How to Survive The Busy Stretch & Inject Margin Into Your Life

A friend called me earlier this week, with the familiar question that begins most conversations: ‘How have you been?’ The truthful answer was busy, very busy.

In the last three weeks, I have presented at a Christian conference, attended and live blogged at another conference, preached twice, had four intensive classes, went to two weddings, organized a youth event and somehow spent time with my wife in between. For sure, it was a busy stretch but it was still a surprise to hear him say that the first words out of my mouth every time we spoke in the last couple of months was some variation of the word busy.

stressed out lady throwing paper

What I had been missing is margin. 

Margin is the portion of a page that you intentionally leave blank. Without it, books and magazines would be readable but they become messy and hard to digest. Similarly, when we live lives without margin we can make it work, but our lives become messy and unsustainable.

People are doing more than ever before, but the consequence of constantly being busy is burnout. People cram their schedules so full of activities and busyness that their emotional, physical and spiritual health suffers dramatically. 

I love how Richard Swenson, describes margin:

If we were equipped with a flashing light to indicate “100 percent full,” we could better gauge our capacities. But we don’t have such an indicator light, and we don’t know when we have overextended until we feel the pain. As a result, many people commit to a 120 percent life and wonder why the burden feels so heavy. It is rare to see a life prescheduled to only 80 percent, leaving a margin for responding to the unexpected that God sends our way.

I know from personal experience that when my calendar starts to fill up, I struggle to spend intentional time with God. Added onto that, the things you do to stay healthy, such as eating right and exercising go out the window in the quest to get things done.

That said, margin is important.

Mark Batterson writes:

“You need margin to think. You need margin to play. You need margin to laugh. You need margin to dream. You need margin to have impromptu conversations and you need margin to seize unanticipated opportunities.

Having margin helps you make good decisions, makes you more pleasant and less grumpy. Most importantly, margin increase the chance that you will hear the still, small voice of God when he is speaking to you.

HOW DO YOU INJECT MORE MARGIN INTO YOUR LIFE?

I do a couple of things with every team that I lead, and one of them is to run them through an exercise called a perfect week. It’s a simple tool that Michael Hyatt put together several years ago that I have added to with my own stylings to maximize its potential for creating margin. I’ve created a simple PDF for you to download here, print and work off in your own time. There is also an downloadable excel sheet if you want to make it pretty or color-coded like I have done below.

There are four steps in creating your perfect week:

Building Margin Tip #1 – Fill out your current week

The first step in creating margin is to have a sober assessment of your current levels of space. Often, this is a revealing look into how the idol of business and work can slowly, but surely take over your life without you even realizing.

On the first page, fill in your last week, to the best of your ability, using whatever tools you commonly use to capture dates and time schedules. For me, this is either my phone or my diary.

Here is an example of my last week.

My Current WeekBuilding Margin Tip #2 – Define your priorities, plan rest periods and space for God to act. 

Now that I have a sober assessment of how I am doing, it’s time to make a positive step forward and carve out some margin for yourself. I do this asking three questions:

  • What are my top three priorities for this calendar year?
  • When am I going to plan my rest?
  • How am I leaving space for God to work?

When you have your priorities, you can easily see the things that take up too much of your week. If your priority is your health or your study, and you spend all day playing video games then you have an easy culprit to cut out.

Secondly, when you plan your rest, it actually happens. Too many times I have looked back over a week, only realizing too late that I spend either no time resting or too much time resting in things that don’t give me energy. Rest is life-giving pause in your life. Make sure you plan yours.

Finally, work out how you are leaving room for God to act in your life. Whether it’s giving space for him to whisper to you or simply time where he can use you, leave room for God to move. God can move and act regardless of how packed or free our schedule is, but I have found that when we have a packed schedule, God will break something – either us or our schedule – to move in our life.

Building Margin Tip #3 – Make a Perfect Week

The third step is to put all the information you’ve gathered over the last two steps and build some space for yourself. You do this by planning out your perfect week – the week you would have if you could control 100% of what happens. There is one trick though:

Lock in priorities, rest and time with God before you add anything else.

Personally, I find it helpful to color co-ordinate my three priorities, rest periods and time with God so I can keep track of visually how much time I have given to the important things in my life. Otherwise, I find less important tasks and values getting way too much of my time.

Here is an example of what my perfect week looks like at the moment.

My Perfect Week

Now you have instant margin added into your life.

Building Margin Tip #4 – Adjust and Re-align. 

The key to building margin that makes an impact is to keep looking back at it, adjusting and re-aligning according to your goals and schedule. We often don’t have control over our weeks, and so most of the time my week doesn’t look like a perfect week but when I do have control, I know what is important and when it should happen.

At least once a month, I go over my perfect week and current week to make sure they match up and if they aren’t, what I need to cut out to regain some space and sanity in my life.

Hopefully this can help you build some margin into your life. Let me know how you go below in a comment. 


HAEMORRHAGING FAITH 2015 // DAY 2 //

Yesterday, I recapped the first day of the Haemorrhaging Faith conference which has been running in Melbourne this week.

The first day of the conference was spent wrestling with the data of the Haemorrhaging Faith study and whether it was true in an Australian context, whereas the second day was a focused response to finding stepping stones for churches and ministries to start to transfuse life into the Australian church.

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How do we move forward in a landscape where teenagers and young adults are leaving the church? Many of us have preached that faith is personal, but it has been picked up to the point that many people have made a distinction between Jesus and his church.  The church has not done a good job presenting our faith as one that is attached to a ‘body’ that impacts everyone.

Furthermore, there was also a very real experience for many young adults of an unexperienced God, unanswered prayers and unfelt presence of the Holy Spirit. What do we do with these experiences and all of this data? 

// KEYNOTE 4 – DAVE OVERHOLT // 

How do we respond to the research. Out of the 2000+ responses completed, researchers discovered four common barriers to church attendance and the factors that motivate Engagers to attend and grow in their faith.

PARENTS: ENGAGED OR DISENGAGED?

The faith commitment of parents has an enormous impact on the faith and church participation of their children. If parents attend church but don’t model what they believe, it is far more likely that children will not take part in church when they grow up.

If parents prayed more than just at meals, talked freely about their faith and the bible, served together at church, worshipped openly and could wrestle with tough questions, the children were more likely to live their faith out and attend church in their adult years.  Most Engagers had parents with high levels of spiritual disciplines. 

ACTION POINTS

  • Equip Parents: If we care about our young people, we need to create and take ministry to parents very seriously, encouraging them to model their faith at home. There are two reasons that parents fail to disciple thier children, lack of time and lack of training (Timothy Paul Jones). Churches, don’t let lack of training be an issue. Disciple your parents.  
  • Pray First: Whenever there is a time of stress, anxiety, pain, celebration or joy pray first. Make sure that the first response is to pray, whether that is in response to good news or bad news so that youth can see we believe that God is moving.
  • Email Out: During the week, email parents associated with your ministry all the positive things that are going on, how god is moving in their teenagers and questions to ask them that go beyond ‘how was church‘. Set parents up for the win, and everyone wins.
  • Mentoring: The reality is that many students grow up without Christian parents. Mentoring becomes key, the need to see real faith lived out, outside of programs and church is huge. Involve key secondary adults into teenagers lives.

GOD: EXPERIENCED OR UNEXPERIENCED?

Dave put forward that this generation recognizes truth from their experiences. If they don’t experience God, then for them, he does not exist. For many, God did not exist because he did not answer their prayers as expected. This was particularly true when the young adult had experienced relatives dying or friends who had committed suicide. Their perception was that God had not come to the rescue. 

ACTION POINTS

  • Write Down Prayers I think this is a great point. Encourage students to write down their prayers so that when they look back, they can clearly see how God is moving and working. God doesn’t just answer prayers positively, he can also answer them negatively. Celebrate when you can see God moving. 
  • Make Sure You Tackle Problems: Dave encouraged every ministry to have at least one night every year, if not more when you tackled the issue of ‘When God Seems Like He Is Not There”.  It’s important that students know that God doesn’t have to be felt to be followed. I’ve tackled this before here if you wanted some starters.
  • Encouragement Circles: In your ministries, have an encouragement circle where you share how you see God moving in your life and in the life of others
  • Ask Better Questions: Rather than asking the typical questions, like how your relationship with God is going, ask deeper questions. How are you being faithful to God? How do you see God moving? How is God being faithful to you? 

COMMUNITY: ALIVE OR DEAD?

For many teenagers, God is not the problem, it’s the community of believers. Young adults have grown up with friendship and intimacy as some of their top values and if the community of faith falls short, it is proof that the church is not for them.

Young adults see hypocrisy and being inauthentic  as a sign of a dead or dying community. They know we are not perfect, but if we make a mistake, we need to admit it and apologize. Many young adults felt like there was no place for them. There were no places for them to get involved and in many churches, it would take a short lifetime to gain the trust to do any significant ministry there.

This is huge, because Dave hasn’t seen anyone keep an alive faith without being connected to an alive community.

ACTION POINTS

  • Create Culture of Acceptance + Vulnerability: Work with influence leaders in the group to grow them in the areas of acceptance, vulnerability and purpose. Deal quickly with abuses of these values. Share life stories of your people that build up these values.
  • Have Young People In Places of Significant: The front of church is a place of power. Ensure you have teens and young adults in the front of the congregation engaged in significant ministry. Young adults need to see that they can be used in ministry and are valued. Get at least one teenager to do something significant in church every week.
  • Build Cross-Generational Relationships: Have prayer partners where older members in the church pray for younger members. Introduce your youth to people who have been faithful for more than ten or twenty years. Get mature disciples to tell their stories.
  • Actually Like Your Church: Dave asked a really good questions,  would you attend your church if you weren’t paid to be there. Young people see hypocrisy, and if you don’t want to be there, why should they? Make your community somewhere that you would actually want to be if you didn’t have a job there.

TEACHING: EMPOWERING OR RESTRICTIVE?

Many young adults leave the church because they believe that what the church preaches is repressive and behind the times. There are several topics that young adults feel the church is being left behind on.

These include topics such as, but are not limited to:

  • Sex
  • Porn
  • Marriage
  • Homosexuality
  • Gender Roles
  • Post Modernism
  • Ultimate Truth

Unfortunately, the church has recognized that people disagree with them and in many instances, shied away from confronting them head on. Young adults want the church to say what it means, and mean what it says. They also want teaching to have a real-life application, something to actually help you live out your life today. Stories with real life scenarios are a reason to come back to church.

ACTION POINTS

  • Talk About Tough Topics: Own what you believe, say it with grace and conviction and allow for true debate and discussions. Don’t shy away from difficult subjects just because some people will disagree.
  • Applications: Ensure that your messages have specific actions to tack. If, at the end of your talk, someone can still ask “How do I do this?” you have not applied it.
  • Questions are King: Have a number or system by which people can text in their questions to be asked. Sermons are fantastic conversations starters and can lead to deep one on one conversations.

// KEYNOTE FIVE – DAVE MIERS//

The keynotes ended with City On A Hill Pastor and prolific blogger, Dave Miers encouraging us in a landscape of haemorrhaging faith to keep the gospel on repeat. Here are some of the main points:

The first two missionaries to the islands of Vanuatu, within minutes of getting off the boat had been clubbed, boiled and eaten alive.  In the years that followed, there were many missionaries who went to talk about Jesus. More missionaries died, and yet that collection of islands is now dubbed by the Lonely Planet as the happiest place on earth.

Due to the work of missionaries who gave their life for the nation of Vanuatu, the vast majority of people in Vanuatu are now Christians. The great danger for Vanuatu is no longer whether you will be eaten or not for preaching Jesus, the great danger is that complacent cultural Christianity will move into their landscape like it has so many others.

How does complacent cultural Christianity arise? 

  • Generation one preaches the gospel
  • Generation two assumes the gospel
  • Generation three neglects the gospel
  • Generation four denies the gospel 

In a constantly moving faith landscape, how we do we avoid losing the gospel?

KEEP THE GOSPEL ON REPEAT

Christianity is not about new things, new ways or new ideas. It’s about rehearsing and going back to the old things again and again. There is not a soul in the world who doesn’t need to hear the message of the gospel. 

In the midst of all this bad news, it would be a tragedy to forget THE good news. In our desire for a silver bullet to fix our churches, fix our youth ministries .. we need to know that in the gospel God has given us everything we need.

What is the gospel? 

  1. That Jesus Christ died for our sins in accordance with Scripture.
  2. That he was buried
  3. That he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures
  4. That Jesus is alive!

The message of Christianity is not a philosophy for living, it is a message about Jesus and the events surrounding him that happened in history in front of many eye witnesses, that happened in accordance with the scriptures that prophesied that he could come and be pierced for our transgressions (Isaiah 52:5) and that he would rise again, defeating sin and assuring our salvation.

Do not fall into complacent cultural Christianity. Keep the gospel on repeat, for the gospel cannot be preached enough, heard enough, grasped well enough. Our primary task as ministers of the word is to keep the gospel on repeat.

We are only one generation away from denying or rejecting the gospel, but we are also only one generation away from changing the entire world. 

KEEP THE GOSPEL ON REPEAT.

Those are my reflections on the second day of the Haemorrhaging Faith conference 2015 in Melbourne. Keep an eye out tomorrow for some questions + reflections I have moving forward from this conference. 

HAEMORRHAGING FAITH 2015 // DAY 1 //

The Haemorrhaging Faith Conference has been run over the last two days. Inspired by Dave Miers, I’ll be writing a few blog posts across the two days summarizing some of key content and one responding to the content.

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Not only does the conference give an excellent opportunity to network and talk with some of the best youth pastors in Melbourne, but has a vital topic in “revealing important research into why youth and young adults are leaving the church and what we can do to arrest that trend”.

Haemorrhaging Faith started as a sociological study in Canada which investigated why young people raised in the church decide to either continue in their faith, or leave the church. Dave Overholt is one of the lead minds behind the study and was taking the keynote presentations during the day, alongside Rowan Lewis and Dave Miers from Australia responding to the content.

Here is my summary of the keynotes for anyone interested in youth ministry, research and the church.

//KEYNOTE 1 – DAVE OVERHOLT//

Currently, 12% of Australians and Canadians go to church two or more times per month. That means that Canada and Australia are closer together than for instance, America, where almost 30-35% of the population attends church two times or more per month.

Whilst this statistic is fairly constant, faith in teenagers is slowly fading away across both nations with statisticians recording ‘under representation’ of teenagers and young adults in comparison to the general population. This is especially problematic because youth ministry is one of the key drivers for mission in the nation. Many small group leaders, campus pastors, worship leaders (etc) start off as youth group leaders or youth worship leaders in their youth groups.

The Youth and Young Adult Ministry Roundtable in Canada commissioned a report into why teenagers and young adults were leaving the church in Canada and some of the data that came out of that was fairly alarming. 

For people who grew up in the local church, by the age of 30 about 70% of them will have left the church. If they do not come back to the local church by the age of 35, they do not come back despite what a number of people expect. The number that comes back with their children is only 2%. One Anglican Bishop said that ‘my whole denomination is waiting for their congregation to come back .. and they are not’. 

Interestingly, different denominations had different figures of youth and young adults leaving. The Catholic Church recorded 80% of their students leaving and never returning, Mainline Churches (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian etc) recorded about 60% leaving and not returning whilst the Evangelical Church reported that only 30% of their students who would leave the church and never come back.

The Haemorrhaging Faith research interviewed 2,049 young people and identified four kinds of spiritual orientations in students and young adults. They are summarized below:

1. Engagers (23%)

Engagers are those who are active in the church and open to God

For the most part, rated very highly on various measurements of faith. Most attended church ‘weekly or more’ (71%). Almost all had personally experienced God’s love and believed that God answered their prayers (99%). Many strongly believed that they had experienced emotionally healing in the local church (79%) and most believed in heaven (97%) and hell (89%)

INTERESTING STATS + QUESTIONS?

  • Roughly, 70% of all engagers are women.. why are so few men engaged?
  • Only one in five will read their bible regularly.. what is sustaining them?

2. Fence Sitters (36%)

The statistically largest group, tend to have religious affiliation but have not claimed it as their own. 

In the report, Fence Sitters did not come to a conclusive answer on many of their questions. They did not ‘strongly agree’ or ‘strongly disagree’ on anything. Most of them say that they have experienced God through His love (67%) and answers to prayer (68%). Fewer have experienced a real inner change of emotional healing (22%). A large proportion find the lifestyle demands of the church unrealistic (66%)

In many of the Fence Sitters, there was a cynicism that had bubbled up, almost like they were saying that “Christianity overpomises and underdelivers”. 

INTERESTING STATS + QUESTIONS?

  • 76% of Fence Sitters believe that attending church is hypocritical.. why is it that walking in the door is akin to subscribing to the churches beliefs?
  • Only 40% believe that leadership are able and willing to answer their questions about Christianity .. why is that?

3. Wanderers (26%)

Wanderers are those who have Christian heritage through being involved with the church as a child, but would not now describe themselves as Christian. 

Most of them do not attend church, think Christmas and Easter. Very few of the Wanderers have experienced God, even to a moderate degree (10%). The same is true with experiencing any answers to prayer.  12% of Wanderers believe in a literal hell.  Most of the Wanderers believe that the churches lifestyle demands are wholly unrealistic (89%) and that attending church would be hypocritical (93%). Most (67%) believe that the Church is not making a difference in the community.

In general, the Wanderers do not consider themselves Christians. They do not attend church and cannot remember experiencing God.

INTERESTING STATS + QUESTIONS?

  • Wanderers experienced almost a 60% drop on experiencing God through His love or through answered prayer when compared to Fence Sitters .. why is that?
  • 14% of Wanderers believe that Church Leadership can help them with their toughest questions .. how can we get better at this? How can we know their questions?

4. Rejecters (15%)

Where Wanderers have a positive view of Christianity despite not being Christians, Rejectors have a strongly negative view of the church and have completely rejected the church. This group is mainly made up of Atheist, No Religion and Agnostic people. 

Most of them strongly disagree that they have experienced God (87%) and most strongly disagree that they have ever had an answered prayer (88%). Most strongly disagree that they have received any kind of emotional healing through the church (93%). Rejecters don’t believe in heaven (94%) or hell (99%) or that right or wrong is a personal opinion (66% agree) and the lifestyle demands of the Church are unrealistic (86%).

INTERESTING STATS + QUESTIONS?

  • 51% of Rejecters feel that their contribution to the church went unappreciated .. how can we make youth feel significant at church?
  • Many of the Rejecters had personal reasons for leaving the church (youth pastor had an affair, grandma died when I prayed for healing etc) .. how can we sit with them through this pain?

// KEYNOTE TWO – DAVE OVERHOLT //

What were some of the surprises of the Haemorrhaging Faith research?

Researchers discovered that the greatest drop in students losing their faith was between primary school and high school, and all noted drop points were in times of transitions. Dave noted that of all things, transitions should be of utmost importance in helping the faith of students.

Two types of key transitions were identified:

Grade Transitions

Simply put, between grades six and seven, and year 12 and university are some of the largest transitions where youth drop off. Early teenagers are establishing their autonomy from their parents and older teenagers are thinking about university and full-time work. How can we love them during this phase?

Staff Transitions

Youth Ministry is at the heart, a relational ministry. Youth workers and leaders build relationships with students and share the gospel and encourage each other on the marathon of faith. It’s no surprise then that when youth pastors (specifically) leave, that many of the students leave as well because the relationship that was pulling them in the youth ministry.

What were ways to slow down the ‘drop points‘ of transitions?

  • Build Anticipation

Make sure there is something to look forward to for your students. If they are receiving the exact same format time after time through children and youth, they have nothing to look forward to if they are not engaged. 

Dave mentioned ideas such as having a youth leadership team made up solely of students in year 10 and above, having a retreat for those in year 7 and year 8 and similar practices to build anticipation.

  • Reach Down One Grade Level

Help those who are in lower year levels by reaching down one grade level. Use your year 7+8+9’s to teach in children’s ministry so that when younger students get to high school, they already know a majority of those around them. It isn’t as intimidating to walk into a room when you know and like half the students there.

  • Ask Yourself The Question .. DOES IT WORK?

In a world where Google can give a million answers to questions, experience seems to trump rhetoric. How can we show the fruits of the spirit and the life change of faith to students so that they can experience it for themselves?

// KEYNOTE THREE – ROWAN LEWIS //

The question that Rowan Lewis wanted to answer during this keynote:  Is Australia haemorrhaging faith? 

Lewis thinks that we are.

Although there was not the exact kind of research in Australia, there have been major research projects in Australia that point to similar findings. Lewis noted that the kind of social changes in the first couple of years post high school, in sheer number of changes is only comparable to the two-year period that surrounds the arrival of a baby.

In both Canada and Australia, 12 and 18 are the major junction point for switching off or checking out of faith. Puberty starts at the age of 12, and 18 is post-high school.  We need to find better ways to deal with these ‘drop off points’.

Major Research Projects

There were two major research projects that Rowan referenced, although he noted more.

They were the Australian Youth Spirituality Survey by Phillip Hughes, and a book written thirty years ago called Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, by John Bodycomb (Thanks Bree!)

Throughout these research there was statistics that pointed to haemorrhaging faith in the Australian Church. 

  • 15-22 is the period of most involvement in church for students and young adults.
  • There is an increasing under-representation of individuals aged 15-39 in the Australian Church. This is a significant issue
  • There are 50,000 young people who drift away from the Christian faith annually
  • Over the course of 10 years, that rounds up to a missing 500,000 students who were Christians or had Christian heritage.
  • 80% of young adults are congregating in 20% of churches.

Rowan then asked the question about how to appropriate the Haemorrhaging Faith research in an Australian context? 

Rowan pushed back on some of the research, noting that the grouping can actually have a self-fulfilling prophecy of pushing lost faith onto searching teens if you categorize people like that.

Words that would describe the Engagers include phrases such as faithful, disciples and saved whilst words used to describe Fence-Sitters, Wandereres and Rejecters would include phrases such as backsliders, unfaithful, unsaved, lost and sinners. The words we use to describe them can be of huge importance in how they feel about themselves and how we view them.

Rowan ended asking: are we sure that the engagers the ones who are close and the rest further away from the cross?

Interesting day and a lot of food for thought. I will summarize and post day 2 tomorrow and then post some of my own thoughts and response on Friday. 


Finding True Hope In A Cliché World

I am going to be honest with you.

The last year has been difficult for me and my wife, Sarah. It has involved a lot of illness, worry, anxiety and stress on our behalf and a lot of uncertainty with God on mine.

The Last Six Months

Roughly six months ago, I started to feel lethargic, consistently nauseous and mentally absent. After getting myself into the best shape of my life in preparation for Ride Around The Bay, my health started gradually slipping and then rapidly sliding until I became a shell of myself, physically and emotionally.

It all came to a head during a particularly tough charity ride, where I started experiencing muscle cramps for the last three hours of the arduous ride. I thought with enough hydration, nutrition and rest that I could recover quickly.

That week, I threw up multiple times a day and wasn’t able to move away from the bed for the entire week. Doctors advised me that a test indicating muscle inflammation showed that I had ten times the regular amount of inflammation and that if I had pains in my stomach to race to hospital, as I would be having renal (kidney) failure.

I went from preparing for the biggest ride of my life to withdrawing from Bible College, putting a halt on most of my social life and placing significant strain on my wife to pick up the slack that I left behind. During those weeks and months, I lost a lot of hope.

The question that kept rolling around my head was always about GodWhere are you? 

The words of David, the writer of Psalm 22, became my words.

“My God, My God, why have you forgotten me?

Why are you so far from saving me, from hearing my cries of anguish”

I had done my part. I was running the race. I had stepped out in faith and listened to Gods call. I had followed.

Yet, once again, my body had started to fail on me. As someone who has had health issues since the day I was born, it is always difficult to navigate new ones. Every new issue can bring nagging doubts about God’s goodness and sovereignty, regardless of how much theology I know or the God I experience.

Another part of the problem is that it is really difficult to talk honestly about significant health issues without people becoming awkward and wanting to tie up the conversations. Many of us with health issues leave discouraged from our conversations, with an ice-berg level of submerged doubt and frustration that is often only shown in the tip at the surface.

During this time of illness, one of the most common things to happen was for people to give me cliches to try and keep my spirits up. I heard a mountain of them:

  • Everything happens for a reasons, you just need to wait to find out. 
  • She’ll be right mate, just stick in there. 
  • God must have big plans for you for you to go through so many trials. 
  • God won’t give you anything you can’t handle. You can handle this as well. 

I understand. 

Clichés are what you say when you don’t know what to say to someone doing it tough, it’s a socially accepted form of non-talk when actually not talking would be awkward.

They are also the single worst way of encouraging anyone going through any form of trouble. They last a moment; mean nothing and most of them aren’t even true or helpful.

What I craved above all else during this time was for someone to give me the good news of the Gospel because true hope lives in the truth of the Gospel. 

Hope Lives In The Truth of the Gospel

Don’t give me a cliché when I am in despair. Do not console me with meaningless words and sentences. Give me good news. 

Tell me about a prodigal God who has given the breath of life to men and women dead in their sins. How much more can I trust God with my temporary health when I know he was already done the miraculous in my heart?

Tell me about Jesus, the living and breathing Son of God who conquered death once and for all. How much more can I have hope in Jesus when he has conquered the grave?

Tell me about God’s plan to restore the broken world we live in. How much more can I have hope in this life when I know that one day he will wipe away every single tear from our eyes, where there will be no death or mourning or pain, for the old order of things has passed away (Rev 21:24)?

Tell me about how God himself invaded this world and took on our pains and sorrows? How much more can I trust God when he knows exactly the feelings I have and the physical limitations of a broken body in a broken world?

True hope is rooted in the Gospel and anything less is false promises.

If you know someone in despair, give them the gospel.

If you are in despair, seek Jesus and his good news.

Please. 


 

When God Feels Distant and You Feel Disconnected

What do you do when God feels distant and you feel disconnected? 

For many of us, the feeling that God is distant is more common than the feeling that he is near. I love the way one person put it, that our lives are more like the book of Esther than Exodus.  Esther is a beautiful story in the Old Testament, but God isn’t mentioned even once. When you compare that to a book like Exodus where God shows up in dramatic power, carving out an identity for his chosen people by leading them out of Egypt, it sort of seems like we are missing out.

What do you do when the sea isn’t parting for you and the invitation for a mountain top meeting with God hasn’t come this month? 

When God Feels Distant

Late last year, my church went through the book of Ecclesiastes and I got to speak on this very topic. You can have a listen to the talk here, but I wanted to work through some of the thoughts I had in this post. All of them have come from working through Ecclesiastes 5 and others thoughts on the topic.

Most of us will have had some time where God felt difficult to trust, like he was distant and we were lost. What do you do when God feels distant?

Guard Your Feet

The phrase guard your steps, in Hebrew, literally means ‘pay attention to the direction of your feet’. Unless you are unbelievably flexible, the direction of your feet will dictate the direction of your life and your passions and feelings.

When God feels distant and I feel lost, very often I completely shut down the pursuit of Him all together. I fall into some kind of weird determinism where the situation is unchangeable and I cannot change any aspect of it. I just let my relationship with God slip away until I am running on spiritual adrenalin. 

When that happens, two things are almost inevitable

  1. I look for the miraculous or my church to snap me out of my funk
  2. I stop trusting God

Instead of doing the things that I have historically done to get me excited about Jesus, I wait for a Red Sea moment or for the perfect church service that will uplift my spirits and it just doesn’t work like that.

I love what Matt Chandler says about the Christian life:

People ask me all the time, what does following Christ everyday look like? Find the very things that stir your affections for Christ and saturate your life in them. Find the things that rob you of that affection and run from them.

My experience is that when God feels distant, I have stopped doing many of the things that make me excited about Jesus in the first place and instead wait for my church to save me. I love the church, but one thing it isn’t is my Savior.

When God feels distant, I need to pay attention to the direction of my feet and saturate my life in the things that stir my affection for Jesus. 

Listen in to God

When God feels distant, one of the most difficult and awkward things things to do is to listen. More often than not, we fill our lives with noise to distract us. We create all of this noise because it means that we never have to engage with our disconnection, that we never have to come face to face with God or anyone who will point us to God.

One of the most helpful things for me has been learning how to sit in silence with God and listen to him.

Throughout this year, I have been going through a bible year to do exactly that. Remove distractions, draw near to God and let him whisper to me through the written account of his work in history. It has been refreshing to let God talk to me in this way.

Furthermore, we live in an age of fantastic technology and although it can be one of our primary sources of distraction, it has created some truly beautiful gospel resources that allow us to draw near to God. We can use it, as pastor Dave Miers has said recently, to put the gospel on repeat.

Find God-saturated, bible-filled teachers who preach the word and listen to them constantly in the desert. Find musicians, bands and rappers who fill your heart with emotion for Jesus and let their words soothe their soul. Find podcasts that reveal God’s truth to you and let it hit you so hard that only God can put you back together.

Here are a few examples examples of teachers, musicians and podcasts that God has spoken to me through. 

Teachers

Musicians

Podcasts

Follow The Holy Spirit

When you are guarding your steps and drawing near to listen to God in prayer and the scriptures, what will often happen is that something will be spoken and will start to resonate within your heart. That is the Holy Spirit inside of you leading you to spiritual water.  You need to follow it.

The reality is that it takes a real step of faith and effort to walk out of the desert, even whilst following the Holy Spirits direction. For a lot of us, we are just going to refuse to go, and then in true to form, we will stay in the desert and then complain about staying in the desert.

I love what my pastor Jonathan Smith said in a sermon last year:

“If you feel far away from God, go to church and be with Christians. Don’t moan midweek about how discouraged you are when you are actively denying yourself means of grace. God has laid out a buffet of encouragement and satisfaction for you and you’re sitting at the table complaining of an empty stomach”. 

Boom.

Listen to the Holy Spirit and start walking towards him. 

Sometimes God wants you in the desert

The most difficult truth about feeling like God is distant is that sometimes,  that’s exactly where God wants you. There might be something that he needs to show you or teach your that can only come about by the self-inspection from wrestling with Him.

It’s out there in the struggle that we learn some of the most deep truth that God has in store for us. Truth that can’t be unveiled in prosperity and good times. The real deep truth.

In that case?

I would honestly just pray through the psalms and cling to God with all that you have in you.

Keep paying attention to the direction of your feet, draw near to God to listen to him and those who fan your affections for him and follow the calling of the Holy Spirit. 


5 Reasons To Still Love The Church (Even If It’s Broken)

If you’ve read any recent articles about the Church, you’d think it was permanently broken and on the cusp of being a relic of days gone past.

Young adults and youth leaving in droves, open letters have been written and pastors are clueless about the next step to take . I read it all and a lot of it I understand. The church has often lost its way, but I think something that gets lost in the emotionality of the concerns is that there is still many reasons to love the church.

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I have been heavily involved in the church since I became a Christian as a teenager. I attended the youth group and bible studies, served on worship and preaching teams and been employed as a youth pastor. I have been granted a unique perspective on the church, one from both behind and within the scenes.

The result of that is that from the first time I became a Christian, I have only had two months without a church to call home. It’s not because my experience has been perfect, in fact most of the time I have been disappointed by the church, sometimes heavily.  That said, that are many reasons I still love the church. Here is the top five.

Here are my top five reasons I still love the Church.

#1: The Church is Filled With Broken People, Just Like Me

Every church I’ve been a part of has been filled with broken people and will continue to be. Thank God. 

When it comes down to it, the Church is a community of broken people clinging onto Jesus like their lives depend on it because it does. Nothing more, nothing less.

You might have been involved in Churches that functionally practice the opposite of this, but that doesn’t mean it should be like that. Church, for me, is a place it has been OK to not be OK. It’s been the only place I ever felt comfortable talking about the darkest days of my depression, sharing my greatest defeats and talking about my brokenness. I love that.

#2: Jesus Died For The Church

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25)

One of the craziest things that I will never get my head truly around is that Christ died for the broken, the notorious and the self-righteous equally. When you bring all of them together, we call it Church. It’s this community that Jesus, the Son of God, died for, which makes it infinitely precious.

When Jesus talks about the Church in the New Testament, it’s almost always in terms of affection. Jesus knew what he was getting into, he knows exactly the rag-tag broken-hearted mess of a community yet he still wants to describe it as his bride (Ephesians 5:22) and lay his life down for her. Jesus think the church is precious and worth redeeming. 

#3: It’s One of the Last Places that People Wrestle With Great Ideas and Worldviews

In my experience, the only two places where I have heard great ideas and worldviews deconstructed and discussed is in the halls of university and in the sermons at church.

Every single Sunday, a great idea or worldview will be wrestled with – sometimes excellently, sometimes poorly – but there will always be the clash of ideas. In the past, I’ve heard quotes from the Dalai Lama, Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins put forward in the same breath, dissected and discussed in great detail and passion.

#4: The Church Often Walks in When Everyone Else Walks Out

When I was first diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome as a teenager, I lost most of my friends. I don’t blame them, it was just that I wasn’t able to do anything with them anymore. Men build friendships by doing things together. I couldn’t do things, so I didn’t have many friends at that time.

I was loosely affiliated with a youth group at the time at my local church my parents attended, but I rarely attended myself. Once they heard that I had become sick, they not only made me a video with a message wishing me well, but the pastor came to my house and prayed for me and all these guys from the church came and hung out with me for hours.

When everyone else walked out, the church walked in.

#5: It’s God’s Church, and I trust him. 

I don’t really worry about the church anymore. I trust God with it.

It has some problems (actually, many problems), like any community that bonds over its brokeness and need but God is both good and sovereign and because of that, I trust him.

James Gartmenian puts it beautifully by calling the church “to free itself from our obsessive focus and our faithless worry that if we don’t protect the church, preserve it, reinvent it, spruce it up, perpetuate it, it will somehow just disappear and we will have failed.”

We can trust the wild and crazy ways of God to supersede our tendencies to micromanage and puff up our own self-importance in the future of the Church.

Whether the church is relevant, authentic and sexy or simply plain vanilla, once and all preserved through the ages it will persevere because God is in control of the ship, not me.

And that is why I still love the church. 


The Top 5 TED Talks Every Ministry Leader Needs To Watch

I love watching TED talks.

They are often challenging and thought-provoking and it’s a novel way to get a fresh take on things. TED stands for Technology, Education & Design and was created in 1984 under the guise that an idea is a powerful force.

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It’s mission statement reads:

“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other”

For ministry leaders  and volunteers, TED talks are a brilliant resource. Very early on a mentor persuaded me that leading involves a consistent call to learn. I’ve found TED talks helpful tools in the learning process.

Here are my Top 5 TED Talks Every Ministry Leader Needs To Watch 

1. How Great Leaders Inspire Action – Simon Sinek

This is probably my favorite talk of all time by TED. It would not surprise me if my wife could recite the three concentric circles part of the talk purely by how often I have talked about it at home and in meetings. If you have ever led something that failed to gain traction, have a listen to this excellent talk. In it, Simon Sinek unpacks the difference between what every leader does and what great leaders do by looking at Apple, The Wright Brothers and Martin Luther King.

2. The Power of Vulnerability + Listening to Shame by Brene Brown

For many people, this is the greatest TED talk. It’s funny, personal and thought-provoking. In a world that is struggling with vulnerability and shame, it would be amazing to see the church lead the way.

3. Every Kid Needs A Champion – Rita Pearson

For anyone who works with young people, listening to Pearson is a treat. With 40 years of experience in education, she reminds me a lot of Jesus. My favorite lines is in a conversation she had with a fellow teacher. . Lots to take out of this for leaders of every age group.

Friend“They don’t pay me to like the kids. They pay me to create the lesson and kids should learn. I teach, kids learn. Case closed”

Rita Pearson: “People don’t learn if they don’t like you”. 

4. The Key To Success: Grit – Angela Duckworth

Ministry is a tough slog at the best of times. We do it because we love it, but that doesn’t make it easy. Jesus never said it would be easy. Angela Duckworth argues though, that one variable that difference-makers is grit, a combination of passion and perseverance. Difference-makers are those who have a long-term goal and do not deviate in passion and do not give up.

5. Everyday Leadership – Drew Dudley

Drew Dudley may be the fastest talking man on the planet, but it lets him get a wealth of information through in six minutes. He ask the question: “What if we thought of leadership less of changing the world and more of what we did every single day”.  Excellent.

What TED talks have really captivated you?


5 Easy Ways to Get More Out of Sermons

I hold a weird place in the church.

First of all, I am a pastor and a preacher. I work for a local church as the director of Youth Ministry and preach roughly 10 times a year. I know the challenge of wrestling with a difficult text, of spending upwards of 10-15 hours writing a manuscript and then hours more practicing delivery, tone and mannerisms. I know what it is like to see eyes glaze over with boredom and how it feels when you hit that right emotional note after practicing a line for hours.

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However, I am also a member of the church and I have remnants of childhood ADHD. I cannot sit still. My youth, egged on by my wife, often joke that the reason I love church is that I get to do a lot, otherwise I’d never sit still.

When forced to sit down, I fiddle, I day-dream, I think about what I am going to have for lunch and what has happened during the week.  All of a sudden, I realize that I’m in church and that the sermon is important and that I should listen in. Too bad, five minutes has passed, I missed the important build up and I have no idea what the preacher is talking about. Once again. 

I want to help us both out by giving some really easy helpful points that help me focus during sermons, and have helped me get a lot more out of sermons. There are many resources out there for preachers and public speakers to get better at delivery and to be engaging when they speak. There aren’t a lot of help for people to get more out of sermons.

Five dead-easy ways to get more out of sermons in 2015.

1. Pray for your pastor or preacher.

Something I try and do every single Sunday is to pray for my pastor, either with him or on my own. When I do this, it helps me remember that he is just a man, that he isn’t Jesus, and that it isn’t the messenger that I need but the truth. I need the truth, and he needs to deliver it.

I pray for God to direct his words, for my heart to be convicted and for me to turn to God.  When he stumbles over the words, or the message seems difficult to understand or contrived or the odd week that he hasn’t quite nailed the analogy or been able to spend enough time in the word, I remember that all week God has been talking to him and God is trying to talk to me through the spoken word.

I need the truth, not the messenger. Listen in.

2. Sing really, really loudly to prepare yourself.

From a young age, I made a weird promise to myself. I promised myself that I would be the loudest singer in every church I ever attended. It sounds like a silly thing, especially because I have a terrible voice that no-one wants to hear, let alone myself, but the truth is that I sing worship loudly because I have a deaf heart that needs to hear life-giving words.

I sing worship loudly because it gets my heart ready to hear those words.  I’m not always in the right head space to listen well to the sermon, whether it be through tiredness, a rough week or the sheer fact I have a short attention span. However, after spending time worshiping God, I know the importance of focusing in on the sermon.

3. Write key thoughts, ideas and themes down in a notebook during the sermon

I have the remants of childhood ADHD and sometimes, my mind wanders down through a forest of thoughts and rarely comes back unless called. One of the most helpful ways I have found to stay focused is to take notes during the sermon. It’s an effective learning tool for some, including me.

I write down quotes, maybe an important story or a section that has really picked up my interest. The most important part for me is taking a one-line summary of the sermon or the response I felt from it. Even if it’s something small like “Talk to Sarah about getting to know our neighbours‘ or spend more time praying on monday I find it helpful. It consolidates it into my mind.

4. Talk about it after the service.

I am a verbal processor. I drive my pastor and my wife mad with incessant questions about everything, but I need the wall to bounce my questions off to lead me into deeper understandings. A lot of the time this happens between me and my wife on the car ride home from the service, but I also send my pastor an email, a text or ask a question face to face, or, if it’s a deeper question that needs discussion, ask it at my weekly small group.

Faith hasn’t always been a private endeavor like it is now, it was something done in community. Being able to talk about it, discuss and argue and really nail it down is vital. Find someone you can talk about the sermon with.

5. Dig deeper into the verse in my own time. 

I am convinced that the reason I have learnt and grown so much in my faith over the years is not because I am especially intelligent or listen well but because I’ve written sermons a lot. Whether it’s writing sermons for youth and adults, spending time specifically in the bible and writing it out in my own words has made a massive difference to my walk.

So, in the week after the sermon, I read the text that he preached from a couple of times and try to answer these four questions:

  1. What does this mean in my own words
  2. What do other people think this means?
  3. What would the original people think this means?
  4. What would it look like if I lived this out?

This has helped me, a notorious fiddler and day-dreamer during sermons to hear the truth and apply it to my life.

What do you do to get more out of sermons? Leave a comment below. 


My 2014 Survey – Results

Last December, I launched my first Reader Survey. I did it because I wanted to get to know you, the readers, better and because it helps me improve the content that I create.

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If I boiled the results down into a “readers profile,” it would look like this.

  • My typical reader is a male or female (50% each) between the ages of 21-30 (94%).
  • They are mostly single, but not overwhelmingly so (53%). Many are engaged (26%) or married (26%)
  • They identify themselves as Christian (100%) and consider their faith very important (96%)
  • Most of the pressure in their life comes from places such as church, the family home, work and from themselves.
  • They would like to see more real stories from a variety of people, how to live as a Christian and Christian thought articles. They also wouldn’t mind seeing more articles on relationships and leadership.
  • They believe that in 2015, I should focus most on quality content, building an engaged audience, finding guest posters and seeking to guest post on other, well-known blogs.
  • If they had the ability to change one thing, they would make an archive of old posts to help search for older material, have more comments on the site and make sure there is a consistency in posting.

Based on my readers’ comments, I have come to five conclusions:1

1. Talk about faith more. One of the things in the back of my mind is to be ale to reach a broad as audience as possible, whilst still remaining true to who I am and what I believe. This is not to tone down my words when talking about Jesus, but I don’t want to make anyone feel excluded or like an outsider. This survey was a great confirmation for me that people want me to talk more about my faith, and that my tribe believe many of the same things I do.

2. Speak into the pressure points. My demographic is in the same life stage as me, but many of them face different pressures than I do: family, church and from work. This gives me a great insight into what you are facing in life and the ability to write into that. I’m going to spend more time working out to wrestle with the pressure points in peoples lives.

3. Post consistently. This has been one of the most difficult things to do over the last couple of years. Mainly, because I have not carved out a designated time to write for myself, so it can be weeks or months before I post. I relied on passion to get the job done, but I want to be more consistent this year. One of the things I have done is to make a perfect week (get a free copy here: day three) and to commit to writing once a week.

4. The past matters. It’s easy to be embarrassed by my earlier writing, whether it be by grammar, topic or writing style. I know that I have improved a lot since I first started writing almost four years ago but I also know that there was some jewels amongst the thorns. One of the most consistent pieces of feedback was the ability to search for old posts that people enjoyed. I’m going to rectify this by making an archive of all my posts, first by topic and then by date so that you can search through posts. I’ve also re-added a search function on the right-hand side of the page.

5. Honesty is the biggest drawcard.  The greatest draw card is honesty and passion. The posts that have gone viral this year (this, and this and this) have all been indepth, raw and emotional posts that revealed something that most people wouldn’t know about me, my marriage or my life. People want more of that. Overwhelmingly, the most popular topic to focus on for next year was real stories from real people.

I’m thankful for everyone who took the survey.


The Bible Year

Have you read the bible? 

Bart Erhman, prominent atheist scholar, asks his Survey of the New Testament class at the University of North Caroline three questions every single year.

  1. How many of you believe that the bible is inspired by God?
  2. How many of you have read Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code?
  3. How many of you have read the entire bible?

Almost everyone raises their hand to the first question. Again, most raise their hand for the second. No-one raises their hand for the last question. Ehrman goes on to say, ‘I understand why you have read the Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown is a good author. There is something I do not understand though. You are telling me that you think God wrote a book and you have not read it yet“.

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Guilty as charged. I have not read the entire bible. There are books that I go back to all the time, like Romans and Philippians, but there are huge chunks of the Old and New Testament that I have not even glanced at. I am willing to bet that a lot of Christians are like me. 

God doesn’t command Christians to read the bible everyday, instead he lists the benefits of doing so. He tells us that his word will be a light to our feet (Psalm 119), that knowing the truth will set us free (John 8), that it will help us fight temptation (Matt 4) and that in it, God has revealed everything about life and Godliness (2 Peter 1)

God wants us to have a spirit-filled, abundant life and reading his word is one of the primary means of grace.  Time and time again though, I find myself looking elsewhere for advice than God’s word. When I need advice, I read a book, article or listen to a podcast. I read what other people think God has said instead of letting him speak to me directly.

Bible Year: My Challenge This Year

I want to challenge myself this year (and anyone else who would like to join me) to put every book but the bible on the shelf, until you have read the bible all the way through. You can read straight from Genesis to Revelation, like I am going to do, or follow any series of reading plans (fellow blogger and pastor Dave Miers has a fantastic list here).

Throughout the year, I am going to post Facebook and Twitter updates of favorite verses & insights I have with the hashtag #bibleyear. If you want to join me in having a bible year and posting about it online, I think that would be great and a real encouragement to each other. It would be fantastic to build up each other with what we have read and learnt throughout the year. I’m excited to see what God will show us.

Rules of the Challenge

  1. Read every single book of both the Old & New Testament
  2. Do not read any other book, either physical or e-book, until you have finished.
  3. Tell people about what you are learning! #bibleyear
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every god work”.  (2 Timothy 3:16)

 

If you want to have a #bibleyear this year, comment below and tell us that you are in!