Miracle in Ghana

IMG_1499 We know that God often takes the metaphorical loaves and fishes and produces miracles – the last few days I have witnessed one. A Pastor called James McKeown left the UK in the 1950’s and headed to the warmer climate of Ghana. There wasn’t a welcome committee for him or an established church for him to lead – he was arriving as a pioneer missionary, starting with virtually nothing. There was no trip advisor, google maps, skype or any other gadgets that we’re accustomed to using on our travels today – but there was the very same passion that I see motivate many modern missionaries – a passion to make a difference in the world.

Pastor James McKeown
Pastor James McKeown

What an impact this man made. Today I stood among the present leaders of what Pastor James McKeown founded – the Church of Pentecost. He sowed for years into this country (under the covering of the Elim Church in the UK) and laid great foundations. He’s no longer alive but his vision very much is. What I experienced was a church that now:

  • Has a membership of 2.6 million people
  • Is working in 91 different nations
  • Has 18,000 churches
General Council Meeting 6th May 2015
General Council Meeting 6th May 2015

In 2014 alone they started 956 new churches and baptised 160,248. The grace of God is so evident on their lives and work – they take no credit – they point to God as the source of all the amazing things they are seeing. They have developed in other ways also. They run:

  • a university with 3625 students just outside Accra
  • a bible school to train ministers (which a number of Elim ministers have been principal of over the years including Lionel Currie and John Waller)
  • 87 schools
  • 8 health centres
  • 49 micro-credit schemes to empower new business start ups
  • their own TV channel

The newly opened Pentecost Conference CentreThey have also just built the largest conference venue in Ghana which sleeps around 3000 people with various auditoriums holding over 9000 people in total – it’s a bit like a new city springing up in the middle of what was just waste land – they are even building a police station in the year ahead. From such small beginnings it’s incredible to see all that is happening. All of this has happened in such a relatively short time and they’re not finished growing yet. The church now makes up 8.4% of the total population (estimated to be around 26.5 million) and have seen annual growth in all ages for a number of years. They have gained great influence in this African country building relationships will all sectors of leadership – they are incrementally impacting this nation. (I noticed a plaque that identified the countries president had officially opened their conference centre) So what can we learn from this miracle? The context is so different from the UK and their approaches to many things may not translate. As I stood for hours in a very Ghanian worship service I felt God give me some advice. He said ‘Don’t look at what they are doing – look at what I am doing through them’. I have followed this throughout the week and have enjoyed following this up with the question ‘Why are you doing this through them God?’ I have come to a few possible answers:

  1. They are serious about the great commission – I don’t mean that they preach it and make reference to it in their mission statement – they place this as the highest instruction in their lives and are getting on with it with great urgency.
  2. They hold everything lightly. There is a process called the ‘white paper’ where the COP executive council instruct people where they are to move to – it’s a bit like a military army getting their assignment from their generals – these assignments can be anywhere in the world and often involve great upheaval for families, but they go with it. They sing a song ‘where you lead me I will follow’ and they mean it – they actually mean it. Compare this to leaders in a western context who can be reluctant to move somewhere never mind anywhere.
  3. They carry a grace and are mindful this is Gods provision and doing. There are outstanding leaders – naturally gifted, well trained (lots of Phd and Masters degree holders) and visionaries but they’re extremely careful in their language, actions and culture to ensure God is understood as central to their work. Everything they do seems to involve searching for the mind of God.
  4. They pray and worship – hours can go by as they do so even in public gatherings. Their corporate worship may be a culture shock for some western churches but there is no doubting their passion. Their prayer is not like the shopping list approach that has become all too common place in western church – it is an expression of honour, intimacy and seeking the presence of God. I’m sure their humility comes from regularly standing in the presence of someone greater!

I’m inspired – inspired by the courage of one man who started this. Inspired by the way others have built on that legacy and inspired by their focus and dedication in taking the gospel to others. It’s wonderful to see this miracle in our day!

Making Disciples of Busy People

RiverAcademyLogo

Everyone is busy and I can’t see this changing anytime soon – busyness may not be a virtue but it is certainly a modern day reality. Life can be so complicated juggling around work, family, community engagement and the many other things that we get involved in. If we do find space then it may not match the unassigned times in the calendar of those we would also like to spend it with. It is in the middle of this high speed life that the church is called to make disciples – well actually we’re called to make disciple makers (the call to make disciples was to each of us individually with the church being a catalytic community of encouraging this into reality).

_68674018_de27

So how do we do this? That’s the big question leaders have been asking for some years and we’ve been reading books, attending conferences and hunting down a ‘silver bullet’. Of course we suspect this shiny ‘fix all’ doesn’t really exist but it doesn’t stop us looking and there are always a few ideas knocking around to keep our hopes alive.

In the meantime our instinct is often to equate discipleship with teaching people in some way – unpacking issues of who God is and how he wants to work in our lives. This often involves gathering people in groups – maybe large congregational settings, smaller cell groups or mentoring relationships. All contexts have some benefit and we’ve been using them all but we’re also wrestling – wrestling with how we can improve our effectiveness, particularly when we’re trying to do so with incredibly busy people.

The Experiment

So this is what we’ve just launched – an initiative called the ‘River Academy’ – it’s a mix of online learning and small groups. The teaching is available on demand to fit around the spaces in peoples lives and the groups meet at convenient flexible points to process, reflect and help one another work out the implications. We eventually see a wide range of modules being available on the River Academy, but as we start this adventure, we’ve done so with a single module – choosing the well established ‘Freedom in Christ’ course.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 23.04.35

The Experience

We’ve built an online platform which allows registered users to log in, remembering where they were in the programme when they last logged in, incorporating videos, text documents, pdf’s, interactive discussion boards and progress charts. It’s simple to use and works on all devices (including mobile). Like most churches we have a wide age demographic and i think what we’ve created is accessible to all (even the most technophobe person). This has taken quite a bit of work and we are very grateful to a very gifted programmer who has put significant time into this.

So the user logs in (registration is available for regular attenders at the church via our office team) and select the course they are starting. Then they are given an overview of the structure of the course – in the case of Freedom in Christ, they see 14 sessions (students are expected to engage with 1 session per week which equates to between 60-90 minutes), all made up of multiple parts (smaller segments of the session lasting around 15 minutes each – these small parts allow students to complete Sessions over multiple days within the week). A simple ‘next’ or ‘back’ arrow helps students easily navigate through each step, taking them through written documents, discussion boards and teaching videos.

Screen Shot 2015-03-18 at 23.06.39

Growth Groups

When a student signs up to the River Academy, they are allocated a small group which we’ve called ‘Growth Groups’. These will consist of between 5-7 people and will be coordinated by a facilitator who will find suitable times for the group to meet over the life of the course. On the Freedom in Christ course, they groups will meet 3 times – after Session 5, after Session 9 and after the final Session 14. These groups play an essential role in the academy:

1. They provide a real community context to explore questions together

2. They provide space to explore ‘application’ of the teaching

3. They provide an opportunity to share understanding / revelation / testimony

4. They provide a community to pray for one another

5. They provide accountability that ensures students continue engaging with the online teaching

The Future

It’s early days on this experiment but initial signs look promising, with around two thirds of our congregation engaging with our first course. These students represent all demographics of the church and even our older members are utilising this technology (I don’t think this would have been so likely even just a couple of years ago).

Early comments are positive all round. We will no doubt learn lessons and make adjustments accordingly but we’re delighted with the start that has been made. If this does prove to be an improved way of delivering a clear discipleship journey then we would be keen to assist other churches in developing this approach also in the future.

We are currently both creating new content for future modules as well as opening discussions with established course providers who may want to work with us in providing discipleship content for the academy. We would like to host courses on issues such as ‘Marriage’, ‘Parenting’, ‘Stewardship’, ‘Core Beliefs’, ‘Early Steps of the Christian Faith’, ‘Prayer’, ‘Leadership Development’, ‘Mission and Evangelism’, ‘Safeguarding Training’ etc – of course the options could be limitless.

Have you tried something like this?

I would love to hear about any experiences that other churches may have had in taking a similar route? This will take a lot of investment on our part and we’re keen to learn good lessons along the journey – if you can help then we would be really grateful.

Making invitation simple

I’m convinced the majority of people don’t engage with God or church because of misunderstandings. There’s an old theory that our mind is like a set of drawers with each labelled by subject and when opened up, it contains thoughts, experiences and impressions that we’ve aquired over the years on that subject. So what about the drawers labelled ‘God’ or ‘church’? What do most people find when they open up these drawers?

At the River Church, we’ve just launched an initiative to help all the residents of Exeter to reconsider the validity of what they find in these drawers. We’re inviting everyone to ‘Rediscover Church’ with simple and accessible A,B,C steps – this will involve us distributing invitations to 50,000 homes.

Rediscover Church-3

Rediscover Church

While there are some interesting surveys out there suggesting many people would accept an invitation from a friend to join them at a church event, for most, entering a church environment is such an alien concept and so challenging to their comfort zone. We’ve tried to factor this in and our A,B,C, seeks to take them through a series of stepping stones:

ask-us-to-pray

A: Ask us to pray

We believe God hears our prayers and has the ability to answer them. With so many challenges in people’s lives, will the thought of a community of Christians praying for them be accessible? We’re about to find out – we have a large team of people committed to praying for each need that is submitted and we’re praying that there will be miracles and answers all over the city which will point people closer to a true understanding of God and church.

browse-our-media

B: Browse our online media

I’ve already written a previous post about the significance of live-streaming our services. Since writing that post the benefits have become even more apparent. Growing numbers of people are watching, connecting with our online pastors and finding this helpful to their spiritual journey. This ‘window’ into the church is giving people an opportunity to respond to their curiosity with no risk and we’re inviting 50,000 homes to tune in. As well as our livestream, we have a wealth of past events and talks which people can view anytime through our website or app. We regularly (probably weekly) get new visitors attend our services who have been watching online for a few weeks – it really is a great stepping stone!

come-and-experience

C: Come and Experience

We’ve been busy – making room in our building for more seating, preparing our teams, working on our structures – getting ready for 50,000 invitations going out. It’s been fascinating to see that almost as quick as we make more space, the new seating fills up – we continue to work on ways to create more seating. When they come we do our utmost to make it a terrific welcoming experience. The whole church are committed to making this a reality and the feedback we receive would suggest we’re doing well. But it’s more than a ‘meeting experience’ – our aim is to make disciples and we’ve just launched an exciting new initiative ‘River Academy’ that will be a special tool to help people grow in their faith. I’ll post more about this soon.

The Invitation

So we’ve had a 3 fold, high quality leaflet produced that will be distributed by hand by our church. The leaflet is clear, free from religious language, honours the wider church in the city and has a clear narrative. We feel it is a helpful prompt to help people locate that ‘God’ or ‘Church’ drawer and reconsider the accuracy of the content within.

See the church website for more details: http://www.riverchurch.tv

River Church Rediscover Church Invitation

Church Online – from streams to a River

SundayService301114
Sunday 30th November 2014

We have an enthusiastic team of media savy techies at our Church. They use the ‘now standard’ Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram channels but have gone a step further in engaging with a digital audience and our city newspaper recently visited us to find out more.

The dedicated team pull together the disciplines of sound, lighting, vision capture and mixing to work alongside a team of online pastors and together they produce a live broadcast in HD quality which makes its way in real time to homes across the city, region and beyond. A map can be viewed to show where viewers are watching from and they can often be spotted in other parts of the world, although the vast majority are local. But why would someone watch a digital church service online, when they can probably find ‘a real one’ in villages, towns and cities across the globe? It’s a question I asked also…..

echoandexpressnov14
The Exeter Express and Echo captured and published this picture

Let me answer it by describing some of the increasing number who watch live online:

Those who are ill or unable to make it to church that week – I’m pretty sure most of our congregation would prefer to be present in person but at those times when it is not possible, a live stream acts as a good second option. We have had housebound or hospitalised members let us know they are watching and in response we’ve encouraged the live congregation to cheer and pray for them. It has really reinforced a connectedness to the church community that would otherwise be impossible. Also on occasions when I have been away I have been able to join in with the service through the live streaming on our River Church app.

Those exploring church and faith – A friend of mine once took all his church leaders into a betting shop. They felt uncomfortable – why? because most had never been in one before – It was unfamiliar to them. Many people have not been into a church service before and the thought of doing so can feel quite intimidating. Our online streaming becomes a stepping stone and we’ve had numerous people who start watching anonymously online, then they begin to engage with our online pastors, then they visit us in person. Our streaming gives a window for them to look in – all from the comfort of their home. We now have numerous stories of people who have watched online for a few weeks and then come along in person. They are often greeted by those they have engaged  through our online chat function and they almost feel like they have been before as they recognise the surroundings and those taking part.

A few months ago we heard of a lady who was healed while one of our online pastors prayed for her. She then came to the prayer meeting the next day to share her testimony.

Family and Friends – We have a lot of students and a number are from overseas. It’s been great to hear of parents and family members checking out their son or daughters new church and even be able to join them in worship through our live stream.

Is it worth it? – Absolutely yes for us! It takes a lot of volunteers, some good equipment and financial commitment but we see this as a significant tool for reaching our community with the gospel and think it could work for others also.

Welcome

A lot of changes have happened in my life recently. After leading a national youth ministry http://www.serious4god.co.uk for the last 10 years I sensed God calling me on to a new season to lead a church – it has been both exhilarating and challenging.

In November ’13 I was inducted to lead the River Churches, a network of Elim churches in Devon with congregations both in Exeter and Plymouth. Even though there had been some significant past difficulties in the church we found the congregations to be some of the most loving, generous and open people we have met – It was clear that God’s hand was upon them. We quickly connected and felt a genuine love for them.

1465200_507553506010712_641248464_n
Being prayed for by various leaders on our induction welcome service in November

Even though we found a buyer for our home in Malvern within a few days of it going on the market, the wonderfully inefficient legal process meant that we couldn’t move as a family until the new year. Trying to begin the new role while keeping things as normal as possible for my wife and kids was quite an interesting time but we sensed Gods grace with us.

The new year arrived and so did the removal vans – it was sad to close the door on our family home and say farewell to our neighbours and friends but as we began the journey south we had a real excitement.

IMG_0061
One of our 10 farewell events from Serious4God, Elim and Regents College

A few months later, my kids have all done well in their new schools and made some great new friends, my wife is loving life in the church and they are loving her open authentic heart and I am loving journeying with people. I’ve never more felt the right person in the right place at the right time.

image
River Church is vibrant, multi-cultural and contemporary

I have big hopes and dreams for all God is going to do through the River Church. I’m going through every area of this contemporary and creative church and asking how we prepare for increase. There is so much going on that I thought now would be a good time to start blogging. I’m hoping to pass on lessons I’m learning, maybe invite help on some of the questions I’m asking and invite others into the journey we are travelling.

Welcome to the journey!

 

Thoughts, resources & ideas for Jesus followers

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,883 other followers