Friday, September 23, 2016

Biblical Church Revitalization: Solutions for Dying & Divided Churches by Brian Croft

Christian Focus, 2016, 133pp

There has been a lot of emphasis on church planting in recent years, and rightly so. Where villages, towns, or areas of cities are without a gospel church, planting one there is a vital means of discipling believers in the locality and reaching the community for Christ.

But what of places where there already is a gospel church, but the work is in danger of fizzling out? That is where church revitalisation comes in. Which, I would venture to suggest in an urgent priority for many churches in the UK at this time.

Churches may be in need of revitalisation for a number of reasons. Brian Croft's book is directed at helping pastors turn around churches that have become badly dysfunctional in the way they are run, and as a result have become spiritually stunted and inward looking.

Croft was called to  Southern Baptist Church in the USA that had a reputation for chewing up and spitting out pastor after pastor. By the grace of God the situation was transformed and the church is now in a much more healthy place.

The writer does not offer a 'silver bullet' formula for breathing new life into moribund churches. He acknowledges that ultimately only the power of God can do that. But the Lord is pleased to use the means laid down in the Scriptures. Pastors involved in church revitalisation need to be men who are dedicated to God-dependent prayer and the authoritative preaching of the Word. They must be willing to give loving pastoral care to believers who may have been left bruised and broken by their involvement in a difficult church. In some situations biblical patterns of authority and leadership may need to be recovered, such as the plurality of elders who share in the pastoral oversight of the flock. Somewhat confusingly, but for reasons he explains, Croft speaks of the 'plurality of pastors'. 

The book offers a healthy dose of realism. Some of the examples Croft gives of just how bad things were in the early days of his pastorate are hair raising. Plots were hatched to oust him. Some church members were bitterly critical of his ministry.  But as he prayerfully persevered, things began to change. 

Croft emphasises that men involved in church revitalisation work don't need to be super-pastors. The Lord is pleased to use broken people to turn around broken churches. But pastors in difficult situations are going to need spiritual resilience, grit and determination if they are going to stay around for long enough to see the Lord work to turn the church around. 

The writer acknowledges that mistakes were made along the way and patience was needed on both sides. I'm not sure that he acted wisely when he saw off an opponent with a threat to block his future ministry prospects unless he backed down from causing trouble in a members' meeting. To my mind, a man with such an ungracious attitude was an unsuitable candidate for church ministry full stop. The person in question should have been blocked from ministry as a matter of principle, unless a change of heart was in evidence. It's a reminder that no pastor gets it right every time. Especially when fighting on all fronts it isn't always easy to pick our battles. Thankfully, it it Christ's church, not ours and he is able to overrule our blunders.  

Aspiring pastors considering a call to a 'challenging' church will be able to do so with their eyes open having read this book. They will find encouragement here to look to Lord in their struggles, knowing that his strength is made perfect in weakness. That said, no book can fully prepare a man for the sometimes harsh reality of the ministry. In a way all pastoral ministry is church revitalisation work, and brings with it suffering and trials, as well as great joys. 

This volume on church revitalisation will not provide answer for every ailing fellowship. Some may be dying because they have become inward looking and out of touch with their local communities. Others may be making every endevour to reach out, but, as yet have seen little discernible fruit. Croft does not address those kinds of scenarios. 

But as this book shows, difficult churches should not simply be written off. Dry bones can live by power of God's Word and Spirit.

The text could have done with a bit of de-Americanisation for the UK market. E.g. I was surprised to learn that Southern Baptist Churches are unique in having a congregational form of church government. That will come as news to FIEC and Grace Baptist Churches in the UK, to say no more.

None the less... 

A good one for men who are training for pastoral ministry.

An encouragement to brave souls battling it out to revitalise a dying and divided church. 

*Reviewed for Evangelical Times

Friday, September 09, 2016

Reading John Owen Evangelical Library Conference

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of the great Puritan theologian and Independent Church leader. 

On Monday, September 26, 2016, there will be a special one day conference on Reading John Owen. 

The conference will take place at the Evangelical Library and will be from 10 am to 4.30 pm.

The main focus will be on key themes in Owen's 16 volume Works


10.00 Coffee
10.30 John Owen, Preacher, theologian and writer Nigel Graham
11.20 Owen on Christ and the Holy Spirit (Volumes 1-4) Jeremy Walker
12.10 Owen on justification, sanctification and apostasy (Volumes 5-8) Robert Strivens
1.00 Lunch
1.40 Owen the preacher and Calvinist (Volumes 9-12) Gary Brady
2.30 Break
3.00 Owen pastors, churches and Romanism (Volumes 13-16) Guy Davies
3.50 Final panel question session
4.30 Close

Hot drinks provided. Bring your own lunch.

The cost will be £25 for the day.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Building MAT-land

OK, guv'nor, so you're contemplating heading for MAT-land? Eventually, so we're told, we're all going to have to make that journey into the, if not unknown, at lest the not very well researched. That much was evident from this week's Education Committee's session on MATs.

The pace of change since the publication the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper has caught almost everybody on the hop. Politicians, policy wonks, governors and Headteachers found themselves struggling to take in the the idea of universal academisation by 2022. With most schools in Multi Academy Trusts. Even the NGA carried on with its 'Federations First' campaign when it was obvious that MATs, not Feds are the future. 

But what does that future hold?  

A formidable panel of educational researchers was assembled to tell the Education Committee how much they don't know about MATs. Not, I hasten to add because they couldn't be bothered to find out, but because no one seems to know an awful lot about MAT-land. We'll, National Schools Commissioner  Sir David Carter and his trusty team of Regional SCs reckon they do, but they're not telling anybody. 

Now, academics never knowingly overstate their case. They're so immersed in the details of their field of expertise that they cannot help but be conscious of evidence that calls into question received wisdom, or casts doubt on common assumptions. Things are rarely as straightforward as they seem.

Which is a bit vexing if you're a dilettante amateur looking for some clear cut answers. Which is what I am in education terms.

'Any evidence that joining a MAT improves school performance?' asked committee members. 'Difficult to say. Needs more research.' replied the expert witnesses. 'What makes a successful MAT?' Ditto. 'What might be learned from similar systems  overseas, like the US Charter Schools?' Ditto. Oh, but it seems that Labour academies were good, Tory ones not so much.

Now, I'm not affecting a Gove-like disdain for experts. Maybe it's simply too early to draw hard and fast conclusions from what's happening in MAT-land. More independent research undoubtedly needs to be done as we head towards a MAT-dominated, fully academised system. The fruit of that research then needs to be absorbed by policy makers. Not to mention governors and Headteachers who are looking to join or set up MATs.

Would be quite nice to find out what kind of pre-existing MAT set-up should not be touched with a board ruler. (Do teachers still use those long board ruler things?) Or what should the MAT we may be forming look like if it's going to be highly effective as opposed to utterly shambolic and totally dysfunctional? We need to know these things.

Some issues became clear, though, as the committee quizzed the researchers. It's quality of teaching that matters above all else, not structures and governance systems. Well, yes. But surely closer collaboration  will help spread best practice when it comes to teaching and learning, CPD, etc?

It looks like collaborative clustering within smaller geographical areas might be a goer, as opposed to large chains that stretch from one end of England to another. Having a shared vision and purpose is key. However, some schools in 'clustered' MATs ain't doing so well.

More research needs to be undertaken into what makes for an effective CEO, whole MAT outcomes, MATs and the % of SEN pupils, rates of exclusions, whether in some cases improved outcomes are at the expense of a narrowed curriculum, etc.

All rather ambiguous

Next up to give evidence was a number of representatives of Christian education providers; RC, CofE, Oasis Trust, a chap from FASNA, and a secular bloke, who didn't appear to be involved in running any educational body, but was most concerned about Christians doing so.

This panel was a bit more forthcoming when it came to the features of a successful MAT. Among them are things like a clear vision and strategy, good leadership, governance structures appropriate for the size of MAT, and the facilitation of school-to-school support.

It was agreed that some issues needed more thought, like the role of local governance in MATs, Ofsted's ability to inspect MATs in the context of a common framework, and how LAs will function in a fully academised system.

Listening to the evidence given, a number of points began to crystallise, at least in my mind, on what may make for a successful MAT. And by that I mean one that helps form rounded and grounded students with high aspirations for themselves, as well as in terms of exam results.

1. Unity in diversity matters 

MATs must offer an overarching vision and strategy that all its schools share. But at the same time, individual schools should be allowed to maintain their own character and ethos; faith or non-denominational, sporty, or arty, or whatever. 

2. The right systems matter 

Well motivated and highly capable people will founder in an ill thought out system. MATs need Schemes of Delegation that are fit for purpose, setting out what responsibilities lie at board and local governance levels, the powers of the CEO, what decisions may be made by individual Headteachers, and so on.

3. Sharing best practice matters 

At their best MATs will allow successful schools to spread good practice when it comes to teaching and learning. But that needs to be done with sensitivity and care, as what works well in one school (a town secondary, say), may not translate to another (a rural primary). At least not without being adapted to suit. Copy and paste jobs won't work. It's vital to understand the difference between sharing best practice and imposing uniform solutions 

4. The balance between accountability and autonomy matters

MAT boards and CEOs should know their schools and be prepared to intervene rapidly if standards slip. But hyperactive micromanagement squelches innovation and growth. Earned autonomy is what's needed.

5. People matter

The optimum MAT system will fail if it's operated by a bunch of knaves and fools. Knaves who want to use a seat on the board as a nice little earner. Fools who haven't a clue what they are meant to be doing. Boards should be comprised of skilled-up stakeholders. Local people, parents etc, who have the moral purpose to make sure funds are used to raise learning outcomes, not line their own pockets. People with the right mix of skills and experience to ensure the MAT works effectively for the benefit of all schools and their pupils.

The future of education is ours to shape. 

MAT-land has not yet been covered over by hard concrete and filled with immovable brick structures.

That lack of solidity is a bit scary. But it's also an opportunity to adapt and innovate. To a certain extent it'll be up to governors, Headteachers and CEOs to make of it what we will.

Let's make sure that we build the system with care so that MAT-land becomes a place where teachers excel and children flourish.

Monday, September 05, 2016

J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone by Iain H. Murray

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 273pp

A good biographer helps his readers to get under the skin of their subject so that you feel you get to know them. Almost personally. A good Christian biographer will do more that that. As well as setting their subject against the background of their times and offering a convincing psychological portrait, they will give readers a glimpse of a soul in its communion with God and dealings with people.

Iain H. Murray has often pulled off this feat in his many biographies of Christian men and women. Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, Archibald Brown, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Amy Carmichael among them. He has now done the same for J. C, Ryle.

Ryle was one of the most famous Evangelical Anglicans of his day. He became the first Bishop of Liverpool. His many tracts and books attracted avid readers all around the globe. Yet towards the end of his life and in the decades the followed he was regarded as something of a dinosaur. His 'old fashioned' beliefs and attitudes were dismissed as irrelevant for the times. 

In some ways Ryle was 'a man born out of due time'. A staunch Protestant, he seemed more like a Bishop from the days of Latimer and Ridley than Victorian Churchman. The Church of England of that period was in a state of flux. Newman and Pusey of the Oxford Movement were seeking to pull the Church in a Rome-ward direction. Theological liberalism was beginning to take hold, questioning the authority of Scripture in the name of the 'assured results of modern scholarship'. 

Against these trends Ryle dared to stand alone. He called the Church of England to remain true to its confessional heritage in the Thirty Nine Articles. But he was fighting a losing battle. When he became a Bishop, Ryle found himself torn between the need to be an ecclesiastical statesman, trying to hold together all the various parties in his diocese, and his principled stand for Protestant beliefs. 

Ryle never wanted to be a clergyman. It was only because his father's bank collapsed that he turned to the Church for employment. He was converted some years earlier when a student at Oxford University, but had no desire whatever to become a Minister. The Lord had other ideas. All doors closed to him bar one; that of becoming curate of a parish church in Exbury, Hampshire. Thereafter he served churches in Winchester, Helmingham, and Stradbroke, before being appointed Bishop of Liverpool. Just as his call to the ministry seemed a matter of financial expediency from a human point of view, so his becoming a Bishop was a political fix on the part of Tory Prime Minister, Disraeli. The politician was keen to avoid his Liberal opponent Gladsone imposing a ritualist on the growing city.  

But whatever man's motivations and machinations there can be no doubt that J. C. Ryle was called by God to proclaim the good old truths of the gospel to the people of his day. And it is those good old truths, held by the Reformers and Puritans so beloved by Ryle that have stood the test of time. For they are the mighty life-transforming doctrines of God's Word. Few bother to read the 'state of the art' works of nineteenth century theological liberalism these days, but Ryle's writings have been rediscovered and reprinted for a global audience. His Expository Thoughts on the Gospels are a model of straightforward applicatory exposition.  Historical  writings such as Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century have introduced readers to the mighty work of God that was the Evangelical Revival. His work on Holiness has helped to correct unhelpful emphases in Evangelical teaching on sanctification.

Although Ryle was a somewhat reluctant pastor, he threw himself unstintingly into the work. He was a diligent visitor of his flocks and a fully engaged in the life of the communities in which he served. He sought to preach with simplicity and verve, grabbing the attention of his people with lively illustrations. The preacher brought God's Word to bear upon his hearers' lives with punchy and direct application of the truth. In a day when Calvinism was rapidly going out of fashion, Ryle was not ashamed to identify himself with the Reformed faith, which he saw as essential for the life and witness of the Church. He seems, however, to have held to a 'hypothetical universalist' view of the atonement, rather than the 'definite atonement' view of full-blown Calvinism. 

Murray brings out the private trials and struggles of the public figure. A recently discovered memoir penned by Ryle for the benefit of his children has thrown new light on his early years. As a younger man, he was twice widowed and left in sole charge of small children. His time at Helmington was marked by tensions with the local bigwig who owned the living of the parish church he served. Throughout his long life he never really got over the shock and shame of his family losing everything when his father's bank collapsed. Although Ryle could be a combative figure, he felt himself lacking in social confidence. The 'man of granite' had his vulnerable side, which only served to make him a better pastor. 

Murray brings to the fore key aspects of Ryle's teachings and considers what we may learn from him today. Ryle was a keen believer in the Establishment principle and believed that nations should recognise God and his law. He would have preferred Spurgeon as a Baptist equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than no Established Protestant Church at all. I trust Ryle's Baptist contemporary would have demurred on the grounds of Baptist belief in the separation of Church and State. Ryle's position in the Church of England made him a somewhat conflicted character, especially when he became Bishop of Liverpool, His hopes of bringing together a mainstream bulwark against Anglo Catholicism and Liberalism were misplaced. The Church of England is no longer bound to uphold the Thirty Nine Articles that Ryle fought to maintain. His policy for recovering Anglicanism for the gospel didn't work and cannot realistically be used as a model for today's Evangelical Anglicans. 

Ryle was catholic spirited enough to transcend denominational boundaries and had more spiritual affinity with Liverpool Nonconformist leaders than many of the Anglican clergy over whom he presided as Bishop. His was a generous orthodoxy. Valiant for truth, but without ever becoming sectarian. That's why his writings have a timeless quality that has recommended them to a new generation of readers. Murray's biography helpfully brings out the man, the grace-touched soul, behind the impressive beard and many instructive books.

Venice, Rome and Ryle. So ends my summer hols reading roundup.