Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” Exodus 3:1-3

These are the verses which stopped me in my tracks. I’ve been dwelling in the Bible passages which relate the story of Moses for a few weeks and I’ve become captivated by the need to pay attention to whatever and wherever it is, where the presence of God is (just as in this episode of Moses’s life) ‘on fire’. That’s what I want to put my best energies into because as Moses recognised, ‘the bush does not burn up’.

When we entered the first lockdown of 2020 my primary question was ‘Lord, what is it I need to see and hear from you?’ Well, the Lord has spoken and revealed himself above and beyond my prayer on the global stage. It’s not been so loud and clear for everyone to hear and see, but as in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation: whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

The virus has revealed the reality. The reality of the nature of my/our relationship with the Lord either as churches, leadership teams or individual leaders. The curtain has been pulled back. From my perspective the church in the UK was deep in crisis before we’d heard of Covid-19, in terms of Christ-like leadership, authentic discipleship as well as fruitful mission. At the beginning of 2020, the beginning of a new decade, I wrote:

My sense, at the beginning of this decade, is we’re headed for some significant challenges. As Baptists our faithfulness to Jesus Christ as Lord will be tested in ways we have not seen for a long time. We face a crisis. This is not a warning we shall, but a recognition we are in crisis.

  • A crisis of leadership: we are not developing sufficient numbers of missional leaders to meet the need
  • A crisis of discipleship: the shallowness of our distinctiveness as followers of Jesus Christ is a deep concern
  • A crisis of mission: our confidence in the gospel is a reflection of our confidence in God and it doesn’t appear to be very high

To be perfectly honest, most people didn’t want to hear. I don’t recall anyone disputing any of my three areas of concern, but that’s not the same as hearing is it? That’s being polite, simply waiting for the next, hopefully more positive conversation. Those who did hear or could see clearly with their own eyes, were mostly similar to me, feeling paralysed, wondering what on earth could I do about it? But what about now? The pandemic has thrust us into a place where I tend to think the reality of all three are in plain sight, or are they?

At the turn of this year, I found myself reading the story of Moses again. Honestly, I felt I’d read/experienced enough about ‘wilderness’ during 2020, so I was either a sucker for punishment or desperate!

I also read alongside my Bible, ‘Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership. Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry’ by Ruth Haley Barton. She uses aspects of the life of Moses to illustrate what she describes as a book ‘about the soul – your soul, my soul and the soul of our leadership’. She quotes Gordon Cosby, who said, ‘when a local church loses its soul it begins to slip into mediocrity and is unable to give life’. [1]

The pandemic has revealed what deep down we already knew – there are too many mediocre churches out there. The deep, nagging concern is whether this is a symptom of too many mediocre Ministers, whether they be, like me ‘regional’, or ‘local’.

Looking closer at Moses has given me a growing list of questions. Top of the list is:  Am I willing to pay attention to what I’ve previously avoided?

I thought I’d already answered this one, but it turned out I’d not looked carefully or sufficiently enough. What was it I particularly needed to pay attention to? The One, True, Living, God grabbed Moses’s attention with a burning bush. With me, it was the state of the church. What is it for you?

Moses didn’t simply glance, he stopped and went over to examine what he had seen. Moses was willing to be changed by God and allow his life to be re-aligned by Him.

The ‘strange sight’, Moses was confronted with was outside his experience: how can a bush on fire not burn up? What’s your experience? My sense is too much of what I’m seeing in the church contains too much of the world. I’m all for being contextually relevant in terms of style and presentation, but the cultures of this world are often in conflict with the culture of the kingdom of God. Mark Sayers puts it like this:

‘Post-Christianity is not pre-Christianity; rather post-Christianity attempts to move beyond Christianity, whilst simultaneously feasting upon its fruit. Post-Christian culture attempts to retain the solace of faith, whilst gutting it of the costs, commitments, and restraints that the gospel places upon the individual will. Post-Christianity intuitively yearns for the justice and shalom of the kingdom, whilst defending the reign of the individual will. Post-Christianity is Christianity emptied of its content’. [2]

I’ve had to come face-to-face with something I’ve always known since I first encountered Jesus Christ, but had shoved closer to theory/theology, pushed away from practice/rootedness: without God, I am nothing. The big priority for my prayers right now is Lord without you, we’re done for. What will still be standing after the shaking? We are being shaken and my sense is the Lord is in the shaking and looking for our response. We have shifted authority to a gospel of self, in which the individual seeks to power their own development and salvation. That fits the government’s agenda, but it’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What about you? When God pressed the pause button what did you do?

No time to stop and think? It felt like that was the response I was being given by most leaders I talked with during the first phase, following the pandemic hitting our shores. Many of us felt everyone was looking to us to lead them through the crisis. And what do we do in that situation? We perform. Generally speaking, we’re all able to perform under pressure. I used to smile (only inwardly) when listening to a colleague leading a church who was ‘struggling with a couple whose marriage is in crisis’. What I wanted to say was ‘only one! That sounds more like you’re leading a holiday camp’! What if it is just that, however, a performance without substance?

During our experience of the pandemic here in the UK, I’ve seen many wonderful examples of heroic servanthood and I don’t want to ignore the green shoots of the kingdom I see springing up in the most unlikely of places. Yet I also see a handing over of God’s agenda into the hands of the government, the NHS, or social services.

The big themes of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic have been: the environment (remember March-April when people heard birdsong, which had always been around, again?); mental wellbeing (I’m all for it, yet ‘the peace of Christ, which passes all human understanding’ has the biggest impact on anyone’s life); human relationships (isolation, touch, proximity, support, an endless list of news and TV hours have been devoted to this). These are all vitally important, don’t get me wrong; they are potential signposts towards the kingdom of God, but they are not the kingdom itself. The biggest challenge of the pandemic remains the reality of death. For the first and only time in our lifetimes a subject, which the church of Jesus Christ has the answer to, has been the top item of news for almost a year now. It’s churches who don’t burn up, in-spite of everything, which reveal the presence of God. It’s leaders, like you, who create the culture which makes churches like that.

“Leaders create culture. Culture drives behaviour. Behaviour produces results.” (Edgar Schein). Edgar Schein is an expert in organisational management, but Damien Hughes, the Sports Psychologist who wrote The Barcelona Way about the winning culture of Barcelona Football Club, says the same thing. Damien Hughes talks about a ‘commitment culture’ being the essence of Barca’s success and ‘commitment’ is a word we’re danger of losing from the UK church. Whatever else disciples of Jesus are however, they are committed to pursuing him, whatever.

I see the need for the renewal of the Church, but I need to be willing to offer myself, wholly and sacrificially. Pay attention! Unless I’m aligned with the purposes of God, I cannot continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God and anticipate fruitful responses, which look like the life of Jesus. Jesus didn’t do or say anything which he wasn’t wanting to see reproduced in the life of the person in front of him.

 

[1] Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton, p13.

[2] Disappearing Church: From Cultural relevance to Gospel Resilience’, Mark Sayers, p15.

 

Nigel Coles

Nigel is Regional Team Leader of the West of England Baptist Network. He facilitates the life of the webnet team and oversees the missional strategy for the region. He also works to develop missional strategy over a wider geographical area with our partner Associations and Baptists Together. Nigel believes that when Jesus sent out seventy-two others, he meant everyone who was there, and this passion to help everyone find their way in the mission of God is what inspired the development of Seventy-two.