Why It’s ok to Doubt

“It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt.” [Dostoyevsky quoted in Harold Victor Martin, Kierkegaard, the Melancholy Dane (1950)]

A key responsibility of a Christian leader and teacher is to present the truth of the gospel with confidence. But if the church leader is honest with themselves, they will know that they too carry serious doubts. How many churches have a healthy culture that allows people to express their doubts?

All Christians will be endangered by doubt and we must realise that this is normal. We will ask ourselves questions about the relevance of our theology, and even the existence of the object of our theology (God). Karl Barth defines doubt as ‘swaying and staggering between Yes and No.’ Doubt may arise from spiritual attack, or church disunity, ongoing secret sins of the theologian and the cognitive dissonance that results, self righteousness, or just a lack of love for other people. Doubt is real, one should have a healthy perspective on it, not entertain it necessarily – have a healthy dash of shame about it – but don’t despair, rather wait while hoping for Jesus to return.

Church leaders must be aware of the damage done in churches that don’t allow space for individuals to externalise or discuss their doubt. There’s nothing that irritates me more than hearing about Christians who have been dismissed by their pious pastor or overly religious congregation members as ‘liberal’ or ‘flakey’ because they admitted to doubting this or that.

The church where I minister, Merri Creek Anglican, seeks to promote honesty in the community about our doubts. Having doubts is not a sign of being a bad Christian. Nor is it a disqualification for ministry. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re a real Human Being living in the ‘now but not yet’ (Romans 8:18-30); it is the reality of worshipping an invisible God. Only in Heaven will faith and doubt be gone, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

It is important, however, in the midst of your doubts, to humbly trust in Jesus. There is a danger, as the Apostle James writes, that we will be “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6). The “wave” occurs, when we let the doubts dominate our thoughts.

So how can we manage our doubts? It might sound counterintuitive, but when a person tells a Christian friend that they, for example, doubt the bodily resurrection, or have shifted away from orthodoxy on sexual ethics, or question the teaching of the Apostle Paul, they have more chance of persisting with their faith in the long term than if they kept their doubts private. Externalising doubts enables us to process our thoughts in a supportive Christian context.

On the other hand, when we suppress or hide our doubts, and never speak them out loud to someone in our Christian community, there is a resulting cognitive dissonance. This dissonance is between (1) the mask we put on – which is the confident faith we think we are supposed to show to other people; and (2) the truth behind the mask – the very real doubts we privately harbour about our faith. Thus we experience a deep psychological clash: we are torn up inside, and end up feeling depressed or disillusioned, and have an existential crisis.

In an attempt to resolve this dissonance we say to ourselves: “I’m living a lie to my Christian community, I’m pretending to believe what they (supposedly) all believe, I’m in a different theological place to my congregation, I don’t feel like I belong here anymore.” Once we’ve come to this decision, we usually slide out of church gradually, coming less and less, checking out other churches who might affirm my doubts or changing theology. Or perhaps we will find another community that is not ‘church’ but which will accept us.

This could have all been avoided, if only we talked openly about our doubts to someone, in the safety of a loving and humble church community.

Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay writes:

Certainty denies the very essence of faith. It is the impenetrability of life’s mysteries that encourages our leaps of faith not merely into the unknown, but into the unknowable. That’s why doubt is the engine that propels and sustains faith. We believe (in anything) precisely because we doubt. This is the great paradox of faith: we yearn to know but cannot know, so we construct or accept, ready-made from an established institution, a set of beliefs that satisfy our need to make sense of what’s going on. If it’s not religious belief, it might be astrology, the free market, feng shui, superstition, science, a particular psychological or philosophical orientation – Buddhist, Freudian, Jungian, humanist – or a moral code we believe will make for a good life and, by extension, a better world … But if we knew as objective facts the answers that faith supplies, there would be no need for faith. And if faith – that mystical, clouded, elusive yearning – is corrupted by the arrogance of certainty, it ceases to be faith and becomes mere delusion … The religious truth-seeker, the pilgrim, yearns to see with the eye of faith but constantly falters. The plea from the father of a sick child healed by Jesus, quoted in Mark’s gospel, captures the idea perfectly: ‘I believe; help my unbelief’.

So it is perfectly reasonable and healthy to be a believer who acknowledges their doubts. The highly regarded Emeritus Professor of philosophy from Oxford University, Richard Swinburne, explains that the relationship between faith and doubt is about probabilities. Scientists and engineers work in this faith–doubt paradigm: they create a rocket, for example, and send it to the moon, taking a risk with the lives of the astronauts and billions of dollars of tax payer’s money. They do this having faith in their calculations and the quality of work of the engineers: they believe that it will ‘probably’ get to the moon and back without the astronauts being killed.

A similar argument can be made about faith in God. Just as the scientists and engineers believe their rocket will probably work – the believer trusts that their faith will probably work. The scientists and engineers move beyond believing that their theories work, to believing in their theories by building the rocket. Similarly, Swinburne says we need to consider the difference between believing that there is a god verses believing in God. Believing that there is a god is believing that this state of affairs is true – but you might not respond to this belief. Religion goes beyond this because it requires you to believe in something.

Believing in God means trusting and relying on God. This belief directs your actions – you are guided by your God and your religion. If you were an atheist then it would be foolish to let religion guide your life.

But if you were somewhat unsure, but also somewhat persuaded, then you might think to yourself: ‘if Christianity is probably true, and it matters to me to live a good life, a worthwhile risk for me to take is to invest my life in this religion. I can let it guide my life. I will put my trust in the God of the Bible.’ Swinburne says that this is your calculated risk for a better life – the better life of a Christian disciple who worships their creator, serves other people in dependance on God, participates in the Christian community and lives in an other person centred way – not to mention the better life in eternity with God.

So faith and doubt are natural bedfellows. Don’t feel ashamed or worried if you doubt. This is perfectly normal for any believer who is honest with themselves.

An exercise to help you is to write down all your doubts and share one of them with a Christian friend you trust.

Perhaps you could have a service of lament that has an open mic time of public sharing of doubts?

We are God’s Masterpiece

IMG_4248Masterpieces take a really long time to perfect (so I’ve been told). When I visited Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, it astounded me that building and construction, including extra architectural and engineering work, had been ongoing since 1882, and by 2010 was only halfway through. Even smaller scale masterpieces take a long time. The process whereby Monet painted The Japanese Footbridge took several years: he built the bridge, planted the water lilies, and then finally put brush to canvas. Bruce Springsteen took a whole year in the studio for the album Born to Run (plus six months editing the lyrics to the title track).

A consequence of being in relationship with Jesus is that God takes us like a sketch of an artwork, and slowly brings us to perfection. The Apostle Paul wrote, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do”  (Ephesians 2:10).  The Greek word for “handiwork” is ποιεμα (poiema), which translates to “work of art, masterpiece, artefact, or poem.” I love the idea that we are God’s masterpiece – his work of art – his poem. The Melbourne biblical scholar Leon Morris aptly stated God’s creative act: “Salvation is creation, recreation, new creation.”

Realising that we are God’s masterpiece helps us to understand some of the pain and suffering of life. A masterpiece is worked on and worked on, refined, and fine tuned. Some aspects are discarded to push the work closer to perfection.  C.S. Lewis discussed the implications of this in The Problem of Pain:

We are, not metaphorically but in very truth, a Divine work of art, something that God is making, and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.  Here again we come up against what I have called the “intolerable compliment.” Over a sketch made idly to amuse a child, an artist may not take much trouble: he may be content to let it go even though it is not exactly as he meant it to be. But over the great picture of his life-the work which he loves, though in a different fashion, as intensely as a man loves a woman or a mother a child-he will take endless trouble-and would doubtless, thereby give endless trouble to the picture if it were sentient.  One can imagine a sentient picture, after being rubbed and scraped and recommended for the tenth time, wishing that it were only a thumbnail sketch whose making was over in a minute. In the same way, it is natural for us to wish that God had designed for us a less glorious and less arduous destiny; but then we are wishing not for more but for less.

Know that God is working on you everyday. He is editing the lyrics of your life; He is blending the colours on your canvas; He is chipping away at your stonework.  And this will continue until the end of your life. As you experience these changes, even if they are painful, be inspired by The Divine Artist who is perfecting you into His masterpiece.

Avoiding ‘Bait and Switch’ Mission

What about Bait and Switch?

One of the big concerns that many urban Christians will have with mission, is the problem of the perception of being someone’s friend just so you can then Bible bash them: this is sometimes called ‘bait and switch’.

Christians have a bad reputation for running events that just seem like a bit of fun, and then surprising everyone at the end with “well guys, we’ve been playing a fun game of footy today, and did you know that being a Jesus follower is a bit like playing footy, if you know the rules, then you can be free to kick the goals of life!” We must not see people as gullible ‘conversion targets’.

If you have a congregation of people who are sensitive about authenticity, transparency and community, then you are less likely to succumb to ‘bait and switch’ tactics.

Lauren Vasquez in Relevant Magazine wrote,

Jesus did not minister this way. He had a strong sense of purpose, but He never had an agenda. He loved people where they were, and this is what drew them to Him, not being lured in on a pretext. Wouldn’t it be great if the Church were known for loving people without an ulterior motive, the way Jesus did? He related to people naturally, honestly, with tremendous love. And He wants to impart this love to us.

In His last recorded prayer before his arrest, Jesus prayed, “Righteous Father, … I have made you known to them [the apostles], and will continue to make you known, in order that the love you have for me with may be in them, and that I myself may be in them” (John 17:25-26). We show that Christ is “in us” when we see nonbelievers as people, not as projects, and love them for themselves. Only through love without an agenda will we build a relationship that earns us an audience to share Christ.

Just to make sure you don’t run a ‘bait and switch’ mission strategy there are three things you can do:

  1. Let your mission be an outflow of your love for God. Don’t do mission as a religious person trying to get a conversion score, but as a person who is excited about your faith so much that you want to tell others. This enthusiasm is a fruit of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.
  2. Let your mission be an outflow of your love for people. The life of the missionary disciple of Jesus, is a life of sacrificial love. It will be messy and difficult. That’s what we have been called to.
  3. Always be upfront about being a Christian or the church. That way people won’t get a surprise.

Responding to Secular Extremists

What is ‘Secular Extremism’? Scattered amongst the recent commentary around the intersection of religion and society you will no doubt have heard the voice of a small but noisy movement of ‘Secular Extremists.’ These are fundamentalists whose doctrine romanticises The Enlightenment. Their primary agenda is to marginalise and silence the influence of all major religions on society: everyone from the Pope to local synagogues and mosques – and youth pastors. Key strategies for this campaign of marginalisation include: 1. using ‘professional academics’ who claim to be able to expose the intellectual flaws in religion; 2. humiliation and public bullying using cynical comedians; and 3. scare campaigns about the hidden missionary agenda of religions in public society. Their ultimate goal is to turn the public against religion, and they are making some limited progress. Just last week, columnist for crikey.com.au, Helen Razer, wrote an insightful piece about a recent television talk show panel that included the actor Ben Affleck, controversial American neo-atheist-comedian Bill Maher and one of the High Priests of neo-atheism, Sam Harris. During the discussion, in an attempt to attack Islam, Harris banged on about the virtue of the Enlightenment – reason over religion. Razer points out, however, that in fact, if you think about recent times, the main bodies that are rejecting the findings of ‘good science’ are not so much Isalm, Christianity or any particular religion but are, in fact, governments:

The western failure to act on the overwhelming findings of science is due far less to The God Delusion than it is to the exigencies of a global market, itself a descendent of Harris and Dawkins’ beloved Age of Reason. And the western decision to act, again and again, in Iraq has a fair bit to do with the market as well.

Razer explains that Harris’ big problem is that he wants to replay the ideological war between religion and science that took place during the Enlightenment, and then blame religion for every evil and injustice in the world. But,

when he revives this melodrama by placing himself in opposition to the dumbest fundamentalists he can find and casting them as the Pope, or when Dawkins compares his own fearless inquiry to that of Charles Darwin, he is no longer a freethinker. He is a hopeless, arrogant ideologue who tells us falsehoods about the sites of real power. And he is also a mystic.

Razer’s closing comments are poignant and cutting (emphasis mine):

And no, teapot, I’m not just saying, as others have, that ‘atheists are just as fanatical as religious fundamentalists’. I am saying, in fact, that they are more fanatical because they have evolved such a complex delusion where the methodical doubt they claim to champion is itself impossible. If you convince yourself that you are a champion of pure reason and that reason itself always moves from the laboratory of the individual mind into the world without creating conflict, well, you probably need to go away and learn how to think.

If you watch the discussion you’ll see that what they were promoting was hate speech against Islam disguised as confident intellectual insightfulness. Ben Affleck tried to come to the rescue by calling them out as no different to the other middle-aged-white-racists that are a blight on American society. Unfortunately, while Affleck had good intention, his heated emotions didn’t necessarily help to progress the conversation. For a stronger response watch this example of the American academic Reza Aslan exposing Bill Maher and these CNN presenters as promoting lies about Islam. How should we respond to Secular Extremism? The temptation is to respond to Secular Extremists defensively and to sink to their level. However, I have come up with three simple guidelines:

  • Nuanced Arguments: Secular Extremists might use reductionistic arguments, for example: ‘religion causes war.’  It would be easy to respond by saying ‘what about the murderous atheist-communist-dictatorships of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot?’ Don’t respond to simplistic arguments with a simplistic argument. The better and truer response is that historians know that causation in world history is highly complex and should not be reduced to one throw away scapegoat. Neither religion nor atheism is the simple ‘cause’ of war.
  • Accuracy: Learn your facts. When you talk about other people, make sure you know what you are talking about. As Razer pointed out in her article, Secular Extremists like Richard Dawkins, love to take the eccentric worst example of a Christian loony, and then say that all Christians are the same. Don’t do the same thing. (See the Reza Aslan video mentioned earlier)
  • Cool headed: When applying my second guideline – remember most Atheists are not Secular Extremists. In general, most atheists will be reasonable and respectful of other people’s beliefs. This recent article in The Saturday Paper, which examines Allain de Botton’s School of Life in Melbourne, shows a community of Moderate Atheists at work.

Even as a Christian minister, when I talk to people about my faith I find it daunting: I feel the reality that I am part of a minority. Most Christians I know have this experience. The point for us is not to win any culture war, as such, but to be able to speak in such a way so that others can hear and experience the life changing message of Jesus. Christians are ‘ambassadors for Christ’, and so we have to be careful about what we say and how we say it. People may or may not hear the gospel at first, but they will certainly make a surface assessment of it based on our behaviour.


Learning Homiletics From Non-preachers: Ira Glass

One of America’s great contemporary storytellers is the hip NPR announcer Ira Glass who is the host of America’s highest podcasted radio show, This American Life.   In the clip below Glass gives some great insight into how to craft an engaging story.

He shows how to take an uninteresting anecdote and to make it gripping by drawing out ‘the universal something.’ Storytelling, in his opinion, is about building empathy. Enjoy!

The Freeing Alternative to Narcissism: Serving Jesus at Home and Work

On 22 July 2011, in the peaceful country of Norway, 32-year-old Anders Behring Breivik, posted online a 1500-page manifesto that outlined his hatred for Muslims, Liberals, Multiculturalists and Feminists. Evoking the spirit of his revered Knights Templar, he then went on a campaign to promote his message.

In a violent rampage that demonstrated his desire for Nordic purification, he exploded a car bomb at government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people. Then, armed with assault weapons, he went to the island of Utøya, to a Labour Party youth camp, and massacred another 69 people, mostly teenagers.

In her new book, The Life of I, Australian journalist and social philosopher Anne Manne exposes the rising culture of narcissism in Western culture and begins with this massacre.life of i

Psychiatrists diagnosed Breivik as having an extreme narcissistic personality disorder, consistent with the major traits of narcissism: he lacked empathy, claiming that he himself felt disturbed having to watch the violence; he had an inflated sense of importance posting photos of himself as a modern Knight; he was obsessed with his personal appearance undergoing plastic surgery to look Aryan; and he had an outlandish sense of entitlement, demanding a better view from his prison cell. Breivik believed himself to be far superior to others, was self-aggrandising, and had a “destructive rage.”

Pathological narcissism is a disorder predominantly found in men: in particular, their ability to love is greatly restricted.

While narcissism might be a pathological disorder, its seed is in all of us. The Bible calls it ‘sin.’ From the earliest chapters of Genesis, man and woman declare that they want to be God.

Adam and Eve believed that, despite God’s clear instructions to the contrary, they were entitled to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Their son Cain, in a destructive rage, took the life of his brother Abel. And so the pattern of human self-obsession was set. By the time of Noah it had become an epidemic, and God responded in judgement.

What was evident in Noah’s day, is clearly still evident all around us today. Yet deep in our psyche we know self-obsession is wrong. In the opening chapter of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis calls our innate sense of morality ‘The Law of Nature.’ Lewis also points out, however, that none of us can keep the natural law. The dissonance between these two truths form the foundation for humanity’s need for redemption.

This redemption has come by way of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, so that Christians should be able to resist the narcissistic urge and say: “I am not the most important person in the world, rather I know that I am part of a bigger story. I am part of a community who submits to Jesus as Lord. When I sacrificially and humbly love and serve others and God – when I die to myself – I truly find life.”

In Colossians 3:18-4:1, the Apostle Paul offers a Christlike vision for human relationships. Paul has already told us earlier in 3:1-4 that we can keep our faith on track by keeping our hearts and minds focused on God. We have a new life as a Christian – a new life in the pattern of Jesus Christ.

We need to remove our ‘old clothes’ and put on the ‘new clothes’  (3:8-14). Here, then, is a practical application of what that looked like in the extended first-century Christian household which included family members and slaves.

We are Really Serving Jesus

In Colossians 3:23-24 Paul says:

23. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24. since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

This sets up the Gospel logic for a new way of relating. As we live in our ‘new clothes’ as children of God, we must remember that we only have one master: Jesus Christ.

This is going to be important because it’s going to help us when we are in hard situations at home and at work. It will also establish a pattern for human relating that is characterised by justice.

The reality in most human relating, whether it be at home or at work, is that there will always be power differences. But if we constantly remind ourselves that we ultimately serve Christ, then both the more powerful and the less ​powerful will relate in a sacrificial and humble way.

This is truly what it means to have spiritual freedom. There are three ways this makes us free:

  • We are set free from having to please people because ultimately we are geared towards pleasing God.
  • We are set free to work wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly (because of who we serve).
  • We are set free from worrying about our reward because we have the ultimate reward of inheritance from God.

Paul is more concerned about the Colossian church’s relationship with God than their relationship with each other: he wants that to be set right first. His concern is also for their present situation rather than changing the future. Thus he applies his principle to slavery (rather than trying to abolish slavery). This message, if lived out, would bring the Colossians happiness no matter what context they found themselves in.

Serving Jesus in the Household Politic

Thus, verse 18 which says, “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord” should not seem so controversial to the postmodern mind. If you weren’t thinking clearly, you might come to believe that this passage is not about freedom, but it is about defending patriarchy and slavery. In truth, it offers freedom and hope for people living with both of those social problems.

Paul advises husbands to love their wives and not to be harsh with them (3:19); children should obey their parents (3:20); fathers should not discourage their children (3:21). The fact that he doesn’t mention ‘mothers’ is simply because of his cultural context — in this society, fathers ruled, and they needed to be told how to do that in a Christian way.

You might say: “shouldn’t Paul be setting up a new post-patriarchal framework for the family?” No, that’s not his purpose. His purpose is to work at a higher level than that and offer discipleship principles that can be applied — in any cultural context.

The big Kingdom of God principle Paul is presenting is: all human relationships have power differences –  so no matter where you are on that scale of power – you should treat the people around you as Jesus would, remembering that you are ultimately serving Jesus.

Everyone in an Ancient Near-Eastern household understood their place in the heirarchy: from Fathers down to children, and slaves down to the children of slaves. Nobody was challenging this social system. So Paul can say “wives submit to your husbands in a Godly way.” To the women in Colossae, the controversial part of that direction is “in a godly way” the word “submit” was a given.

The rule of the husband over the extended household was expected. What was unexpecteded, however, was Paul’s challenge for them to love their wives and not to be harsh with them. In Ephesians 5, Paul goes further by pointing to Jesus as the model for husbands: they must be willing to sacrifice everything for their wife.

But let’s think a bit more about our own context. The power dynamic between men and women is complex. It’s not always clear in a twenty-first century western household who is always actually more powerful and less powerful.

In my relationship with my wife, I am physically more powerful, that is clear. Also, at the moment I bring more money to the family, but this might not always be the case. We have different intellectual strengths. For some of the ‘intelligences’, she is stronger, for others, I am stronger. In the sphere of parenting, she has more power. These power structures are always shifting in our marriage. The point is, whether I have more power in a given context, or whether she has more power in a given context, we both need to remember that we are free because it is Christ who we ultimately serve.

That there is a complex power dynamic at play explains why both men and women find themselves being abused in unhealthy marriage relationships. While it is men who have the worse reputation for physical abuse, women also can be selfish and abusive in their relating; manipulating sexually and emotionally.

We are released from feeling like we need to constantly make each other happy by pleasing each other  – which sets up an unhealthy dynamic – because both of us ultimately live to please God. I please my wife because my love for God and God’s love for me makes me want to please her.

We are both free to serve each other wholeheartedly instead of begrudgingly, because ultimately we are serving Jesus. So, for example, I hate changing the sheets on the bed. But I should do that wholeheartedly, rather than begrudgingly, because my act of changing the sheets, is actually serving God. My wife and I both hate cleaning the kitchen. But we need to learn that our act of service is to bring honour to Jesus.

What if you are trying to live this gospel principle out but your partner, or other members of the household are not? Surely this is unfair? While I sympathise with your sense of domestic injustice, God calls to apply his gospel vision no matter what your context. You don’t want to give away your role as a disciple to anybody else.

If you are a martyr at home (and there are lots of us around!) confess this to God. Stop saying to yourself: “I am the only one who does any work around here. If I don’t do it nobody will.” Rather, see yourself as quietly serving Jesus. Stop worrying about your hard work being noticed by your family: “Did you see that I mopped the floor?” Stop moaning and groaning, and allow the Holy Spirit to soften your heart as you remember that you are serving Jesus. You have been set free. You will be rewarded. You will receive an inheritance of eternal life because of what Jesus has done for you.

Sure, you might have a case for feeling annoyed. It is true that many of us don’t do our fair share in the household duties. I have been reprimanded several times throughout my marriage for my laziness with the chores. There are constant surveys demonstrating that women still do a lot more household chores than men. Paul is not providing excuses for selfish men — he is, in fact, doing the exact opposite.

Moreover, I must emphasise that Paul’s teaching to the family does not endorse dysfunctional or abusive relating. If you are in a bad situation at home, you need to tell ​someone and get help. If you are being abused, physically, verbally, or psychologically, it is important that you ask for intervention. Children who are being abused by their parents need to be rescued from that situation.

Serving Jesus at Work

The second sphere to which Paul applies his principle of Christlike relating is slaves and masters. Colossians 3:22 says:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

and 4:1 says:

Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Because of a misunderstanding of verses like these, some have confused the Bible as being pro-slavery. Recently on the ABC television program Q&A, one panelist defended the place of Christian education in the school curriculum because, in his opinion, Christianity has been a positive force in Western culture: “it brought about the abolition of slavery.” Just after he made his point, a tweet appeared on the screen: “Christianity invented slavery, just look at the Old Testament.” Which was wrong for several reasons that we don’t need to prove here.

The important point is that Paul lived in a context where slavery was a reality. He was bringing the Kingdom of God to that context and reinventing it, providing hope for the slaves and compassion in the masters. This new freedom given to both the master and the slave set culture on a trajectory that would one day make slavery illegal in the Christian world.

’12 Years a Slave’ directed by Steve McQueen

The gospel brought freedom for the slaves first, and for the masters second. The slaves got it first. If you have seen the incredible movie 12 Years a Slave, you can see that the slaves, who the masters treated like animals, used their faith in Jesus to give them a sense of freedom and hope inside the persecution. It didn’t mean that they did not suffer, they did, and many were killed in the process. But while still living, the Gospel gave them a sense of higher purpose. And so they could sing, “We shall overcome.”

The application today is straightforward. If you exercise power over someone at work – as a boss or a manager – create a context of justice because you know that you serve your master Jesus, and that is what he wants. Pay your workers equitably. Let them have their holidays. Honour the contractual arrangements with women when they return from maternity leave. Don’t speak harsh words to your staff or ask them to do anything illegal, immoral or unjust. Bring the Kingdom of God to your workplace.

For employees, you have three new freedoms at work. Firstly, you are set free from having to please the people in your office because you too ultimately report to Jesus and only have to please him. So don’t get caught up in office politics. Treat your boss or your manager with respect. This is what it means to be ‘heavenly minded’ and to ‘put on your new clothes’ as a disciple.

Secondly, you are set free to work wholeheartedly. Instead of going to work with a frown on your face, know that you ultimately serve Jesus, so be positive. If you hate your job, you can always look for another. Thank God that you are not a slave. But even if you were, Jesus still calls you to work wholeheartedly for him.

Thirdly, you are set free from worrying about your pay or status in the workplace. Whatever your income or position is in the organisation, you have the ultimate reward of your inheritance from God. You can still work hard, aim for promotions, ask for pay rises, but don’t put your self-worth or identity in these things. Know this freedom that you have.

Yes, there is a culture of narcissism going on in our world. But a narcissistic culture only brings destruction, injustice, and unhappiness. God is calling us away from the self-obsession of Adam and Eve to his Kingdom, where the pattern for life is Jesus and his self giving death on the cross. We live and work for him, and in doing so, we end up living and working in a just and positive way for others. This will transform our families, transform our work, and give us freedom.

“The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good” – Part 1 of 2 – Church Leadership

For anyone who keeps half an eye on film and television journalism, you would have noticed the brouhaha over the conclusion of the television series Breaking Bad.  I don’t need to add any more veneration, but I do wish to discuss a comment I heard in an interview by the show’s team of script writers.  When asked about how they knew when to stop redrafting a script, they said they went with the adage “the perfect is the enemy of the good:” a phrase attributed to Voltaire in his poem La Bégueule (The Prude) about a woman who had a good life but nevertheless was discontent and so had an affair just to feel something exciting. Thus

Voltaire aged 70

Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien

In his writings, a wise Italian

Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.

says that the best is the enemy of the good.

In the same way that people can become depressed about the humdrum of a good but normal life, so too can artists be easily dissatisfied with their good work, holding out hope that they might be capable of something greater.  The pursuit of perfection, for example, can cripple the writer such that they never publish. Settling with the ‘good’ version of the manuscript would have meant something for the world to experience.  But for the unrealistic perfectionist, the draft remains in the top drawer, the film an unfinished edit, and the album a demo.  The Breaking Bad writers polished and polished but to a deadline, and then finally pressed [send] with attachment in time for production.  Pursuing perfection is important for any artist: Voltaire was not advocating mediocrity.  But the artist who never says, “this will do,” will only ever have unfulfilled potential.

What is true for life and art, is also true for leadership.  An important lesson I have learned as a church leader who has tried to be entrepreneurial is that while my new ideas might be ambitious and seem ‘perfect’ (in my own head), to make them a reality, I must aim for a ‘good’ rather than ‘perfect’ implementation.  Am I setting a low bar for myself? Au contraire, the bar is still high. I am simply ensuring that I actually make a jump for the bar – even if I mess it up.

My logic goes: I am limited in my leadership capacity; my team is limited; the strategy needs more refining; I don’t have all the capital or resources I need; and I usually run out of time.  Actually, limited time is as much self-imposed as it is forced on me.  My personality is such that unless there is a deadline, I won’t get it done.  With my music recording projects, we set the album launch date, then work backwards with the recording timeline.  It may not end up perfect, but at least we are not still sitting around waffling about the idea of recording an album.  Similarly in my doctoral research, my supervisor always pushed me to just submit something every month – even if it was unfinished and a bit of a mess – the act of forcing something on to the page was an important step in the process.

My motivation to operate this way is also theological.  Paul writes in Philippians 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice…Do not be anxious about anything….I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”  These words from Paul reveal his response as a devoted disciple of Christ to his unpredictable living conditions as a traveling missionary Apostle.  They also reveal a basic principle of Paul’s approach to leadership – I seek to be at peace with God no matter what happens in my life.  I don’t need to feel anxious.  I rejoice in the Lord because of what He has given me.  Even when I suffer or go without (or try something and it fails) I rejoice because I know that God loves me as his child.  If one should learn to be content in God in their personal life then so should they be in their ministry life.

In fact, the wisdom of Voltaire and Paul applies well to ministry leadership.  ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good’ should be a golden rule for those who have an unrealistically high expectation of their own ability, or a sense of entitlement or fantasy view of their own capacity.  Or, in the other extreme, it should become the mantra for those who carry a deep-seeded fear of failure.  Many pastors feel quietly ashamed at their lack of success: “why is my church not as big as his?”  This lack of contentment in the good that God has given them makes them insecure.  And thus, as they forever pursue a more idealistic outcome, they struggle to achieve anything at all.

Another way philosophers have described this phenomenon is as ‘The Nirvana Fallacy’ – the idea that you unfairly compare a realistic option with a perfect world fantasy, and then dismiss the realistic option on the grounds that it is not good enough.  The Nirvana Fallacy can be explained using this simple logic formula:

X is what I have got

Y is the Nirvana ideal

Therefore, X is not good enough

The Nirvana Fallacy creeps into church leadership all the time: trying to preach the ‘perfect’ sermon every week by spending three or four days preparing and still making edits minutes before the service which means you never get to do a read-through; not appointing a staff member because you won’t settle until you have a saint like Dietrich Bohoeffer or Mother Theresa; having Sagrada Familia as your standard for church architecture; closing a ministry because you don’t see thousands of conversions; or remaining unemployed because you haven’t found the dream position.

So how can a church leader respond and apply the proverb to their leadership?

  1. Make wise decisions
  2. Aim high but be wise enough to see the ‘good’ that God has given you
  3. Create deadlines for yourself and stick to them
  4. Try your ideas even if you are under-resourced
  5. Thank God for what he has done through you
  6. Always rejoice
  7. Don’t criticise other’s work for not being perfect

Fellow friend, minister and entrepreneur, Rev. Dr. Adam Lowe, adds some wise words in response to this post:

“…given our imperfection, the perfect of our own accord is most certainly not attainable. And then, if we were to afford some favourable evaluation of our own merit (thinking it were perfect), how quickly pride would become the focus instead of the perfection only found in Christ…”

And, here are some further thoughts from an English friend, hand surgeon, Dr. Tim Halsey,

“Voltaire’s quote is one that goes through my head daily in the operating theatre, having the wisdom to leave things alone that are good but not perfect, because often tweaking things can lead to making them worse and there’s no rewind / delete button in an operation!…  The other saying I was brought up with was that “a job worth doing is worth doing well”, it is one of my grandpa’s favourites. We were challenged about it by a Godly friend who pointed out that sometimes a job worth doing is worth doing, full stop, and that the drive for perfection hinted at by the “worth doing well” bit can stifle us from ever trying for fear of failing to do it well. If its worth doing, it’s worth doing.”

Part 2 will apply ‘the perfect is the enemy of the good’ to discipleship

Your Church is Not a Bike: The Perils of Church Strategy Reductionism

Church strategy reductionism is where simplistic ministry strategies are formed based on a mechanical understanding of church systems.

System theorists love to use the imagery of organisational ‘bikes’ and ‘frogs’.  A bike can easily be broken down into its individual parts and put back together again.  But when you take an individual part away from the bike it stops working.  A frog is a highly complex and comparatively robust system that cannot be taken apart and put back together again, but when you remove one of its limbs, the system is sophisticated such that it usually can adapt.  Frogs can grow substitute limb stumps surrounded by skin, or in some cases a fully regenerated limb.  Understanding and manipulating a complex frog like system requires a combination of smarts and informed intuition.  Most complex organisations, like churches, where human interaction and psychology play a major role in the system, are mostly frog but also include some functions and processes that are bike.

The frog systems in a church include functions and operations such as mission, discipleship, community, pastoral care, and worship.  Ministries, and the people that they include, interact and respond to each other in an organic way.  When you factor in the mysterious work of the Spirit who “blows where it pleases” (John 3:8), then the systematic complexity multiplies. If church leaders don’t grasp this complexity, simplistic and ineffective strategies follow.

For the sake of clarity, it is worth mentioning that a ‘simplistic’ strategy is not the same as a ‘simple’ strategy.  Simple strategies are ideal because they are easy to communicate and implement.  However, one must be aware that while they are simple, they exist within a complex frog system.  A simplistic strategy, on the other hand, is designed with the naive understanding that it is part of a mechanical bike system.


Strategy reductionism seems to be a particular danger for churches whose leaders are:

  1. …ideologically and myopically aligned to a particular model of church.  These are models which are not necessarily based on reductionistic logic, but through mis-application and selective overemphasis, reductionism follows: leaders latch on to features of their favorite model, and push them too far.
  2. …non-consultative, domineering, alpha-male/female, or arrogant.  These leaders, who are often proud and aggressive, push past any kind of process like a ‘bull in a china shop’ thinking that they’re being decisive.  While they do make decisions, they leave a trail of destruction behind them not having considered consequences.
  3. …poorly self-differentiated / low emotional intelligence.  These leaders might come up with ideas, but they are too insecure to open their strategic thinking up to consultation.  Also, they can find it difficult to be empathetic and consider how a strategy might work for people not like them.  Part of understanding the frog system is being able to calculate how different ages, genders and cultures will respond in a given situation.
  4. …quick decision makers who don’t take the time to think through consequence.  While some leaders are brilliant intuitive strategic thinkers who can just envision the plan out of the ether, most cannot do this and need time to experiment and consult as they understand the church frog system.
  5. …inexperienced.  Sometimes inexperienced leaders are savvy enough to see the frog, but usually this comes with time.
  6. …very experienced but assume church systems work the same way in every context.  The risk with older and experienced leaders is that if they have had some success in ministry in their earlier years, they can be convinced that the strategies that gave them that success still apply 20 or 30 years later.  While a bike might always be essentially a bike, frogs adapt over time to fit in with their changing ecosystem.

When you think about it, many churches have leaders who fall into one or more of these categories.  The great thing is that by the grace of God, their simplistic strategies are still used and bear some fruit.  However, if they were able to start to see their church as more of a frog, and develop some sophistication in their understanding then their ministry and church would run more efficiently, smoothly, and effectively.

Example – Evangelism

What does it look like when bike thinking is imposed on a frog system to create strategy?  By way of example, you might have heard arguments such as: “Attractional programs are so 1980s mega-church.  Attractional activities just pander to church shoppers. We should stop putting effort into programs to bring consumeristic Christians in and got out and be missional so that we can reach real non-Christians.”  Notice the ‘bike’ logic of cause and effect,

 attractional programs -> church shoppers ≠ new converts ∴ be exclusively missional

However, if you listen to people’s testimonies about coming to faith, you’ll discover that their stories are complex and unpredictable: rarely do their experiences conform to simple rules.  One individual might have interactions with twenty different Christians, and three different churches, and then respond to an alter call at a rally.  Another person living in a Muslim country might have a dream about Jesus, and then go seeking out a church.  While another person might experience miraculous healing from prayer and come to faith that way.  My point is, the ‘system’ whereby a person is evangelised, cannot be reduced to bike logic – it is far better to see the frog in the system that is evangelism.

Church strategy reductionism that dismisses all attractional evangelism fails to accept (what was the elephant in the room for the emerging church movement) that there are many attractional strategies that are effective.  In children’s ministry, for example,  playgroups, Mainly Music, and Messy Church are attractional strategies that – depending on their good implementation – have great success in bringing non-Christian people in contact with churches and on the journey towards faith in Christ.  In addition, there are great benefits to attractional evangelism: it can visibly communicate to the congregation a value of excellence, the idea that serving God is important, and that this church expects the Holy Spirit to be guiding people towards us because we are a “light to the nations” (missional activities can achieve all of this too but not as easily).

It’s not that the critique about attractional strategies is completely unfounded.  It is important for churches not to over-rely on being attractional lest they become a church that mainly “preaches to the choir.”  The problem is the simplistic strategy that followed.

A more informed and nuanced strategic thinking about evangelistic strategies, might look like a mind map, where the complexity of the frog system is taken into account:

 frog church system


The following are some examples of reductionistic ministry logic leading to simplistic strategies.  These are functions of the church which should be thought of as complex ‘frog’ systems, but are often given a mechanical ‘bike’ logic.  Remember that each reductionistic logic statement will have some truth to it and that the simplistic strategy might also have some merit.


Reductionistic logic: It’s the ‘priesthood of all believers’ so we should resist putting leaders on a pedestal.

Simplistic strategy: Let’s have no one main leader, but share the leadership.

Reductionistic logic: The church has become feminised which is why men don’t really want to come to church anymore

Simplistic strategy: Cultivate a macho persona in the leaders


Reductionistic logic: ‘Sermonettes’ create ‘Christianettes’

Simplistic strategy: 70 minute sermons

Reductionistic logic: The Bible is all about Jesus

Simplistic strategy: Land every sermon at the cross

Reductionistic logic: I want to preach Spirit empowered sermons

Simplistic strategy: Improvise your sermons – let go and let God


Reductionistic logic: Australians don’t like group singing

Simplistic strategy: No group singing in church as a way to be incarnational and relevant to outsiders

Reductionistic logic: Spiritual intensity in music is directly related to time.

Simplistic strategy: Songs that are repeated lots of times, and really long song brackets

Reductionistic logic: All contemporary worship music is theologically shallow and individualistic: Jesus is my boyfriend songs

Simplistic strategy: Only sing hymns or non-emotive and theologically dense ‘we‘ songs

Youth ministry

Reductionistic logic: We’re here to disciple the kids not baby-sit them

Simplistic strategy: Don’t run social events


Reductionistic logic:  People prefer worship that is from the heart and authentic rather than pre-planned and tightly controlled

Simplistic strategy: Never use pre-written prayers in public worship

Children’s ministry

Reductionistic logic: Church services should always engage children because it is wrong to think they are the future of the church – they are the church

Simplistic strategy: Sunday services must have a children’s talk or children’s song

Marriage Counseling

Reductionistic logic: All that Christians need in a marriage partner is that they are of the opposite sex, single, and Christian

Simplistic strategy: Encourage people to marry without regard for cultural difference or even if there is no physical or intellectual attraction

Strategies to improve on frog strategic thinking

  1. Pray and ask God for wisdom
  2. Be slow to speak and quick to listen
  3. If you are on a ministry hobby horse then get off it
  4. Read and associate with ministry people who are outside of your ministry tribe
  5. Consult and use teams to make strategy
  6. Learn to know your leadership limitations
  7. Don’t assume that because a strategy worked once it applies a second time
  8. Invite people who you often disagree with to critique your strategies
  9. Have a healthy trust in your gut instinct, which means being willing to let it be critiqued and changed
  10. Draw a mind map of how ministries strategies relate to each other
  11. Go to counseling and work on your emotional intelligence

Finally, watch out for people who say, “yeah but…”

Because churches are frogs, there can be a problem that decision making becomes stifled by those people who always see alternatives and risks or problems with your strategy.  You don’t want to never be able to make a decision.  You will know of people whose default mode is to confidently disagree with any idea anyone suggests.  Those are the people who will be reading this post right now, and saying to themselves, “yeah but…”  If this is you, then stop, take a breath, and work out how to make the idea work rather than being an unhelpful blocker of creative thinking.  You can still offer your thoughts but do it in a generous and encouraging way, and let others have their say.