Interview with Jeff Vanderstelt and me on the gospel and church planting

Here’s an interview that Jeff Vanderstelt of Soma Communities and myself gave while in Perth, Australia on the gospel and church planting.

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The fight of faith

Here is the final part of my blog posts on preparing people for cross-cultural mission. (Here are parts one, two, threefour and five)

Walking with Christ and growing in him is not easy, especially in a cross-cultural context. We are called to the fight of faith. Last year I climbed the mountain Skiddaw in England with a friend. It was hard work! The final push is across loose rock at a 45 degree angle. Each step is agony. The calves are aching as you try to lift your body weight on tired legs. It feels like a form of torture. And this is what we do for leisure! So why do we do it? Why not just give up? Because we are confident that the view from the top will make all the effort seem worthwhile. And so it was for me and my friend.

It is a great picture of the way we are sanctified by faith. Sometimes it can be agony. Each step is hard work. It is painful. You feel like giving up or giving in. But you press on because faith tells you that the view from the top will be glorious. Legalism would make you climb the slope by berating you or beating you. And if you have ever tried climbing a mountain with reluctant children you will know that approach does not work very well. At best you might get them up one mountain, but you will not get them up a second. The gospel gets you up the mountain by promising you a glorious view from the top. The path is no less hard, but there is a spring in your step as you anticipate what is coming. Faith is fixing your eyes on the mountain top. Every now and then you can turn round and get a glimpse of the glorious view just as we experience more of God the more we know him and serve him. And those glimpses are a foretaste of what is to come: the mountain top of God’s eternal glory.

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A community of change

Here is the fifth part of my course preparing people for cross-cultural mission. (Here are parts one, two, three and four.)

Discipleship is a community project. God has given us the Christian community so we can challenge and comfort one another. We are to speak the truth in love to one another, to ‘gospel’ one another. The writer of Hebrews says: ‘See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.’ (Hebrews 3:11-13) Day by day you will need one another to remind you of these truths so that your hearts do not become hardened.

These four liberating truths about God (‘the Four Gs’) are a great resource as you encourage one another. These four truths are a great way of ‘speaking the truth in love’ to one another (Ephesians 4:15). This is how we can help one another fight sin.

They are also a great diagnostic kit. When you face temptation or fall into sin, ask yourself, ‘Which of these truths am I failing to embrace?’

1. God is great – so we don’t have to be in control

2. God is glorious – so we don’t have to fear others

3. God is good – so we don’t have to look elsewhere

4. God is gracious – so we don’t have to prove ourselves

Proclaiming good news

These four truths offer an alternative to legalism.

People often try to change behaviour without looking at the heart. They provide a set of rules by which people should live. Here is Paul view on that:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (Colossians 2:20-23)

Living by a set of rules for behaviour does not work, says Paul. Such as approach to change can look very impressive, but it lacks any power to restrain the sinful desires of our hearts.

On a good day a behaviour-based approach will make us proud and self-righteous. Our confidence will be in our outward respectability. We need to repent of our ‘righteousness’ if this has become a source of false confidence or a substitute for true heart change. On a bad day a behaviour-based approach will leave you despondent and confused. The power of sin is supposed to be broken, but it does not seem to broken it my life!

These four liberating truths about God good news. They bring about gospel change.

  • If I meet someone who is worried about life or manipulative, then I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to be in control because God is in control.’
  • If I meet someone who is enslaved by other people’s opinions, who fears rejection or craves approval, then I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to fear others because God is glorious and he smiles upon you.’
  • If I meet someone who enslaved by the pursuit of wealth or pleasure or sex, I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to look elsewhere because God is good and to know him is true joy.’
  • If I meet someone who is desperate to prove themselves or make it in life or looks down on others, I can say: ‘Here is good news – you don’t have to prove yourself because God is gracious and Christ has done it all.’

We are not simply telling one another off. That is legalism and it kills. The ‘four Gs’ enable to us to speak good news to another.

Legalism says: You should not do that.
The gospel says: You need not do that –

because God is always bigger and better than sin.

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God is good for cross-cultural missionaries

Here is the fourth part of my course preparing people for cross-cultural mission. (Here are parts one, two and three.)

What do you think you will miss most?

  • friends and family
  • home comforts
  • familiarity (e.g. favourite foods)
  • entertainment
  • a professional environment
  • Christian community
  • corporate worship and teaching

What frustrations will you face?

  • inability to operate in an unfamiliar culture
  • slow progress with language learning
  • conflict with colleagues
  • lack of ministry opportunities
  • time-consuming, boring or annoying cultural customs
  • bureaucracy
  • inefficiency
  • corruption
  • injustice
  • set-backs
  • the special challenges and limitations on women in a patriarchal society

Choose to enjoy the city
Choose to enjoy the city and its culture. It is all too easy to become bitter or resentful or to despise the people you are reaching or the place where you live. ‘It is not like home.’ ‘They don’t do things “right”’. ‘They are resistant to our message.’ ‘They don’t enjoy the things you enjoy.’ So work hard to enjoy the city.

Sometimes this will be a choice. Make a habit of saying positive things about the city and its culture. Delight in the city. Be 100 percent there 100 percent of the time. In other words, do not live in the past or the future, looking back or forward to life at ‘home’. Make your home in the culture for as long as you are there.

ð            Make a list of ten things you like about the city and its culture.

Choose to enjoy God

Keep telling your heart that God is good.

ð            What behaviour and emotions might follow from not embracing the truth that God is good?

Again, think of the towel over the head. Take refuge in God. Find joy in him. Get your pleasure from knowing him and being faithful to him. Remind yourself of all that he is and all that he has done. Search the Scriptures each day for something that makes you rejoice in God afresh.

ð            Rewrite Psalm 84, either as a version adapted to your context or as a negative Psalm which says the opposite of the original

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God is great for cross-cultural missionaries

Here is the third part of my course preparing people for cross-cultural mission. (Here are parts one and two.)

God is great

What are the worries you have about doing mission in another culture?

The refrain we kept repeating when I visited missionaries in the Middle-East was: ‘fallen world, sovereign God.’

This world is full of broken people. It is full of people who are sad, needy, insecure; people who misuse their power; people desperate to prove themselves; people who are fearful. And that is just your team! Seriously, co-workers are often the main cause of grief on the mission field – perhaps because our expectations are higher.

You may be wondering, ‘Will I be able to adapt? Will it get easier? Will I find friends?’ Do not panic. It will come. You are not failing. You are normal. You are a frail, finite human being.

This world is fallen. It is a mess. It is full of corruption and injustice. It is full of lost people who desperately need a Saviour.

And you cannot mend it. You are not sovereign and you are not infinite. If you try to fix everything then you will burn out or break down.

You can only do so much. It is not just that there are some things you can not do. You cannot do all the things you could do! In other words, there will be many things you could fix, but you will lack the time or energy or emotional strength to address them. And that means there will be many things that are left undone; many suffering people unhelped; many lost people who do not hear the gospel.

That can be difficult to live with. The danger is that it will drive you to over work, over stress, over worry. Or you will push those emotions onto other people – making them feel guilty that they are not doing enough.

But I have good news for you. God is great. He is sovereign. He is in control. He is the great mission strategist. He will bring people into the lives of those he plans to save. You can trust him with the big picture. You are called to be faithful with the task which he gives to you and have faith in his sovereign control of the big picture.

Consider this: Jesus said, ‘I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.’ (John 17:4) Jesus could say that he had completed the task. Yet many people were left unhealed, many did not hear his proclamation, many were not fed. But he had completed the task that God had assigned to him.

Give up any notion of being a super-hero or a super-missionary. You are allowed to be mediocre! Forget your missionary hagiographies. This is not what you are called to be. You are called to be faithful, not fruitful. Keep telling your heart that God is great. He is in control.

Indeed if you try to be a super-hero then you will distort the message. ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) The message of the cross is proclaimed by weak people (1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5).

What behaviour and emotions might follow from not embracing the truth that God is great?

One danger is that you feel the pressure to say something so when you do it comes out in a burst of pent up frustration. This leads to unhealthy or destructive speech. Being free from the need to change other people or be in control allows you to speak freely and faithfully, entrusting the outcome to God. This creates healthy speech. Be slow to speak.

Your initial focus is on learning the language. Do not have any bigger ambitions than this. Take a day at a time. Have small expectations for each day. Be patient. Be content with slow living. God will use you as he chooses if you are faithful to him.

God is also in control of the situation back home. You can trust our great God for those you have left behind.

ð            Rewrite Psalm 27, either as a version adapted to your context or as a negative Psalm which says the opposite of the original

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Audio from 121 Degrees ‘Core’ Conference

Here’s the audio of Jeff Vanderstelt and myself speaking at the 121 Degrees ‘Core’ Church Planting Conference in Perth Australia in August.

1. The Mission of God – Tim Chester


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2. A Disciple Making Culture – Jeff Vanderstelt


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3. The Heart of a Disciple – Tim Chester


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4. Equipping For Mission – Jeff Vanderstelt


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5. Missional Communities at Soma – Jeff Vanderstelt


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6. What Drives Me – Tim Chester


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God is glorious for cross-cultural missionaries

Here is the second part of my course preparing people for cross-cultural mission. (Here is part one.)

God is glorious

You are going to be very conscious of what other people think about you.

Your fellow team members

Do they think you are competent? What are they making of your progress? How do they evaluate your ability to adapt to the culture? How do they evaluate your ability to do ministry?

They will make many suggestions, mostly from a desire to help you. But they will often sound like criticisms – especially if you are already feeling insecure (‘You should have done this.’ ‘Don’t say that.’ ‘You should try doing this.’).

Your neighbours and friends.

You want to make a good impression for Christ. What do they think of you? What do they make of your strange ways? Are you getting the culture right? Are you reading their responses accurately?

Your supporters back home

People are giving to support you. Are they getting value for money? Will they continue their support? Will they be impressed by your reports? Do they value what you’re doing? What will you say when you have nothing about which to write home? What will you say when all you have been doing is slowly learning the language? What will they think when things go wrong?

Communication back home is difficult. You will be going through experiences that are hard to share, that are outside other people’s experience.

We can easily become controlled by the opinions of other people. This is one of the commons reason why we sin: we crave the approval of other people or we fear their rejection. We ‘need’ the acceptance of others and so we’re controlled by them. The Bible’s term for this is ‘fear of man’. ‘Fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord is kept safe’ (Proverbs 29:25).

The Bible’s response is a vision of the glory of God. We need a big view of God. We need to fear God. ‘He will be the sure foundation for your times,’ says Isaiah, ‘a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge; the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure.’  (Isaiah 33:6) The key to God’s treasure is to fear him. To fear God is to respect, worship, trust and submit to God. We tremble before him in awe. The fear of God is the response to his glory, greatness, holiness, power, splendour, beauty, grace, mercy and love. Often, in Psalms 18 and 34 for example, this is what the Psalmist is doing. In the face of some threat he is speaking the truth about God to himself. Keep telling your heart that God is glorious so that fear of others is replaced by trust in God. ‘I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.’ (Psalm 34:4-5)

What behaviour and emotions might follow from not embracing the truth that God is glorious?

Again, think of putting that towel over your head so you find refuge in God. Whenever you see someone who you fear or whose approval you crave, imagine God next to them. Who is the biggest? Who is the most majestic? Who is the holiest? Who is the most beautiful? Who is the most threatening? Who is the most loving?

Jesus says: ‘Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,’ says Jesus. ‘Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.’ (Matthew 10:28) The fear of God liberates us from being controlled by other people’s expectations. We are controlled instead by God’s expectations. We still serve other people. That’s why we’ve been set free (Galatians 5:13). We take other people’s expectations seriously because we want to love them as God commanded. But we’re not enslaved by them. We don’t serve them for what they can give us in return – approval, affection, security or whatever. We serve them for Christ’s sake. By submitting to his lordship, we’re free to serve others in love.

It is an act of believing the gospel to open up, to be able to say: ‘I’m having a bad day, please pray for me,’ to not feel the need to protect your reputation or project your best.

Rewrite Psalm 31, either as a version adapted to your context or as a negative Psalm which says the opposite of the original.

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God is gracious for cross-cultural missionaries

I recently ran a short preparation course for people about to go out as cross-cultural missionaries. We looked at some standard material on culture and contextualization. But half the course was based on a conversation with a missionary we have sent to the Middle-East. As we talked about what people need to know as they approach cross-cultural ministry it became clear that it added up to the ‘four Gs’ in You Can Change [available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk]. Here is the material I put together. First, God is gracious.

God is gracious

What gives you a sense of achievement?

All the normal things from which we gain a sense of worth, success, achievement, competence are stripped away when you move to another culture.

  • You will be unable to communicate because of your lack of language ability
  • You will be unable to relate because of your lack of cultural understanding.
  • You will be unable to do ministry or contribute to church life.
  • You will not achieve much because your work life is on hold for language learning.
  • You will feel incompetent to manage ordinary life. (Where do you buy glue? What do you say at a road block? How do you get your washing machine mended?)
  • Your self-justification framework is taken away. Your behaviour will be weird and your productivity will be low.

It is not wrong to feel a sense of achievement in these areas as long as your ultimate identity in found in Christ. The test of that is when the sense of achievement is taken away. What remains? Where does your sense of worth reside? You’re about to face that test.

Your true self will be revealed and exposed:

  • by the exhaustion of your routine
  • by the worry of ‘dramas’ in your life
  • by the pressure of ‘crises’ in church life and ministry
  • by the exhaustion of continually relating cross-culturally
  • Your marriage may come under pressure because you will have to cope with a different version of your partner and your self. The pressures of cross-cultural life will reveal new attitudes and behaviours.

Look at Luke 10:17-20. We are not to rejoice in success or in ministry. Nor need we be downcast by the lack of success and our inabilities in ministry. We rejoice that our names are written in heaven.

Look at Luke 10:21-24. We rejoice in God’s grace. We rejoice that we are God’s children.

Look at Luke 10:25-37. Why does Jesus tell this story? See verse 29. The lawyer wanted to justify himself. He wanted a checklist that he could tick off so he knew he had proved himself. But we cannot justify ourselves for the task is without limit.

Look at Luke 10:38-42. Martha wants to justify herself through her service. But the necessary thing is to sit at the feet of Jesus and to listen to his teaching – to hear his word of grace.

Expect less productivity. Expect cultural mistakes. Expect your sinful heart to be exposed. But when this happens find refuge in God.

The Russian tennis player Vera Zvonareva was a finalist at Wimbledon in 2010. She had previously had a reputation for cracking on court. She would often be in tears and her game would disintegrate. One of the techniques she used to turn her career around was to put a towel over her head during games. She would block out the world around her and focus on what mattered.

I want to suggest you do the gospel equivalent. When you feel the pressure, block out the world. Stop listening to its voice. Block out your own heart. Stop listening to its doubts and desires. Instead listen to the word of Jesus. Think of God’s word as a towel you can put over your head for a few moments. Keep telling your heart that God is gracious. This is the truth that will set your free and get you through. Say to yourself:

  • ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’  (Romans 8:1)
  • ‘How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!’ (1 John 3:1)
  • ‘The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.’ (Zephaniah 3:17)

What behaviour and emotions might follow from not embracing the truth that God is gracious?

What do you want other people to see in you? When you’re struggling, when you’re having marriage difficulties, when you make mistakes, when you mess up – will you want to hide this from people – from your team, from your unbelieving neighbours?

What do you want other people to see in you? That you are a great person or that you have a great Saviour?

Rewrite Psalm 103, either as a version adapted to your context or as a negative Psalm which says the opposite of the original.

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Boldness, fear and hope

I received this in a letter from a friend. I’m posting it anonymously with his permission.

This evening some of us got together and talked about answering questions we get asked here.   As you can imagine there are wide opinions about how to respond.  Some of the questions considered were, ‘Do you have a Bible you can give to me?’  ‘What does the Bible say?’  ‘Which place do you think is the best, America or *?’  Some questions are easy enough to answer.  With the more ‘sensitive’ questions, however, many people, however, seem to err on the side of caution.  They are concerned about physical safety for themselves, for their expat colleagues, for local brothers.  ‘Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves’ gets quoted a lot.

Reading the Gospels or Paul, or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter, I don’t see the concern for extending life on this earth that we seem to often give it.  Read the first few chapters of Acts.  Stephen and Peter are not prioritising life on earth.  True, they are not throwing it away (although it sometimes seems like it!), but their priority is proclamation of truth – testifying to the one they know and have seen and experienced.

One guy who spoke up today was like a breath of fresh air to me.  I talked to him afterwards and he told me about a couple of people that he learned from.  When he first came here he asked the question, ‘Who is seeing fruit?’  One or two people’s names were mentioned.  They are BOLD people.  One has been forced to leave the country, the other hasn’t had the easiest of times.  They have been criticised here by their expat brothers and sisters for bringing trouble.  But they have cast the seed wide and have proclaimed to any who would listen and now people know freedom and forgiveness and God as a result.

I read a booked called ‘Living in the Light of Eternity’.  It seems to me that Jesus and the apostles lived in the light of eternity.  Dying here was not a failure because life is more than what we see here today.  They were living for something other than what most people live for.  As the result of different priorities, as the result of living as an ambassador for Someone, status, wealth, friendships, and life itself were viewed through a different lens.  Success and failure are measured differently.  Not that we are driven by a need to ‘succeed’.  But we can certainly say that it is not necessarily a failure if boldness results in persecution.  And it’s not a failure even if our friends are persecuted as a result (if it is, Jesus failed).

This guy I was talking to has seen people come into freedom.  One thing he mentioned was that local brothers would benefit from seeing us be bold.  What are we modelling for them?  Do they learn fear and back-peddling, and not-wanting-to-offend from us?  Or do we emanate confidence, security, contentment and a reliance upon the King rather than a fear of man.  How many times are we taught not to fear?  I forget what prompted Jesus to say it, but he said we should not fear those who can only kill the body, rather we should fear him who can cast our bodies into hell.  How many references to fear are there in the gospels?  Many.  When faced with ‘hard’ questions, or instructions by the authorities to be quiet, how often do we hear from our colleagues here that we should ‘obey God, not man!’.  On the other hand how often do we hear that we need to think about the greater ‘good’ of the community, and just be quiet, or couch truth in more acceptable terms.  I fear that these mainly unspoken expectations of silence rather than breeding security, cultivate fear.  Instructions to be ‘careful, wise, discerning, not offending where you don’t need to offend, etc’ are all good instructions but I think they often mask a fear of the consequences for speaking up.  Sure, be wise.  Sure, make the gospel the only offense.  But know that the gospel DOES offend.  When Jesus was opposed almost from the outset (and not in the form of gentle, polite questions) he was not surprised and he did not draw back.

Ok, that’s my rant over.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to be speaking on street corners.  Although maybe a little of that is what’s needed.  Joke.  (I think.)  I talk the bold talk in this letter, but I’m not convinced I walk that walk.  Fear is contagious, and I know I have caught some.  Pray that I would walk in step with the Spirit, learning to love Jesus more, grasping all opportunities I can because they are a joy to be grasped.  Pray that I’d learn to ask, ‘What liberating truth does God want to reveal to this person?’ rather than, ‘What consequence will speaking to him have for me?’

The local church in a post-Christian context

Here’s the audio of the lecture I gave in August at Trinity Theological College in Perth, Australia.

Download it here.

It covers some of the themes that will be in a book that Steve Timmis and I are currently writing. The book has the provisional title Church at the Margins and is due to be published by IVP in May 2011.