You Can Pray – the movie

Here ‘s a short video introducing my new book, You Can Pray.

You Can Pray is available from in the US and thinkivp elsewhere.

For the next three weeks or so ThinkIVP are offering a special discount on You Can Pray for readers of my blog. Order through these links and you will get the hard copy for £6 and the ebook for £4. This offer does not apply to orders from North America.


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Growing pains – the solution

In a couple of previous posts I’ve written about the challenge of ‘growing pains’. In this post we see the response of the apostles to this challenge.

The solution: change

The solution is change. The solution is new structures with greater delegation and specialisation. Acts 6:2-4 says: ‘So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’

Back in 4:34-35 it seems that apostles were involved in the distribution of the food. But as the church continues to grow they can’t minister the word and administer the money. They’re doing a good job at ministering the word, but a bad job at ministering the tables. Perhaps they could do a good job ministering at table, but that would mean doing a bad job ministering the word. So:

  •     they delegate – they appoint seven men to take responsibility for the distribution
  •     they specialise – they give themselves to the ministry of the word and prayer

The result: more growth

The result is more growth. First, there is numerical growth. Acts 6:7 says: ‘So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly.’ The new structures enable the apostles to focus on preaching the word. As a result, the word spreads and more people are saved.

Second, new missionary fields open up. Verse 7 continues: ‘The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.’ The gospel reaches new people – in this case some of the temple priests. One of the strengths of a small church is its close relational network. But that can also be a weakness because the church can struggle to reach people beyond this network. But as the church in Jerusalem grew it was able to reach new groups.

Third, there’s spiritual growth. People often worry that a focus on numerical growth will lead to a drop in discipleship. That’s a danger. If going for growth is just about getting people to make a decision without driving the gospel into everyday life then spiritual growth will suffer. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Verses 8-10 say: ‘Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called) – Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia, who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.’

Who’s Stephen? In verse 5 he’s named as one of the seven appointed to wait on tables. The seven are given a new responsibility. And that encourages them in their discipleship.

Specialization doesn’t mean a few people now do ministry while everyone else becomes mere supporters or funders. It’s so striking that the very next thing that happens is a man set aside to minister the tables is found ministering the word. And doing it to great effect (6:10).

Or look at Acts 8:1, 4-8: ‘On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria … 4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralysed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.’

Everyone except the apostles is scattered by a wave of persecution. But these ‘non-apostles’ ‘preached the word wherever they went’ (8:4). Luke focuses on Philip. And again who is Philip? He’s another of the seven set aside for ministering at tables (6:5).

We may have to assign roles to people, to revise our structures, to delegate responsibility, to get people specializing. But no-one needs a mandate to preach the word. Acts 8:8 says: ‘So there was great joy in that city.’  We will bring great joy to our city as we preach Jesus the Messiah.
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New Book: You Can Pray

Today sees the launch of my latest book, You Can Pray – a title which so effectively summarises the book that it doesn’t have a subtitle. It is published by IVP.

Here’s the blurb …

If you’re easily distracted when praying, you’re not alone. In fact, if you struggle to pray in the first place, that’s not unusual either. Tim Chester tells us how we can be great pray-ers. And he admits that that’s a really bold claim.

‘The secret of great praying has nothing to do with human effort or skill,’ he explains. ‘Lots of people would like to think that it does because they want to make prayer an achievement.’ But the secret of great praying is …
Knowing three things about God:

  • That God the Father loves to hear us pray
  • That God the Son makes every prayer pleasing to God
  • That God the Holy Spirit helps us as we pray

Tim looks at: why prayer is easy (how we pray), why prayer is difficult (why we pray) and the arguments and priorities of prayer (what we pray). Prayer is a child asking her father for help. And that’s not beyond any one of us.

I’ll post some of the commendations in a future post.

You Can Pray is available from in the US and thinkivp elsewhere.

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Growing pains – the danger

In a previous post I wrote about the challenge of transitioning to a larger church size. This can be painful, but it is important to recognise that these are growing pains and celebrate this growth.

The danger: complaining

That’s the excitement of growing pains. But there’s also a danger. The danger is that we just focus on the pain. The danger is complaining. Look again at verse 1: ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.’

‘Complaining’ is not a small thing. It’s a very significant word – one with strong Old Testament resonances. Jesus has just accomplished a new exodus. He has redeemed his people from the slavery of sin – just as Moses redeemed Israel from slavery in Egypt. Jesus is the true Passover Lamb – just as the Israelites escaped death through a Passover Lamb. And the Spirit of God is leading us to our inheritance in the new creation – just as the pillars of cloud and fire led the Israelites to their inheritance in the Promised Land.

But that first generation did not enter the Promised Land. Just three days after escaping through the Red Sea, the people are ‘grumbling’: ‘So the people grumbled against Moses, saying, “What are we to drink?”’ (Exodus 15:24) So God miraculously cleanses bitter water for them. But then just six weeks later we read: ‘In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt!”’ (Exodus 16:2-3) It’s a pathetic, self-pitying cry. And it continues (Exodus 17:2; Numbers 11:1-6; 14:2-4; 16:1-3; 20:3-5, 13).

The point is this: the word ‘grumbling’ in the Greek version of the Old Testament is the same word that Luke uses in Acts 6:1.

The new exodus people of God are in danger of repeating the sins of the first exodus people. Paul says: ‘Do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come.’  (1 Corinthians 10:10-11)

One of the problems with grumbling is that it’s so corrosive. James says the tongue is like a fire. A whole forest can be set on fire by a small spark. It’s the same with the tongue. ‘My complaining is no big deal,’ we tell ourselves. But James says it ‘corrupts the whole body’ (James 3:5-6). Complaining is like a cancer through the body of the church. Every time you complain, you encourage someone else to feel discontented. You pass on your discontent. The opposite is also true. Every time you express thankfulness or praise or honour you spread joy.

You might like to audit your speech. Are you spreading discontent in the congregation or joy? Ephesians 4:29 says: ‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.’

Philippians 2:14-16 says: ‘Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold out the word of life.’

I love the image of shining like stars. It’s a great description of the power of our witness as a community of light in a dark world. But the implication is this: If we grumble then we won’t shine like stars. Our witness will be dimmed. And the lost generation of people around us will remain in darkness.

In a future post we’ll consider the response of the apostles to the challenge of growing pains.

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Growing pains – the source of the problem

Growth and change in church life often brings uncertainty and confusion. We find a case study of this in Acts 6. Acts 6:1 says: ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.’ The external threat of persecution in Acts 3-5 is replaced by the internal threat of division in Acts 6. This is potentially as destructive as persecution. The division is along ethnic and cultural lines and could easily have led to two churches – a Hellenistic church and a Hebraic church.

The source: growth

So this is a significant problem. But the source of the problem is growth: ‘In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained …’

We all want growth. But growth brings change and change is rarely painless. Things are not the way they used to be and we often experience that as loss.

In Acts 2 it seems those in need were invited to join families at their meals (2:44-46). It was all very informal and maybe that worked OK with a church of 3,000. But the church is growing rapidly. In 2:41 the church is 3,000 strong. In 4:4 there are 5,000 men alone – so perhaps the total church is getting on for 10,000. And even after that more and more people are being added to that number (5:14).

So very quickly informal arrangements are not enough. Acts 4:34-35 says: ‘There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.’ This looks like a more formal arrangement. You can imagine people saying, ‘It wasn’t like the old days when we just hung out together.’ But now caring for everyone’s needs required some kind of central fund. But by chapter 6 even this is not enough and people are being overlooked. Tim Keller writes:

One of the most common reasons for pastoral leadership mistakes is blindness to the significance of church size. Size has an enormous impact on how a church functions. There is a “size culture” that profoundly affects how decisions are made, how relationships flow, how effectiveness is evaluated, and what ministers, staff, and lay leaders do … [The] person who goes from a church of 400 to a church of 2,000 is in many ways making a far greater change than if he or she moved from one denomination to another.

Keller goes on to describe the dynamics of different church sizes.

As a church grows:

  • We have to accept that the preacher may not be our pastor.
  • We have to work harder at welcoming new people.
  • We have to embrace the face that there’s a greater diversity among us.
  • We have to accept things won’t ‘just happen’ with organization.
  • We have to be more willing to volunteer because initially we may not be working with people we know.
  • We have to communicate better because we can’t rely on word of mouth.

It’s painful. But the source of these pains is growth. They’re growing pains. That doesn’t mean they’re not painful. But it does mean we should embrace them as a sign of growth. The only real way to avoid growing pains is to stop growing. And that’s not an option.

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Be a chaplain at work

I’m just back from a visit to Spain and Italy to speak at Porterbrook Network events and launch Total Church in Italian.

It was exciting to hear stories of the way Porterbrook is not only equipping individuals, but changing the culture of whole churches ad lead to church planting initiatives.

But here’s my favourite story. A seamstress in a factory in Bologna used to wish she could leave her job so she had time to evangelise unbelievers. As a result of studying with Porterbrook, she now joyfully goes to work each day to be a missionary in her factory. I guess she sees herself as a kind of chaplain in her factory.

Nothing has changed and everything has changed.


Bible reading plan for 2014

I’ve posted this Bible reading plan before. We use it in The Crowded House Sheffield. If you’ve been using it then you’ll be interested in this postcard-sized version of the plan for 2014. If you’re not reading through the Bible then the approach of the new year is a good time to review your Bible reading habits. Here are a couple of old posts on why that would be a good idea – Hearing God Speak and Must I Read My Bible Every Day?

This plan has a number of differences from other plans.

1. Flexibility

The plan specifies a number of chapters for each week rather than for each day. This makes it more flexible. You can read a chapter or two each day or you can read it in two or three sittings. Or you can set out reading a chapter a day and then catch up at the weekend. It means it fits more readily around people’s lifestyle.

2. Communal
It is designed to be followed with a partner or among a group of people. There is only one section each week (occasionally two shorter books). So you don’t have to read a section from one book and then a section from another book each day. It means the sections are somewhat uneven, but it makes it easy to discuss what you have been reading when you meet up with other people.

We’ve been using it for a year now and it works very well in this way. I meet up with a friend each week for lunch. It’s easy for us to discuss what we’ve been reading because there is only one Bible book to focus on.

It also means I only need look at the Bible plan once a week – I don’t need to refer to it each day.

3. Realistic
Following this plan you read the OT in three years and the NT twice in three years. This works out at about nine chapters a week. It means you are not rushing through what you are reading to ‘get it done’. I’ve found with other plans I tend to read it with my mind disengaged. This plan gives time to meditate on the passage.

There is also a version in the document in which you cover the OT once and the NT twice in two years = about 16 chapters a week.

4. Balanced
The plan balances OT history, prophecy, wisdom, Gospel and Epistles throughout the year. You move between genres so you’re never faced with reading OT prophecy continuously for six months.

Here’s the complete three year plan and here’s this postcard-sized version of the plan for 2014.

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