Gen Z: What Now… And Where Do We Go From Here?


If there was a prize for the number of key people you’ve influenced before you are 18, Greta Thunberg would probably be a strong contender. She has had an extraordinary time in the last year, speaking at major conferences, going to key places, and meeting so many important world leaders. It’s sometimes hard to remember she will only be 18 later on in 2020. She is part of the Gen Z generation.

The large numbers of people born after the end of the Second World War, especially in the US and the UK, caused the phrase ‘baby boomer’ to be popular for a while, quickly shortened to just ‘boomer,’ and usually taken for simplicity as those born between 1945 and 1963. Those coming afterwards were far fewer in number; they ‘stopped the boom’, or ‘busted’ it, and so for a while were called the ‘baby busters’. This is a disparaging title, however, and when Douglas Coupland published his book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture in 1991 his phrase instantly stuck and they became ‘Gen X’ (born 1964 to 1982) from then on.

The children of Gen X could naturally be called Gen Y and they were for some time, and their grandchildren Gen Z, but with the Gen Y cohort being those born between 1983 and 2001, around the time of the dawn of the new millennium, the term ‘millennials’ became fashionable and has stuck ever since. Different people give slightly different years of birth for each cohort, but the years for Gen Z are here taken as 2002 to 2020: that is, they are all 21st century!

They weren’t born when 9/11 happened; only a few were born when Concorde was mothballed in 2003 and someone born in 2005 was only 11 when the Brexit Referendum took place! In 2005, 39% of the churches in England had no-one attending under the age of 11, and 49% had no-one between 11 and 14, so the number of Gen Z children in church is alarmingly few.

The latest large-scale count of numbers of children at church was the 2016 Scottish Church Census where, as an overall percentage, rather more go to church than in England (nationally 6.4% across all ages in 2020 compared with 4.9%). The Scottish Census, however, broke down the numbers of children under 16 attending church into three age groups. It showed there was very little difference between boys and girls but a quarter, 27%, of all children in church were under five, half, 52%, were between five and 11, and the remaining group, a fifth, 21%, were between 12 and 15. Collectively they were 15% of all Scottish churchgoers in 2016. In England the percentage in 2020 is estimated at 16%.

When do people start to attend and start to leave church?

A 1994 survey, ‘Finding Faith’, asked current churchgoers at what age they had started coming to church. 72% said before they were 15. Some of these had stopped going to church, but at the time of the survey had returned. Of those who had stopped going to church, 2% had done so when aged between six and ten and 16% when aged 11 to 15. When did those now at church first experience a personal faith? Half, 51%, before they were 15. These results are similar to other surveys asking similar questions in years before 1994.

The peak age for leaving church was between 16 and 20, when 42% had done so. The average length of time ‘out of church’ was ten years, but for those who had stopped before they were 15 it was longer, some 16 years.

The results of these studies are seriously challenging. What caused young people and those in their 30s to actually find faith? The 1994 survey asked this as well, and the results by age of commitment to Christ are as follows:

For teenagers the positive factors were: Church attendance (86%); Reading the Bible (68%); Friends (60%); Worship experience (55%); Church activity (34%). The negative factors for teenagers were: Content with no faith (39%).

For those aged 26-40 the positive factors were: Reading the Bible (74%); Experience of homegroup (66%); Reading a book other than the Bible (49%); A particular life event (34%). The negative factors were: Christian integrity (36%); Not knowing how to pray (33%). (Note that churchgoing was not in the list for the older age group!)

A further survey along these lines for Gen Z and their parents would be invaluable in clarifying these trends for the new decade. Almost certainly the results today would be somewhat different, although friends, worship experience and Christian activities would still play a strong part. A recent Barna survey showed the huge importance of mothers encouraging churchgoing, and Christian grandparents also. Christian mothers also talk about the Bible (more than fathers), and especially about God’s forgiveness (as do grandparents). Somewhere into this mix social media would also feature.

Peter Brierley

Dr Peter Brierley can be contacted on peter@brierley res.com or via http://www.brierleyconsultancy.com.

Women: Sex-Specific Persecution


A report issued in March on the top 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian examined the various ways in which men and women experience different persecution.

Quoted by 84% of respondents, the two most-reported persecutions used against Christian women and girls globally are sexual violence and forced marriage.

Across every region of the world, sexual violence continues to be the most prevalent means of exerting power and control over Christian women, as well as being a form of punishment. Often sexual violence is outside marriage, but sometimes a woman is forced into an unwelcome marriage, at times even with the perpetrator himself. In such a case it is used intentionally to dishonour the Christian woman and, consequently, her family and community.

Sexual violence leaves persecuted Christian women in ‘living death’, hidden and isolated, especially if they are converts from another faith.

Although physically alive, these women are hidden and isolated; hence their suffering is frequently unreported. They are also lost to the Christian community and to the future of the church.

Informing the church

Open Doors’ Director for Women, Helene Fisher, said: ‘When women and girls are sexually assaulted they endure untold mental and physical abuse, while also sometimes trapped in “marriages” against their will. Even if they can escape the terrors of this fate, a devastating stigma and rejection will follow them for the rest of their lives. This shame is meant to leave these women alive but with no future. Sadly, even in Christian communities, rejection is practiced out of shame and a lack of knowledge. No future for them also means they won’t be part of a future family within their religious community.’

Without an awareness of sex-specific forms of religious persecution, these methods of undermining the church are often overlooked. A lack of awareness is directly related to inaction and effective solutions. When not recognised as persecution, these incidents are processed as ‘normal’ within their relevant cultural context – leaving the church vulnerable.

Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK said: ‘We need to teach a truly biblical understanding of the dignity and inherent worth of all humans – men, women and children. This prevents persecutors from dividing, and therefore weakening, communities through these attacks.’

The report said that churches can play a strong role in bringing healing in the most difficult circumstances; programmes can teach leaders and members how to restore women and communities after these tragedies.

Train one, impact thousands

Youth leader Tigist mentors teenagers at her local church in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. They look for truth, meaning, and real hope in the midst of the troubled world they’ve grown up in. Because of her training under Langham Scholar Dr Seble Daniel at the Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology, Tigist can now help her teens find answers to their questions in God’s word.

For Tigist, the mentoring she’s had has made all the difference. She said: ‘Investing in theological leaders [like Seble Daniel] … changes the face of the church … It’s like when you put lights on in a dark room, you can see where the wrong things are, where the messy things are … studying with Seble helps me to understand the word of God and how to deal with issues.’

Dr Daniel’s leadership continues to influence an area where educated women are the exception, not the norm. With the platform her PhD provides, Seble pours her life into building up more leaders who will impact their communities.

Now a passionate and confident mentor, Tigist has seen her youth ministry grow from 20 teenagers to 70. In addition, Tigist serves as director of Alpha Ethiopia, part of a widely-known global organisation that connects people to the basics of Christianity.

‘What I learn helps me to provide a proper [biblical] meal for the young people. I see their lives transformed in their thinking, and in their faith and belief in Jesus. It’s not just ‘I believe in Jesus,’ but they know who Jesus is.’

‘In our community, it’s really tough being a woman and being an educated woman,’ Tigist explains.

Tigist is mentoring these young women and girls so that they know their worth and potential – and it’s transforming lives.

World Watch Monitor / Langham Partnership

View on e-n.org.uk

Leaders Don’t say ‘sorry’?


Recently there have been situations in church leaderships of which I am aware, that have made me cringe to the roots of my boots.

There are elders who have fallen out with each other and won’t be reconciled. There are elders who have sidelined other leaders. There are leadership teams that have truly blundered in showing partiality to their friends. Others have ridden roughshod over procedures laid down in the church constitution, but would rather bluff their way through than own up to making a mistake. All this can put the very unity of a congregation in jeopardy. But on they go. ‘Sorry seems to be the hardest word,’ sang that great theologian (?) Elton John.

Why?

Why is it that church leaders find it so difficult to put up their hands and to say ‘Sorry – we got it wrong?’

After all, Scripture shows us plenty of God’s people who are leaders, who mess up and have to repent. Abraham, the very father of the Jewish people, gets it wrong about Hagar but was at least prepared to eat humble pie before his wife Sarai (Gen. 16:6).

Moses, marked by his humility, was not at all quick to defend himself when he was accused (even falsely) – he let the Lord do that (Num. 12:3, 8). And sometimes, in the heat of the moment, he did get it wrong (Deut. 32:51).

The apostle Paul publicly apologised when he had reacted badly to Ananias the high priest (Acts 23:5). The Gospels seem to go out of their way to show the serious gaffs of the disciples, later leaders of the church. They are vying for position (Luke 22:24) having to be rebuked by Jesus (Mark 8:33) and, finally, to a man proving themselves cowards (Matthew 26:56).

With such a biblical library of leadership failure, why, for so many leadership teams, is ‘how can we cover our backsides?’ the first thing on the agenda? Why are so many preachers unable to accept even constructive criticism of their ministry?

Motives

The first motive may be a worry that if they are seen to get too many things wrong perhaps they are not very good leaders. No one likes ‘could do better’ on their school report. They think admission of failure might discourage the church. However, the answer is not to indulge in ‘white lies’, but to pull their socks up and do better.

But the bottom-line motive for the ‘spin doctors’ of leadership, of course, will be old-fashioned pride. Having to admit to failure hurts. This is very dangerous. It was pride which transmogrified God’s servant, a glorious angel, into the prince of demons (1 Tim. 3:6).

Trust

The vital ingredient for all good leadership is to deserve the trust of the congregation. The church has appointed you because they believe they can trust you. If they trust you as leaders then they will be willing to be led. But to insist you have got it right, when it’s quite clear you have got it wrong, is to destroy that trust. (It’s even worse if the whole truth has been covered up and only comes out later. God’s people will then feel they have been deceived – and how can they trust you then?)

But on the other hand if leaders humbly acknowledge when they have made a mistake, in the long run that will mark them out as honest men. They are not perfect (who is?) but they are straight in their dealings.

Here’s a thought: although He is right in all He does, never has to say sorry and is unchanging, nevertheless God Himself is prepared to use the language of changing His mind and ‘repentance’ (Gen. 6:6, 7; Jonah 3:10). But for some leaders, God’s language is beyond them.

James 3 speaks much to leaders. It talks about two kinds of wisdom – one from hell and one from heaven. The ‘wisdom’ from below (v.14) denies the truth. The wisdom from above (v.17) is ‘considerate, impartial, submissive’ – ‘easy to be entreated’ (AV); ‘open to reason’ (ESV).

It is the sign of wise leaders to say ‘sorry’ when they need to.

John Benton

John Benton is en’s former Managing Editor and Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, www.pastorsacademy.org

Speaking up for Zoe


Abortion statistics for the UK are eye-watering and outrageous. There are about 220,000 abortions per year. That is 25 every hour, of every day. At least one baby will have been murdered in the time taken to read this short review.

But sometimes the statistics are not enough to capture our hearts. If I Could Speak by Mark Jones imagines a series of letters from a female baby in the womb, roughly 20 weeks old, self-named Zoe, whose parents are considering an abortion.

She writes about her development from the fertilised egg, becoming the size of a poppy seed after four weeks, to having a beating heart at five weeks and, through the development stages, acquiring a nose, mouth, heart, lungs, brain and senses, until at 19 weeks this baby – now the size of a peach – can hear the voice of her mother. The text moves between the scientific and the emotional; Zoe imagines how life might be if she is allowed to live and questions her parents’ plan to abort her.

Accountable and responsible

To her mother she writes:

‘Am I an unwanted guest who arrived because of decisions you and my dad made? I don’t want to make you feel too guilty, but I do want to know why two rational, consenting adults can make a decision (for immediate enjoyment purposes) but also question whether they should be accountable for the possible effects of their actions… Do you not think it reasonable for me to simply ask you and Daddy whether you are both prepared to be responsible for putting me here in your belly?’

To her father she writes:

‘Many fathers, I am told, don’t always want the child they are responsible for. They wanted and enjoyed the sex that brings about children, but for some reason they think it is okay to pursue pleasure but not responsibility. A child wondrously emerges, yet we are merely viewed as a glob of cells without any real identity. Such a view helps many fathers avoid taking responsibility for their actions.’

Disturbing and moving

The letter entitled ‘I’m scared’ is the most disturbing, as Zoe anticipates in graphic detail the brutality of a surgical abortion. She writes that they will ‘insert instruments to dismember me and extract me from your uterus … the trickiest part of the abortion is finding, grasping and crushing my head … I will fight. But as a helpless, dependent baby I don’t stand much of a chance.’ She likens her fate to prisoners at a Nazi death camp. It is gut-wrenching reality.

Zoe’s final letter centres on forgiveness – even though her parents make the decision to kill her in the womb. The last chapter of all is a letter, not from the baby, but from the mother, and you will have to read the book yourself to see what she has to say. This is undoubtedly a deeply moving book. Giving Zoe a ‘voice’ works well; she is thus enabled to lead the reader through the scientific, moral and emotional arguments for her right to life.

The book ends with gospel hope – even for those who have been involved in abortion. If there was a criticism, I think it would be that the chapter on forgiveness, including a discussion on moral relativism, is quite complicated. I would also have appreciated some clearer challenge and comfort to those directly affected by the subject matter.

The book is well-produced and laid out with beautiful pictures to keep you turning its 69 pages. While it is not an easy read, it is a good one and I would warmly recommend it.

Graham Nicholls

Graham Nicholls, Director of Affinity and one of the Pastors of Christ Church Haywards Heath.

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for February 2020. The whole edition can be found at http://www.affinity.org.uk)

As fear goes viral…


‘If you think you’re too small to make a difference, you’ve never spent a sleepless night with a single mosquito.’ So runs a saying we learned while living in India. Tiny things punch way above their weight. And a virus is a lot smaller than a mosquito.

In fact, viruses are among the smallest life forms on our planet. Somewhere between 20–400 nanometres, 100 times smaller than bacteria, and too small to see even with a normal microscope. You’ll need an electron microscope to spot a coronavirus, or Covid-19, as we must now call it, like somebody out of Star Wars. But what an impact that infinitesimally small organism has made!

In the space of a few weeks – and with our help of course – it has circled the globe, shut down whole cities and humbled whole countries. Economies are stalling, stocks falling, businesses struggling, travel disrupted, sports events cancelled, many lives lost and many more put on hold, holidays ending in virtual imprisonment… the list goes on. It really is staggering that something so tiny can have such devastatingly vast consequences.

Proverbs 30:24-28 notices that size is no indicator of importance or impact:

‘Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces.’

I wonder what the writer might have said if he’d known about viruses. ‘A virus cannot be seen, yet it can bring the world to a halt?’

Isaiah 40:15-17, 23-24 reflects more pointedly on just how fragile are all human power, glory, wealth, skills and abilities – when it comes to the crunch. In comparison with the enduring strength of the Creator God, even the greatest nations on earth can crumble before a virus and their leaders be reduced to impotent embarrassment – if not swept away altogether in the end (who knows?).

Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are considered as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. … Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are considered by him as worthless and less than nothing …

He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

Our first question might be, why do viruses exist at all in God’s good creation? Not to mention all the other little nasties that do us such harm? And I cannot give a clear biblical answer to that. Of course, we know that we live in a world that is not as God intended it to be, as a result of our sin and God’s curse. Creation itself suffers and is subject to frustration, and we suffer within it, not immune to all the ways that death invades and threatens life, as God told us it would.

Judgement?

Might it then be God’s judgement? I think we can never make simplistic assertions like that, or we may be joining Job’s friends in mistakenly dumping pious-sounding theology on top of people’s ‘innocent’ suffering. But it is certainly a warning. As Jesus pointed out to those who wondered if people who had been killed in some building accident were worse sinners than others. Not at all, said Jesus, but it is a warning that all of us stand very close to perishing and need to be in a right relationship with God through repentance and faith (Luke 13:1-5). Life is so fragile. A virus. A microbe. An unwashed hand. An innocent close encounter with an infected friend who doesn’t even know it – and sickness or death kicks down the door. So what do we learn from this global crisis?

Folly

First, the devastating results of human folly. Being careful, again, not to point fingers of judgement, there does seem something prima facie unwise about the practices of Chinese ‘wet markets’, with living and dead animals of many wild and domestic species mixed up together with raw meat and fish. Many warnings have been made about the potential for zoonotic diseases to transfer from animals to humans in such conditions, but the practice goes on. Though the clean/unclean food rules in Leviticus had theological rationale, there was some divine hygienic wisdom in avoiding dead flesh of wild creatures coming in contact with human hands, clothes and vessels, and the insistence on ritual washings if it did happen (Lev. 11). God knew about viruses rather a long time before we did.

And then, the notorious and momentous folly of the treatment of Dr Li Wen Liang who first spotted the strange new virus in Wuhan and warned colleagues, but was threatened and silenced by the authorities, instead of being heeded – and then tragically died himself through serving infected patients.

Fear

Secondly, it is extraordinary what levels of fear this tiny organism has generated. Not that we shouldn’t be properly afraid of anything that brings sickness and potentially death. But so far the percentage of mortality to infection rate seems to be within single figures. That is no comfort, of course, to the very elderly or people already in poor health. But the majority of us, it seems at present, if infected are likely to recover. This is not the Black Death. Nor even one of the more lethal ‘flu’ outbreaks of previous years. And yet global fear has exploded, causing as much collateral damage as the virus itself. At such a time, it is good for Christians to recall that ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind’ (2 Tim. 1:7, NKJV).

Hatred and stigma

Thirdly and tragically, as so often, a crisis like this brings out the worst (as well as sometimes the best) in human beings. I’d not heard the word ‘Sinophobia’ before, but apparently it really is a thing, and well documented – ‘hatred and fear of the Chinese’. Like anti-Semitism, it has no rational basis, but is extremely ugly. Chinese (and other east Asian peoples) have been vilified, spat on in the streets, verbally abused as ‘viruses’, cruelly ostracised – and reports of such behaviour can be found all over the world. The all-too-visible virus of human inhumanity to one another is as endemic – more virulent and destructive indeed – than the viruses too small for the eye to see. And just as ancient. It was before the Flood, and the reason for it, that ‘the Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time’ (Gen. 6:5). I doubt if God observes anything different thousands of years later.

So what should we do?

By the time you read this in late April, things may have changed dramatically, one way or another. But obviously, we should take all the reasonable precautions that the medical authorities impress upon us.

And equally obviously, we must pray. We pray for those already suffering the illness, or bereaved by it. We pray for protection for ourselves and our loved ones, trusting in God’s sovereign goodness while knowing our eternal salvation is not the same as earthly immunity from the common woes of humankind. We pray for the medical and political authorities, for success in the race to develop a vaccine, and for greater wisdom in practical response to such things. We pray for a far greater cultural humility, that will replace our arrogant hubris with a healthy dose of realism about our human capacity to ‘subdue the earth’ – when the earth itself fights back against our human follies, whether through rogue viruses or climatic chaos.

And above all, we persevere in faith and hope in the overruling sovereignty of God – the Lord of creation and ruler of the nations, the God of Psalm 46. ‘God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear…’

Chris Wright

Chris Wright is International Ministries Director of Langham Partnership

Good Friday


Jesus’ third ‘word’ from the cross recorded by Luke is ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Luke 23: 46), following which He ‘breathed His last’. For Luke, this is not only Jesus’ final word from the cross; it is also the last clue he gives us to the inner significance of what is happening at The Skull.

On the road to Jerusalem we have eavesdropped on many of Jesus’ encounters with others. But only one of them parallels this moment. Here we have the consummation of what took place in Gethsemane. Here – as there – it is His own Father whom Jesus ‘encounters’. While He refers to Him frequently in this Gospel, there are only three places where He addresses Him directly (Luke 10:21-22; 22:42 and 23:46).

In Gethsemane our Lord’s human will had struggled to submit to the will of His Father – for His holy soul necessarily shrank from the implications of drinking the cup the Father was giving Him. There He was being asked to be willing to do what He could not desire to do – namely, to drink the cup of the wrath of God and experience the terrible sense of abandonment that would result. But here the same holy Saviour is confidently committing His spirit into His Father’s care.

What has happened? What has changed between the desperate plea in Gethsemane and this confident declaration at The Skull? Luke gives us two clues:

Clue 1: In the Roman Empire the day began at 6.00am. It was now ‘about the sixth hour’, noon – the time of day when the sun was ordinarily at its zenith. But not that day. For the next three hours the land was shrouded in darkness. Luke records this as a fact, but there can be no doubt that he also sees it as a sign – an event with deep significance. The heavens became opaque and impenetrable. For a brief season, creation itself seemed to be thrown into reverse gear and God said: Let there not be light (in contrast to Genesis 1:3). His face no longer shone on the earth. More to the point, the Aaronic benediction (‘The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face to shine upon you … the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace’, Num.6:24-26) had ceased to function. Jesus’ experience was the reverse of that of David, who was able to say: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death … you are with me’ (Ps. 23:4). Nature itself put on the dark clothes of mourning as Christ the Creator was put to death by sinful men, and on the cross came under the curse of God (Gal. 3:13).

Clue 2: Luke records another event. The massive curtain of the temple was torn in two (Luke 23:45). Rending a garment was a sign of grief, of death and of mourning. Was God rending his ‘temple garments’ at the death of His beloved Son? Perhaps. But more than that, He was deconsecrating the Jerusalem temple. The temple curtain was now no longer the barrier between God and man. Not only the temple veil but the flesh of Christ had been torn to create the new and living way into His presence (Heb. 10:20).

Jesus’ work was completed; so now He called out ‘with a loud voice’ of triumph and joy: ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ (Luke 23:46). Was He still meditating on the Psalms? If so, he was now well past Psalm 22:1 (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’) and had reached Psalm 31:5 (‘Into your hand I commit my spirit’). But more than that, He was now calling God ‘Father’ again. Luke adds simply: ‘And having said this He breathed his last’.

Jesus’ obedience to His Father, and His suffering, had a passive dimension; He was crucified by the hands of wicked and cruel men. But He had also been actively obedient: ‘obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ (Phil. 2:8). His work was finished now. It was time to go home to the Father. He breathed a sigh of relief and committed himself into His hands.

At the foot of the cross, the soldiers in His execution squad did not notice that Jesus had died (John 19:33)—they had been too interested in casting lots to see who would win His clothes, and joining in the general abuse of Him, to care about what He said. But not so the centurion who commanded them. He observed what had happened and said: ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’ And his response? ‘He praised God’ (v.47).

So should we.

My song is love unknown, my Saviour’s love to me; Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. Oh who am I, that for my sake My Lord should take frail flesh and die?

He came from His blest throne salvation to bestow, But men made strange, and none the longed-for Christ would know: But oh, my Friend, my Friend indeed, Who at my need His life did spend. Sometimes they strew His way, and His sweet praises sing, Resounding all the day Hosannas to their King: Then ‘Crucify!’ is all their breath, And for His death they thirst and cry. They rise and needs will have my dear Lord made away;

A murderer they save, the Prince of life they slay. Yet faithful He to suffering goes, That He His foes from thence might free. In life no house, no home, my Lord on earth might have; In death no friendly tomb but what a stranger gave. What may I say? Heav’n was His home, But mine the tomb wherein He lay. Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine; Never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine. This is my Friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend. (Samuel Crossman, 1624–1683, alt.)

Sinclair Ferguson

This article is an extract from To Seek and To Save by Sinclair B. Ferguson, recently published by The Good Book Company.

Subverting Success


‘I’m aiming to be successful.’ It’s a phrase I’ve heard in conversation countless times.

From the student seeking good grades, to the individual pursuing promotion, or the young mum launching a new midweek group, to the team member setting out on the new church plant, people want success. And understandably so. No-one sets out on a venture determined to fail. No-one aspires to be that person who ‘does mediocrity well’.

The trouble is, when we are aiming to be ‘successful’ we often focus primarily on the end goal: the grades, the appointment, the efficacy of the event, or the growth (numerical and spiritual) in our church. Our definition of success has its locus in progress not process – we focus far more on the measurables than the methods we employ.

Such thinking fits nicely with our cultural norms – how many celebrity indiscretions or back-room business deals are brushed under the carpet in the wake of someone’s meteoric rise – but there are dangers for all who buy in to its seductive lies. We all know, in theory, that the ends don’t justify the means, but … a little compromise here and there? Well, no-one is really going to mind. No-one is going to get hurt. Are they?

Humble progress

The apostle Paul was arguably one of the most effective evangelists the church has ever known. And, when writing to the Philippian church (one of the least criticised congregations in the New Testament canon), he was certainly keen for them to keep being effective for the gospel – he commended their partnership (1:4-5) and heartened them to give more (4:17), encouraged their spiritual growth (1:9-11) and urged them to contend for the faith (3:2). Paul was a man who wanted to see progress, of that there is no doubt. But what was going to make his joy complete (2:2)? Nothing that’s reminiscent of success in the 21st-century West.

For him, a successful church was a humble church. His reasoning, penned from prison, is simple – if we follow a Saviour who was willing to give up everything for us, then we need to be willing to give up everything for Him. Paul himself had already set aside status, reputation, popularity, comfort, ease, and even freedom – and in doing so had experienced opportunities that surpassed anything anyone could have planned (1:13-15). Now it was the turn of the church.

Humble process

They, like us, were called to rid themselves of any ambition that has ‘I’ at the centre (2:3), to consistently put the needs of others before themselves (2:4) and to do so without grumbling or arguing (2:14), whilst letting their gentleness be evident to all (4:5). Doesn’t sound very ‘successful’, does it? But Paul goes on to explain that this working out of their salvation, wholly reliant on the sovereignty of God (2:2:12-13), is what will enable them to ‘shine among [a warped and crooked generation] like stars in the sky’ (2:15-16). Just as success for Jesus came via the path of making himself a servant (2:7), so their – and our – path of success is to lower ourselves and seek the glory of God alone.

It should be noted this is not pretending to be humble. Nor is it self-hatred – we are loved children of the living God and can rejoice in his abundant blessings. It is, rather, the call to be so bowled over by the goodness and gloriousness of our sacrificial Saviour that we want to see His name lifted high and be content to be utterly forgettable ourselves. It is a call to character, not competition. One that results in the successful student being known for trusting God with their future, the successful professional exhibiting contentment whether the promotion comes or not – the successful church team exuding the fruit of the Spirit in abundance.

Easy? No. Not for any of us. Our old selves consistently drag us towards the world’s measures of success. We want to be known for progress, not the humility we display in the process of life day-by-day. But the call is there. Our hope? Simply this: ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit’ (4:23).

Helen Thorne

More about Biblical Counselling UK is available at www.biblicalcounselling.org.uk or you can contact them at info@biblicalcounselling.org.uk or c/o Christ Church, Christchurch Street, Cambridge CB1 1HT