An Invitation to Influence

Discipleship has become a popular topic of conversation in Christian circles once again. I’m sure it was never really off the agenda. Perhaps we just referred to it in different ways. But it’s back. The question of how we make disciples is one of the burning questions of the hour for many church leaders. And sometimes we are told that we should be making disciples instead of asking people to make decisions. That is a whole discussion in itself. How can we help people become disciples if they don’t make a decision to follow Christ in the first place?!

Perhaps an even more basic question is: what exactly is a disciple or follower of Jesus?

Luke chapter 5.1-11 records the call of Simon Peter to follow Jesus. Jesus promises Simon Peter that if he follows Him, He will enable him to catch people instead of fish (v.10). Obviously the picture that Jesus paints makes perfect sense to Simon Peter as he is a fisherman and he has just brought in an unexpectedly huge catch of fish.

We know that Simon Peter spent the rest of his life influencing people for Jesus, most notably on the day of Pentecost when three thousand responded to his preaching.

How does all of that translate for us?

I would suggest that discipleship can be stripped back to two things: being influenced by Jesus and being an influence for Jesus.

The story in Luke 5 illustrates both of these aspects.

Simon Peter was influenced by Jesus. Simon Peter gave Jesus his boat so that He could preach to the people (v.3). Simon Peter listened to Jesus’ instruction to sail into deeper water and let down the nets – even though that advice was contrary to the wisdom of fishermen. After all they had already fished all night unsuccessfully (v.5)!

And Simon Peter recognised His own sinfulness in the presence of Jesus (v.8).

Simon Peter opened up his life to Jesus both practically and spiritually. He allowed Jesus to influence the way he “did” everyday life. And he also acknowledged the reality of his own spiritual condition.

When we allow Jesus into our everyday lives and when we are courageous enough to submit to a spiritual reality check, discipleship is in process.

Jesus, however, isn’t just interested in turning us into better people. He also calls us to be influential people. Influential for Him. The kind of influence that we have for Him might not be expressed in the same way as Simon Peter’s influence was expressed. But to live consistently and courageously and compassionately for Jesus will bring His influence into the world that you live in, even if you never preach a sermon that results in three thousand conversions. He will make you an influence for Him, just as surely as He made Simon Peter skilful at fishing for people.

A call to follow Jesus is an invitation to influence. And the more you are influenced by Him, the greater will be your influence for Him.

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A tale of two kingdoms

By the end of this week we will have a new government. It might end up being a different party or parties in power. Or it might be more of the same. In fact, it might even be more of the same whoever is elected!

Whatever the outcome, the new government is unlikely to be as oppressive as the Roman government of Jesus’ day, or their local puppet, Herod.

Herod, according to Mark 6.14-29, had, albeit unwillingly, agreed to the execution of John the Baptist. It seems that John’s untimely and unjust death played on his mind. At least that seems to be the most plausible way of explaining his reaction to the miraculous exploits of Jesus and his disciples. He thought that somehow John the Baptist must have been raised from the dead.

However one understands Herod’s explanation of the outbreak of the miraculous, one thing is clear; at a time of political pressure and potential persecution, Jesus determined not only to continue to bring the Kingdom of God to the people, He multiplied His ministry. Mark 6.7-12 records how He launched His disciples into a ministry of preaching, healing and miracles.

The account in Mark 6 reminds us that whatever the political climate, God’s priority is always that of advancing His kingdom amongst the “ordinary” people. The rulers of the kingdoms of this world will make their policies and enact legislation. It is important in a democracy that we as the church play our part. What is even more important is that we do not forget that advancing the kingdom of God is always our main priority. We should neither be distracted nor intimidated by what unfolds in the kingdoms of this world.

What we might also learn from the tale of two kingdoms in Mark 6, is that Jesus decided to multiply His ministry at a time when the greatest prophet up until that time had been beheaded.

There is no doubt that Christians are being persecuted all over the world. It is also true that in our own country there is great concern about the increasingly strident anti-Christian rhetoric and application of the law in the public square.

It would be a mistake however to conclude that we have before us the limited choices of fight or flight. It is important to make our voice heard on issues that concern us. That in itself will not advance the kingdom. Nor, I believe, will it bring a return, at least in the short run, to a society based on Christian values. At the same time, retreating into our Christian shells and allowing, to use the well worn cliche, the four walls of the church building to contain our message, is not an option either.

Times of uncertainty are times not only to continue doing what we have always done. They are times to multiply ministry.

I believe that the days in which we live demand not only a church that stands faithfully for the gospel. They demand a whole army of believers who are prepared to proclaim Christ and release His healing and miraculous power into needy communities. If Jesus saw the need to multiply His ministry through releasing His disciples, how much more us?

Whatever is decided in the United Kingdom this week, the Kingdom of God will not be threatened. And whatever happens, the church should take it as a cue from God to stay focused on raising and releasing disciples into mission.

Join the Marines and be happy. That’s an order.

Some people who read my blogs have said that one phrase that recurs is “I don’t watch much tv, however…”. Well, I don’t watch much tv, however, a while back I watched a bit of a documentary on new recruits in the Marines – Royal Marines, that is. Most of it was what you would expect. A demanding training regimen. Recruits having second thoughts. Overbearing NCOs.

And then the surprise. A recruit was asked to repeat the four values that made up the commando spirit or mindset. Courage. Obvious. Cowards do not volunteer for the Marines – unless it is an extreme way of trying to conquer their cowardice.

Determination. Of course. You do not become a fully fledged Marine without a lot of grit.

Unselfishness. Well, there is a revelation. To be a Marine you have to, in biblical language, die to self. Makes sense really. If you’re on the field of battle looking out for number one, you’re a liability.

But it was the next one that really ambushed me: cheerfulness in the face of adversity. Marines are expected to be cheerful! At sometime in the history of this elite regiment, someone decided that cheerfulness was a key component in shaping the commando spirit.

I would suggest that cheerfulness is a key component of the Christian spirit or Christian mindset. If, like me, you have read the NIV or King James Version of the scriptures for most of your life, you will be familiar with 1 Thessalonians 5.16:

“Rejoice evermore” (King James Version) or “Rejoice always” (NIV).

However, The Message translates this verse:  “Be cheerful no matter what”. The implication is that you can choose to be cheerful. Or you can choose to be uncheerful. Fortunately, we are not left to our own best efforts to be cheerful. The Holy Spirit, according to Galatians 5.22 enables us to choose cheerfulness. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit.

Cheerfulness is not just a stand alone quality. The context of 1 Thessalonians 5 links it with prayer and thankfulness. Cheerfulness without prayerfulness will soon evaporate. Thankfulness completes cheerfulness:

 “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)

It’s the way God wants you to live. It’s the Christian spirit.

The flightpath to greatness

You might not immediately recognise the title The Flower Duet by Leo Delibes. However, if I was to say “The World’s Favourite Airline” you might just connect it with some of those iconic British Airways’ adverts of the nineties and the first decade or so of the 2000s. For many of us the catchy music caught us, even if we had little idea of its origins.

After about twenty years, BA replaced its advertising with the words on its coat of arms: To fly. To serve. A promise to get you airborne and then look after you at thirty-nine thousand feet. Not bad objectives for a company specialising in international air travel.

In Matthew 20.20-28, we find a story of a family who really wanted to “fly”. The mother of James and John tried to secure top positions for her boys in the kingdom that Jesus was bringing about. The passage indicates that James and John were quite comfortable with their mother’s ambition and, it would seem, prepared for the price tag that Jesus appeared to attach to the kind of honour they were after. Perhaps chasing a good deal and trying to improve yourself was a way of life for them. They had, after all, been in the fishing business with their father before they had begun to follow Jesus, so “go-getting” was most likely a way of life for them.

You might expect Jesus to shoot down not only their preposterous request, but also to question their motivation and morality in the first place. Whilst He does knock back their desire to sit at His right hand and left hand, He doesn’t dismiss their desire for greatness. Instead, He gathers all His disciples around Him and sets out servanthood as the path to true greatness.

I think that sometimes we make a huge mistake when we think that following Jesus means that we try to remove all of our ambition, all of our drive. Jesus wants to take our ambition, vision and drive and, like He did with James and John, channel them into servanthood.Real progress, real discipleship happens when our ideas and ambitions intersect with the way of Jesus and we begin to walk the path of servanthood.

James would later lose his life for his faith. John would experience imprisonment on the isle of Patmos. To follow Jesus to the end you need the kind of drive that these former fishing business proprietors had and you also need an enormous capacity for servanthood. In BA terms, you need to fly and to serve.

Jesus doesn’t want to remove every trace of ambition you ever had. Instead, He wants to get hold of you and channel that drive into serving others and serving His cause. Serving without flying ends up in servility. Flying without serving is spiritual kamikaze. But when you pursue both, you set yourself on the flightpath to true greatness.

From the Couch to the Commonwealth Games

Seven years ago, at the age of thirty-three, Steve Way was way over weight, drinking way too much and smoking twenty cigarettes every day. Yesterday (Sunday 27th July, 2014), he came in tenth in the Commonwealth Games marathon.

Way has no background in sport. He was no athlete in his school days.  According to the BBC’s coverage of this remarkable story, his vices were beginning to take a toll on his health. Nights spent coughing, depriving him of sleep, were the result of too many cigarettes. He says that one day he looked in the mirror and decided he needed to have a radical change of life.

How did Steve Way bring about such a transformation? A number of factors stand out.

Firstly there was that moment of realisation, the realisation that it was a case of change or let your life go further down hill.

Then there was the discipline of taking up running. He gave himself to this with a real intensity, which is obvious from what he has achieved. Such was his commitment to his new life style that he left a well paid job in IT and took up a lesser paid job working in a bank – just so that he could devote more time to running.

His progress was not without setbacks. He had tried running eighteen months earlier and completed the London Marathon, but then gave it up and went back to his old lifestyle. Even though he gave in, he didn’t give up.

His new passion affected his social life. Even though he managed to maintain his friendship with those who had been drinking buddies, they initially struggled with the disruption that Way’s change of life brought to their relationship.

There is so much in this story that is directly applicable to anyone who is serious about change in their life or their lifestyle. And so much that applies to anyone who is serious about following Jesus.

There is the moment of realisation. The realisation that if we continue to do the same things we will attain the same results. That realisation can come in many ways. Through self reflection. Through conversations. Through prayer. Through the Bible. Does it not say in the book of James that when we read the Bible it is like looking in the mirror? (James 1.22-25)

Setbacks are always part of progress. The temptation to give in can prove too easy an option to resist, but if we give in without giving up, we can be sure that according to Psalm 37.23-24 the Lord is there to pick us up again.

Being willing to make sacrifices to ensure our progress is all part and parcel of change. It might not mean taking a job that does not pay as well, as it did for Steve Way, but discipleship always entails sacrifice. Jesus calls it taking up the cross.

And of course our friends, sometimes even our families, do not understand what is happening when we begin to respond to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts.

Perhaps the most important element in all of this, the key to it all is developing inner passion. These are Steve Way’s own words:

“In order to bury your vices you need to find an equal and opposite addiction. You need to find a passion.”

A great Scottish preacher from a bygone era, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), once preached a sermon entitled The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. He argued that that if we wanted to overcome sin, developing our passion for God was more effective – and important – than trying to stop loving the particular sin.

Developing a love for God and a vision for the life He has planned for you is far more effective and exciting than settling for a deep dislike of the things that are holding you back.

For years Steve Way sat on his couch slowly destroying his life, yet all the time a first class athlete was locked up inside of him.

God has put far more inside of you than you could ever imagine. Once you begin to grasp even a little bit of that you’ll never be able to settle for the couch again.

Remember to remember

Robert K. Massie is an American historian who became well known in his field after the publication of his biography entitled Nicholas and Alexandra, a work detailing the tragic life of Russia’s last Tsar and his family.

Massie tells the story of how he visited Russia in the 1960s. He recounts on one occasion a conversation he had with some Russian women.

He was in the Kremlin, looking at one of those famously expensive Faberge eggs. In the egg were miniature pictures of four little girls and one little boy. The women asked him if he knew who they were. He explained that they were the children of Tsar Nicholas. They looked bemused. He went on to tell how they, along with their father and mother, had been murdered in 1917 and that Lenin had sanctioned the killings. The ladies were completely bewildered. They had never heard of the murders. The memory of the last royal family of Russia had been almost forgotten by ordinary people in less than fifty years after their demise.

It doesn’t take a sophisticated propaganda machine to bring about a loss of memory. The apostle Peter writing towards the end of his life was concerned that the Christians within his circle of influence would soon forget the key elements of their faith:

 So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have. 13 I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, 14 because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. 15 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. 2 Peter 1.12-15

If people who had such close contact with an apostle who had been trained by Jesus Himself were vulnerable to spiritual forgetfulness, I think it’s fair to say that we might forget to remember as well.

Just what was it that Peter was concerned they would forget? The first eleven verses reveal what he wanted them to remember. He wanted them to remember that their salvation was the work of divine persons,  the Father and the Son (v.1).

Furthermore they had been given divine power to live a godly life (v.3). That power became active as they believed precious promises (v.4). And because of God’s power with them, they were able to plan and attain their own spiritual growth (v.5).

Sometimes we forget that God is one hundred percent behind not only our conversion but our ongoing growth and development in the Christian life. He gives us power and promises. That is real heavenly backing and back up whatever way you look at it. We have everything we need. Yet so often believers act as if it depends on their own best efforts. They forget that their salvation was actually God’s idea. They forget that God is committed to their growth and has given them everything they need to attain it.

Remember that. Believe that. Remember to remember.

The Great Uninvited

A number of years ago Tearfund conducted a survey on church attendance in the U.K.. It revealed amongst other things that some people who used to go to church or never went to church were open to attending church, “if given the right invitation”. Based on their findings, they estimated that around 5-6% of the adult population of the UK was open to the “right invitation” to attend church. That translates into about three million people.If the same is true of Scotland, it works out at about four hundred and fifty thousand people.

And if you live in the U.S., the stats are even more stunning: about 82% of the unchurched would consider attending church if they were invited!

Whatever way you look at it, that’s a lot of people. A lot of people just waiting for the “right invitation”. 

Of course statistics are just that – statistics – and the realities of the spiritual battle that rages for the hearts of those who don’t yet know Jesus is another thing. However, the possibility that so many people are “open” to coming to church is worth at least thinking about.

If there is any solid foundation underlying the results of this research it means that there are people you work with, people you are friends with, people in your family who are just waiting to be asked to go to church. 

You will notice that I used the term “right invitation” above. That is lifted from the study itself. And perhaps that is one of the keys to reaping what appears to be a ripe harvest on our doorstep.

What could a “right invitation” look like? 

No doubt there is the opportune moment in which to invite someone to church. If, for example, a person is preoccupied with some big life event, it might not be the right time to invite them along. And there is the right kind of event. To take an extreme example, a full on all night prayer meeting might not be the most appropriate meeting to invite your seeking friend to attend. Having said that, I have seen people come to a “chandelier swinging” prayer meeting and get converted as a result, despite the fears of some of those leading the prayer meeting! God will not be boxed in!

One way to think about the “right invitation” is to think of it in terms of where the person is at, what their concerns are.

In the gospels, Jesus reaches out to different people with different felt needs in different ways. I use the term “felt needs” because the real need is always the same – the need to have our sins forgiven and to find relationship with God.

In John 3, Jesus reaches out to Nicodemus. Nicodemus has questions, theological questions. Jesus dialogues with Him and leads him into truth. Some people are like Nicodemus. They have questions. No matter how much you want to try and convince them about how God heals the sick or answers prayer, they still have big questions that need to be tackled. A “right invitation” for them will entail at some time or other discussing those questions, whether one to one or in a group setting like Alpha.

On other occasions, Jesus did not enter into dialogue, He simply challenged people to follow Him. Jesus was bringing change, the implications of which most people did not see. His challenge therefore, was one to be part of what He was doing. One person Jesus challenged to follow Him was Matthew or Levi the tax collector (Mark 2.13-17). Some people need a call to change their direction in life. They are ready for it. They are ready for a challenge. They need purpose and direction.

Some people are simply craving acceptance and forgiveness. They know they have messed up in life. They don’ t need you to take them through Romans 3 to prove that they are sinners. They need the hope of forgiveness. Think the woman caught in adultery (John 8) or Zacchaeus (Luke 19).

All of these sorts of people live in your world and my world. The challenge for most of us is to take the time to get close enough to them to find out what’s going on in their hearts. Sometimes it’s obvious who those people are who are just waiting for an invite. Sometimes, it’s surprising who those people are.

I’ll end with a story. A few years ago a lady from my church asked if I would meet with her boss. She worked for a firm of solicitors. Her boss wanted to make me aware of a service her firm was providing to people who were unaware of or could not afford legal representation in a particular area of law. We had our meeting and a few days later, I spoke to the lady from my congregation. She said her boss had felt very welcome and enjoyed meeting with me. There was one thing however that disappointed her – I had not invited her to church. Why? I suppose I just did not think she would be interested.

Don’t make the same mistake as me. Assume everyone is interested! And let’s reduce the numbers of the great uninvited.