‘Mission With’ – more than just a theoretical concept

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…or, ‘coincidence’ as a mark of God’s presence in community

It is nearly six years since a leaflet advertising a United Reformed Church initiative called ‘ArtTalk’ happened to float across my desk at a committee meeting. I shall call it ‘Coincidence’ Number 1.  It was the first of number of ‘coincidences’ which help shaped my ministry.  Looking back on it, I’m convinced it must have been more than that.

‘Coincidence’ Number 1

ArtTalk was an initiative for local URC congregations wishing to host art exhibitions.  Hug Cullompton wasn’t officially a congregation of the URC, we didn’t have a church building and none of us were artists.  But a spark of imagination lit up my mind, and within days I was on the phone to the minister behind the project, making enquiries.

In the days that followed I wrestled with how to make such an event take place. I knew God was calling us to this, but I had no idea how to get started. Eventually I decided to go out and have a look to see what venues might be available.

‘Coincidence’ Number 2

As I walked under some scaffolding in the main street, a workman dropped a tool. I picked it up and handed it back. “Is this your building?” I asked. “No, but the owner is inside,” he said.  “Pop in if you want to see him.”  It had previously been a fabric shop. It was large, light and spacious – perfect for an art gallery.  The owner welcomed me.  I explained my idea to him and, without hesitation, he said he thought an art exhibition would be an excellent way to publicise his renovation. He needed three months to get it finished, so we set a date.

‘Coincidence’ Number 3

The next day I saw an advertisement for a local exhibition about the Turin Shroud.  The woman running it was a local fine art painter. She had recently become a Christian and was hosting the Turin Shroud exhibit alongside her own work.  One painting – not quite finished – was of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was incredible. “We need some advice,” I said, and explained our idea. “I’ll help you,” she said, “I can even use it to launch my new painting.”

And so the ‘Hug Cullompton Community Gallery’ took shape. Alongside our exhibition we ran a number of workshops and seminars on the theme “connecting art and spirituality”. 48 local artists exhibited, and more than 1,000 people visited. Residents were uplifted by the presence of a gallery in town, and through it a vision emerged for a longer term initiative promoting the arts locally. Eventually it became embodied in the charity Cullompton Arts House.

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This type of work is an example of what the missiologist Paul Keeble describes as ‘Mission With‘.  Contrasting with ‘Mission To’ (traditional evangelism) and ‘Mission For’ (Christian service), ‘Mission With’ is a simple act of presence.  It is a way of living intentionally alongside members of a community, listening to their stories, sharing their aspirations, and showing the difference being a Christian can make.  It is a form of mission which demonstrates God’s love and invites conversation without expectation, other than believing God is at work through encounter, and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through it.

Last week this particular piece of mission work came to an end as I finished my term as Chair of Trustees for ‘Cullompton Arts House – but only sort of… because the relationships I have made, the doors that have opened, the conversations I have had and the community transformation which has been inspired through resultant artistic endeavours, still remain.

And much of it will continue to do so long after I have gone…

 

The trouble with Baptism: Part Two

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…or, what to consider when bringing a new church into being through the sacrament of Baptism

Shortly after our little community Hug Cullompton began to meet, I had my first request for Baptism.  The candidate was a woman I met when leading a carol service at the local pub.

I explained that Baptism is a Sacrament – a sacred act – during which a candidate declares their faith and makes promises to play their part in the life of the church

“It will take time to prepare,” I said.

“That’s fine,” she replied. “It’s something I really want to do.”

So began a time of Baptismal preparation. Three of us met regularly, and gradually we made our way through a document called the Statement Concerning the Nature, Faith and Order of United Reformed Church.  It explains how we define God and the church, what is distinctive about our denomination and what it means to be a Christian in our tradition.  “If you’re going to be Baptised into the United Reformed Church,” I told her, “You need to understand what you’re signing up to.”

By June she was ready. We set the date for early September and found a venue – a river bank on the edge of the town.  The two of us who were already members of the United Reformed Church decided we would like to renew our Baptismal vows, and formally commit to this new church community taking shape.

It was then that the question came: “Can you do this?”

In our tradition a candidate for Baptism usually becomes a member of a URC congregation who can support and nurture them in the faith.  We weren’t a constituted congregation of the United Reformed Church, and this was to be our first formal ‘service’.

It turns out that whoever wrote the URC Manual (our rule book) hadn’t considered what would happen when a new church came into being through the sacrament of Baptism.  In fact, the URC doesn’t really have any guidance or procedures suited to church planting.

However, that doesn’t mean new things aren’t possible. In the aforementioned Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order it says:

we affirm our right and readiness, if the need arises, to change the Basis of Union and to make new statements of faith in ever new obedience to the Living Christ.

We weren’t asking to change the Basis of Union, our foundational document, but we were asking the church to review its practices.  Our request was forwarded to the committee which deals with matters of doctrine. A conversation took place between the members, during which agreement emerged that, in the case of a new church community, Baptism was possible.  Biblical precedents were found in the stories of both an Ethiopian Eunuch baptised by a road (Acts 8.28-40), and Lydia, mainland Europe’s first Christian (Acts 16.10-16).

Although it was rather frustrating at the time, I am glad the question was asked.  It ensured we did it ‘properly’, and we also drew attention to the need for appropriate responses to the new things God is doing in our midst.

The Baptism service was fantastic. More than 40 people came, family, friends and local church folk.  Gathering on the banks of the river Culm that day felt like a milestone – and so it was.

To read more about Baptism click here.