Monday, 30 May 2016


(This first appeared as an article in our church magazine, "The Grapevine")

We are good at encouraging others with an arm around the shoulder, or kind words, or a prayer. We will try to pick one another up when we feel down. We will seek to support one another in tough times, often trying to give one another something good to focus on instead of the difficult circumstances.

We need to keep doing that, but, I wonder if there’s a particular type of encouragement that we don’t do so well, or so often.

On my Sunday off I was worshipping in the church I grew up in. I got chance to catch up with a bunch of good friends. One lad in particular I had seen the day before too and we’d had a good chat about what he was up to at the moment. He's 10 years my junior and I've know him his whole life. At church he encouraged me in two particular ways.

First of all he was singing. That might sound strange but lads his age often shy away from singing, unless it's at a football match.
Secondly, he had a notebook with him for sermon notes. Again, not something all 20-somethings do, in fact, not something many people do full stop.  

I didn't get chance to speak to him personally about it on Sunday so I sent him a text on Monday morning saying pretty much what I just wrote above and encouraging him to keep going strong in the Lord.

I wanted him to know that his commitment to Lord was evident, that God was working in his life (as far as I could see), and that it was great to witness that.
I also wanted to be specific, not just generally saying I was encouraged by him. That might have made him feel good but to know what specifically encouraged me will challenge him to keep going.

That's the kind of thing we can all do, it’s simple and it’s quick, and yet it's something I rarely do. To my shame that’s the first time I think I have specifically encouraged someone like that for ages.

I'm not great at encouraging people, but I want to be better at it. I think I expect others will do it. But will they actually?

I did what I did because we all need more encouragement in our Christian faith and because seeing him doing those things brought me great joy.

I hope by God's grace to notice things like this more in people's lives and then to tell them that it is blessing to see God working in them.

We all need encouragement to keep going, to look to Jesus when times are tough, to persevere when hope seems lost.

We need to keep pointing one another to Jesus.

We are a family in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour and we need one another.

There's plenty of things in this world to discourage us, plenty of things that will bring us down.

In our lives we can often feel discouraged by sins we know we struggle with, and when we give in we can feel like we’ve gone backwards, we feel we are growing less holy rather than more so.

It is much easier for us to see spiritual growth in other people than it is to see it in ourselves. So let’s encourage one another.

Some of you might be thinking, “I don’t want to make them big headed by praising them.” Then my response is, make sure you tell them that you are thanking God or praising God for His work in their lives and praying that it will continue. That’s not inflating their ego, it’s delighting in God’s grace and spurring a brother or sister on.

Encouragement is a spiritual gift (Romans 12:8) and yet it is not always one we think about or seek after, if we seek after any at all.

Look at Barnabas, "son of encouragement" (Acts 4:36), who is willing to take a chance on Mark when Paul will not (Acts 15:36-39). They disagree sharply and part ways.

But look at the result; later in Paul's life Mark is of great value to him (2 Tim 4:11). Would that have been the case of Barnabas had not encouraged him?

Let's seek to encourage one another.

I’d love us to be a church full of encouragers like Barnabas. And I pray it starts with me.

Monday, 16 May 2016


(This is the edited transcript of the vision sermon preached at Hardwick Baptist Church on January 3rd 2016. It appeared in our church magazine in this format) 

As we begin a new year, we have a new motto verse. The aim is to give us some things to aim for as a church. A vision for what we could do in God’s strength.

Our focus will be on reaching the community that our church building is placed in. We are Hardwick Baptist Church. We are wonderfully situated thanks to the foresight of church leaders over 50 years ago.
If we don’t reach this estate for Christ, who will?

If we are going to reach it, we are going to need to prioritize our time and effort on this community.

In this article I will outline some ways we can do this.
Let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean you don’t seek to share the gospel with work colleagues, neighbours, family members or friends who aren’t Christians.

But, it does mean if we are serious about reaching the locality around our building it will take great commitment, change of routine, maybe even a house move.

The gospel calls us to radical sacrifice for the sake of others, because Jesus first made the most radical sacrifice to serve and save us.

Here’s the verse:
“Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” – 1 Thessalonians 2:8b (NIV)

We will think about this in two ways. First, how we love non-Christians, share the gospel with them and also our lives. Secondly, how we do that with one another as brothers and sister in Christ.

And we will do those two things under 3 headings that I have lifted straight from the verse.

Love People

It sounds simple doesn’t it? It sounds obvious too. When Jesus summarized the law into two great commandments, they both involved love. Love of God and love of people.

As Christians we are called to love all people, friends and enemies and anything in between.
But, our love for people must flow out of a love for God and the love that God has for us. That’s how we are able to love both friends and enemies.

It was Paul and the team’s love for the people in Thessalonica that flowed out in gospel proclamation and the sharing of their lives with them. He literally says that they were “affectionately desirous” of them.

When you love someone you will do anything for them. You want what is best for them. When you love someone there is a desire for deep relationship, for honesty, for openness, for everything to be a two-way street.

Love of a person or a group of people grows as you get to know them better. In some relationships, that will blossom and flourish quickly. We will naturally get on with some people in church better than others. But there is no option to only love some people in the Christian life. We are commanded to love all.

Love for unbelievers is similar. Some of us will find it easy to love the homeless, the asylum seekers and others who have nothing. We find it easy to have compassion for them, our hearts go out to them in their need.

Some of us will find it easier to love a group of people who have a shared interest with us. Some of us will find it easy to love the poor, others the wealthy, others the old, others the young and so on.

But equally, if we flip this thinking around, there will be some groups of people we each find it really hard to relate to, understand and love.

For some it will be the arrogant we struggle with. For others it will be the antagonistic atheist. Some will find it hard to love the gay man or woman who is unashamedly open about their sexuality because we are not sure how to approach them or explain our view point. But in each of these cases we are to love these people. All of them, without exception.

Those things are difficult, but that can easily become excuses not to try. We need to remember the way Christ has loved us, while we were still sinners; murderers, thieves, greedy, slanderers, selfish, proud and sexually immoral. He showed us grace. He was willing to die for us.

When we grasp this we will be able to show the same kind of love and grace to the people whose sins we find most abhorrent, to the people we really don’t get on with, to the people from completely different social and cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

Do you have a heart for a particular people? Is there a person or group of people you long to see saved? Are there friends whose spiritual growth you take great interest in? Take that and seek to grow it.

A love for people will manifest itself in 2 ways when it comes to evangelism and discipleship. We will share the gospel with them and we will share our lives too.
In order to do that we need to know the gospel.

Know the gospel

If I asked you to tell me the gospel I imagine you’d all give it a pretty good go. Some would be more long-winded than others, but in essence you’d probably all come up with something along the lines of:

The good news that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. If we trust in Him we can be saved from judgment and enjoy eternal life, knowing God now, and forever.

That would be a fair answer and a true one. There’s nothing false in it. You might want to add or change some of the wording but that’s basically it.

The question we need to ask is, do we know how to relate that gospel to the world around us? Do we know how to present that truth to our culture?
Do we also know how to apply the truths of the gospel to each other in every area of life?

Let’s think about the first element of that, presenting the gospel truth to unbelievers.

Would we just present the gospel in a standard way to all people? Or should we?
Let me show you what I mean using a couple of case studies.

·      A single mother of 4 who lives in a council house. Her eldest 2 kids are in school the others are under 3. She has very little to live off financially, wishing for a stable relationship. Between getting the older kids to school, taking the younger ones to play group and keeping the house relatively clean she has very little time or energy left for anything else.

·      An alcoholic man in his mid-40s. He spends most of his day in the working men’s club.

The greatest need for each of these people is forgiveness, to know Jesus as Saviour and Lord. That goes without saying.

But, that being taken for granted, which of their needs does the gospel meet and what is the way in to speaking about Jesus with each one. Do we just run up to them and give them our gospel definition we were thinking about earlier?

The single mother is looking for love. A bit like the woman at the well in John 4 she ahs sought satisfaction in a series of relationships and they haven’t worked out for whatever reason. She needs help, care and support, but where will she find it.

The Christian community is the perfect place for her to receive this. They can show love and model good relationships. Most of all they can speak of how relationship with Jesus is the one thing that truly satisfies. He can be trusted unlike others who have let her down.

The longing she feels and has tried to fill, comes from the fact we were built for relationship with God.

The alcoholic may have numerous reasons for the place he now finds himself. In the end it is an addiction and an escape from reality. The gospel says that the world is broken. It is messed up and hard to face, but Jesus knows that, He experienced loss, sorrow, betrayal, ridicule and has done something about it.

Jesus gives hope, even to someone like this alcoholic. Hope in this life and hope for eternity. Plus He gives the strength to change.

Secondly we need to think about how knowing the gospel well, and sharing it with one another, will help to build us up.

Do we truly believe that the gospel is the answer to out lives in every respect?
Do we know how it helps us to parent?
Do we know what is calls us to do in terms of looking after elderly parents?
Do we know how to support one another with the gospel when our boss at work unfairly singles us out for criticism because we are Christians?
Do we know how the gospel helps us to deal with mental illness?
Do we know how the gospel challenges what we watch on TV, read in books, look at on the internet?
Do we know how the gospel affects the companies we use and the clothes we buy?

These are the kinds of things we need to think about. We need to be ready to apply the gospel in this kind of detail in our own lives but also in the lives of others too.

Reading good Christian books will help us do this. So will spending more time in and out of each others homes which we will come onto in a minute.

No area of our lives should be off limits to the gospel of Jesus Christ. He is Lord over all, not just in a big picture way, but in every square inch of creation and every area of thinking and living.

Our final point is:

Willing to share our lives, our very selves

The previous two points have been hinting at this in their application already.

We can’t teach the gospel in a relationship vacuum.

The gospel isn’t just a message, it is a person, Jesus. God didn’t write it in the clouds, He sent His Son. He is the gospel.

We need to share our lives with people. We need to get to know people. That is how relationships work. That is how trust is built. That is how we are able to say the hard things and know they will be listened to and acted upon.

In this point I want to outline 3 things.
a)    How we build relationships with the estate
b)   How we get the gospel to a generation that does not come into church
c)     How we can deepen relationships so that we really know each other and can point out sin, so that we are all growing in Christ.

For some of us building relationships with people on the estate will be easier than others. Some of us live next door to them, our kids go to school in the same place, we see them at the shops, when we take the dog for a walk we pass them in the street.

Some of us get the chance to meet parents, guardians and grandparents when they pick up and drop off at Discovery and GA.

But for some, this will feel like an impossible task. You don’t live here, you are not able to help out at the youth work, and you’ve got no reason to come to Hardwick except for church services.

Here’s how I think we can overcome that.
How about going for a prayer walk before or after the church service morning or evening? You’ll get a feel for what it’s like and may even get the chance to chat to someone on the street.

Or why not pop into the shop to buy a paper or get some milk? You can build up some rapport with the shop-keepers.

Why not volunteer to do some reading in one of the primary schools? The teachers really appreciate it and the kids love it.

If you’re partial to a pint or a game of dominoes, why not go for a drink in the working men’s club once a week.

Use the local hair salon.

And whatever events we put on the reach the community in the coming year, be at them even if you’ve got no friends to bring.

Or finally, why not park a little but further away from church and walk. That way at least you are visible for a few hundred yards before you enter the building. You can pray for the houses you pass on the way too.

We can’t rely entirely on the work with young people and associated special church services to reach Hardwick. They are wonderful and God has most certainly used them and we pray He continues to do so. But they must be the starting point, not the sum total.

That leads to the second thing. How do you get the gospel to a biblically illiterate society? Jesus is merely a swear word on their lips and maybe a baby in a manger, but nothing more. They see church and the people in it are out of date and irrelevant. To them we have nothing to say that is of worth.

The way we start breaking that barrier down is by meeting people, being their friends, showing them that we are kind human beings facing the same struggles and joys in this world as they do but with one key difference, a real hope, a Saviour.

With this in mind I want to float some ideas that I want us to do as a church. We might not get them all done but I want us to give our best shot.

Monthly curry nights for men. We order curry from a takeaway or a restaurant and we publicize that fact. We invite friends, dads of DB and GA kids. It’s a chance to try curries, have a bit of camaraderie about who can eat the hottest one, build some relationships and then seek to invite them to look at the Bible 1to1, in a group or attend a course.

Monthly or quarterly ladies’ nights. We invite a local beauty salon to come and provide manicure, pedicures or facials. There’d be some food and maybe some entertainment. Lots of young mothers on the estate won’t get a night out to themselves. If we give the dates far enough in advance they can arrange babysitters.

A BBQ after the morning service, weather permitting. We could have some face painting, jewelry making and games for kids. In the service we get kids from GA and Discovery to take part.

It would be good if we could re-start a toddler group. It would help meet a need in the community and build relationships.

Build connections with the team that run Hardwick in Partnership to see if there are ways we can help with them.

Run a holiday club in the summer for a few days.

This might sound like mission impossible. But, I believe that if we are serious about reaching this estate it will take a huge effort. It will take self-sacrifice and all of us will need to pull in the same direction.

We will need to pray and rely upon our great God who can do immeasurable more than we can imagine.

We will have to prepare for the long haul. Barring revival there is no quick fix to reaching this generation and particularly those with no, or only negative, church experiences.

Finally, we need to share our lives with each other.
This is something as a church we are pretty good at, but we can be better. There are lots of calls, texts, emails and visits that go on each week.

Sharing lives with each other will mean popping in on one another when we drive passed. Delivering food to those on their own or who might find it difficult to cook for themselves on a regular basis. It will mean being in and out of each others homes, meals during the week and having a house full on a Sunday.

In many ways, this is one of the major advantages of home groups that we will be starting in March.

In a home group you have the capacity to gather together, study the Bible, apply the sermon form Sunday at a deeper and more personal level, you have the chance to ask honest questions and share struggles that Sunday morning isn’t the forum for.

You might get to discuss situations that have arisen since the Sunday morning.
A sermon on a Sunday is the primary source of teaching but even the best delivered and applied sermon can’t give detailed application to every individual. Home groups get much closer to that when done properly.

It enables the sharing of spiritual joys and struggles, the chance to pray together in a smaller group. It is more personal, more informal and a more relaxed atmosphere. I personally am more likely to express doubt, sin and struggle to a smaller group than in a large gathering.

Home groups, I hope and pray, will enable us to get to know one another better and grow spiritually together.

The concerns that have been raised with me as good ones. Ones I share. Particularly about cliques developing.

In conclusion, Because we loved you so much we were delighted not only to share the gospel of God with you but our lives as well, is a great summary for what I think we need to do in the year ahead.

Let’s plan and pray to that end, that we would develop relationships with this estate, share the gospel and our lives with them, and one another, so that Christ may be known and glorified.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Tradition and Change

(This first appeared as an article in our church magazine, "The Grapevine)

Since Nancy and I got married we have gone to my in-laws the weekend before Christmas for what we call ‘little Christmas’. Nancy’s parents said it would give us the chance to all get together without us having to plan to all be in the same place at Christmas or New Year. Nancy’s two brothers both have partners so there are multiple family commitments to juggle. It is now a lovely family tradition.

Last year was the first year at Nancy’s Mam and Dad’s new house. On little Christmas morning, Nancy was horrified to be told that there was no duck with morello cherry sauce for dinner! (This had been the mainstay of ‘proper’ Christmas day dinner in the Howell household for as long as could be remembered). A major tradition had changed! There was outrage! It’s a wonder Nancy didn’t have a heart attack.

All joking aside we had a great couple of days together despite Duck-gate and the point is that traditions are precious to us and for good reason. They bring enjoyment, a sense of belonging, organization where there might otherwise be chaos and so on.

But, the question we must ask ourselves is, are we in danger of allowing traditions to get in the way of positive and necessary change?

Some people just like change because it’s all shiny and new. Change for the sake of it is pointless, especially if the thing you’re changing is working perfectly well. On the other hand change that will make something better or replace something that is no longer fit for purpose is a good thing, no matter how long it has been a part of our lives or our church structure.

Often when a new pastor arrives in a church people expect change. A new person often has new ideas or preferred ways or working.

So far, nothing has been radically overhauled, and for good reason, nothing really needs a radical overhaul.

For example, I’d never seen or experienced anything like Discovery for Boys and Girls Adventurers. They are an unknown to me. I could have been looking for a way to make them into something I was much more familiar with.

But, each group is thriving numerically and we are pretty much at capacity in each one. To have almost 80 kids through the door each week is wonderful. It is a huge testimony to God’s goodness and grace, something we should be constantly thankful for.

As I mentioned in a sermon recently, we need to always be auditing what we do, seeking to tweak it make it as effective, efficient and excellent as we can. This is why we have suggested a major change to the midweek meetings from its current format to a home group set up. Not because the current Wednesday fellowship does not work at all, but because we think it could be better.

For some, home groups hold negative experiences. For others, it is an entirely new concept, so it is unknown and therefore a bit scary.
The reason we think they are the best way forward is because church members have expressed three desires for the midweek meeting, as well as the men’s and ladies’ prayer meetings.

Some people want lots of prayer, some want a longer Bible study and discussion, others want deep shared fellowship and support. These are exactly the things that home groups provide when they planned and lead well.

At New Year some people make resolutions, personally I don’t usually bother because they are out of the window within a week. Making them for the sake of it, without the heart to see them through, is no use.

It would be the same if we start home groups but give up on them after a couple of attempts. We need to go into them with an open mind, we need to commit to them and contribute to them. That way they will be the best they can be, a thriving, beating heart in the life of the church. They will be a place to:

·      Learn more of God, grow in love for Him and apply the truth of His word to our lives.
·      Pray more, not only for ourselves but the world around.
·      Develop deeper friendships where we can care for one another really well.

If after 6 months or a year they flat-line then we can hold our hands up and say we tried but it didn’t work and go back to the drawing board.

Traditions are wonderful, but change is sometimes better.