Kenny Larsen

Growing Together

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And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
— Philippians 1:9-11

Sometimes when we talk about discipleship, maturity, or counselling it’s not clear where we’re heading. What are we seeking to mature into? What’s the target? Where are we heading and what are we hoping to achieve?

There are dozens of voices telling us who we should be seeking to become and what kind of person we ought to be. Some of those voices are external, the voices of our culture that lure us with the promises of acceptance and success if we follow them and threaten us with ridicule and isolation if we demur. Or the voices of parents, friends and family, who have their own particular vision of what and who we should be. Other voices are internal, the voices in our own minds that tell us what we deserve, can achieve, or have failed to become. Like a plant growing towards the sun all these voices give us a direction to grow in and a target to aim towards. 

In the passage above the Bible speaks another voice, it gives us a different direction to seek to grow in, a God-ward direction. Paul is writing to a church with his prayer and hope for who they will become and who they will mature into. It’s a maturity that’s rooted in love, lived out in wisdom, achieved through Jesus, and that brings God glory and praise. It’s a direction that we need to regularly turn back to. Our discipleship is a means of doing that, it’s a means of re-orientating ourselves towards a life that brings God glory and praise. 

For the next three weeks at Christ Church Walkley we’ll be looking together at how we help one another to grow into the kind of people Paul describes. We’ll make Paul’s prayer for the Philippian church our prayer. Each week I’ll try and share some of my reflections on what we’ve been discussing and learning here on this blog.

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Small Groups - Reaching out

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This is the fourth post in a mini-series looking at the purpose of our Small Groups here at Christ Church Walkley. See the first post here, second here and third here.

I’ve often found that evangelism gets tagged on to small group life rather than being a focus of what we’re doing together. When time is short, and life is hard, evangelism tends to drop off most small groups radars. I wonder whether this sometimes reflects our lives individually, where our focus is more easily directed to growing as a Christian and being in the safety of church family. When we read 1 Peter though we get a different perspective on evangelism in our life together:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
— 1 Peter 2:9–12, ESV

In this passage we’re described in two ways, the first is obviously positive, that we are now God’s chosen people. But see the reason Peter gives for why God has made us into his people, that we would proclaim God’s goodness. We are made to be God’s people for the purpose of proclaiming God’s excellencies – glorifying him. This view moves evangelism from an additional component of our lives to the very centre. Notice that it’s also something we say, we proclaim it, our evangelism has to involve an element of speaking about God to others.  As small groups proclaiming the gospel is fundamental to who we now are. Whether that happens together or by supporting one another in prayer as we do it individually, proclaiming the gospel is part of who we’ve been made to be.

The second way we’re described is as sojourners and exiles. We’re sojourners and exiles in this world because we’re now a new people with a new home – we belong somewhere else. But that brings its own challenges, we live as Christians in a world with different values and morals and we’re constantly being called to conform. Obedience to God, living as his people, can be immensely challenging in this world, but Peter sees it as a means by which people will come to glorify God when Christ returns. Our evangelism involves the way we live in our workplaces, families and community. Proclamation of the gospel and living a godly life amongst unbelievers are inseparable and fundamental to what it is to be one of God’s people. If our small groups are going to places where we reach out from we’ve got to be supporting and encouraging one another to be living as exiles and reminding each other that we are a people who have received mercy so that we can tell others about our God.

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Small Groups - Growing together

This is the third post in a mini-series looking at the purpose of our Small Groups here at Christ Church Walkley. See the first post here, and second here.

Last week’s post saw how one way of avoiding Small Groups becoming inward-focussed and self-seeking was for them to be continually looking outward to God, seeking to bring him glory. In practice, part of that involves growing together in Christian maturity, so our lives and speech are increasingly glorifying to God. Take a look at Ephesians 4:25-32:

Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labour, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
— Ephesians 4:25-32, ESV

This follows on from Paul telling those he was writing to that by knowing Jesus they have been fundamentally changed, and they should be growing in their Christlikeness. And here Paul gets very specific about what that growth looks like. I want to highlight just two aspects of what hes says in the passage quoted above.

Firstly, notice the emphasis on what we say. We are to speak the truth, to build one another up with our words, to avoid slander and falsehood. The reference to not grieving the Holy Spirit probably fits here too, most likely referring to Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness (See Exodus 15 and Isaiah 63).  Our words matter more than we might think. It’s not just that dishonesty, corrupting and untimely words are wrong and sinful, but they damage our Christian brothers and sisters and grieve the Holy Spirit. The call is to have both the right content to our speech and the right manner of saying it. Rebuking someone harshly may be honest, but is unlikely to give grace to them or to build them up. Simply being ‘nice’ and being unwilling to address areas of sin with one another rapidly becomes dishonest. Neither help us to grow together in Christlikeness.

Secondly, notice that it all stems from God’s forgiveness of us. We treat one another in the same way that God has treated us. If we are to speak openly and honestly with one another we will inevitably touch nerves and sensitive areas. We will all make mistakes. We will likely waver between speaking falsely and speaking insensitively. So we must be willing to forgive one another when we get it wrong, to not respond with bitterness, anger and slander, but with honesty, kindness and humility. If we are to grow together in Christlikeness then our attitude towards each other must, at root, reflect God’s attitude to us. He has treated us on the basis of forgiveness and mercy, so we must treat one another in the same way – even when that means absorbing the cost and pain of someone else’s sin towards us.

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Small Groups - Curved in or curved out?

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This is the second in a mini-series of posts looking at the purpose of our small groups at Christ Church Walkley. See the first post here.

Sometimes the fear with small groups is that they become curved in on themselves, self-centred, self-seeking and exclusive. The concern is legitimate, any small group of people meeting regularly in any context can become this way. But it doesn’t have to be what happens with small groups, and if they’re fulfilling their bigger purpose of helping us grow in Christian maturity, they won’t.

Often the answer to groups becoming curved in on themselves is to encourage them to look outside of themselves, and focus on those they’re trying to reach. There’s good wisdom in this, and the final post in the series will look at that. However, I want to suggest a more fundamental place we need to look outside of ourselves, to God, and his glory. 

Our growth in maturity isn’t primarily to serve ourselves, but to bring God glory. Ephesians 3:14-21 talks this way, some excerpts are below:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and an earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being … that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen
— Ephesians 3:14-21, ESV

How do we grow in maturity, how are we strengthened? Out of the riches of God’s glory, by God working in us. Our growth in maturity is rooted in God’s work, not ours, therefore he deserves the recognition and praise for it. And that’s where Paul goes at the end, his prayer is ultimately that through our growth God would be glorified. 

I wonder if that’s our desire as we sit together reading the bible, as we pray, as we counsel one another? Is it our hope that God’s glory would be seen through us and in us? That our transformation would be a testament to the Spirit's work in our lives?

Small groups are places where the Spirit should be at work through God’s word and through his people. They should be places where we see God’s glory. 

One way small groups avoid becoming curved in on themselves is when they are looking outward to God; when they are seeking and praying for God to be glorified through them. It’s worth asking ourselves why we want to grow in knowledge, why we want to overcome our temptations, why we want to work through our sin and suffering? Is it for our glory, so we look better, fit in more, are more esteemed, more glorified, or is it so that God is glorified? If it’s for us, then we’ll likely tend towards being curved in on ourselves. If it’s for God’s glory then we’ll tend to increasingly be looking away from ourselves – to God, and in the end to others too. 

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Small Groups - the BIG picture

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New Year, New Small Groups

Since we started Christ Church Walkley, Small Groups have been a significant part of our life together. They’ve been vehicles for serving on a Sunday, evangelism, pastoral care and discipleship amongst other things. There’s something to be said for keeping groups running for an extended period; the trust, openness and depth of prayer that comes from reading the Bible and praying together can’t easily be shortcut. That said, after five years we felt it was time to refresh and relaunch the groups, to give them a new lease of life. Inevitably that begs the question of what are our small groups meeting for, what’s the purpose of them, what are they trying to achieve? Small groups have become the ‘done thing’ in many churches, but often there is a lack of clarity of what their purpose is. Are they bible study groups? Prayer groups? Friendship/support groups? Small churches? A bit of everything?

Over a small series of four posts I want to explore some of the key things that I think should make up the purpose of our Small Groups, and might be helpful to others elsewhere.

The Big Picture

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
— Ephesians 4:15-16, ESV

Whilst not about small groups directly, there isn’t really a biblical conception of small groups in the way we have them, I think these verses help us see the bigger picture of what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to 'grow up’ and make ‘the body grow.’ In one sense it’s that straightforward, small groups are there to make us grow up together into Christ, to be more like him. Here I just want to point out three things from this passage that show us a little bit about how that happens. 

Firstly, it’s something we do together, the passage talks about us all growing up together as one body. Christian maturity and Christian growth happens together. It requires the interactions with one another, to work together, to serve one another, to build one another up. It’s not a solo enterprise. Trying to grow up into Christ on our own, by choice, is a sign of Christian immaturity.

Secondly, notice that a significant mechanism for growth is speaking, and a particular kind of speech. We are to speak ‘the truth’ to one another - the gospel truth. Growth doesn’t come from simply speaking honestly to one another, although we should be. But by speaking the gospel into one another’s lives day by day, week by week. Small groups should be refuge from the pressures of the world, to conform to other ways of thinking, to have a different Lord. Small Groups are where we remind one another of the truth of the gospel and our Lord Jesus.

Thirdly, we do all of this in the context of love. Notice how the passage starts telling us to 'speak the truth in love’ and finishes describing the body of Christ building itself up in love. Love for Jesus and for one another is the basis for our growth and the criterion for assessing our growth. small groups should be a context where our love for Jesus and one another can be shown in our speech and actions. And, if our small groups are working properly, we should be seeing an increase in our love for Jesus and one another over time.

Small groups are more than bible study groups, more than prayer groups, more than support groups. They should probably include elements of those, but they are all means by which we can speak the truth to one another in love so that we grow up!

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Christ Alone

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The fourth of our mini-series on the five ‘alones’ of the Reformation brings us to Christ Alone. The
world around us has changed significantly since the Reformation; the church, culture and the
political landscapes are all very different. Yet, the question of if how we can know God is still asked by lots of people at some point in their lives. One of the things that surprised me most when I started pastoring and caring for people coming to the end of their lives was how many wanted to try and make things right with God one way or another. This was people for many different faiths and of none, often asking the same kind of fundamental question. Our Anglican heritage, following on from the truths recovered in the Reformation, gives clear answers to their questions and concerns:

THE Son, which is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took Man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin, of her substance: so that two whole and perfect Natures, that is to say, the Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God, and very Man; who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to  us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for all actual sins of men.
— Article II, Of the Word or Son of God, which was made very man
WE Are Accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the Homily of Justification.
— Article XI, Of The Justification Of Man

Notice at the end of Article II that Jesus’ suffering, crucifixion, death and burial served a purpose. It was to be a sacrifice, to bear the cost of our sins and rejection of God, so we can be reconciled to him again. Article XI adds something more, it talks about us being accounted righteous before God, only on the basis of Jesus’ merit. We can be right with God because through Jesus alone the
punishment for our sins and wrongs is paid for and then his righteousness is counted to us as ours. Jesus doesn’t just bring us back to a neutral position before God, dealing with our sins and then leaving us to our own righteousness. He clothes us in his righteousness, so when God looks at us he sees Jesus’ righteousness, not our own. In our culture there are myriad of ways we are told that we can come to and know God, we are surrounded by a multitude of religions offering ways to God, but the bible, reformers, and Articles of Religion teach that there is only one way to know God – through Jesus alone.

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By Grace Alone

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As we come to think about being saved by grace alone you’ll realise how closely tied it is to last week’s post on being saved by faith alone; the two are indivisibly tied together. That we are saved by grace alone has some significant implications for how sure we can be of our salvation and how we think of ourselves. Firstly, a quote from Martin Luther summarising a little bit of what the Reformers thought about grace alone, and then a second quote from Article X from the Book of Common Prayer.

If the Pope would concede that God alone by His grace through Christ justifies sinners, we would carry him in our arms, we would kiss his feet.
— Martin Luther, A Commentary of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will
— Article X, Book of Common Prayer

The quote from Martin Luther reveals how significant our justification (God’s declaration that we are righteous) was for the reformers. Here he implies that it is one of the most significant things the separated them from the Roman Catholic church. The Article expands things a little more, notice they key ideas, that we can’t turn to God in faith by our own strength, nor can we do good works in our own power, it is God in his grace who must act and continues to act in our lives. The slightly strange phrase “without the grace of God by Christ preventing us” simply means without the God grace acting first, so that our will would be turned to him. The idea is that God must act in grace towards us before we can turn to him. This is the centre of the idea of justification by grace alone, that we are justified because God acts in grace before we have done, or desired to do, anything good in ourselves.

Why does this matter so much? 

There are two key areas where I think this really matters, our assurance of salvation and, how we think of ourselves. Paul in Ephesians 2:8-9 brings out both ideas:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
— (Eph 2:8–10, ESV)

It’s God’s unconditional grace, rooted in his love for his world, that has saved us. Paul explicitly says that it’s not of our works. The things we do, or don’t do, don’t contribute to our salvation, it’s something we have been freely given. Therefore, we don’t need to be seeking to judge our own lives or works to see whether they are good enough for God – because that’s not what God saves us based on. If we’re struggling with assurance that we’re one of God’s children we need to look back to God’s love for the world, so much that he gave up his Son, and remind ourselves that or salvation comes freely as a gift of grace, not based on what we’ve done. 

Secondly, notice that salvation by grace alone means that no-one has any grounds for boasting. Boasting points to yourself, it says “Look how good I am,” if our actions had some part in our salvation then we might find grounds for boasting in who we are or what we’ve done. But, as our salvation is based on God’s grace alone the only person we can point to and boast in is him. Salvation by grace alone is a great leveller, it puts us all as those who had nothing to offer God, but were saved by his grace anyway.

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By Faith Alone

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As a church we describe ourselves as both Reformed and Anglican. As we celebrate the reformation over the next few weeks we’re going to run a series of blog posts seeing how these two aspects of our doctrine relate to one another and why it matters for us today.

Let me begin with two quotes, the first from Martin Luther, the second from the 39 Articles of Religion:

Faith alone, when based upon the sure promises of God, must save us; as our text clearly explains [John 6:44-55] …And in the light of it all, they must become fools who have taught us other ways to become Godly.
— Martin Luther, On Faith, And Coming To Christ. 
We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings: Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort, as more largely is expressed in the homily of Justification.
— Article XI, The Book of Common Prayer

Salvation by faith alone underpins both the truths rediscovered in the Reformation and our Anglican doctrine. The emphasis is on the ‘aloneness’ of faith for justification, rather than it somehow being combined with what we do or deserve.

Practically, whilst there being nothing we can do to influence our salvation can be a difficult pill to swallow – we always like to feel we’ve contributed or earned what we get – as article XI says it’s actually a real comfort. If we are justified by faith alone then nothing we do can make God consider us righteous, but also nothing we do makes God consider us unrighteous either.

Salvation by faith also is full of comfort because it is based on Jesus’ righteousness rather than our own attempts at being righteous. And whereas our righteousness is always found wanting, Jesus’ righteousness is perfect, and by faith alone it is counted by God as our righteousness.

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Starting work at Christ Church Walkley

A little bit of my story

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The journey of coming to work for Christ Church Walkley (CCW) began quite a while ago, when life was quite different. CCW wasn’t even at the planning stage, Jen and I had no children, I was studying Physics at uni and Jen had just started work as a doctor. I honestly can’t remember whether I approached Tim (the minister of Christ Church Central, CCC) or he approached me to discuss doing an apprenticeship at CCC. But, as we sat on Devonshire Green I vividly remember him saying that if I did become an apprentice then it needed to be with the genuine possibility of heading towards full-time Christian ministry. 

The idea had been on my mind on and off for a couple of years, but that moment felt like a fork in the road for Jen and I. Seek out a job in the world of physics, or start down an unknown and unpredictable road towards vocational ministry. We chose to head down the path of an apprentice, and God has been good to us as we’ve walked that road; Christ Church Walkley was born a year later, an opportunity and the funds to study at Oak Hill from Sheffield arose and our family has grown to 4. For much of this time we’ve had little idea what coming next, but we’ve learned to trust God.

About a year ago I finished training at Oak Hill and CCW began the process of seeing whether we could find a way of me working in a ministry capacity full-time. By the generosity of the church family, and a trust, we’ve pretty much got there so I started this September.

So what am I actually doing?

Ephesians 4:11-12 gives the broad principle behind what I hope to do as a shepherd-teacher:

"And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherd-teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ."

In the first instance the particular equipping that I’ll be focussing on is developing pastoral care within CCW so that the church family is more able to care for those inside and outside the church. Pastoral Care is an area I’ve increasingly become interested and experienced in, mostly through walking together with broken people in a broken world where we all need God’s word to do its work in our lives.

This applies to both Christian and non-Christians – we all need to be pastored with God’s word. At a recent conference evangelism and pastoral care were linked like this:

"Evangelism is just pastoring non-Christians. Pastoral care is just evangelising Christians." (Glen Scrivener)

So, my hope is that I’ll be able to equip the church to pastor one another so we grow in maturity, and to pastor our friends so they come to know Jesus.

For the first few months this means I’m starting to put time into developing some of the good things that are already in place. Including training and looking after small group leaders, and others, who have an interest and gifts in this area. I’m doing a course on Biblical Counselling over in Liverpool to learn from the wisdom and experiences of others with a view to seeing how we could use this evangelistically. This is alongside the regular things of prayer, preaching and teaching, and general overseeing that comes with being an elder!

Get in touch with Kenny Larsen here.