Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Building up the Body in Britain: A guest post by Brett McCracken

One of the tensions of any healthy church is the tension of gathering and scattering, of strong community and robust mission; or as we often talk about at Southlands, of winning “home and away games.” Managing this tension is not easy but it is biblical. Jesus set the model for it early with his disciples. Mark 3:14 says that Jesus called the twelve for the sake of interpersonal community (“so that they might be with him”) but also for mission (“and he might send them out to preach”). Discipleship is always about gathering and growing together but also scattering and sending out on mission.

That is why Southlands sent a team to the UK for 12 days earlier this month, ministering to churches far away from “home.” Even when things are busy on the homefront (in this case with the launch of the Whittier community!) it is important to keep a perspective on what “home” really means in the kingdom of God. One could argue that, as all believers’ true “home” is their heavenly inheritance, winning “home games” is actually any success we achieve in building up or expanding the family of God.

 As our team of 11 from Southlands worshipped alongside brothers and sisters in Christ in the UK, living in their homes and enjoying long meals with them, this sense of redefined “home” was felt strongly. We may not share national citizenship with them, but we share a heavenly citizenship and a sense of being pilgrims and aliens in this world, together. We are the same family, the same team. Our victories and losses are shared.

While in the country we spent concentrated time with two partner churches. The first was Cornerstone Church in Newcastle, a church that has been dear to Southlands for as long as it has existed (planted by Southlands members Drew and Tammy Davis). Pastored by South African expats Mike and Esole Duff, Cornerstone occupies a floor of an office building in the center of Newcastle upon Tyne, a large university town in Northeast England. The second was Jubilee Community Church in Maidenhead, just outside of London. Pastored by Stuart and Louise Otto, this church was originally planted by Charles Spurgeon in 1873.

Though both Cornerstone and Jubilee are small by American standards, they are large and lively by UK standards. We were heartened and impressed by these churches’ passion, efficiency and hospitality. Our Southlands team served in a variety of ways during the weekends we spent with each church. We led workshops on topics ranging from discipleship and evangelism to marriage and parenting. During Sunday services Alan preached and our team led worship, prayed and ministered to people in a variety of ways. At Cornerstone in Newcastle we helped put on a Friday night concert/outreach event in a pub in the center of the city. At Jubilee we were able to help serve and facilitate a conference of British church planters associated with the Advance network. The Holy Spirit moved strongly at both churches while we were there, both in individual lives and in catalyzing change for the churches as a whole.

The churches we spent time with proved to be counter-examples to the prevailing narrative of the UK being a “spiritually dead” nation where churches are all empty. Contrary to that often overstated diagnosis, the churches we visited were quite alive and bearing much fruit for the gospel. One church we visited briefly in London was Holy Trinity Brompton, a British megachurch and the birthplace of the Alpha  program. Pastored by Nicky Gumbel, HTB has a vibrant presence for Jesus in a very secular city. It was no coincidence that the first stranger we had a conversation with in a pub in London had not only heard of Alpha but had attended an Alpha group in London (twice). 1 in 3 Londoners knows what Alpha is. Amazing!

Though it was costly to send a team of 11 Southlands leaders (including two elders) to the UK on the same week that Southlands Whittier was launched, it was also a beautiful picture of the healthy functioning of the body of Christ. The UK trip was about one part of the body working to make another part of the body healthier. And the whole body (Southlands Brea/Fullerton/Whittier, Jubilee, Cornerstone, etc.) emerges stronger from it.

We see this model in the New Testament: Paul writing to churches and gospel partners in various parts of the world, encouraging them in faith and ministry, addressing areas of unhealthiness and laboring to strengthen the whole body of Christ. And that is what we sought to do on this trip.
One great thing about the trans-national, cross-cultural diversity of the body of Christ is that believers from different backgrounds and from across oceans help other believers see things they might not otherwise see. Travel in general is one of the best ways to gain perspective on one’s home context, and the same goes for ministry-centered travel. This was certainly true for us. From the UK church we come home inspired to be as “all in” as they are, efficient and lean in operation, persistent in service even when major “wins” are few and far between. And the UK church gained new perspectives and insights from us as well, with reports of gratitude coming back from various folks we encountered. 

“Home and away” ministry is never easy, but it’s always rewarding. Whether down the street or across the ocean, may we always see the benefit in building up the body of Christ.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Ephesus: Sent with staying power.

After an amazing weekend with Cornerstone Church in Newcastle, Rynelle and I left the team in the very capable hands of Neil and Jaclyn Thomas and Brett and Kira McCracken, as they began 4 days of exploring Christian history around the UK. We joined PJ and Ashleigh Smyth and Donnie and Jill Griggs near Izmir, Turkey, for a gathering of 60 movement leaders who are connected to the broader New Frontiers family representing 1500 churches around the world.  I'm so thankful to God for Terry Virgo, who, instead of holding on to leadership or simply handing on to one man, gave away his sphere of leadership to many leaders for a multiplied future. It was magnificent to witness this first hand.

A very colorful and high capacity crew gathered just outside Ephesus. There were leaders from Kenya, Zambia, South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, UK, Ukraine, Russia, India, Cambodia, Myanmar, Australia and the USA. Numerous movements are working to plant churches in Turkey, and being central and relatively inexpensive, this is where we gathered. In short, it's been hugely inspiring to hear and pray into what God is doing in the nations, and the equipping for mission has been absolutely world class. We're so excited to bring home some shared best practices to Southlands as we work together with Advance partner churches around the USA.

Turkey has a population of 70 million people. There are little more than 7000 Christians there at present. You do the math. It's a minute fraction of the population.  However, there is hope. Donnie and Jill spent a few days with a church planter named Andy,  who moved  to Istanbul from the UK 6 years ago. He took 2 years to learn Turkish and then planted a church. He's baptized 40 new believers in the last 4 years of his church plant and has a plan to plant 4 churches over the next few years.. His second church will be planted in an area of the city that has 1.5 million people and no churches. Not yet, anyway. I love his courage, vision and perseverance.

A real highlight was getting to visit the city of Ephesus, just 10 miles from where we were staying. Standing in the Lecture Hall of Tyrannous, where the Apostle Paul preached, was quite surreal. He actually stood here. This really happened. Acts 19 tells us that Paul reasoned and persuaded the Gentiles about Christ for 2 years, after which the whole province was filled with God's Word. And of course, we visited the magnificent amphitheater which seats 25 000 people,  where the riot in Ephesus began because Christians were burning their idols of the goddess Artemis. Paul ended up in a prison not far from Ephesus for preaching the gospel and challenging the religious status quo. I was freshly reminded of his words to the Church in Corinth. "I wish to spend the winter with you but I must stay in Ephesus, because an effective door of ministry has opened to me and I have many adversaries." Paul's adversaries included Jewish legalists, sorcerers, and rioters. But he didn't run.  The resurrected Christ didn't only empower him to go. He empowered him to stay. He had such courageous perseverance and it meant that the Word of God spread and prevailed.

Paul, of course, was amazing. But he wasn't a super-hero. We have access to the same staying power that he found in Jesus. It is the same staying power which enables our friend planting churches in Istanbul to persevere. It is this same staying power that enables us at Southlands to work, worship and witness faithfully in Whittier, Fullerton and Brea. Of course the doors of opportunity and the adversaries are different here in SoCal, but the staying power is the same!  Paul and Andy provide a healthy perspective on the challenges we face, don't they?
If they can persevere, I can persevere, and you can too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Best of British.

Spending a night in Gatwick Airport is not what I'd call the Best of British, but there was simply no way around it. The one redeeming component is that Jamie Oliver's Cafe' is open all night, so Rynelle and I are sitting here sipping very slowly on his home-made lemon grass ginger-beer while trying to resist his amazing looking cakes. So far so good.

I'm also trying to gather my thoughts after a whirlwind week in England. It began in Kensington at Holy Trinity Brompton, the church that started the Alpha course. Alpha is essentially an 8 week invitation to explore the claims of Christianity over dinner with permission to question, disagree and doubt. It has enjoyed massive success over the years having been attended by over 27 million people in 129 countries. It has seen a huge amount of skeptics, agnostics and atheists come to faith in Christ. We've been doing Alpha for 4 years at Southlands, so Erik and I were invited to attend a conference for leaders of early-adopting Alpha church sin the USA and Canada. We were able to share best practices and learn from the church where it all started. Alpha is an evangelistic tool that has enjoyed huge success, but it has also had the surprising effect of being a bridge builder between traditionally divided churches. There were leaders from Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian,  Pentecostal and independent churches, all united for the common cause of the gospel. Alpha has also had the surprising effect of helping people to engage the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The highlight of my time at HTB was praying for a catholic priest called Father Simon, who was eager for the Holy Spirit to empower him to be a witness for Christ in his parish in Toronto.  I was so moved by his humility and love for Jesus. Both Erik and I left inspired by what God is doing through Alpha and motivated to see it grow in effectivenes at Southlands.

From HTB I left to meet the Southlands team flying into Heathrow. We traveled up to Cornerstone Church in Newcastle. This has been our fourth trip in four years to the church planted by Drew and Tammy Davis 13 years ago. We have walked with the church through transition, as Mike and Esole' Duff came to lead three years ago. The team of elders have done a remarkable job in transition, and it was a thrill to see how God has grown the church in so many ways. They've just moved to a new, larger venue across the street and are seeing some real traction in this influential city with its international feel.

Although the UK is a small island, with small cars, small roads and small houses, I always feel enlarged being here, because Christians get a lot done with a little. They just get on with the job, no frills and on fuss. There is a real lack of entitlement, and they seem generally undeterred by their limited resources. They talk quietly but sing loudly! They are marvelously understated, under-promising and over-delivering. The idea that the church here is dying is simply not true. It is true that Christians are in the vast minority but the  churches we've been with, are growing, seeing people saved and added and having to cram people into venues that are bursting at the seams. They generally have small margins in terms of leaders, money, time and space, but they steward what they have faithfully and courageously and God entrusts them with more.
This, my friends, is the Best of British.