Friday, October 10, 2008


Dear friends,

Here's a little thing I wrote some time ago on this topic, for a church considering the regular practice of Staff Retreats:

1. Why go away on regular group retreats? In principle, because Jesus did (Luke 5:15-16), and encouraged his disciples to do the same (Mark 6:30-31). The first text suggests Jesus had sometimes something more important to do than the urgent tasks of teaching and healing (and leading). The second text has often been paraphrased 'Come apart and rest awhile; if you don't rest awhile you'll soon come apart.'

2. The primary purposes of a retreat for Christian leaders are to listen to God in silence and stillness, discernment of God's will ( )and to listen attentively to one another. Secondary purposes can include having fun (nothing wrong with that), and leadership skill/concept development.

3. The classic protocol surrounding our behaviour on such group retreats is that we do not invade the space and time with our special concerns about another person on the leadership team: those legitimate concerns are addressed in another time and place.

4. A by-product of a Staff Retreat, to use the hackneyed phrase, is 'team building'. In other words, our emphasis is not on the team-as-a-wheel - with all the spokes relating to the team leader - but rather the team-as-a-network, relating to one another.

5. We go away with an attitude of humility to 'let go'. Letting go, or the discipline of relinquishment, is absolutely essential if we are to be centred on God, and available to one another, rather than being focussed on our own concerns. In our Western individualistic world we are encouraged to be preoccupied with ourselves: my needs, my problems, my space, my desires, my problem with so-and-so. A retreat is outward-focussed, away from ourselves, in an attitude of self-forgetfulness rather than self-absorption.

6. Back to listening to God and to others: the spiritual masters talk about the Spiritual Discipline of 'not having the last word.' It's an essential discipline if we are to 'grow in grace'. It's about relinquishing control (resisting the devil), and submitting to God (James 4:7-8). It is all about being still and knowing that *God* is God.

7. How often? Probably, as a general rule, twice a year; alternating with private retreats - which can be solitary, or 'directed' by a spiritual companion.

Rowland Croucher

March 2005.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


I like that. It could become the mission statement of a the worship committee acting as curators of the worship space working on new approaches to doing worship. Someone in a book I read recently described his top 5 qualities of worship in a postmodern culture as authenticity, community, abandonment of dogma, focus on the arts, and diversity. To which I would add a sixth, participation. These are the six basics of worship that I am suggesting we need to move forward to.

Authenticity is the most important. It is also the most difficult to achieve. When a community gathers to worship there is a tremendous weight of history and expectation that comes into play. One person’s authenticity is seen by another person as a lack of self-control, or being overly emotional, or sloppy. At its heart, the call for authenticity is a call for honesty and integrity in what we are asked to do in worship and in the words that are said about God and about those who are at worship. Worship that is slick or superficial isn’t worship and doesn’t enable worship. Where is the lasting benefit and life changing power of worship that ignores or overrides the reality of how we’re encountering life? We debase ourselves when going to church is a segmented compartment of our being, unconnected to any other part of our living, and when we are unable to express our doubts and fears among those who profess to being sinners saved by grace.

Community flows out of authenticity. Being loving and accepting is easier when we realise we’re all in the same boat. As long as some people check their real life at the door as they come into church, community will remain elusive. Holding common beliefs isn’t enough. Being in the same place doing the same things doesn’t help much either. We have to know each other at some level as well. Authentic worship builds community.

Abandoning dogma isn’t a plea to give up on the basics of the faith. Rather it’s a reminder that good worship is more interested in connecting the grace and love of God with the real and tangible issues of life than with theoretical ones. If our corporate worship doesn’t address the realities of our lives it lacks authenticity and will not build community.

Focussing on the arts in worship is a plea for passion and creativity. A call to recognise a broader range of gifts in worship. And recognition that people learn in a variety of ways and through all five senses rather than just numbness in the backside. It doesn’t necessarily mean using a painting in place of a sermon (but it might).

Acceptance and encouragement of diversity in all its forms - ethnicity, age, background, intelligence, time on the journey, maturity, perspective, ability, etc- among the worshipping congregation can only strengthen the authenticity of the community at worship.

Participation almost seems to not need to be mentioned after what has been said above. Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t originally separated out; it flows from the other basics. But I want to emphasise it lest anyone think that authentic worship that builds community and reflects the reality of the people worshipping can be planned and led by one man. It can’t. Not even by one woman. Not even by one theologically educated and ordained person. Liturgy is the work of the people. Active involvement in shaping our worship week by week is a basic right of every follower of Christ. Our diversity will only be recognised by a diversity of leaders. We need to be willing to risk awkwardness and poor theology and embarrassment. After all, building a community of authentic worshippers is our aim. Isn’t it? Would this style of worship be so completely against the grain of what else is out there that it just might have something to say to those who are leaving the Church in droves, and even to those who are on spiritual journeys but have decided that the Church wouldn’t have anything worthwhile to offer?

I personally am anti excellence. I’m anti excellence in church life and I’m particularly anti excellence in worship. In fact I’m really not so much anti excellence as pro participation. I reckon participation is what church life should be about. Participation rather than performance. And a pursuit of excellence always, always, ends up being about performance. If excellence is a primary goal, then the weak, the timid, the depressed, the disabled, the unskilled, the sick, the introverted, overweight, the less attractive, the poor and the untalented aren’t going to get a look in. They’ll be relegated to being spectators for someone else’s worship performance. From this perspective excellence doesn’t look so good. How can a process and a value that excludes large sections of a worshipping community from active participation be anything but unchrist-like?

I am reminded of the passage in John when the woman taken in adultery is brought before Christ in an attempt to trap Him in order to have a basis for accusing Him. And Jesus bent down and wrote in the dirt. I have always thought of that as an eerie moment in the gospel narrative. It is the only record of Jesus ever writing anything. The first scurry of wind blew it away or perhaps he scuffed it out with his own sandal. Who knows?

The irony for me is that we who follow him have erected whole mountains of books over his simple teaching. We have at times created an exclusive faith beset by rules and decrees and incapable of expressing and extending the unconditional love of God.

So the watchword for the Worship Committee is Forward to Basics, keep it simple and inclusive and open to all.

(Presented to the church Jan and I attend - East Doncaster Baptist Church, in Melbourne - by Frank Fricke, chairman of our worship committee.)

- with gratitude and acknowledgement to Mark Pierson

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Saturday, May 24, 2008


There are three kinds of sinners – those who know they’re sinners and aren’t ready (yet) to change; those who don’t know they’re sinners, but believe all others not-like-them need to change; and those who know they’re sinners and want to change...

The way Jesus (who inhabited a fourth category – sinless) related to these three groups is instructive.

He befriended the first group (‘acceptance precedes repentance’) – much to the annoyance of the second group.

He challenged the second group (those who believed that ‘repentance precedes acceptance’); if they were intransigent, he sometimes advocated leaving them in their mess (eg. the pearls/swine metaphor).

He encouraged the third group towards spiritual growth and integrity – and modelled this in his own life.


What you see depends on where you stand. 'Christian' sinners come in two varieties, and for the sake of convenience I'll use two generic terms which might be misunderstood.

'Pharisees' are good people (in the worst sense of the word). They do not know they are in need of grace (despite their protestations to the contrary). They know what's/who's right, and despise heretics and the sort of riff-raff (especially sexual sinners) Jesus mixed with. Pharisees are still crucifying Jesus, but don't know it.

'Saints' are sinners who are ready to admit to being such, and who know their need of grace (they are not - yet - perfect). Although 'saint' is not used in the singular in the Bible - Pharisees are quick to point that out, though they employ plenty of other concepts, like 'Sunday School', which are also not in the Bible - the term has been employed by evangelicals - like the great Methodist Dr. W.E.Sangster - to denote people on the road to holiness. (So forget medieval stained- glass ideas about these people).

Pharisees think they've 'arrived' - they know it all. They believe almost precisely what their 'respected' Bible teachers taught them. They have nothing whatever to learn from those not-like-them. They're 'Word/Bible'-centred.

Saints know they haven't and don't. They are maturing, growing, in faith hope love and knowledge. They discover God's truth and God's will in all sorts of unlikely places. They're 'Word/Christ'-centred.

An easy way to pick a modern Pharisee: they emphasize 'truth' over love. Their creeds and systematic theologies have it all nailed down.

An easy way to pick someone who wants to be a saint: they emphasize love over (anyone's incomplete definition of) 'truth'.

Pharisees never - or hardly ever - preach about social justice. Jesus condemned them for this - see Matthew 23:23, Luke 11:42: those statements affirm that Justice and Love are the two key emphases of Jesus.

When saints read Jesus' diatribes against the Pharisees their first questions are: 'What is social justice?' 'How can I be faithful to these emphases of Jesus, which the Pharisees have neglected?'

You'll hardly ever hear a Pharisee apologize for being wrong. They can't be wrong - they're too insecure to admit they're ever wrong. Their gut-instinct is to justify themselves (Luke 18:9) and pour scorn over anyone who might teach them something different/new.

The saint's prayer is constantly 'Lord be merciful to me, a sinner!' (Luke 18:9ff). And regarding 'truth' they believe that 'God has yet more light and truth to break forth from His Holy Word'.

So: Pharisees have a pathological need to be 'right'.

Saints want desperately to be 'holy' - to be more like Jesus.

Now these are provocative generalizations, to get us thinking/praying (humbly).

But let's remember, the Pharisees aren't all bad, and the saints aren't all good. It's what they're doing about their badness/goodness that's important.


Here are some stanzas from Faber's great hymn 'There's a Wideness in God's Mercy' which Pharisees don't like. Figure out why...

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,

Like the wideness of the sea;

There’s a kindness in His justice,

Which is more than liberty.

There is no place where earth’s sorrows

Are more felt than up in heaven;

There is no place where earth’s failings

Have such kindly judgment given.

There is welcome for the sinner,

And more graces for the good;

There is mercy with the Savior;

There is healing in His blood.

There is grace enough for thousands

Of new worlds as great as this;

There is room for fresh creations

In that upper home of bliss.

For the love of God is broader

Than the measure of our mind;

And the heart of the Eternal

Is most wonderfully kind.

It is God: His love looks mighty,

But is mightier than it seems;

’Tis our Father: and His fondness

Goes far out beyond our dreams.

But we make His love too narrow

By false limits of our own;

And we magnify His strictness

With a zeal He will not own.


More on the various types of sinners: Antinomians – those ‘against the law’ – are sinners who do not want to change; Pharisees do not know they’re sinners – and also do not want to change; Saints know they’re sinners and do want to change. I see vestiges of all three attitudes in myself...

Remember saints are not proud of what they’ve ‘achieved’ – they are/have nothing not already given. Pharisees tend towards hubris: their cleverness (they think) is mainly of their own making...

Saints sincerely believe ‘God hasn’t finished with me yet’. Pharisees are stuck where they were: they find it difficult to say (of an idea, for example): ‘Hey, that’s interesting... I must do more thinking about that. Maybe God is in this new thought.’
Christian Pharisees mainly preach from Paul (an ex-Pharisee) – and resonate with his judgmental passages. Saints tend to centre on the parables of Jesus, and especially the Sermon on the Mount: so the epistle of James, our Lord’s brother, who exposed Judaistic legalism, is their favourite. They love this: ‘The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable , gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And the harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace’ (James 3:17,18).

Saints earth their missional imperative in Jesus’ mandate in Luke 4:18-19 (mission is compassion and justice, and more than words). Pharisees prefer Matthew 28:18-20 (authority, go, teach, baptize): they are polemical, adversarial (I’m here to change your thinking/behaving).

Pharisees are conformists: and desperately need others to be/believe like them. (Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge suggests that the source of our convictions lies more in social pressures than in independent thinking about the pros and cons of an idea. Peter Berger - Invitation to Sociology - writes about our being a prisoner or a puppet in the society which controls our behaviour, attitudes and faith).

(I haven’t been able to read the responses to these little homilies, but if anyone reacts totally negatively, they are declaring themselves: like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, they will avoid the central issues and attack the person – as an idiot, ignorant, ‘of the devil’ etc. ). The saint’s reflex question is ‘Lord is it I?’ believing that God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his Word. Pharisees prefer point-scoring.

Only one thing is important: to be a saint.

More – much more – to come...

Rowland Croucher

Monday, April 14, 2008


Back in the 1970s a book called Clergy, Ministers & Priests by sociologists Stewart Ranson, Alan Bryman, and Bob Hinings was published in the U.K.

They questioned a sample of Anglican clergy, Methodist ministers and Catholic priests in three C of E dioceses, three Methodist districts, and three R C dioceses. These church leaders spoke about their role-confusion, but generally placed pastoral work well ahead of all other activities, followed by celebrating the sacraments and preaching. Counseling and leadership had a fairly low rating, while there was a marked distaste for administration. Methodist ministers tended to place more emphasis on preaching; the Roman Catholic priests gave primary emphasis to their office as celebrant...

Now what does all that tell you? Is there a correlation between these findings and the drastic statistical decline of the Methodist and Anglican communions in particular?

Let me give you one clue: the pastor's key role is leadership: giving away ministry to the church; training others for ministry. Such an emphasis would, frankly, not be offered by mainline clergy. Another: where priests emphasize the centrality of the sacraments/Eucharist/communion, there is a concomitant de-emphasis on preaching. What does that tell you?

More to come... See here for 1,000 more articles on these themes...

Rowland Croucher