Month: January 2009

What Are The Valleys?

rhonddaI haven’ quite finished my current series on Church-Planting Lessons yet, but I’ve decided to start another little series of posts about one of the most intriguing, captivating and forsaken areas of the UK – the South Wales Valleys. Obviously the Valleys are very close to my heart as I was born here, I live here and I’m planting a church here. But I’m curious to know how the South Wales Valleys are perceived from those outside, especially those from the larger Welsh towns and cities.

Many seem to associate the Valleys with poverty, crime and social disorder akin to the inner-city (with good reason). Some are more prone to focus on the countryside, the breath-taking views (and of course the sheep), and therefore consider the valleys to be more of a rural area. A third opinion regarding this region is that it is a unique blend of urbanised squalor and rural beauty – a bizzare paradox of deep despair and strong, community, marking it as a region perhaps unlike any other in the UK.

So what are the valleys?

I’m asking for a little bit of audience participation from you lot out there in blogville!

Basically how do you percieve the Valleys?

a) Urban

b) Rural

c) Unique

Feel free to comment and add your own thoughts…

Church-Planting Lesson 7 – Engage Culture

images8On the very first day that we moved into our new house up here, I still remember the pearl of wisdom given to me by one local lady on how to do life on this estate:

“Just keep your head down and keep yourself to yourself and you’ll be OK!”

Good advice if you want a quiet life, but what if you want to plant a church that would be a blessing and a beacon of hope to the whole community? Anonymity is probably not the best strategy. After all, was Jesus keeping His head down when “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood”? (John 1v14) I don’t think He was. In fact hiding away has never been God’s way. The Great Commission is still ringing out the same message to the people of the cross – “Go!” 

Sadly, however, it seems that these days the church is much more inclined to treat her buildings as bunkers to hide in rather than bases from which to launch audacious search and rescue missions behind enemy lines. Rather than looking out of the window and lamenting the tragedy that is 21st Century Christ-less culture in Wales, surely we should be seizing every available opportunity to live out the reality of the gospel in our communities. To engage culture, rather than hide from it!

That might sound fine in principle, but what does that actually look like on the ground? Well this week here in our context it’s meant installing a cat-flap in sub-zero temperatures for an elderly couple on the estate. It’s meant enjoying a lush meal with a beautiful family from our street. It’s involved going to a cookery class for parents (and turning up too late to cook but bang on time to eat!). It’s entailed going out mountain-biking with my mate, being asked by a councillor to join the local Resident’s Association, and dishing out flyers about our new youth club! It’s meant walking my daughter to play group and sweeping up broken glass from the street (it was from Shel’s car after all!) Over the months it’s meant running DJ workshops, setting up an action-group to regenerate the derelict playground in front of our house, and letting local youths chase my dog!

Why? What’s the point of doing all that stuff? Surely as a Pastor I should be locked away in my study (if I had one) praying, digging deep into scripture and steering clear from the filthy pollution of the world in order to remain holy, pure and righteous! There’s definitely got to be time for stuff like that, but there’s also got to be time for rolling up our sleeves and getting stuck into the messy world we want to see reached for Christ!

Personally I want to know what makes people tick! I want to see the world from their perspective and learn how to apply the gospel in a way that’s appropriate to them. Besides, I also just like hanging out with real people because they’re so often refreshingly genuine and interesting!

Ultimately, truth will never change but culture is transient and constantly evolving. We need to stay flexible enough to keep learning from culture, yet passionate enough about the truth to keep living and preaching it authentically! Failure to do either will result in either irrelevance or liberalism.

And they both suck!

Dog Tag Theology

dog tagsPlease forgive the rather random title, but I just wanted to knock out a quick post about a really nice present that Michelle bought me for Christmas, but that I only picked up from the jewellers yesterday – some sterling silver dog tags!

Might sound a bit odd, so if I mentioned that they’ve been engraved with the words ‘love’ on one, and ‘faithfulness’ on the other (with the root Hebrew word on the flip-sides), would that make any more sense? Perhaps not, so here’s why this set of dog tags was such a special gift…

When me and Michelle got married, we moved straight into the centre of St.Mellons estate in Cardiff on a mission to share gospel of the love of Jesus. However, some of the social situations that we were confronted by during the first six months of our marriage were so messed-up that we were often reduced to tears, and regularly felt completely out of our depth. It was at that time that God gave us this scripture that has become the bedrock for both our marriage and our ministry together ever since:

“Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favour and a good name in the sight of God and man.” (Proverbs 3v3-4)

We’ve discovered that when seeking to pursue a life that is characterised by love, mercy and grace, coupled with faithfulness, truth and justice, the smile of God is always upon you, and the goodwill of those you’re trying to reach is never far away.

That’s why these dog tags are such a cool gift – I get to remind myself of these truths every day as I ‘bind them around my neck’!

Church-Planting Lesson 6 – The Blessing of Back-Up

safe11To the untrained eye it might look like me and my family just got dropped off on this hill-top council estate like a mini crack troop of maverick missionaries, to get on with the job of planting a church with zero back-up, support, strategy or accountability in place. The reality, however is that far from being isolated, we’ve actually been backed to the max, and owe a massive debt of gratitude to A LOT of people, without whom Hill City Church would probably not be alive, let alone thriving! This post is both an expression of gratitude to them, and also an encouragement to anyone considering church-planting to do everything in their power to make sure that when they get into the trenches, they’ve got as much back-up as they possibly need.

Here’s a concise list of how we’ve been blessed by back-up on our little adventure:

1. God – Shouldn’t need to to explain this one! Jesus’ promise to those who step out on mission for Him is “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28v20) Nuff said!

2. Sending Church – Right this one’s massive for us! For those who didn’t know Highfields Church in Cardiff became my home church when I became a student in 1995 and has been ever since. After I graduated I worked with them for 2 years reaching out to young people on the streets. Furthermore, when I went to St.Mellons (6 miles up the road) I was sent and supported as one of their missionaries, as was Michelle when we got married. So when I approached the elders about the call to plant a church in the valleys it was business as usual as far as our status as missionaries was concerned.

There’s obviously loads of different strategies for church-planting, and one of the more common ones is sending a team of 20-30 people to create a ‘critical mass’ and make sure that multiple areas of ministry are deliverable from the off. However, we just felt that parachuting a huge crowd of ‘foreign’ middle-class Cardiffians into a valleys council estate context might not have been the most culturally sensitive or effective way of reaching the community. That’s honestly not a slur on middle-class people by the way – just an honest appraisal of the situation! We just wanted Hill City Church to be as organic and as true to the local context as possible, so it was agreed that we would go up alone, move in and start small. What that doesn’t mean, however, is that we were cut adrift. Below is just a very short list of the various ways that the Highfields mother-ship has supported us in the mission:

Prayer, Finances, Pastoral Care, Administrative Help, Website Support, Coffee, Friendship and the Provision of 2 amazing Ministry Apprentices…

In short I love Highfields to bits. It’s not an exaggeration to say that without them, we might have started strongly but we would have definitely crashed and burned by now without the blessing of their back-up!

3. Waleswide – Dave Ollerton from the Waleswide church-planting movement has been a really good friend to Hill City, especially in the earliest stages of the plant. His wisdom advice and probing questions really helped us as we set about laying out our Vision, Distinctives and Theological Foundations. He also spoils my dog which is nice!

4. Family – We are so blessed to have Christian parents and siblings who not only understand our mission, but actively support us in it! We have been completely overwhelmed by the gracious way that they have helped us out in so many practical ways. From cooking us meals to looking after the kids. From regular, committed prayer to words of wisdom. I genuinely can’t imagine how different this church-plant would have looked without the silent, sincere and sacrificial support of our amazing families!

5. Friends – Finally, we have so many ‘friends’ who have also gone above and beyond the call of duty to draw alongside us and give generously of their time, tears, treasure, prayer, passion and provision. These friends include our amazing supporters who pray like crazy, always ask how we’re doing and who help us to survive each month financially. Other friends include the scores and scores of individuals (too many to list but you know who you are!) who have visited, helped and blessed us in so many precious ways!  Several churches have also got behind us and encouraged us in our mission – Christchurch, Pillar, Beacon Church, Rumney Chapel, Ebenezer, New Life and Oasis, to name a few!

To everyone mentioned explicitly on this post, as well as all those referred to more broadly, I want to close with the words of Paul that echo perfectly how I feel towards you for all you’ve done to back us up and help us stand:

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” (Philippians 1v3-5)

Criminals, Cars and Answered Prayers

car criminalI woke up at 5:45am yesterday and was on my way to pray with my mate James when I noticed that Michelle’s car lights were on. As I got closer my heart sank as I saw that one of her back windows was smashed, the driver’s door was open and the dashboard had been pretty much smashed to bits! A very messy (and very poor) attempt to nick her car for a late-night joyride had clearly failed, leaving me and James trying to stick a black bag over the fractured window in typically strong winds and rain (it’s amazing how gaffa tape can hold the world together when it’s dry but can’t do jack when it’s wet!)

The police came but found nothing incriminating. My mate who’s a mechanic said the damage was too severe to justify getting it fixed (it was an old, albeit immensely reliable car!) So with heavy hearts we had to kiss goodbye to Michelle’s beloved VW Polo today – no insurance payout (excess was too much!) Literally a perfectly good car 24 hours ago, now on the scrap-heap (May she rust in peace!)

The mad thing is that me and Shel had been chatting and praying hard about whether or not we could justify having two cars on the road at the moment. Running 2 cars isn’t cheap, and in our case not always 100% necessary. Plus I love my bike and need to lose some chunk! So without even realising it, some little criminals became an answer to our prayers. We’re now a 1 car family again and I’ve got a seriously steep hill to be cycling up on a regular basis.

Our prayer now is that whoever did this to Michelle’s car will one day encounter the grace of God. We want them to see their sin for what it is, then see Jesus for who He is and be transformed by the power of His gospel. We’d love to have the privilege of being the ones who get to convey that grace to them, to explain that Jesus bled for their offences so that they could know forgiveness and new life. If God can answer our prayer for whether not we should have a second car, surely He’ll answer our prayers for whoever did this to get a second chance in Jesus.

Would you pray that with us?

Thanks.

Standard Issue – Daily Devotions for Ruffnecks

Standard IssueAbout 4 years I took a bunch of love-able rogues from St.Mellons away to a Christian camp for a week. It was an awesome camp, through which 4 of them professed faith in Christ. Obviously I was buzzin, though it soon became apparent that discipling a bunch of completely un-churched ruffnecks from an inner-city council estate isn’t the easiest of things to do. While I was 100% committed to helping them to live all-out for Jesus, and to get them stuck into studying the Bible for themselves, there just didn’t seem to be much stuff available for young people like this lot.

So I wrote some stuff myself.

Standard Issue is a collection of really simple daily devotions from the Bible that is aimed specifically at youth from the streets and proved a real hit with the boys in St.Mellons. Therefore, I’ve made all 12 weeks worth of material available for free on line at: http://standardissue.org.uk. You can either read the devotions online or download them as PDFs to print out as A5 booklets. On top of all that there’s also a bangin’ tune about the Scriptures called ‘The Good Book’ by Christian UKG artist, Sammy G, that you can listen to on the homepage too.

If you or anyone you know is working with marginalised youth or young offenders, please feel free to check out Standard Issue.

Church-Planting Lesson 5 – Lift Your Eyes

Sharing my delightfully small timber-framed terraced house with my wonderful wife, my two beautiful kids and my 7 stone dog (a.k.a ‘the freak’) as well as not having a permanent church building, means that I haven’t actually had the privilege of being able to use an office/study for over a year now. The vast majority of my sermons (I preached over 100 of them last year!) are prepared on my sofa with my Bible and lap-top next to me, and my little girl climbing all over me, trying to turn off what I’m working on so that she can go on the Cbeebies website! I usually see the funny side of it, but sometimes it’s quite difficult because as much as I love being around my family, I don’t want my church to get second-rate sermons in the name of the Tweenies! So I’ve had to look for a new way of spending time with God and digging into His Word for timely nuggets of truth for my people. And God in His grace has once again come up trumps!

lift your eyesThree minutes from my front door there’s a big field that stretcthes to the very top of Trevethin. At the very top of the field is a bench with the most stunning view ever (well not maybe not ever…but it is awesome!) From the bench you can see all the way down the valley and across the Severn estuary to Portishead, and across the valley to the familiarly rounded  hills on the other side. It’s impossible to walk my dog to the bench, or even open my curtains each morning, without being reminded every day of Psalm 121:

“I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

Church-planting is hard. So is being a pastor! There are few days that I walk my dog and pray without feeling the weight of responsibility for the mission and the people that God has trusted to me. But I love that God has given me a daily reminder to lift my eyes away from my situation and towards Him – the God of mercy, strength and hope! He made those hills and has been sustaining them ever since! Why wouldn’t I worship Him for being awesome, or look to Him for help in times of need?

I love that bench! It’s now widely known as ‘Dai’s Office’ by people in the church. The bulk of my prayer, pastoral chats, sermon prep and meetings are all conducted in my ‘office’ on top of the hill (weather permitting!) It’s a seriously special place to me!

My encouragement to you, the reader, is whoever you are and wherever you’re at – always find time and reason to lift your eyes to our Big God of Grace!

Church-Planting Lesson 4 – Size Isn’t Everything

lettuce seedlingsWe had a surprise visit at our homegroup last night. A lady off the estate called Judith who is a good friend and has been since the inception of Hill City Church came to see how we were getting on. She hadn’t been to a homegroup for quite some time and was pleased to see that there were 20 odd people crammed into our living room (we’re going to 2 groups starting next week). Anyway, she reminded me of something that she had said to me during one of my more ‘glass-is-half-empty’ moments early last year.

When church was literally me, Michelle, our little girl and our hefty dog, I used to joke that unless we suffered a divorce or a bereavement our church could only grow! Several months later we had indeed grown to about 6 in our homegroup (only 2 of which were from the estate) and to be honest I was getting pretty vexed. I had a big vision and exciting dreams for Hill City Church and it just didn’t seem like we were getting anywhere. So as is my custom, I had a little rant: “What’s the point? Nothing’s happening! No one even knows we’re here! What’s going on?” Stuff like that! At that point, Judith started talking about lettuces! She went on to explain that she had recently planted a load of lettuce seedlings and was getting impatient for them to grow. She commented that earlier that day a few little shoots had just started to break through the soil and she was well excited. The phrase she used to draw a parallel between her lettuces and Hill City Church was:

“Well it might not be a lettuce…but it’s something!”

It was so profound. To be honest it still is! OK this wasn’t church as we’d envisioned it and we weren’t exactly in revival. But there was a tiny community of Christians who were committed to praying, worshipping and seeking God for salvation on the estate, and in God’s economy – that’s definitely something!

I was so encouraged by that simple thought!

As God started to add people to both our small church I started to love the fact that I could get to know them. I got to hear their hearts, share their dreams and enjoy the laughter and tears of family life that is only really possible in small groups like that. I soon realised that if a church of 30 people had just landed on my doorstep overnight I would have failed them as a Pastor as there was no way I could have got to know, let alone serve, so many people in a meaningful way. My relationship with them would have been superficial and awkward at best. As it is, however, I really know my flock and I love each one of them to bits. But that’s only because lettuces grow slowly! As Judith was leaving tonight she encouraged me with the words:

“Mate, it’s definitely a lettuce now!”

lettuceI completely agree. It really is a beautiful lettuce, but it wasn’t always a lettuce. In fact once it was simply a tiny little ‘something’. However, ‘something’ is better than nothing because ‘something’ can grow! I do wonder if Zecharia had been growing lettuces when he stated: “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice…” (Zecharia 4v10)

I guess size isn’t everything after all!

Church-Planting Lesson 3 – Read Your Bible & Pray

read and prayOk so this might sound like classic Sunday School material, but to be honest they teach some good stuff in Sunday School. Besides, I for one have learned that there’s something profoundly humbling yet powerful in going back to the basics and putting them into practice, especially true in the area of reading God’s word and responding prayerfully with faith.  Here’s 3 ways that it’s played out on our church-planting adventure:

1. The Armour-Bearer – shortly before we moved to Trevethin I heard Andy Christofiedes preach a stirring sermon on the story of Jonathan and his young armour-bearer legging it up a mountain and between them wiping all out an entire garrison of Philistines. Awesome! I was just really inspired by the story and as I started to meditate on it, faith started to rise up inside me and I began to pray earnestly for an armour-bearer of my own. I was basically praying for a godly young bloke, who was full of mad faith and up for an epic adventure, to come up the hill with me and give satan and his schemes a right royal kicking in the Name of the LORD!

About 5 months later God answered my prayers. A young man I had been mentoring for several months had taken a year out to explore church-planting with his home church. However, due to unfortunate circumstances that plan failed to materialise and he ended up being released to come up to help us see the Hill City vision become reality. All I can say is that it was an immense year! Ben blessed, served, encouraged, challenged, shaped, prayed and battled alongside us in a way that is impossible to adequately convey here. However, as well all the practical support he offered, it’s fair to say his input into both the Hill City Vision Statement and Foundations Document was also massive. It’s amazing how having someone else to chew things over and bounce things around with creates so much more energy and clarity. Suffice to say, I couldn’t have picked a better mate to run up a hill and do battle with.

2. The Man Of Peace – Having never even set foot on the estate until I was 28 years old, there was absolutely no logical ‘first step’ for us onto the mission-field. It literally was uncharted territory. Therefore, prompted by Jesus’ teaching in Luke 10v4-8 I found myself praying for ‘a man of peace’ – someone who belonged to the estate, who would welcome us into the community and who would reassure others that “them Christians are alright!” Again, it was many months until the Lord answered that prayer, but when He did – He really delivered! He introduced us to Matt – a local legend who not only sorted us out with usage of a building and helped us get to grips with life on the estate, but who along with his family, has also become a really, really good friend too!

3. Twelve Rock-Bearers – When we first started doing simple church as a family on Sunday mornings, we started studying the book of Joshua (an absolute must-read for anyone with a passion for church-planting!) We received shed-loads of encouragement as we worked through the book, but perhaps the most striking way that God spoke to us was in chapter 4 when God commanded Joshua to select 12 men from the tribes of Israel and charge them to each select a rock from the middle of the Jordan, to carry them all the way across on their shoulders and to set them up on the other side as a reminder of God’s great power and gracious provision. At this point we were really seeking God about when the right time was to ‘cross over’ from being a house church to meeting publicly. Through these verses God caused to start praying for 12 rock-bearers – men and women whose spiritual shoulders were broad enough to carry the weight of ministry and responsibility that such a move would inevitably bring.

I reckon we must have been praying for these rock-bearers for the bets part of 10 months, often fuelled by frustration as much as faith. I have to confess that there were times that I started trying to cut corners by saying stuff like: “Well the lady in the Spar sells us the milk that we use in coffee at church – so maybe she’s one of the 12!” and other such ridiculous things. (OK maybe not quite that ridiculous, but you get the point!) God, however, in His divine wisdom simply started bringing the right people at the right to join with us, and by the time we moved into our building last September we couldn’t move for all the broad, rock-bearing shoulders that were now on board!

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to us that God still speaks and leads us through the pages of scripture, but I for one have been both blown away and encouraged by just how much He does. I simply pray for the faith to listen, to believe and to respond appropriately.

About 4 months ago I was reading the account of David’s Mighty Men (2Samuel 23) and was inspired (like all blokes are) by ‘The Three’ in particular! Anyway, through this passage God has caused me to trust Him for 3 elders – mighty men of faith and courage – to step up to the plate and serve the church and the community alongside us. At the time of writing I am currently waiting for all 3 of them to show up.

But I wait and pray with faith…