Messy church, messy mission…

Posted by on Feb 9, 2016 in Blog | 11 comments

You might know that in addition to my role as principal of Vose Seminary, I serve as the pastor at large and chair of the board at Carey – a school and church planting movement which by providing excellent community services wins the right to speak into the lives of thousands of people who would otherwise have no church contact. Sunday was our annual commissioning service – a wonderfully celebratory event, especially as the staff from our newly opened Forrestdale School were present, as were many of the staff from our fairly recently opened Timber Café (the rest were busy working there – Sunday being its busiest day). Our theme for the year is ‘Hope’ so at the service I spoke from Rom 15:13 ‘The God of hope…’and asked what it would mean for us to be a genuine sign of hope to a somewhat cynical and disinterested world. I suggested that we would need to being willing to take a walk on the wild side, and to be a bit of a messy church, engaging in messy mission. Perhaps some of what I said will be relevant for your setting as well. If you are a regular at this blog, you will notice that I have woven together several themes that have arisen in recent posts.

Here is what I said…

If you hear the word church or Christian School, or Christian Mission, what words or ideas spring into your mind? Would the cluster be more like nice people, safe steady environment, pleasant but quaintly irrelevant to the majority or would it be more like messy, challenging, engaged, desperately needed?

One of the things that have always bemused me about being a pastor is that people often feel that they have to act differently in my presence. I can’t tell you how often I have been with people and someone has started to swear colourfully and then suddenly stopped and said, ‘Oh I am so sorry, I forgot you were here.’ It is as though they think that because I am a pastor my ears would never have heard such words before. And it doesn’t only happen to pastors, it sometimes happens to Christians in the workplace. The discussion gets a little risqué and then it’s a pointed look at the Christian in the group and an ‘oh you had better block your ears now’ or a ‘sorry about that’.

Now on the one hand, there is nothing wrong with that… in a way it is a compliment. People are essentially saying, ‘I realise you are a person of faith, and your behaviour is governed by a high ethical code.’ And fair enough if that is the motivation. But sometimes it flow from something else – an assumption that Christians isolate themselves from life and its messiness. People often think that being a Christian is about living a Pollyanna kind of life, where only nice things ever happen, and all is sweetness and harmony. If being a Christian is like that, then we are not a sign of hope to a messy world. But Rom 15:13 when it speaks about God speaks about ‘the God of hope’. Now why do we need a God of hope if we are only ever living nice, happy, sweet lives? In fact, every portrayal of life in the Bible leads us to expect a life that is – at best – messy.

Take the opening account of the Bible. It deals with the creation of Paradise, but that creation is quickly followed by paradise lost. Have you ever pondered just how deeply it was lost? When did Adam and Eve know they had lost paradise? Well – when they were cast out of the garden. True – but when did it really strike home? I think Bruce Springsteen in his hit song from the 1970’s gets it spot on with its title – Adam raised a Cain… Adam raised a Cain. So here the Bible is talking about the loss of paradise. And what happens? Well the very first parents Adam and Eve raise their first two children Cain and Abel, and the unthinkable happens? Cain kills Abel.

That the Bible’s first portrait of being a parent is so very, very painful shows just how clearly the Bible understands that we live in a messy and broken world. It is not as though the Bible has walked us through 15 generations of happy family life and then introduces this story as a kind of ‘yes, actually sometimes things might go wrong.’ It is the very first family – so the message is right in your face. Family can be tough… very, very tough indeed.

And it is not as though the Cain and Abel account is an isolated one. Almost every chapter in Genesis tells of another family tragedy where life falls so far short of the ideal… be it the painful exclusion of Ishmael from Abraham’s family, of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau – or the chaos in Jacob’s family – rape, incest, violence, the brothers plotting together to kill Joseph and then deciding to sell him into slavery instead. Or what about the most famous of Israel’s kings – King David – who has to live with his son Absalom trying to steal the throne from him. Despite David’s attempts to protect Absalom in the battle that follows, Absalom is killed. David never fully recovers from his grief.

So if you think that the world that the Bible portrays is a squeaky clean one – think again. It speaks of brokenness and deep dysfunction from start to finish. And because it knows how broken the world is, it knows what a difference it makes that we believe in the God of hope.

On this commissioning Sunday, I want us to ask – what world are we a sign of hope to? A squeaky clean world – where only the impeccable are welcome – or the world that the Bible portrays… the world into which Jesus was incarnated – the world which ultimately crucified him.

Let’s look at a simple thesis – if we are to genuinely be followers of Jesus – and thus genuine signs of hope – we have to be willing to tread the kind of path that Jesus trod.

Now at one level I am sure you will nod your head and say – yeah, that is nice. Even Pollyanna would agree with that. But that is only if you don’t look closely at the path Jesus actually did walk. He took a walk on the wild side. The nice people of his day found him bewildering. They could understand John the Baptist better. After all John the Baptist was into fasting and eating locusts and living a severly asthetic life where ‘no’ was the routine default. But Jesus and his disciples didn’t live like John. Do you remember how the ‘nice people’ of his day objected. Lk 5:33 reads And they said to Him, “The disciples of John often fast and offer prayers, the disciples of the Pharisees also do the same, but Yours eat and drink.” It got even worse and Mark 2:16-17 tells us 15 While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: ‘Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ 17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.’

Do you pick up the sense – the mission of Jesus is messy, not nice… but because Jesus was where the real need was, he birthed hope wherever he went.

You might well ask – why are you saying this? This is Carey you are talking to. We turn the church inside out. We have gone out of our way to be a sign of hope by building wonderful missional platforms. We try things few other churches try.  And I would say – great… excellent. But let’s not forget that there will always be a pull to stop walking on the wild side and to become a little safer and tidier – and as a result to be so much less of a sign of hope to those who most need to discover the God of Hope…

A few years ago David Kinnaman published a book UnChristian in which he asked 16-29 years olds what they thought about when they heard the word Christian. By and large the results were unflattering and disturbing. They were that Christians are

  1. Hypocritical
  2. Interested in ‘saving’ people rather than in relating to them
  3. Antihomosexual
  4. Sheltered
  5. Too political
  6. Judgemental

Now I am sure that there are many, many instances when that caricature is harsh, unfair and unwarranted. But it was said by so many people that at some point we need to hear the challenge. On the one hand we like to say and to think that we are a sign of God’s love to a needy and broken world but the feedback comes from a study like this (and it was a credible study) that there is a great gap –  that what Christian people say and think about themselves and what other people think and say they experience, is completely different.

What would it mean for us to be a real sign of hope? Perhaps we should listen to what people say they long for from the church community. Here are some common threads. Imagine this is someone from Harrisdale speaking to us. Let’s listen to Mal… (I go to sit on a chair just off centre stage, and speak as though I am Mal).

Hi – I’m Mal – and thanks for letting me be with you today. Truth to tell, I was really surprised to get the invitation. If I have understood it, you want me to tell you what I would like to see in a church. Well I’ve got to say it’s refreshing to be asked. When I think of church the first thing I think is of a place that tells – that tries to tell me what I must think and that really isn’t very interested in what I think or what I have experienced. So thanks for giving me a bit of a surprise on this. It makes a nice change.

Let me try and answer your question. What would I like to see in a church. I long for a church that

  • Will get its act together. I can’t tell you how angry I get when I hear of clergy sexual abuse or financial swindles or power abuse. I just wish we could actually trust the church and the people who go there. I mean, if you can’t trust the church, who can you trust? I get so, so angry when I read about these abuse cases. Yup – it has left me pretty cynical. You can’t trust anyone in this world – and frankly, if the press is even 10% right, seems like you can trust the church least of all. So please, please, please change. Whatever you do, don’t let us down like that again.
  • And I wish that it really was a place that was spiritual – where I could sense that it was about God and not about latching onto me so that I can bump up its statistics and they can say ‘we are bigger than everyone else’. If you are in the business of God, be in the God business. Don’t let it be about numbers, or money or fancy buildings. I want to sense that Christian people are different. That they aren’t clutching on to the God word as a form of escape – but because they have really met with God. I’ve met a lot of people who strike me as being pretty spiritual, and the vast majority don’t claim to be Christian. So I don’t know what is going on there, but I think you need to win your territory back. Be a place that makes me think about God.
  • And I wish church could be a place where I could believe while still doubting. You know what I mean? I am really glad that some people are able to be absolutely certain about what they believe – but I am not one of them. I have all kinds of questions – and they won’t run away. And I want people to take them seriously. I don’t know much about the Bible, but I do remember that someone in the Bible asked for a miracle, and Jesus asked if they really believed and the man answered, ‘I believe, help my unbelief.’ That’s me. I believe and doubt at the same time. Jesus had time for that person – but I am not sure if the church will be OK with my being like that. I wish it was. Maybe then my faith could grow a little. If you ask me to believe the whole package and to stop doubting – well, I just can’t do it. But if you would be patient with me, perhaps those little parts of me that believe could grow. Perhaps in the end what I believe would be bigger than my doubts… but it is not like that now. It would be nice if you could understand that, and not lecture me about not really believing.
  • And oh, how I wish that the church was a little more comfortable with people who have stuffed their lives up a bit… because actually that is me. I’m divorced – got a partner… but after all I went through in marriage… I am much too scared to go there again. But I guess that makes me unwelcome. And actually there are so many things about your morality that I don’t understand. Like why is it such a big deal to be gay, or to believe in euthanasia – or to just get blotto drunk every second weekend? Goodness, you’ve got to be able to escape from this pain sometimes. I really don’t understand your morality. I am not closed to it – after all, I don’t understand my own morality so I am not into judging anyone. But when I hear you talking about the lifestyle you expect me to adopt (no sex unless married – yeah, right) – well I don’t hear you give good reasons for why you think as you do. I wish you would. And when you do, remember that most people have already broken all the rules you want us to stick to.
  • And I wish there was a church that would help me to be bigger. Yeah – I know I sound like I’m a whinger… but I know that in comparison to the rest of the world I am so privileged and I would really like to make a bit of a difference to help those who are worse off – but the churches I see seem set on trivia. If only there was a place that would leverage all the energy of the people who attend and make it a force for good – well I would love to be part of a place like that. I know I can’t do much on my own… but with hundreds of other people. Together, we could do so much more. And I would like me life to count for something. I would like it to be more than it presently is.

Yeah, I think that is what I am looking for. A place of integrity, and where you can sense that the God stuff is real, and where you can still doubt and have your questions, and where it’s ok if you still stuff up a fair bit. A place that makes me bigger, and that helps make sure my life actually counts. If there was a place like that… well, that would give me hope… hope that there is a God, and that that God cares…

(Stand up from chair. Go back to being me.)

People, is that really too hard for us? To be that kind of church, or that kind of missional movement. Our theme for this year is hope… Hope is not hope unless it is born in messy places. It is not hope unless it is needed.

There are many poignant stories from the second world war. This one always moves me. Jews were persecuted in so many places – but some of the fiercest persecution was in Poland. A small group of Jewish refugees trying to avoid arrest hid in a graveyard one night. One of them was a heavily pregnant woman and during the night she went into labour. The safest place to give birth was in a freshly dug grave – and it was there that she gave birth to her son. On seeing this child born in the grave, an elderly Jewish man burst out with these words – ‘Oh great God, hast Thou at last sent us the Messiah. For who but the Messiah, can be born in the grave.’ Who but the Messiah can be born in the grave?

Actually, that is the essence of the Christian faith. When all seems loss – crucifixion completed, the body in the grave – Messiah suddenly springs up, conquers death, and births a community of hope – a community that 2000 years later still meets and gathers in his name.

That community was a sign of hope then – and it needs to be a sign of hope now. It will not be a squeaky clean place. Nor will it be a ‘sort yourself out before you come to us’ place. But it will be a Jesus following place… and will therefore be a gentle and ongoing witness and sign that the God of hope is real, and continues to give hope. Let us at Carey be this clear sign this year, and every year.


Well, that was the word we needed to hear at Carey on Sunday. Perhaps it is a word for you as well.

As always, nice chatting…


  1. Thought it was a spot on relevant message – thanks Brian.

    • Thanks Lynn.

  2. Hi Brian.
    Really resonate with Mal.
    Thanks for the ways you put words and thoughts around my often mixed up thoughts.
    I’m so thankful your at Carey.

    • Thanks Steve. You’ve helped me understand the Mal’s of the world much better.

  3. Thank you, Brian.

    It’s a message we need more often in all our churches.

    This is church wrestling with realities only the church over all the earth can help with.

    Thank you for leading this charge; for empowering pastors to commit to the wrestling.

  4. We enjoyed our recent visit with you and were impressed with t he Carey and Harrisdale schools. God. Bless you in your busy life. Great to read your blogs each week. Thank you.

  5. Great post Brian, and it strikes a chord with some of the questions I’ve had recently about the apparent corporatisation of churches. It seems sometimes the push for growth, excellence and productivity (coincidentally, very Western, capitalist values) within churches can impact our missionality. Not that those things are bad in themselves, but I wonder if it leads to us actually losing sight of the mission of making disciples and growing people to love Jesus more. As a case in point, recently I was at a church where there was a bit of a last-minute failure of the visuals system, and the pastor got quite angry that he wasn’t told about it earlier, and that as a result things would run late. I was quite taken aback by this reaction, and to be fair, a lot of that was about ongoing technical issues that hadn’t been adequately resolved, and he also later apologised. But it did make me wonder if, to an outsider, that would not have communicated the gospel of Jesus well. After all, I think a lot of what the Mals of this world are craving is churches that are a place of authenticity, where we can drop the pretense of having everything all tied up and perfect. Of course, in any big organisation there does need to be some order, but I think we always need to be vigilant that those structures etc don’t become the focus, when really it is about connecting people who are messed up and far from God with the God who craves to have relationship with them, even in spite of their ‘messed-up-ness’.

    • Yes, handling the tension of size and the need to do things well can be real. And I think you are right – we have to keep running that back against the grid of why we are doing this in the first place. The tail can quickly wag the dog.

  6. Brilliant post Brian, so real and so much truth contained in it!
    Thank you!

    • Thanks Penny. So good to be in touch again after too many years.

  7. Loved that Sunday service Brian.
    Great message
    thanks for these posts.

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