December 18, 2010

My Photo Culture: 'Scenes From My Garden'...

"How fair is a garden amid the trials and passions of existence".  
~Benjamin Disraeli-

"We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses."
-Abraham Lincoln-

"I perhaps owe having become a painter to flowers."
-Claude Monet-

"I think that if ever a mortal heard the voice of God 
it would be in a garden at the cool of the day".  
~F. Frankfort Moore, A Garden of Peace

December 13, 2010

...a light for the gentiles...

I came across a wonderful evangelistic advertising tool recently while driving home one evening.

One of the churches in my local area has decked the entire front of their building (which opportunistically, also happens to sit on a corner directly adjacent to a major roundabout) with colored Christmas lights and a bright neon nativity scene. Since that night I’ve often traveled down that street & literally seen cars drive several times around the roundabout just to look at the beautiful display.

I have to say the church looks absolutely spectacular as it lights up our little corner of the world!

I don’t know about your suburb, but where I live local families enjoy nothing better at Christmas time than a pre-bed time twilight drive or stroll with their children, to view the many wonderful, humorous, and sometimes simply crazy, Christmas light displays arrayed around the local neighborhood.

In my suburb, there’s one particular street that everyone goes out of the way to visit. Every Christmas, each of the houses in this tiny cu-de-sac fiercely compete to outdo each other to win our local ‘people’s favourite’ award for best and most elaborately dressed Christmas display’. Cars queue sometimes up to 40 minutes at a time just to get a peek.

So I think that little local church is on to something here. And it really got me thinking, why aren’t all churches capitalizing on this great advertising and evangelistic opportunity? After all, what more could we want than, as our local families bring children to see the pre-Christmas light display outside our church they also can't miss our notice board advertising the upcoming Christmas services! 
Brilliant I say!

Or, we could go one step further and leaflet the local neighborhood advertising that the church will hold a ‘special light display at a particular time each evening.

Or, for the extremely mission minded, energetic and theatrical amongst us, why not go all out and advertise that there’ll also be a short dramatic presentation of the nativity story each evening. 

At this event we could take the opportunity to hand out a simple hand made tree decoration for each family inscribed with a simple gospel verse, as well as a postcard sized leaflet inviting them to come to our special Christmas services.

As you can see, the pre-Christmas possibilities and opportunities are endless!

So, why not get creative this Christmas and take every opportunity to declare to your own little patch of Sydney, that the true light that gives light to every man” has come into the world! (Jn 1:9)

November 11, 2010

'Singularly Interesting'...

 I recently discovered these fascinating statistics on singles and households of single occupancy from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

Did you know…

* One-person households are the fastest growing of all demographic groups in Sydney. Currently, 22% of all Sydney households are occupied by one person, the trend towards proportionately more of these smaller households is likely to continue.

* By 2031, there are likely to be an additional 300,000 single person households in Sydney, representing 30% of all households.
* Lone person households aged 35-44 yrs were more likely to still be 'renters' (56%) than owner-occupiers (44%), with the rental rate for this group increasing by 9% between 1995-96 and 2005-06. 

* As women have delayed childbearing, a greater proportion have remained childless into their thirties and forties. In 2006, 37% of women in the peak child - bearing age of 30–34 years had not had any children.

 For women aged 40–44 years, childlessness increased from 10% for women born in 1942–46, to 13% for women born in 1952–56, and 16% for women born in 1962–66.

* DINKS’ & ‘Empty-Nesters’ will soon overtake parents with live-in children as the most common family type. "If recent trends continue, couple-only families will overtake the number of couple families with children in either 2013 or 2014"-ABS.
* A fast-growing number of people living alone will have a particular impact on women, with the number of older women living alone growing faster than for men. In 2006, there were 1.9 million people living alone in Australia; by 2031, there are projected to be between 3.0 and 3.6 million, an increase of between 63% and 91%, with the trend strongest among women.
* It’s predicted the number of women living alone will likely rise by 83% between 2006   and 2031.
* For the first time homelessness amongst women 45+ outnumbered men in our city.
* Figures show the trend in Australia to proportionately larger group of single women aged 40 to 54 compared with men in the same age bracket. Demographer Bernard Salt singled out 5 particular ''hot spots'', of women aged 40-54 living in the suburb identifying as single.
- Waterloo 71.2
- Woolloomooloo 63.5
- Daceyville 62.8
- Elizabeth Bay 62
- Rushcutters Bay 61.7

If these statistics are right then this growing demographic could well become a (if not ‘the’) major un-reached people group within our city into the next decade & beyond.

What might this mean for our churches? 
For out-reach?
Our Current Church Target Demographics:

Current approaches to church traditionally focus on 3 main demographic groups
1. Seniors (retired +)
2. Young families and families with teens.
3. Youth (16-21yrs)

These largely homogeneous groupings tend to be confined to 3 main services & service types
- An early morning Prayer Book and communion service for Seniors
- A mid-morning ‘families service’
- An evening contemporary service for youth and university age bracket

Under this current approach, those who are workers, young couples with no kids and those who may be single for one reason or another (those widowed, divorced, separated or never-married) are the demographic most called upon to adapt.

 Preparation and Perception:
 The three key questions that come to mind for me are…
    1. Given these growth statistics, what mission thinking/strategising might we need to begin doing in order to effectively reach this demographic?

    2. What perception or attitudinal shifts might we need to be addressing as we mission to this demographic?

  * What unspoken attitudes (real or perceived) might my church need to address towards Christians who may be single parents, separated, divorced, or never married?

* What attitude may a non-christian single in this demographic perceive?

* If I am single and come to/visit this church where will I fit?

    * Is my church attractive to a broadening range of those who are single (especially those post uni through to 60)?

     * How might my church encourage, help, care for Christians whose un-believing partner never comes with them to church?

    3. How might our churches need to recognise and address some of the specific pastoral realities that may accompany this demographic within our church communities?

    Eg. ABS Statistics also indicate that single women with children face poverty, extreme financial stress, are often government assistant dependant, have employment and re-employment difficulties, relationship complications and suffer from social isolation.

      * Women who are divorced or separated experience similar issues, which may then be compounded by any negative attitudinal issues related to divorce or separation within our churches.

     * Women with non-christian partners who never come to church and therefore are consistently forced to relate as a 'single' within our married communities.

     * The never married often never know where they fit. This can be a disincentive for some entering or engaging in church life, especially in comparison to the secular working world where the single state does not always carry the same questions of acceptability, curiosity or stigma.

       * The  financial and personal safety and security issues for the growing number of singles living alone, or for the growing number of homeless women in our communities.

What I do know, is that the challenge is out there to reach our large, complex and beautiful city of Sydney for Christ. 
And that means growing in our capacity to connect, engage with, and thoughtfully integrate into our church congregations the many vast and varied people groups wherever we might find them.
Hopefully stat's like these should challenge us to move beyond merely considering them - singularly interesting,but mobilize us to be strategically praying for, reaching out to, and gathering the lost…whatever their demographic!

November 4, 2010

Are You A Virtual Friend?

In the very week the long awaited Facebook movie hits the big screen they introduced a new ‘add on’ application to their platform. With this new 3rd party application Facebookers  have access to what can best be described as, a viral ‘de-friend detective’!

Officially called the 'Facebook Friend Checker', this sneaky new mechanism allows users to regularly scour the network for Facebook friends who (for reasons of their own) suddenly and unceremoniously ‘de-friend’ them without grace, for-warning, or even so much as a passing farewell.

No longer can so called ‘friends’ slip unnoticed and undetected from our ‘friends list’, slinking quietly and surreptitiously off into the cyber night. Not with the de-friend detector! With this handy little tool the de-friended are instantly notified and alerted as to the exact time, identity, and date of deletion by their said ‘Facebook friend’.

So finally, we’ll know!

But what then? What do we do with all this newfound knowledge?
And what does it mean?
We’ll know their identity, sure, but all we’ll really have is a new array of unanswered questions and speculative curiosities to plague our troubled and insecure minds…

Why did they de-friend me? Was it something I said? I did?
Was it my profile pic? My ‘Super-Poking’? My constant Farmville invitations?

And then there’s the ultimate question, the unease and uncertainty left lingering uncomfortably in the back of our consciousness…we’re they really my friend, or just a virtual one?

Ironically, it’s the study of friendship, both virtual and real, that lies at the centre of the movie about Facebook,“The Social Network”, based on the life of its founder and developer Mark Zuckerberg.

During the course of the movie, it’s Zuckerberg’s inability to master, or even begin to come to terms with his own jealousy, resentment, intellectual pride and social ineptitude, that lead him to successfully alienate and betray the only two people in his life who had enough grace and emotional generosity to befriend him, his now ‘ex’ girlfriend Erica Albright, and his best friend and co-developer Eduardo Saverin.

Without being a total spoiler for those who haven’t yet seen the movie, perhaps the saddest moment and probably the most telling, is the moment Zuckerberg clocks over his millionth Facebook member is at the exact moment he loses his one true friend, his only friend.

At that one moment his virtual network just climbed 
into to the millions,
his real network plummeted to zero.

The smartest man in the room suddenly finds himself - the only man in the room.

And perhaps the greatest irony of all, the founder of the world’s most successful friendship network becomes renowned for being its one friendless member. This sole cyber star finally gets his wake up call to do some serious soul searching.

Although the movie is about Zuckerberg, it can’t but provoke us to reflect and re-examine our own friendships, the nature of them, the value we place on them and the way we deal with them.

Thankfully movies and discussions on the pros and cons of social networks are not our only source of reflection on the matter. The scriptures have a lot to say about friendships, about their importance, their capacity to influence us, and how to conduct ourselves appropriately and lovingly within them.

The book of Proverbs in particular has a lot to teach us about what it means to be a real friend to others. It also teaches us how to distinguish real friendships from virtual ones.

In stark contrast to the double-dealing, self-serving expediency with which Sorkin’s portrayal of Zuckerberg deals with friendships, Proverbs teaches us that true and genuine friendship is one that is godly, wise, generous and constant.

That a real friend is…

* Not a ‘fair weather friend’, but someone who is faithful in both the good times and the bad:

“A friend loves at all times,
and a brother is born for adversity”

* Someone who doesn’t flatter us, or stroke our ego, but whose words are honest, sincere, straight and true:
“Whoever flatters his neighbour
is spreading a net for his feet”

* Whose love covers a multitude of sins and avoids repeating hurts:

“He who covers over an offense
promotes love
but whoever repeats the matter
separates close friends”

* Whose sincere and wise counsel is considered more delightful to us than the choicest aroma:
“ Perfume and incense bring joy to the heart,
and the pleasantness of one’s friend springs from his earnest counsel”

* Where even the wounds of their friendship are transparent and trustworthy:

“Wounds from a friend can be trusted,
but an enemy multiplies kisses”

By contrast a virtual friend is one who…
* Betrays our confidences (20:19)
* Is tactless and unfeeling to our circumstance (25:20)
* Hides behind humour as a means of inflicting hurt (26:18-19)
* Is dishonest and fickle in friendship (25:18-19)
* Can ensnare and corrupt others with their shortness of temper (22:24-25)
* Can be unyielding in their willingness to resolve issues of conflict or hurt (18:18-19)

Because of the power and force of friendships, real or virtual, the scriptures exhort us to choose those who would be our friends with wisdom and with great care. In the words of 1 Cor 15:33 “bad company corrupts good character”, the wrong kind of friends can be a corrupting and damaging influence on our lives, just as our own ungodliness or poor or immature approach to friendship can negatively impact the lives of others.

Proverbs reminds us that if we are to be serious about learning wisdom, (including the wisdom of friendship) then we’re to walk with those who are wise…

“He who walks with the wise
 grows wise,
but a companion of fools
 suffers harm”.

True wisdom of course will tell us that there are no perfect friends, including us!
There’s only ONE who’s perfect, whose love is never failing, who’s always constant, merciful and true.
The one who promises never to ‘de-friend’ us.
Who befriends the friendless.
And ultimately,"laid down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13)

And that’s the perfect one of whom we sing –

“What a friend we have in Jesus,
ALL our sins and grief’s to bear”.

What more could we want or ask for than that!

Of course, John also reminds us in the very next verse, that we’ll know we’re friends of Christ when we in turn “do what he commands” (14), and that includes learning to be a real friend to others, not a virtual one!

October 28, 2010

Feed The Woman Meat!

When I became a Christian at the ripe age of 16, I was immediately introduced to the extraordinary treasure trove of riches to be found in the books of some of the greatest Christian writers, apologists, philosophers and thinkers of our time. 

For hours at a time you’d find me hunched somewhere in the corner of my house, book in hand, brow puckered and perplexed, mind focused, full of intense reflection and concentration.

At that stage of my tender Christian life, I doubt I understood much of what I read. Never-the-less, I eagerly attempted to devour, savour and absorb the profound and life changing wisdom offered up to me daily by likes of Warfield, Pink, Packer, Stott, McDowell, Bonhoeffer, Schaeffer, Spurgeon and J.C Ryle.

But as I moved into adulthood and my circles of influence shifted, so did the books offered up for me to read. Not so much in the university or working world I lived in, but more so in the women’s groups I attended.

Here I found the emphasis shifted. Instead of the meaty theological ideas I’d been used to reading, and the passionate call to, ‘go ye into the world and tell of the good news of Christ’, more often than not, much of the material offered up for me to consume was light on scripture, tentative on the call to engage in evangelism and heavy on ‘felt needs’, self-help and subjective Christian opinion.

As I’ve grown and moved about in ministry circles, I’ve found that not much has changed. In fact, as the Christian writing world has exploded and the market become saturated with books, blogs, web sites, pod casts and books readily available on CD & DVD, so have the materials specifically aimed and targeted at Christian women.

But sadly, so many books in this ‘Christian women’s market’ appear to only give lip service to solid Biblical teaching. They often lack any clear expression of biblical theology and offer little in terms of real theological engagement on their topic of choice.

As a result, some of the books currently on the market do more to foster biblical ignorance than build theological depth. They often share more from experience and anecdotal stories to underpin their teaching than provide any serious examination of God’s truth. 

But without scriptural depth and gutsy theology, women are given no solid foundation by which they can understand and interpret God’s Word correctly on the matter at hand. Nor are they given the appropriate theological tools with which they can work out an accurate expression of true biblical womanhood.

A friend overseas wrote recently on just such an example. She wanted my advice about a popular Christian women’s book being studied in their women’s groups. 
She had this to say…
”it's the most dangerous form of teaching isn't it, because it has some truth in it so it can lead us astray more easily, just slightly off the gospel - without seeming to be wrong.
That is what I have found paging through this book with the horrendous title, 'How To Succeed At Being Yourself' - just when I was thinking, 'this is bad' she says something good and then I think, 'oh maybe it's not that bad' - and so makes being discerning harder work”.
In books such as the one mentioned, so much of what’s said is merely human wisdom wrapped in biblical language. 

And women can be drawn in for the same reason we seem to love most things, because it so often speaks into our 'felt needs' rather than our true 'spiritual need'

And this is where, if we’re not careful, not discerning, we become vulnerable to swallowing poor teaching; we quickly become taken in by 'emotion over content'. This is never good!

Books and bible study materials such as these only rob our women of what they really need to hear- God's perspective on them from his Word, rightly taught.

Perhaps never more than now has Christian wisdom, prudence and discernment been needed before we purchase a book with the words ‘women’, ‘for women’ or ‘Christian womanhood’ in the title.

But, help is at hand!
I was all ready to embark on writing a ‘Christian Women’s Guide to Buying a Book’ when I came across this helpful guide in ‘Treasures of Encouragement’ which I thought had some useful tips.

So, I’ve summarized their guide below for your thought and consideration.

In assessing a Christian book for reading and study consider…

1. Is Scripture at its core?
Is scripture used to explain and support scripture? Is it used in its right context?
Is scripture put on the same level as experience? Is experience tested against scripture?
Is the bible the clear governing authority or merely the writer’s opinion?

2. Does it teach sound doctrine?
Test its content against the '5 Solas’ of the Reformation, does its content compromise these essentials of the Christian faith - scripture alone, grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and for the glory of God alone.
Does it contradict key doctrines of the Christian faith e.g.resurrection, atonement, creation, fall, sin, the need for repentance?

3. What do you know about the author?
What do you know about them? What is their theological background and persuasion?
What else have they written? Who has recommended them?
Who does the author quote as back up to their position?
Do they quote trusted theologians?

4. Is the book God-centered or Man-centered?
Is it about growing in Christ likeness, conforming to the image of God, or primarily about bettering ourselves and seeking self-fulfillment and personal happiness?

5. Lastly, is it teachable and useful?
If so, how and in what context?
If used by groups - can the leaders easily teach it?
Does it delve into issues the leaders are prepared and able to address?
Is the subject matter appropriate and relevant? Is there a workbook?
What will the book equip your women to know and do?

and...I have added in 6th suggestion…

6. What does it say about women’s roles and biblical womanhood?
What is their position on women’s roles in the church?
Do they teach primarily from their own experience or from the scriptures? 
Is it anecdotally based or bible based? 
Does what they teach about womanhood fit rightly with what scripture teaches?

If you are a woman reading this, ask yourself what is your spiritual study diet made up of?

What are your women reading? studying? learning from? being shaped by?

Is their study diet made up of the milk of infants not yet weaned? Or of the solid ‘meat of God’s Word’?

The book of Hebrews reminds us what regular, thorough-going examination and study of the scriptures does for the ongoing life of a believer. They not only become “skilled in the teachings of righteousness”, but their appetite becomes wetted and trained for more and more solid spiritual food.

So, if we want our women to become ‘wise in the Word’, to be discerning of heart and mind, and to walk the way of biblically based womanhood, then we must begin to weed out the ‘watered down milk’ found in our bookshops, bible studies and our reading libraries, and smack our lips in anticipation as we begin to ‘feed our women meat’!

“Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant,
is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.
But solid food is for the mature,
who by constant use have trained themselves
to distinguish good from evil”
-Heb 5:13-14-