August 15, 2014

Church Planting and the Slow Fix Solution Part Three: Slow Grace

I visited Dad today in his dementia ward and the thing that struck me was just how slow it all is. Outside the buzz of planes, trains and automobiles. But inside?  It’s all as painfully slow moving as an episode of 1960s marionette cult series, Thunderbirds.

So, Dad and I walked at snail’s pace around the gardens, slumping into chairs under the gazebo overlooking the water feature.  The old army major did slow laps around the path encircling the gardens with his walker.  A nurse came out and, almost in stop-motion, moved an elderly lady from one seat in the stinging sun (only in a Perth winter!) to another seat nearby in the shade.   We watched as she gently lifted the rug from the legs of another old lady who was getting too warm, careful not to be brusque with the paper thin, broken skin on her old legs.  Even when handing out the plethora of pills, potions and tablets that each resident consumes, the nursing staff are gentle, patient, and above all else, unhurried.  I am sure that inside they are sometimes screaming, “Get on with it you old biddy!”, but their self-restraint is impressive.

It’s as if inside these grounds it’s the land that time has, if not forgotten exactly, then at the very least not been paying much attention to. Time seems to work differently in here.  It’s an almost-Narnian experience, apart from the obvious lack of fawns.

Here’s my point (and there is one!): When it comes to church planting and the expectations of church leaders in general, “slow” is not on our agenda.  For church planters the aim is to break through inertia, move towards financial viability, and above all else, grow quickly.  There’s nothing worse than having the same twenty people in the same small room twelve months after you started with seemingly little progress, is there?

The problem is, that that’s the attitude we take, not simply to the work of church planting, but to the work of God’s grace in the lives of our people.  Or at least it can be if we are not careful.  And that is a critical mistake to make.  The outside world is fast, fast, fast.  Our expectations demand quick solutions, and flexibility to manoeuvre in a culture of rapid, discontinuous change.  But God’s grace in the lives of His people does not work that way.

But how we so want it to!  How we so wish that that particularly annoying person with the persistent problems would just hurry up and get the gospel!  How we are so miffed when that family makes another seemingly unwise decision about their finances again!  Don’t they get grace?  Don’t they realise that if they keep going at this pace they won’t be fixed up until the day that Jesus appears, or even the day after?

One sure sign that we want to speed up the process of grace to suit ourselves and our agenda, rather than to suit God and his agenda, is that we become increasingly impatient, cynical and dismissive about the slow pace at which people change.  We reason within ourselves that it is because “they don’t get grace”, or “they’re just not committed enough”, or “they just need to be released from that besetting sin once and for all.”  All true.  All true of them. And all true of you.

When Peter says in 2 Peter 3 that “the Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness”, we want to assume that applies only to the macro level of his return, rather than also applying to the micro level of his work of grace in our lives and the lives of our people.  Our brokenness is such that we want God to operate at our pace all the way down, when what he needs to do is to operate on us all the way down – and for church leaders that includes working on our lack of patience.  How much richer would our church life be together if, rather than attempting to fast-track people to meet our agenda, we behaved like those nurses at my Dad’s facility, gently, taking care not to bruise, and most of all, subsuming our interests beneath theirs.

Yes grace is, as former slave trader John Newton said, “amazing”.  But it is also slow.  And it’s in its slowness that it is truly seen as amazing, astounding even and other-worldly.  I close with the revelation made whilst listening to a podcast about Christian brokenness and the apparently slow pace of change in the life of the believer.  The woman being interviewed was a psychologist who has spent years exploring the inner life of Christian spirituality and brokenness. Shen mentioned that Newton was himself a proto-psychologist, most interested in the inner-life of the Christian believer as they struggled.

Yet it is what she said at the end of the podcast that had my jaw dropping.  Newton ran three more slave trips and continued to force himself (aka rape) upon his female slaves after he became a Christian, this latter behaviour never being resolved until the day he got married. Not exactly the stuff of movies and books about heroes of the faith is it? Not exactly the example of transforming grace we want to promote in our church planting network blog. Here is a man who, when he wrote the words “wretch like me” into that hymn wasn’t simply exercising poetic licence, but expressing astonishment that God could yet save someone who was not simply undeserving of grace, but ill-deserving of it.  Yes grace is amazing, and at times, it’s effects on our lives is amazingly slow. The more church leaders see themselves not simply as the nursing staff dispensing medicine and timely assistance, but also as the frail, ageing, broken residents in desperate need of slow grace themselves, so much the better.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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