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What I learned from Alcoholics Anonymous

30 July 2018
Alcoholics Anonymous

As a church we’re doing something slightly different with our City Groups for the months of July & August – encouraging social outings, serving projects and generally a bit of experimenting in thinking how we can support/help good projects in the city or beyond.

A few Mondays ago our City Group, on the invitation of two of our members who are part of an Alcoholics Anonymous group, went to visit the monthly open AA meeting in Trim, County Meath. It was a gorgeous evening and the 6 of us that went had a brilliant road-trip and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and the sunset over the famous ‘Braveheart’ castle.

We had been invited along so that we might listen, learn and understand what AA does, support the two members we have in our group, and build relationships with their friends.

Drink Problem

But I have to say the whole evening was humbling and inspiring and I felt hugely privileged to have been able to listen to their stories and welcomed into this amazing community.

The evening had some formal elements like reading the history of AA, the 12 steps of AA, praying the serenity prayer and a few other things like that. But most of the evening was spent listening to three people share their stories – one man in his 50-60s from Cork, one lady of similar age from Kildare and another lady in her 50s who wasn’t an alcoholic but is part of Al-Anon, a support community for friends and families of problem drinkers.

Here are some reflections from the evening…

(1) Brokenness and beauty

As we listened to the three stories there were moments where your heart was collapsing inside you because of the destruction and devastation that drink had had, not just on the person themselves, but on the families and the wider community, and most of all the children. My eyes welled up with tears 3 or 4 times when I heard about how children of alcoholics had been affected by their behaviour. For example one lady talked about how how her father hid from her as she was coming back from school so that he could go down the pub, and she took that personally and as a nine year old assumed that he didn’t want to spend time with her. And it was clear that many people are alcoholics because they grew up with alcoholics. And we sadly learned about a number of people dying, often young, because of alcohol abuse. There was real brokenness within the room and the lives of those who shared.

And yet there was a beauty, a wonderful light in the darkness, a joy that had been rekindled in/after the devastation, largely from what I could tell because of the work of the AA. There were many moments of humour, lots of self-deprecation and tonnes and tonnes of grace. It was powerful. And the faces of those that shared were etched with the tragedy that alcohol had brought (in different ways) and yet there was a calm, a peace and a joy in their face too. Again, I felt close to tears as I experienced this beauty.

For me this brokenness and beauty is something I see in Jesus’ death and in the community Jesus established (see point 7).

(2) A powerful community

The whole ethos of AA is that it is one alcoholic reaching out to another alcoholic, inviting them to AA, sharing their story, encouraging them to avoid the drink, giving them hope that it is possible. And this community has their own slogans, rules, principles and way of organising itself. Everyone had come to realise that they were not able to sort out their problem on their own, they need a community of like-minded people. They had had to renounce the idea that ‘I can do this on my own’ and instead embrace the idea that ‘I need others to help me or else I have no chance’, and as a result a powerful community had been born. The two members of our church who are part of AA speak of how the community has helped them tremendously.

When I spoke to the speakers or the attendees at the end of the meeting there was a genuine warmth; people grabbed my hands and wanted to know who I was. And the conversation flowed. They are a community that is not closed nor cliquey. Once you have gone through the 11 steps of AA, the 12th one is:

“Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs”

So the community is ever-growing and ever-reaching out.

(3) We’re all addicts

Famously, step 1 of AA says:

We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.

It is profoundly humbling to hear people tell the truth of this first step. But the lady from Al-Anon, who wasn’t an alcoholic, spoke powerfully talking about her own addictions and sickness. She said wasn’t addicted to alcohol, but she was addicted to the alcoholics. Why? Because they created drama in her life and she was able to be the saviour. She was needed. She was involved. She could come to the rescue…and she needed that for herself. She talked about how she was a people-pleaser and addicted to impressing others. She said her sickness was ‘worse’ than that of the alcoholics because she was so self-righteous and judgemental in her sobriety. In other words, she was no better…but her addiction and sickness just manifested in different, often less obvious ways.

Alcoholics AnonymousAgain it was humbling for her to ‘admit’ (like step 1 tells you to!) the things that have control over her life, not to hide or deny them. She said that she had been brought up in Ireland with the motto ‘don’t ask, don’t share, don’t feel’ and as such she had become like an ice-block, all her emotions were numb and she needed real help. She was angry and bitter, she was hurting and restless. And ultimately she was lonely. Al-Anon had helped her to find her way towards greater freedom and feeling.

Just two weeks ago in church we were looking at the story of when Levi holds a party for Jesus. Levi was a famous tax-collector and therefore seen as a traitor and greedy man by the Jewish people as he was collaborating with the Romans (the enemy) and lining his own pockets. So he wasn’t a nice guy and the religious leaders of the time thought of him as an ‘outcast’ and a ‘sinner’ – and yet Jesus accepts the invitation to a meal. And when the religious leaders ask why Jesus says…

Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. (Luke 5:31)

In other words, the pre-requisite of getting well, of becoming healthy (physically, emotionally and spiritually) is to admit that you’re sick. And whilst these Alcoholics were all willing to admit their sickness and their need for ‘a doctor’, I became aware acutely aware of my sickness and need for healing too. In the car journey home we talked about how we are all addicted to many different things and too need to be set free.

(4) A desire to be accepted and fit in

It was striking that at the heart of all the stories, what had triggered the alcoholism, was a desire to be accepted and fit in. People had thought they were ‘uncool’ or ‘couldn’t dance’ or ‘couldn’t get a girl’ but when they drank all their inhibitions disappeared and they got ‘a buzz’ because they lost their shyness and nervousness around people. Each person’s struggle had started because they wanted to be loved and known by others. In other words they had a desire for acceptance, but they didn’t feel they could be themselves without the drink. It was the drink that enabled them to be vulnerable and confident, which enabled them to step out in social contexts.

And isn’t that true for all of us?!

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a friend about how fundamental to all humans is the desire to ‘be known and loved’ – in other words we want to be accepted for who we are…for someone to know us…and to still love us. It goes back to the garden of Eden where it was said that Adam and Eve were ‘naked and unashamed’ (Genesis 2:24). That is what we all long for. That level of vulnerability, intimacy and acceptance. It is what we are built for. We cannot function without it and yet so many of us find it hard to be honest and open, to be vulnerable and real, because of the shame and fear we feel.

It takes courage to really open up and let someone in…but unless we do, we’ll become like a ‘block of ice’ as the lady had said.

(5) Acceptance of help from outside & responsibility for your own life

There is a wonderful balance in the 12 steps of the AA, a balance we see many times in the New Testament where if we are to grow as a person we must both accept that we cannot do it on our own – we need other people and God’s help – but also, we have to take responsibility for our own lives. If we only have one part of this we’ll either burnout (I have to do it) or never get going (God/others will do it). We need the balance. For an example see Philippians 2:12-13.

The 12 steps of AA are well worth reading…because they epitomise this balance so well, red indicates outside help, blue indicates taking responsibility yourself

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

(6) A continual journey/battle

Every time someone spoke they said their name and that they were an alcoholic, and we then welcomed them together before they shared. They then would start their story by saying, for example, “I have been an Alcoholic and have not had a drink in 24 years and I hope will get through another day today” or something similar. In other words they (a) never gave up their identity as an alcoholic and (b) literally took each day as it comes with a desire to be sober TODAY. And one of the areas that we were encouraged to keep fighting was the area of relationships – see steps 8-9 – we must seek to make amends and ask for forgiveness from others we have wronged. This is a powerful principle, one that Jesus himself commanded us to obey too.

Each of them were well aware of their weakness, and never took for granted that they were sober or that they have ‘graduated’ and were therefore “beyond this stuff”. They saw each day as a new day to win the battle over drink and a battle to seek to make amends in all relationships. They had their wits about them, they were alert. Again this felt very healthy. Just this week at our monthly prayer & worship night the woman who was leading reminded us of Hebrews 12:1-3 where the Christian life is likened to a race and that we must persevere in the race, and not be distracted or entangled. It was inspiring to see this community persevere together in their race.

(7) A Picture Of The Church

At the end of the evening the friend who invited me introduced me to the person who had hosted the meeting, explaining that I was his Pastor, and the host said “well this is basically a church isn’t it?” and in many ways it was. The evening had consisted of hearing each others’ stories, praying together, reading from the AA handbook and spending time building supportive and accountable relationships. It seemed to act like a family. It was a picture of what the church should be!

A number of years ago I had a similarly moving experience when visiting my good friend Christian Hacking, who had just finished being an Intern at CCC and upon arriving back in the UK he broke his back in a climbing accident which left him in a wheelchair. At the time I visited him there was no real hope for him to be able to walk again. Praise God that he is now making great progress!

We had spoken fairly regularly over skype in the first 6 months after his injury but I remember when I first visited him in Stoke Mandeville Hospital just outside London. I was in London on business for Hubspot so had spent 2.5 days rushing around from one meeting to another. Everyone in London has something to prove – look how pretty or rich or successful or trendy or popular I am. It’s a relentless city. Money, sex and power are everywhere. People are trying to establish their identity.

Then I went to the Stoke Mandeville which is home to over 100 paraplegics and quadriplegics. There was no hint of anyone trying to prove themselves or build an image. There were no image issues. Everyone was broken and humbled. Everyone was equal. Everyone was together…carrying each others’ burdens. And it was beautiful. From the relentless and externally impressive professionals of London, to the humble and internally beautiful community of handicapped people. Again there was plenty of humour, laughing, self-deprecation and grace for each other. So much grace!

Just as when I visited AA, the brokenness and beauty was humbling and inspiring and it was actually a picture of the church. A community of people that have been humbled and yet strangely and beautifully exalted through the death of Christ. And that through Christ we are now one, now equal, now helping each other carry others’ burdens and trying to spread the message of grace to others who are willing to hear. May God help us as he has helped the AA to make us a community of beautiful brokenness.

 

 

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Some thoughts prior to the 8th Amendment Referendum

24 May 2018

Pro ChoiceTomorrow the people of Ireland go to the polls to vote about whether we should repeal the 8th Amendment and allow the government to legislate on abortion. The likely legislation will include abortion with no restrictions up to 12 weeks’ gestation with a waiting time of 72 hours, abortion if the mother’s life, health or mental health is at ’serious risk’ to be agreed by two doctors up to viability (24 weeks’ gestation) and up to full-term for a diagnosed foetal condition which is likely to lead to death during or shortly after birth. I wanted to write down a few fumbling thoughts that may (or may not) help you as you decide to vote.

The challenge I face

Before I do, let me explain the challenge I face and why I haven’t written anything online around the 8th amendment up till now…
  1. I have not quite known how to articulate all the facets of the debate
  2. I am not and never will be a woman carrying a baby that I do not want
  3. My worldview, taught me by my parents, is one that puts ‘welcome and hospitality of all people’ front and centre so I find it hard when, instead of welcoming, embracing and learning from one another (in our disagreements), we stigmatise and distance ourselves from one another. And I feel that communicating online ‘at a distance’ rather than ‘face-to-face’ more often than not hinders us from having a gracious debate and more naturally leads us to demonise those who disagree with us. I hope this blog post will not do that so let me talk about…

Tolerance

It really saddens me that we so quickly distance ourselves from those who take a view divergent to our own, as if our whole identity and meaning in life is wrapped up in whether we vote yes or no on this particular topic.

Pro Life Campign

I hope this post will not cause those who disagree with me to distance themselves from me but rather that we might learn how to talk truthfully yet graciously to one another in our disagreement. I believe a ‘tolerant society’ is one in which we can name and talk about our disagreements whilst ‘tolerating’ each other, not hating each other. I hope we can learn from this referendum what it means to be tolerant.

Compassion

And let me say a few things about the word ‘compassion,’ which both sides of the debate want to claim for their own. I trust that we will respect and honour one another’s intentions and motivations, that we are all trying to be ‘compassionate’ – whether to the mother who has a crisis pregnancy or to the baby who has a right to live. Let’s at least give each other the benefit of the doubt that we are acting and voting out of compassion, even if we disagree with each others’ ultimate ways of showing compassion.

The value of a human life

Early on in the campaigns I met a lady who had had an abortion earlier in her life. When her mother found out she told her daughter that she herself (the daughter) had been conceived because of rape but her mother did not have her aborted because “she did not believe the value of a human life should be dependent on whether the baby was conceived in violence or in a bed of roses” – that a life is valuable however it starts. A few years later the woman got unexpectedly pregnant again and her then boyfriend put great pressure on her to have an abortion but she refused and eventually lost the boyfriend but kept the baby. This lady’s story aligns with my own view that all human life is valuable whether it’s in the womb or out.

As I see it, the only difference between the baby in the womb and ourselves is time. At conception the baby has all the potentiality for life and at 12 weeks (which is the date that the likely new legislation will allow abortion up until with no restrictions) they have hands and feet like me. They have fingernails like me. They yawn like me and can even suck their thumb like me. They have a unique DNA code like me and they can feel stress just like me. Here is a brilliant video that captures all of this from an ultrasound scan. I think the 8th amendment is in place to protect the lives of the unborn and that is a good thing.

I recently attended a ‘Love Both’ rally at Merrion Square and we heard two people tell stories about those who are alive today because of the 8th amendment. One was a young lady who became pregnant as a teenager and she said she would have had an abortion if it had been readily available as she was so shocked and panicked about being pregnant. But the 8th amendment gave her the time to think and she now has a little girl who would not have been here, were it not for the 8th amendment. The second person was a young man in his 20s whose mother had also wanted and had even gone to the UK to have an abortion but the very existence of the 8th amendment made her stop and think about what she was doing and ultimately not go through with it. He credits his life to the 8th amendment.

Lesser of two evils?

I have not met (correct me if I am wrong) anyone who thinks abortion is a ‘good thing’ – it might be the lesser of two evils and it might be necessary in the extreme and nasty cases of rape or incest but from what I can tell, no-one actually likes the act of abortion or thinks it is a good thing in and of itself.

That leads us to ask the question – why do people have abortions in the first place? As much as I have been able to listen and learn, I have tried to appreciate the arguments on the repeal side, the reasons for changing the 8th amendment seem mostly to do with the hard cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s health is at risk. It is my understanding that the current law in Ireland says that when the life of a pregnant woman is in danger it is possible to be given an abortion or to receive necessary treatment, even if that risks the life of the foetus. So our vote doesn’t affect that issue. With regards to rape and incest, I appreciate these are very challenging situations and we must do more to support women in this situation. However we must face the facts about most abortions. In England and Wales, 1 in 5 babies is currently aborted. This is calculated by looking at the number of live births (in 2016 there were 696,271 live births) and the number of abortions in the same year (190,406 abortions in 2016). This seems to me staggering compared to the 1 in 20 currently in Ireland. England and Wales do not record the specific reasons why women have abortions but of these, 97% come under category ‘C’ which is about injury to the physical or mental health of the mother. When you compare this statistic to the results of an extensive study in the US that compiled estimates of the reasons why women had abortions, they found that less than 1% of abortions were because of fatal foetal abnormalities, less than 0.3% were because of rape, less than 0.03% were because of incest, less than 1% were due to the risk of the physical or mental health of the mother, and over 97% were for other ‘elective’ reasons. If the 8th is removed, we have good reason to expect similar ratios. So given these statistics, this referendum doesn’t seem to be for the hard cases, this referendum is about the 97%.

I appreciate that many women who are in the 97% who have abortions do so because they are fearful of becoming a mother or they cannot see how they will be able to cope going forward or because they feel they don’t have the resources to raise a child, and I imagine that most find it very hard to choose and go through with the abortion itself (in other words it is not an easy or flippant decision) but does that not say more about the way our society supports, cares and provides for mothers? Is the real answer to offer unlimited abortion up to 12 weeks or to find more creative ways to support mothers when they don’t really want an abortion; they just feel they don’t have the capacity for a child? 

I said at the start “I am not and never will be a woman carrying a baby that I do not want” so I appreciate I need to tread carefully here and that my tone may come across as cold and insensitive (that’s what online does!). Maybe some personal testimony will help. A number of years ago Leanne and I, on two separate occasions, have spoken to 2 young women who became pregnant unexpectedly and offered to both care for them and the baby when they were considering an abortion if they wanted it. One of the women had the abortion, the other didn’t, neither took us up on the offer. I am not saying we are heroic for doing that, I am just pointing out different ways we should support and help women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy and who think ’there is no other option…no way out’. I want Ireland (I include myself in this!) to come up with a greater vision for how we care for women who have unwanted pregnancies.

Let’s listen and love regardless

These are some jumbled up thoughts that may or may not be helpful as you think about voting tomorrow. For the record, I will not be able to vote tomorrow as I didn’t get my act together quickly enough and my Irish passport has taken so long to come through that I wasn’t able to register by the 8th May (very frustrating for me!). But as you can tell I would lean to the no side. But please hear me, if you vote yes I will trust your motivations are compassionate and you are doing what you think is best for both the mother and the baby. I pray we will not despise each other for our opinions, but learn to understand each others’ motivations and reasons for believing what we believe. If we can do that then I think we will become a tolerant and compassionate society, and better for it.

However Ireland votes tomorrow and whatever the outcome, we all wake up on Saturday 26th May 2018 and will have the same task before us that we have today – working out how we love each other in all our diversity…what a wonderful and challenging prospect that is!

One final comment – to those who have had abortions

One final thing which I have to mention comes back to my introduction about how online discussion more naturally leads us to distance ourselves from one another rather than come together. By posting publicly as to which side of the fence I fall on I am in danger of not only distancing myself from those who vote ‘yes’ tomorrow, but of distancing myself from those women who have had (or will have) an abortion. My guess is that you might feel judged by me. I hope this post will show you that that is not my intention and I am sorry if any turn of phrase has given you that impression. Please forgive me if so. I do not believe any one human being is morally superior to another and I do not believe any one human being is morally inferior to anyone else. I truly believe we were all created equal. And I am greatly inspired by a man who said “‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” I try to follow this advice as best as I can, so I hope that for those who who have or will go through an abortion, you will not feel judged by me but rather, as my parents taught me, you sense a welcome and an acceptance from me no matter what.

3 Years Church Planting in Dublin & 5 Principles Of Ministry

13 October 2017

Ha-Penny Bridge Dublin

We’re coming to our 3rd birthday as a church and seeing as my last blog post was a year ago for our 2nd birthday, it feels appropriate to do another now. At the very least it helps me collate my thoughts as we look forward. Let me share 5 thoughts I have learned over the last 3 years of church planting.

(1) A long-term posture of investment

Like any capital city with multiple universities, tech companies, a growing economy and free movement within the EU, Dublin is FULL of new people. People are continually flooding into Dublin for studies or jobs or to be with their partner in a country that recognises their visa… or for whatever other reason. Just this year the intake at Jacob and Annabelle’s school is far more international than any other previous years. When you walk around Dublin City Centre you hear all kinds of accents and languages. This is exciting and provides a great opportunity for the gospel.

However, I see two challenges with this:

  1. Loneliness – Integrating new people into Irish society and communities can be challenging. Many people can find it hard to make friends in Dublin and can feel lonely and isolated. It has been said that “The Irish are the friendliest people on earth but the hardest to get to know.” That is a caricature, but any caricature has some level of truth.
  2. Consumerism  – It’s easy for people to come and take from Dublin (education, jobs, money, experience etc) and then leave when they have what they want. This will limit Dublin’s flourishing and will never enable us to care for the most needy in the city.

So for a church plant to survive and thrive we need to give new residents a vision of what they can give to the city, not just take from the city. And those of us who have been here longer than 5 years and are settled into communities and friendship groups need to do all we can to help people settle.  If we’re to become all that God wants us to be in the city, we need people to stick around and commit, to buy houses and have families (as Jeremiah 29:4-8 encourages the Jewish exiles in Babylon to do). We need those who will buy into the vision and make life-decisions for the sake of the mission.

Churches thrive (and therefore cities thrive)Dublin with cranes as people commit and invest, both internally in the friendships and externally in the city. We need a long-term posture of investment if we’re going make a difference. So, as I have often said, so I say again to those who are part of CCC… stick around and make career choices that are about committing to Dublin. As you do you will make a much bigger impact to the kingdom of God.

(2) A Provocative Church

We have found that whilst people in Dublin, as everywhere, are looking for meaning and purpose, often they have little space for God. Additionally, as is well documented, many have been burnt by church and have no desire to get to know God even if he does exist. There is hurt or anger or disillusionment. What does this mean for church? It means that no matter how sexy/cool/impressive our ‘events’ might become… people are not just going to turn up in their droves. Gone are the days when Christianity was a dominant part of the culture, everyone attended church and people wanted to know how to get right with God and live for God. That was the last 50-100 years, but it’s not today. So we need to rethink church. Instead of expecting the people to come to us, we need to go to them. This was always the vision of the New Testament, that the church would spread out and take the message into the marketplace, into homes and into the social arenas. Our methods of ministry must change, even if the gospel message and the importance of the corporate gathering remain.

Don’t mishear me, once someone decides to dip their toe in and see, I hope they experience something wonderful, transcendent and compelling… but how do we tempt people to dip their toe in the water and take a peek in the first place? We must become a provocative church, a church that provokes questions and draws people in through the quality of our lives. Blaise Pascal famously said:

Make religion attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.

Earlier this year we held two seminars to equip people in this provocative and question-asking approach. I think there is much work to be done here in equipping the church to help seekers and sceptics explore faith and connect in. I still think our focus on the pub will help with this as that it is a non-threatening neutral environment to start conversations and relationships.

(3) Clarity on vision & values

We are by no means a large church, nor do we want to become one. But over the last three years we have grown, and with numerical growth come opportunities and pitfalls. The opportunities centre on investing in people, creating community, the creative energy that comes from new people/ideas and the potential for more ministries/City Groups to develop. However, the pitfalls of numerical growth are often greater… and they can lead you away from your vision and values. Here are some that I have pondered:

  • Pride – We can easily find our identity in numbers. We can think we’re doing well because we’re growing bigger. Remember… Jesus wasn’t a big fan of the crowds!Samuel Beckett Bridge with birds
  • Assimilation – Jesus was about forming spiritual families and missional communities, not people who turned up to ‘consume’ the latest thing. As we grow bigger, we can forget that Jesus wanted to ensure that people became part of the community and not just the crowd. As you grow, it is easier to miss people and it’s easier for the church to feel cliquey.
  • Life transformation – Numbers are great if the numbers represent people who are being impacted and changed. Otherwise, they’re just numbers.
  • Outreach – It is quite possible at this point that the church has grown sufficiently to allow most of your relational needs to be met with Christian church friends. This is tragic if it happens. We turn into a closed-minded group and we lose the purpose of what we’re supposed to be doing. It’s important we prioritise neighbours, families and friends who are not part of church.
  • Purity of vision and values – the danger of a growing church is that the question changes from “How can we reach out?” to “How can we keep everyone happy?” We must not become a church that is all about ensuring we fit people’s needs or are becoming trendy… or whatever else.

It’s those last two that scare me the most when I think long term about the church. We could easily continue to just grow the church through new Christians to the city or de-churched people connecting in… and that’s great, but not sufficient. We’re not living up to our calling and purpose; Jesus wants us to be his missionaries here in Dublin. So how can we also grow through people coming to Christ? How can we help spiritual seekers connect to Christ and His Church? How can we nurture a similar ambition to Paul who said in Romans 15:20:

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.

When we started the church, we always wanted it to be a church (a) that’s relevant to the sceptical Dub, and (b) that would work for the common good of the city. We talked about it being ‘a church not for ourselves’ and I hope and pray that it remains that way. To do so, we’ll have to resist that internal inertia which is part of why we have a strategy to become a church planting church.

(4) Organic leadership structures

Many people have negative feelings toward the words ‘authority’ and ‘structure,’ yet for any organisation to thrive it needs leaders, it will need to give authority to certain people so decisions can be made and structures will need to be put in place to ensure everyone and all the activities are co-ordinated towards a common aim. And the New Testament talks plainly about leadership structures and the importance of those that govern.

Trellis supporting a vine

But the model of leadership in the New Testament is always patterned after Christ the servant-leader and, as I explain elsewhere, all structures within churches are to be like a trellis that supports the vine. The trellis is not the important thing. The vine is the life and focus, but the trellis helps it develop.

What we often forget is typically many of the most ‘influential’ people in church life are not part of the official leadership structures, but use their gifts, time and passions to invest in others, organise events and come up with creative new ideas. So whatever structures we put in place to support and oversee the church, they exist to help the creative and passionate individuals get on and do what they do. The structures are really to ensure these people get released and that THE WHOLE CHURCH is using their gifts. So the leadership structures must be organic, in that they need to be flexible but also they’re there to serve the life that God is growing.

What does this mean in practice? It means instead of trying to fit someone into a particular role/need we have in church we must look at (a) the gifts of the person and (b) the passions of the person, and channel those two things in such as way that brings life to the vine.

But let me ask another question that relates to all this and our future… when do you stop becoming a church plant and just become a ‘church’? One of the markers of this transition is that you have appointed leaders (in the New Testament these are called Elders/Pastors/Overseers, the terms are used synonymously – see 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, 1 Peter 5 & Acts 20).

So as we mature as a church we need to appoint elders and develop more of a leadership structure. At the moment it’s Leanne and myself who meet weekly. Then there is the staff team, which meets weekly, and finally there is a leaders’ gathering that meets quarterly.* Leanne and I also meet with Caroline and Justin and Daniel Czulno (a friend and financial advisor outside the church) twice a year to look at whether our finances match our vision and values, and to think over strategic decisions.

I don’t imagine that our leadership structures will look much different from this, although I suspect a group of elders being appointed and meeting monthly/quarterly may be a natural next step. Whatever we do we (a) want to keep everyone involved and encourage more to join, (b) keep it life-giving, fun and organic and (c) allow flexibility and space to involve people with different timetables, roles and gifts.**

(5) Joyful hard work

When I think back on the last 5 years (2 years settling in and 3 years church planting) I can truly say I have had a blast. It’s been so much fun. I have been so energised. I have learned loads. I have changed (for the good I hope?). It’s been stimulating and fast paced. But it’s also been hard work. It’s had lots of ups and downs. There are disappointments – events that didn’t take off, pastoral challenges I didn’t expect, people who left that I thought would become key leaders. Leanne and I have had moments where we’re pulling our hair out (each others’ sometimes!) and tensions have run high. There have been times when I have been exhausted. But throughout it all I have known an energy, a joy, a zeal and a grace for the work. The Apostle Paul once put it like this (2 Corinthians 4:7-9):

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 

And he goes on to talk about the life of Christ coming through his life and ministry. It was Christ sustaining and enabling him. And that is what I have experienced and so whilst it’s been hard work, it’s been joyful hard work. If you go into church planting thinking it will be easy, you’ll be crushed under the hard work. If you go into church planting prepared for the hard work but without the joy and resources of Christ, you’ll also be crushed under the hard work. It’s joy that sustains us in our work! I pray God will give us all lots of joy as we think about investing long term in the City and into the lives of others!

If you have got this far… thanks for reading! Do pray for us as we try to apply these 5 principles and ask God to enable us to become a church-planting-church.

*Leanne & I gather together all the Staff Team, Interns, Apprentices, City Group Leaders, Ministry Leaders & Sunday Leaders four times a year

**Additionally, part of this maturing process is to appoint an Advisory Team for support, accountability and advice.

2 Years Church Planting – Climbing Everest

14 October 2016
climbing everest

This Sunday we celebrate 2 years of being a church…doesn’t time fly?! I wrote some reflections on church planting at month 6 and month 12 so I thought I’d write a few more reflections now we’re at month 24. On our church blog I wrote about 3 reasons why we should give thanks – to stop pride, stop grumbling and keep us excited. In this blog I want to reflect on the journey so far and think about priorities for the year(s) ahead.

So let’s retell our story of the last 4 years, using the analogy of climbing Everest which I recently used on a leadership retreat. It has 3 stages.

Sept 2012-Sept 2014: Training the team

Leanne I arrived in Dublin in September 2012 and for 2 years we focused on three things.

  1. Team – We gathered a team together to form a house church. We started as 6 people and by the end of the 2 years we were about 20 people.
  2. Training – We did some altitude training in terms of settling in, making some friends, Christ City Church House Churchbecoming financial viable/sustainable and understanding the culture and the people (contextualisation). We wanted to understand Dublin well before we launched the church.
  3. Vision – We clarified our vision & values which in summary is to see the spiritual, cultural and social renewal of the city and our values are mission, discipleship, community & leadership. Put even more simply, we wanted to be a church for the skeptical Dub, particularly those between the ages of 18-35. We wanted to be a community that could connect with those that were not connected to church.

After 2 years, we were ready to start the climb!

Sept 2013-Sept 2014: Reaching Basecamp (year 1)

In year 3 of being in Dublin (year 1 of the church) we arrived at basecamp, a place where we can grow for the long-term. Here were some important milestones.

  1. Launch & venue – We actually launched the church and started in Filmbase in Temple Bar, then moved to Immanuel on the Quays briefly before settling at Synge Street Secondary School
  2. The PubIdentity – After being fairly hidden, we became known in Dublin, and started to grow. People found out about us. And we had tonnes of fun together, growing in community. Going to the pub was a key part of our identity, both in connecting to the city and ensuring everyone who came felt welcome.
  3. Early signs of vision – What we had hoped started to happen. Those who were skeptical started to engage. We saw some people baptised. We saw some ‘prodigals’ return and we saw some ‘de-churched’ get connected.
  4. Early signs of values/structure – We started training leaders and set up City Groups, Life Groups, Sunday Leaders and we became a charity.

Sept 2015-Sept 2016: Starting to climb Everest proper (year 2)

So this time last year it seemed that having got ourselves set up and established as a church, it was time to think ‘long-term’ and about what we were hoping to achieve over the next 10-20 years. And there were 3 things that really stood out to us, which we have started to implement and want to keep focusing on.

(1) Leadership development –  We want to continue to grow our internship and apprenticeship which has been a huge success. It has been great seeing people grow through the year(s). We will keep doing 6:30 leadership to develop leaders and over the coming years hire some more people onto staff. We will sorely miss Caroline when she heads off on maternity leave.

(2) Remain an outward facing church – in 2 ways:

  1. Be a church where skeptics are welcomepicture of a skepticI want our church to remain a church where those who are skeptical, non-believers, unsure of what they believe or have fallen out with church can connect and be engaged, be welcomed and loved.
  2. Be a church that is about the city of Dublin. It’s less about building a great church and more about playing our part in making Dublin a great city. We want to infiltrate every sphere of Dublin – schools, colleges, homes, community, business, art, music, finance, politics…you name it. We want to be salt and light in these areas, trying to make a positive difference. A key ingredient in this is learning how to integrate faith and work.

(3) Multiplication – Planting other churches/congregations. As part of the DNA of the church we want to have a vision for multiplying and planting other churches and starting other congregations. That is partly why we want to raise up leaders and this is partly what it means to be an outward facing church. But this will also require sacrifice and a willingness to put God’s mission above personal comfort. Our hope and prayer is that we can have multiplied by our 5 year anniversary.

Christ City ChurchThere are more ideas that we have prayed about that we’d love to see happen but they’re less clear at this stage – like starting a mercy ministry or renting a multi-purpose space for offices/training/cafe/meetings or planting churches outside of Dublin/Ireland or setting up a more formal faith&work initiative. These kinds of things excite us…and hopefully they can come further down the line.

I ended my recent church blog like this:

I love the holy ambition of Paul, who knows that nothing can stop him because God is for him, and he ends his letter to the Romans by saying (Romans 15:20):

It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation.”

That is what I want for our ambition as a church. To be excited that God will lead us to places where Christ is not known… and we can build a new foundation with him.

So as we come this Sunday to celebrate our second birthday as a church and look to the future, we must remember what he has done so far and give thanks. Let’s avoid the pitfalls of grumbling self-indulgence and proud self-reliance by thanking him for what he has done. And let’s stay excited and expectant of what is to come!

Onwards!

Jesus The Salesman

20 September 2016
Salesman

So I work in sales for HubSpot and volunteer as a Pastor with Christ City Church. I have commented before here and here about how fun and interesting I find the intersection of these two worlds. In the introduction to my talk last Sunday to the Church, as part of the Jesus The Revolutionary series, I outlined how in some senses you could say Jesus was the greatest ever salesman. Read on before you make any judgements. You can listen to the talk – it is based on Mark 2:1-12 where Jesus forgives and heals a paralytic man.

Many of you will know that I work full time in business for a company called HubSpot as a salesman. HubSpot is a software company that helps other companies perform inbound marketing and grow their businesses online… I won’t bore you with the details right now, but here is my business card if you’re interested (haha!). For those of you who didn’t know that, you’re now not sure whether to trust me and listen to this talk… as you have always been told never to trust a ‘slimey’ salesman!

Well I want to start this sermon by giving away the secret of a good sales person, and it’s very simple. A good sales person is able to get under the surface of what is going on the mind and heart of a potential customer and discern their deepest pain and their deepest desire. If you’re able to discern the motivation/heart – then you’re able to help that person solve their pain and realise that desire.

So when you’re being trained in sales at HubSpot they talk about level 1-2-3 pain and desire:

Level 1 – is surface level pain and desire. Someone wants to speak to me because they’re interested in our software to grow their business. They want to become better at online marketing and we might be able to help them. It’s general and surface.

Level 2 – is specific pain and desire, maybe you find out that they have to grow their business by 25%; that they’re losing market-share; that they have pressure from the boss to make a change; and that the website has to become more effective at attracting new customers. So we have gone a bit deeper and now things are more urgent and pressing.

Level 3 – is when we get right to what we call personal pain and desire. For example if that person doesn’t see changes and turn the business around they’ll lose their job; but if they do they’ll get a promotion and a salary increase – both scenarios will affect their families!! Now we’re getting deep… and now that I have discerned their motivation, the consequences and the urgency, it’s much easier to help them and ensure they get the right solution (which is always HubSpot software!!!)

So do you see – the best sales people move from a general surface level issue, to a specific and clear pain or desire, to a personal motivation. But here is the thing – very often the person who is interested in HubSpot has not seen clearly for themselves just how big the problem is or how far-reaching the consequences are. So a good sales person has to ask the right questions to ensure that they see it clearly. As you all know, we’re often blind to our own biggest problem, but other people can see it much more clearly.

So the best sales people ask lots of good and probing questions, making the person feel uncomfortable at times, but in the end the potential customer is always grateful. In fact, a good sales person will not actually try to sell you anything, they’ll just try to help you see for yourself what your biggest pain and desire are, and lead you to work out the right solution!

Well I know this is very cheesy and potentially irreverent… but this passage shows that Jesus is the greatest salesman that has ever lived; not that he was trying to spin anyone or sell something false (though I guess that is how people who don’t believe in Jesus might see it… including my manager at HubSpot!), but in that he always wanted to take people deeper. Jesus was able to discern the heart better than anyone else who has walked this planet. He is able to see right into our greatest pain and desire, and he can see the stuff we can’t see or are too proud to see, and he wants to take us deeper – he wants to take our surface level problems that we bring to him, and go much deeper.

He’ll often make us uncomfortable, he might even offend us and turn us off following him. But if we’ll open up to his gentle probing, he’ll bring a freedom and joy, a peace and contentment we had never thought was possible.

That is what today’s passage is about – it’s the first of five consecutive conflicts that Jesus has with the religious leaders in Mark’s Gospel. And in this story Jesus is going to take the paralysed man much deeper than he had bargained for, but he’s also going to take the religious leaders much deeper than they had bargained for. So let’s look how the story begins…

Do read the passage and listen to the whole talk, but if you want to know how I concluded the talk*, here it is:

You see, at that moment Jesus had the power to heal the man’s body, just as he has the power to give you that career success, that relationship, that recognition, that job, that home you’ve been longing for. He actually has the power and authority to give each of us what we’ve been asking for on the spot, no questions asked. But Jesus knows that’s not nearly deep enough. He knows that whether we’re a paralysed man lying on a mat or one of us sat here tonight in Dublin who is desperately trying to make ourselves feel more valuable, we don’t need him to just grant our deepest wishes; we need someone who can go deeper than that. We need someone who can remove the sin that enslaves us and distorts even our beautiful longings. In short we need to be forgiven, we need to know Jesus as our priest, our sacrifice and our temple. That’s the only way for our discontentment to be healed. It will take more than a miracle worker or a divine genie – it will take a saviour.

And now, a shameless plug, for those who are interested in discussing more about all this kind of stuff – come to The Intro Course, starting Wednesday 28th September, 7.30pm at Third Space at the Y on Aungier Street. No question is too simple, and no question is too feisty.

—-

* Heavily drawn from the end of chapter 3 of Tim Keller’s book Jesus the King.

Rubicon – An Interview with Greg Fromholz

16 March 2016

RubiconI heard about Greg Fromholz 4 years ago, just around when we decided to move to Dublin. People said he’d be a good person to talk to. But try as I may it took me 3.5 years to actually get a coffee with him…but when I did it was well worth it and I was inspired and encouraged by his story – inspired because here is someone that really wants to love and serve Dublin, encouraged because you can be from outside Ireland and still have an impact.

He is also the co-founder of Rubicon which is a really cool and niche event that happens every year. He’ll explain more below.

(1) Greg, tell us a bit about yourself, your family and how you fill your weeks. Also, what’s your favourite thing about Dublin?

I’m originally from the United States, having moved to Ireland in 1990.Greg Fromholz I fill my week in a quite a variety of roles that at times feel like I’m juggling chainsaws and badgers, but is incredible. I spend my fill my week writing, having published my second book “Broken; Restoring Trust Between the Sacred and the Secular” last August with Abingdon Press; speaking; directing music videos with everyone from Rend Collective to Guy Garvey of Elbow and documentaries Phyllisand the soon to released “Peterson: In-Between the Man and The Message”, a short film with Eugene Peterson; co0ordinating Young Adults work for the Archbishop of the Church of Ireland; serving our church plant Holy Trinity, Rathmines: and running the Rubicon gathering. And I love it.

I’m married to Alexandra, with three brilliant kids,  Chloe, Joshua and Eden and one ridiculous dog named Mr. Bojangles.

I love roaming the streets of Dublin and discovering the art and coffee and people that continue to bring such a vibrancy to this old/new city.

(2) Tell us about Rubicon – why did it start? What was the vision? How have the first few years gone?

Rubicon started 5 years ago with Rob Jones and myself hoping to create a space for discussing and debating the interplay of culture and faith, a community where the big questions can be wrestled with. We wanted a conversational TED Talk styled event with 95% local speakers as well as a strong 5% from outside Ireland for outside perspective.  The first years have gone really well, we’ve been able to maintain the boutique style of the event by limiting number to 120, so as not to lose the intimacy of conversation.

(3) What is the line up and theme for this years conference? Why have you chosen the focus you have?

The line up is really exciting this year- but of course I’d say that as I’m running it- but I do believe it. Brian Zahnd, Pastor and Author of “Water to Wine”, “A Farewell to Mars” and “Beauty Will Save The World” is our keynote.

Joining him are: Stephen James Smith – Slam Poet, Writer and Performer of “Dublin You Are” :: Pádraig Ó TuamaCorrymeala Community Leader :: Dr. James Gallen – Lecturer in the School of Law and Government at DCU :: Sr. Imelda Wickham – Wheatfield Prison Chaplain ::  Ferg Brown – Founder and Owner of Roasted Brown :: Natasha Paulberg – Dublin Composer and many more.

This year we will be looking at 1916-2016; Church State to Secular State, how the church has evolved, changed and atrophied over the past 100 years as well as it’s role going forward.

(4) If you were doing a SWOT analysis of the Irish Church, what would say are it’s strengths and weaknesses?

Great question. I can be like a teenager at times with the Irish church- loving it at times and annoyed with it at others. As a parent of a teenager this becomes more and more apparent as we go on. Yet, I have a deep hope that is rooted in the incredible communities and churches that are restoring a trust that has been severely shattered over the last decades and indeed centuries by the tradition and not so traditional churches. I think at times the churches strength is also it’s weakness, that of familiarity and it being part the cultural DNA; this gives both opportunity for influence but also gives the church a lot more work when it comes to restoring that trust. Work that I believe we should all dig our hands and souls into.

(5) Why should someone come to Rubicon?

Because being challenged beyond what we are comfortable with can also be great fun. And, let’s be honest, we are all pretty good at complaining about issues and maybe not so good at gathering, conversing and solving problems. Rubicon represents the opportunity for hope-filled conversations with diverse voices as we, together, explore culture, the arts and the future of Christianity in Ireland.

Here’s the details on the 2 days; 

Rubicon | April 16, 9am-5pm | Church of Ireland College of Education, Rathmines

Rubicon+ | April 17, 12am-3pm | Holy Trinity Rathmines

With Brain Zahnd and special guest singer-songwriter Jason Upton

(6) What’s the best book you have (a) ever read and (b) read in the last year (that’s not the bible)?

It’s a tie between The Wounded Healer” by Henri Nouwen  or Run With The Horses by Eugene Peterson.

And it’s another tie between Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense” by Francis Spufford or Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

www.gregfromholz.com

twitter/instagram/fb: @gregfromholz

An Interview with William Vanderbloemen on leadership

26 January 2016

William VanderbloemenSince the CEO at HubSpot found out that I was a pastor he has been connecting me with every HubSpot customer who has a Christian background. One such customer is William Vanderbloemen, who has been a successful HubSpot customer for many years. He was a Presbyterian pastor who decided to move out of leading a church and set up a business to help churches find the right staff. He is one of those guys who (a) knows everyone, (b) is full of energy and (c) is incredibly likeable.

He asked me to do a podcast for his show so in return I asked him if he’d do a blog-interview on leadership since he speaks with lots of leaders and we have both an Internship Program and a leadership course at Christ City Church so I am always looking for good material to share with those participating.

(1) Hi William! Who are you, what do you do and what is your most favourite thing about Dublin?

Hi Steve! Thank you so much for inviting me to be a part of your blog. I founded Vanderbloemen Search Group, a pastor search firm that helps churches and ministries find their key staff. Before that, I was a pastor for fifteen years. I love what I do because, like you, I’m passionate about helping churches apply business best practices to the nuances of ministry to help them do what only the church can do best. We have a team of 30 located in Houston, TX, and we have the honor of helping churches all around the world build great teams. My favorite thing about Dublin is its rich history. I’m a bit of a history nut.

(2) Who have been your inspirations growing up, who do you enjoying reading and what do you do on a day off?

John Maxwell spoke into my life as a young pastor, and I’m forever grateful for his wisdom in leadership development. I also highly respect Sam Chand, who has helped me think through key decisions throughout my vocation. On a day off, I soak up time with my wife Adrienne and our seven kids. We enjoy heading to the golf course. Adrienne and the kiddos are now better golfers than I am!

(3) Why did you stop being a pastor and set up Vanderbloemen Search?

I was 31 when I was called to be the Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Houston. At the time, I was the youngest pastor to have ever been called to lead as the Senior Pastor. In my six years there, I experienced the joys and challenges of trying to bring innovation into a traditional context. As a young pastor, this was challenging, particularly in regards to team building.

William VanderbloemenI was looking for agile, creative problem solvers to join a more rigid context, and it was difficult to find the right DNA match. I even used a search firm during my time at First Presbyterian, and it wasn’t a good experience. I knew that my peers and I didn’t learn about hiring, firing, and team building in seminary and that the church needed help from someone who could apply the best practices of the corporate world to the sacred nuances of ministry. So I studied executive search for a few years before Adrienne and I felt called to bring my past experiences, ministry network, and search expertise together to found Vanderbloemen and help churches build great teams. We started the company on the Ides of March in 2010, and 5 and a half years later, we have over 30 full-time team members and have completed over 600 searches for churches and ministries around the world.

(4) From your experience of hiring church leaders, what are the key characteristics you look for?

The number one characteristic we look for in church leaders is a passionate calling to ministry and a love for the Bride of Christ. Beyond that, agility is a key characteristic that we believe an effective church leader must have. In fact, Ever-Increasing Agility is one of our team’s values as we serve our clients. Agility means being able to pivot and change to adapt to what your church and community needs. It means seeking innovation and avoiding the phrase, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Ultimately, when we’re helping our churches find their new team members, we’re spending time understanding their DNA as an organization so that we can match that DNA in the right candidate that God is calling to their team.

(5) How do you stop your heart from becoming cynical or despondent when you’re called in to hire a pastor because the previous leader had sinned and had to step away from leadership?

We talk as a team often about how we are called to love the Bride of Christ. Even when she fails us or when her leaders fail their followers, we’re still called to love the Church because Christ loves the Church. The Church is made up of sinners, which reaffirms the fact that we’re all in need of a Savior. It’s a humbling reminder that God can use “the least of these” to do immense work for His Kingdom.

(6) What do you think are the key issues facing the church in the west today and how do you think we can handle them?

With the rise of digital media, the world is noisier and more connected now than ever. With social media, email, and smart phones, everyone’s rolodex is at their fingertips. You would think this would make it easier for church leaders to find their key staff, but it actually makes things trickier. It’s never been easier for people to make themselves look great on paper. The real art to effective team building is getting beyond the resumé, beyond the happy Facebook posts, and truly understanding the person’s heart. This takes a lot of time and expertise, which is why in our extensive search process, our team interviews both our clients and our candidates face-to-face. This face-to-face time allows us to see the intangible aspects of the organization and the candidate as we discern the right fit.

(7) What are the 3 best books on Leadership that every young leader should read?

  1. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There by Marshall Goldsmith
  2. QBQ! The Question Behind The Question by John G. Miller
  3. The Key to Everything: Unlocking the Secret to Why Some People Succeed and Others Don’t by Matt Keller
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