy white man who responded to God’s call to live among the poor of Hillbrow in Johannesburg with his wife, Trish, and four small children. That’s him with me in the picture above. Slowly Nigel and Trish and the kids are bringing the light of the transforming love of Christ into a very dark part of the city. He broke down in tears when he realised that there were others in the world who cared about the urban poor the way he does. He thought he was the only one, because so few South African Christians take this aspect of the gospel message seriously. (At least, that what he told me.) There are many other inspiring stories; too many to relate here. I came away deeply grateful for the privilege of calling these people my family in God, and wanting to do whatever I can to encourage, strengthen and sustain them.
Last week and this week I have been accompanying my British friends Martin Robinson and Paul Griffiths as they teach on evangelism and church planting. Last week they were in Sydney and this week in Brisbane. After this they will go on to Melbourne without me for a few days then back to the UK. Martin comes to these topics with a vast and coherent grasp of history and theology and hundreds of stories from around the world that throw light on how God is working in and through the church in our day. Paul brings practical tools that help ordinary Christians translate theory into a sustainable and credible lifestyle of faith sharing. While he is a big fan of Alpha for those who are ready and interested in ‘Christian’ questions, he rightly points out that most unbelievers today are further back than that. Many are WAY further back than that. He has developed tools that engage unbelievers in spiritual conversations about the topics that they are interested in. There’s no entrapment like the old timeshare holiday presentations. This is genuine two-way communication, well facilitated through tools like a game called ‘Table Talk’ and a pre-Alpha course called ‘Puzzling Questions.’ Having set up this tour I’m now enjoying hearing them share with so many varied groups and seeing God at work, turning on the lights and stirring hearts for mission. All very encouraging.
This weekend I’ll be with Coast Community Church at Bensville beginning a year of training 17 people as spiritual mentors. I can tell you, I’m really excited about this because I know that each person is going to experience personal growth for themselves, and through the practical nature of this training, they are going to pass that on to many other people. This is now the second cohort of mentors being trained at Coast and it’s all part of their Senior Pastor’s strategy to take discipleship seriously and make it a normal part of the culture of the church. I don’t know of any church anywhere that has a clearer, more practical approach to forming people for life in the Kingdom of God. I had a ball with last year’s cohort. They are such wonderful people – easy to have a laugh with but also the kind of people you’d trust with your life. They have genuine care for others so that they invest time to see them flourish in God. This year the new cohort will do a lot of hard work in reading and reflection and in practical application, we’ll share stories, laugh and commiserate together and come out the other end enriched by the journey. In one sense this is pretty demanding for me as the trainer, but I absolutely love it.
Years ago I used to ‘lead worship’ a lot. Back in the 1980s it was probably a more prominent and more strongly affirmed part of my public ministry than speaking. At the time, ‘leading worship’ was synonymous with ‘leading the singing’. We knew that worship was more than singing, but we did love to sing and that’s what we majored on. Singing and playing my guitar was not just a public thing, it was also the biggest and most life-giving aspect of my personal worship. I wrote songs and recorded them; I got to lead worship bands at big events and ran worship seminars and all that stuff. But over the years as a ministry team leader it was smarter to give that ministry away to others so that I could concentrate on other aspects of my role that could not be delegated. That was kind of sad, but a necessary step. And the upside was that I got to see so many young worship leaders emerge and mature in a way that never would have happened if I’d hogged the role. In the past couple of years leading singing in worship has evaporated completely. I no longer pick up my guitar because I only ever did that in order to play for worship. In the same timeframe, my son Tom has emerged as a brilliant guitarist and a very able and passionate worship leader. Now, something unexpected has happened. At my new church I’ve been asked to play guitar and lead worship. My first outing is this Sunday – playing in the band Sunday morning and leading Sunday night. I’m as nervous as a kitten. Could this be God returning something precious to me? I do hope it’s not just our worship director remembering former glories, and me falling for the temptation to go backwards to a place that used to be a place of spiritual intimacy and ministry effectiveness. My desire is for it to be a new start, not a re-run of an old thing. Connected to the past, for sure – God never wastes any of our past experiences but weaves them into our future in creative ways. Yet I’m looking for something fresh here. Therefore I’m out of my depth which, since Peter got out of the boat, has always the best way to see God come through, don’t you think?
Grace and peace,