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Moving up in the ranks

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Let me start this post by repeating a story I was told. There was this guy who wanted to get involved in ministry. He envisioned going to the pulpit and told his pastor he wanted a more active role in church. The pastor handed him a broom and asked him to sweep the floor of the church. There are two teachings from this story:

  • never approach your pastor, or you’ll get landed with a job ;-)
  • no task is too menial. Every one is just as needed and just as worthy an occasion to serve.

But every time I think back on this story and on practices in other churches I’ve been to, something jars: that sweeping the floor is only seen as a stepping stone towards a bigger ministry. That there is a career ladder in church involvement, with the golden prize being, depending on your denomination, Archbishop of Canterbury, pope, or something else. Or, staying at the local level, preaching.


Photo: Flickr user Mykl Roventine, reused under CC license

And then, you get into a rotas hierarchy that goes something like this:

1. Taking care of the tea and coffee at the back

2. Welcoming/Carrying the elements

3. Doing the Epistle reading

4. Being a server

5. Doing the Gospel reading

6. Leading the intercessions

7. Preaching, the Holy Grail of Church Involvement.

7a. Preaching on Low Sunday

7b. Preaching on any other Sunday

7c. Preaching at a special event (e.g., baptism; carol service)

7d. Preaching at Easter.

8. Presiding/Celebrating the Eucharist (at the same events)


Of course, along the way, there are a variety of other ways to get involved, e.g. Sunday school/small group leadership/being a warden/being on PCC/keeping the church clean/etc.

Thankfully, this hierarchy is usually about as far removed from the truth as coffee is from goodness. Church leaders are notorious chair-stackers, even when the building uses pews. The odd jobs that need doing are done. Until there’s a rota, that is.

As soon as a rota springs into existence (that is, for visible jobs), the little jobs turn into opportunities for leadership that the experienced leader shouldn’t hog. After all, doing the readings requires little experience (well, erm, more on that in another post…); so it’s something others can happily do. So that’s how we come to the list given above. Yes, there are practical reasons behind it too, but let’s pause and consider what it looks like from the outside.

It looks like there’s an ever smaller team of people getting involved in the higher jobs, and that the more they get involved in those, the less they have to be in the lower jobs. That’s why when I went from step 3 to step 6, and then to step 7, I was told “oooh, you’re going up in the ranks”. That’s also why I found it daunting and quite flattering to go from preaching on Low Sunday to preaching on Trinity Sunday.

But that’s the wrong way to look at it. I’ve said it before: any position is a leadership position. I consider the readings as far more important to the service than the preaching. I consider the tea at the end to be very important too, mind! And here lies the danger: that by considering some jobs to be more important/higher up than others, not only might people become prideful, but also, the actual parts of the service might be ranked by the congregation.

Readings – the Bible – might end up as less of a centrepiece than the sermon. Being a server might end up being a chore and an unnecessary embellishment, rather than a leadership role. And so on.

So we need to do everything we can to avoid this situation, and to visibly counter it. The way this goes depends hugely on the church’s organisation, but here are two suggestions:

  • remove visible elements that would lead to this perception of a hierarchy. For instance, let the preacher sit with the congregation rather than on a special chair; or get all the liturgical participants onto special chairs. (This will get tricky when you want to set apart specific parts of the service, with good reason – e.g. Gospel procession…)
  • make sure the people involved are so at all feasible levels. That means that the incumbent should deal with the tea and coffee every once in a while, do the reading, etc. etc.

Then will we have a less hierarchical vision of the bride of Christ, and leave space for its rightful head (no, not the Queen).

A Tale of Two Congregations


In a growing church, there once were two congregations, each of them thriving in its own way. The building could have accommodated both groups at once – in fact, there were sometimes joint services. But you couldn’t have that too often. Oh, no: the styles of worship were too different. The late morning group was quite pedantic about following proper liturgy and was used to smells and bells; but the early morning group was of the happy clappy persuasion. And let’s not talk about the evening service, designed for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t get up early on a Sunday. After all, it is meant to be a day off, right?

taleoftwoPhoto credits: Wikimedia users Rafael Faria and Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez, used under CC license

And so joint services, when they happened, were a matter of compromise: we’ll have some modern music, but we’ll also read off Common Worship. And we’ll robe up, but we won’t use the kneelers for communion. Elements for the high church congregation, elements to give a spiritual high to the late morning group. And while everyone could see the other group needed to be accommodated in joint services, it didn’t mean they liked it. Or that they could engage with worship very well.

While each congregation was left to enjoy its particular way of worship, they experimented more and more into each direction, until visitors would believe there were two different churches meeting in the same building.

It is easy – relatively speaking – to satisfy the expectations of a congregation in terms of how the service is ordered, when those expectations are broadly similar across the board. It is even easier to avoid the particular tidbits that you know will annoy a specific individual within your congregation – for instance, blacklisting a hymn on non-theological considerations. We don’t sing about the wrath of God because so and so doesn’t like it and will kick up a fuss if we do.

It is much harder to satisfy the expectations of a mixed congregation.

But if that’s what we’re trying to do, our focus is wrong: it’s a primary focus on the congregation. Of course, the congregation is important, but what matters more is who we worship. Hopefully, this is a given and the purpose of the services and the ways in which they are ordered all point to that; but where disagreements arise, they lead to the largest headaches and end up, inevitably, becoming the focus of attention. Instead of Christ. The same Christ, who is both fully human and fully divine, is not a compromise between humanity and divinity. He is not taking this part of humanity at the expense of that one, he is not accepting this attribute of divinity at the expense of another one. He is both at once, in a kiss between heaven and earth.

If we can accept this meeting place, then our services can also reflect that. We can order a service drawing elements from both styles of worship – not in order to try to please both, but in order to enrich our worship of Christ. Not in order to be inclusive, but in order to reflect this joining of the human and the divine.

Then, it won’t matter whether it’s more high or more low church. The joint service will be a celebration of the diversity of God’s people, meeting together as Christ’s body, and becoming fully high and fully low at the same time. And slowly, all services will be joint services, and the unity of the Church will be made visible.

Of course, this is easier said than done. There are specific rules that should be followed for high church services under canon law (as far as I know, but do correct me if I’m wrong), and until there is a change in how we view Common Worship and other ASBs, it will not be possible to incorporate elements from all congregations in a meaningful way.

Making youth ministry exciting

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Youth ministry has dramatically changed in its format over the past few decades, because ministry as a whole has changed.

It is no longer assumed that people are churched throughout their lives, and so introduction to Christianity courses have had to be made available to adults and students. The Alpha course and similar curricula aimed at seekers have taken an ever larger importance in modern churches. Their story is one of (at least perceived) success. I think the reason behind that is simply that the purpose for these courses is clear and acknowledged: introducing interested people to the core beliefs of Christianity. Both clarity of purpose and acknowledgement thereof are missing from Sunday youth ministry.


Original photo: Peter Mercator, reused under CC License

Are youth ministers meant to provide a broad Biblical education, telling the young ones about a variety of Bible stories (but carefully avoiding Song of Songs or Ezekiel 23)? Or are we meant to provide the spiritual milk that will then allow the young ones to feed themselves? As preachers have stopped assuming the congregation know the Old Testament backwards, the former aim loses relevance, but keeps on being followed because there has been little transition from the former model to a hypothetical new one.

In order to ease that transition, two facts are worth remembering.

1. Youth ministry is not a glorified children-minding service.

That means two things: firstly, that when we approach youth ministry, we shouldn’t ask ourselves how to fill the schedule with things to do for every week. Rather, we should look at this time as an opportunity to do something with the youths. It might be worth taking an Alpha-like approach to youth ministry and have medium-length series to go through. Say, 4 weeks to explain sin and forgiveness; with that cycle repeated as many times as necessary as new youngsters come along; and studies going deeper, still in short or medium-length cycles spanning more than one week.

Secondly, the provision of youth ministry for all, week on week should not be a given. The default should be for children brought to church to stay in church rather than be taken away as soon as the service proper starts. Because unless there is a true purpose to going away with groups, then the children might as well stay with the adults. That way, at least, we might all learn something from what they say. So, say we’re in the third week of that 4-week series with a group of youngsters, and a new family comes to church – or a regular absentee is here for once. There should be no stigma associated with suggesting that they stay in the service rather than go away with the groups.

Similarly, there should be no stigma associated with adults wishing to join in the module (as long as it is from the start); although things such as age-appropriateness and group dynamics need to be kept in mind.

2. What we’re talking about is, in and of itself, exciting. (aka: there is no call for gimmicks)

In educational research, there’s a lot of talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. The aim is generally to teach students to do maths because it is enjoyable and interesting of itself, not because there is a good grade in it for them at the end of it. Now, it is difficult to be excited about the use of a protractor, or about surds or Bidmas (although it is, I’m told, possible).

But what we’re talking about in youth ministry is exciting. It is because it is exciting that we chose to talk about it and share it with the young ones. I love talking about Gideon because I find that I relate to his story a lot and that through it, I find out about my relationship with God. Because I do, I don’t need to start with a silly game when that story is the topic of the week, but I can share this passion.

When we are structuring our session on three tenuously linked pillars – game, chat, God stuff – of course, the latter will appear slightly less fun; and so it will look as though we are ashamed to talk about God (especially if we feel like child minders…). But if the core of the session is the subject matter, then that becomes visibly worth it in itself!

Don’t get me wrong – there is a place for games and chats. Definitely. And this blog has tons of great ideas. But these should only be used when they have a purpose that fits in with the rest of the session: making a specific point more memorable, or explaining a particularly difficult point. Not simply for the sake of making the session more exciting.

Let me put this a different way: if, while planning, I’m asking myself “How do I make this exciting?”, then I’m doing it wrong. What I should be asking myself is “Am I excited about this?”. If not, then I have no place teaching about it. If so, then the planning question is “Why am I excited about it?”

No gimmicks, but personal conviction: that is the way to make youth ministry exciting.

Leadership? What leadership?

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Leadership is a word that gets bandied around a fair bit. We’re all leaders, or so we’re told; and yet, “leadership” is a skill that acts as a criterion for selection for ordination in the Church  of England.

So what is this elusive leadership? Is it simply living holy lives? Or is it actively challenging others to seek better things? Is it actually self-reproductive management (leaders growing leaders etc.)? Here comes the problem: the word has been used to mean so many different things that “leader” now means either a very specific “in charge” position, or a watered down quality of being that we all have.

And so there are some activities which appear to fall under “leadership”, such as “Worship leader”, pastor, small group leader, and so on and so forth. That shoves the rest of the activities in church into a lump of facilitating activities. Welcoming. Providing tea and, yes, even coffee in some churches. Being a server. Working at the sound desk or with the slideshow. Reading out Scripture. Things that are done because they need to be done.


Photo: Wikimedia user Bridgman, under CC license

That doesn’t stop these activities from being appealing. Far from it – I think in some cases, the lack of responsibility associated with the absence of perceived leadership is very appealing indeed. And for a wealth of other reasons, people (and I include myself in this) end up helping out in a church, but passively and without meaning. Because the work needs doing, and that’s it.

I was being a server because, or so I thought, for the sake of tradition, someone needed to hold up the candle; and someone needed to help prepare the Table. It’s only after I had been doing it a while and through talking with the coordinator that I realised that the purpose  of “high” church liturgy, and through it, acolytes, was to lead people into worship. In carrying the candle, I was leading people, encouraging them to look towards God. The role and the actions of being a server never felt the same after that.

The same goes for reading Scripture. If you’re called upon to read Scripture at your church, and you’re just thinking it’s a necessary first step so the sermon can build on it; and that the true leadership rests within the preacher’s hands, you are wrong. Yours is the responsibility to make the text come alive. Yours is the responsibility to draw people to it, through your speaking.

The list goes on, and on, and on. Every single role in a church, from flower arranger to preacher, from musical director to welcomer, is there to point towards God and to help others in that direction. So let’s stop all that nonsense about calling specific positions of “leadership” when all they are is positions of management. If we don’t, we risk turning those jobs into mundane tasks, rather than parts of the supernatural event of heaven meeting earth.

And if you help out, in whatever small or big way, at your church, then be sure of this: you have a great responsibility; and you’re not just facilitating the smooth operation of the service: you are pointing people towards Christ and directing their gaze in the right direction.

Starting Small – The Ultimate Small Group Blueprint (an interview)

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My good friend Ben, a pastor who blogs over here, and who does weird things like sending me coffee, has just released a book! It’s a short and easy read full of wisdom. In it, Ben’s passion for small groups really shows and it made me realise just how powerful small groups can and should be. It’s also full of practical advice for  potential leaders and coordinators.

If you’re interested in buying this book (it is a bargain at $5.18 – just over £3!), follow this link – or go to the book’s website for more info and access to free bonus content.


Ben has been kind enough to answer some questions about his book and about small groups in general – here they are!

In the book, you give strategies to coordinate the launch of small groups and some tips for small groups themselves. Who’s the intended audience of the book? Small group leaders, or coordinators of lots of small groups at church level, or an altogether different group of people?

It’s all of the above. Really, it’s anyone who wants to improve the health and effectiveness of their small group, or their overall church’s strategy for launching, and sustaining, small group health. Small group leaders, small group pastors, lead pastors, education directors, and apprentice/not-yet leaders would benefit from it.

In one sentence, how do you want this book to impact its readers?

I want them to feel the weight of exhilarating possibility and responsibility placed on them by God to steward the gift of community.

How big/small can small groups be? What’s the magic number?

I don’t know if there’s a magic number that fits every person exactly. It kind of depends on what the group leader’s comfortable with. I find myself comfortable in a room of 18-22. Others find it hard to connect in a group larger than 12. My best guess is that there’s a happy medium between 12-18.
But we call a small group any group of 3 or more people that meets to study the Scriptures and seek God together

Deep relationships of mutual trust seem to be the staple of small groups. Should the seeds of that trust be present before the small group launches, or are they created in the small group?

I know it seems counterintuitive, but more often than not, the groups that start where everyone “knows” each other don’t tend to do as well as the groups that form with random people. There seems to be some sort of desperation present in groups of “random” folks that just isn’t there when people have known each other for longer periods before joining a group together.
Seeds of trust can be present. But they absolutely don’t have to be. Small groups create and nurture trust as people step out in faith and choose authenticity and vulnerability rather than masking their story, heartache, failures, and victories.

Why is it important for small groups to have a limited lifetime (you suggest a mix of 12-24 month alongside some shorter-term ones)?

Most group’s life cycle runs 12-18 months. After that time, a group is typically so comfortable together that it’s time to think critically about spinning out a few different groups.
A byproduct of healthy community is an inward focus. Which isn’t necessarily bad. But over time, this inward focus seems to dominate.
Take the example of the ingrown toe nail. At first, it doesn’t seem so bad. You may not even notice it. But give that toe nail a few months, and it starts to hurt. 6 months later, you’ve got to have surgery. But if you’d taken care of it the first time you noticed it, pain and frustration could’ve been avoided.
Groups naturally turn inwards. And that’s not a bad thing. But allowing that inwardness to dominate is where sickness comes in.

Are small groups only for people already attending church?

Absolutely not! Small groups are a fantastic way to reach out to your community. It’s a tougher sell to get someone to step a foot inside the walls of the church you attend…it’s much easier to get them to step into your home to eat a meal and discuss faith issues. Because you’ve built a relationship with them…and the Church has only corrupted their view of God. At least their public perception of the Church has done that.

How big are the churches you have worked in, and do you think your blueprint translates to smaller settings?

I’ve been on staff in churches that run 70 on Sunday mornings, that run 1500 on Sunday mornings, and that run 8000 on Sunday mornings. Small groups work at each church unbelievably effectively. Because as long as you have more than 2 people, you can have a small group!
Also, the early, New Testament church was historically a bunch of smaller house churches. Because of government restrictions (public martyrdom), it was difficult to have a huge mega church. But some how, they still found a way to, day by day, attend the temple courts and break bread in homes. (Acts 2:46) Through this, we’re told that God added to their number daily.
One group of 3 becomes a group of 6, if everyone invites one other person. Which becomes a group of 12 if that happens again. It’s exponential growth. You should know that, right? You’re a math nerd. :) [note to Ben: in proper English, it’s “maths”]

You keep on telling us that small group members shouldn’t be passive information-soakers – that we should “develop contributors, not customers”. How do we, practically, achieve that?

You start developing this culture through the leader. Instead of setting up leaders to be “teachers” in the sense that they’re the keepers of the information, and the one who answers all of the questions because they’re the “expert,” the leader should value group discussion and collaboration.
If the leader feels the need to be the first to answer every question, the first to say the “right” answer, and the first to come up with every “good” idea, your community will be a soaking, rather than a contributing, community.
I help leaders value varying gifts in their small group, and share the responsibility of leadership, rather than hoarding that gift. As they share responsibility, they help others take ownership.

I think you’ve missed out a great tool for fellowship-making: tea. How do you explain such an oversight?

Jesus drank coffee, not tea. Just read your Bible. It’s in there. :)

You mention small group series called “temple archaeology” and “42 weeks through the book of Esther” – these sound thrilling. Where can I find them?

I hope you can never, ever find them. Please, Lord Jesus, don’t let them ever hit the shelves. :) [note: readers, if you’re interested in those series, just tell me in a comment. No? Just me then?]

What makes small groups “unsafe”?

What’s “unsafe” about small groups? Your sin. Your comfort. Your “easy” life. Your “clean” life. Your “clean” hands. Not caring about people.
Small groups throw you right into the middle of real life ministry. And there’s nothing safe or easy about that.
But it’s so, so good.