Venturing into unknown spiritual territory

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…or, a reflection on pioneering in a time of religious and social change

A wise person once said that what marks out a pioneer is their ability to allow the Holy Spirit to guide them, then fill in a back story afterwards. That’s definitely me.

From early on in this ministry I have been encouraged to make sense of the way it has been shaped.  I knew early on that I was called to inhabit a space Christian Ministers are rarely called to: in the midst of people who practice alternative spiritualities. But I was unaware of how much it would stretch me, both in terms of my doctrinal beliefs and worship life.  I could never have predicted how bereft I would feel not having a sacramental community to belong to; and I never would have realised just how orthodox many of my beliefs are, had I not been asked to explain and defend them so many times over the years.

As this particular ministry draws to an end I find myself asking what it is I have learned from this journey; and what questions would be most helpful to ask as a consequence.  This article is the result of that.

In order to reflect in depth on what it is to pioneer in this time of religious and social change,  I have found it necessary to understand the landscape against which this spiritual path has been set.  And to do that I have had to look back over the history of religious change, particularly in England.  I have had to ask myself:

  • Why are those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities treated with such suspicion by the church – and is it justified?
  • What does it mean to walk this path alongside them, and how has it changed me?
  • What questions might I offer to churches thinking of engaging in a ministry of their own alongside those on a spiritual journey but not a traditional Christian one.

Religious Change in the Age of Modernity

In his comparative thesis on Christianity and New Age spirituality / Neo-Paganism, Steve Hollinghurst suggests that all religious developments are subject to a process (1996, 5-6). As patterns of behaviour begin to alter and traditions change or start to be lost, those deeply immersed in them feel threatened.  As new ideas gain credibility, levels of suspicion reduce, and an opportunity for engagement opens up.  Eventually the new practice will be rejected or accepted – but this time on the basis of a mutual understanding that has previously not existed.  Some ideas might even be accepted into the mainstream and become the ‘norm’.  When another new idea or concept emerges, this cycle, which can take several hundred years, begins again.

Hollinghurst suggests the current period of major religious change has its roots in the Enlightenment, but it first became apparent in the Romanticism of the late Victorian era. While British missionaries were imposing Victorian religious values on, and teaching Moody and Sankey songs to, populations at the far corners of the globe, a significant number at home were engaging in what Linda Woodhead describes as re-engagement with “the magical” (2012, 179-180).  At a popular level illusionists, escapologists and magicians became what Hollinghurst describes as the “scientist[s] of the spiritual world” (1996, 5-6), while prominent intellectuals such as Arthur Conan Doyle became huge advocates of Spiritualism – the belief that, through the art of clairvoyance, it is possible to communicate with the spirits of those who have died or “passed over” into the spirit world. The difficulty was how to identify where magic (the art of illusion) ended and true spiritual engagement began. How could one be sure someone claiming to have spiritual gifts weren’t con artists becoming rich on the backs of those desperately seeking answers to questions the living could never give them? It is a question I ponder now in a similar way it was asked back then.

Religious Change in the 20th Century

In 1910 the General Assembly (national governing body) of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA), became embroiled in what was known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy.  They agreed to adopt a Doctrinal Deliverance, consisting of the following Five Fundamentals “necessary and essential to the Christian faith”.  In the decades that followed there were huge arguments over the extent to which the five points had to be taken literally.  By the 1930s the Modernists (who believed that the fundamentals of the faith should be interpreted in a way contextually relevant to the age) appeared to triumph over the literalists.  It wasn’t until much later that Christian Fundamentalism came back into vogue.

One proponent of fundamentalism was the highly influential evangelist Billy Graham, whose simple message of salvation through a personal belief in Christ caused a revival across continents.  Graham first visited the UK in 1954.  New choruses and informal liturgies were introduced, combining a focus on the working of the Holy Spirit with a sense of joy, hope and renewal.  Meanwhile the theologian and Bishop John AT Robinson published his ground-breaking Honest to God (1963).  His writings opened the way to the acceptance of a belief in a liberal God, who was gender neutral, egalitarian, and a spur to social action, to be related to through a less hierarchical church structure and more informal worship.  Suddenly the distant, sovereign, and judgemental God promulgated by the traditional church seemed outdated and irrelevant  Attendance at traditional church services started to plummet, while new congregations, shaped by the Billy Graham experience, encouraged charismatic worship not seen in the churches in England for a long time – if ever.

During this period an influx of immigrants brought with them their own faith traditions. There were the formal religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam, but also numerous informal spiritual traditions and religious practices founded in Eastern philosophy and herbal medicines.

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Emerging from this came a new found interest in Paganism, distinctly different and rooted in ancient British culture. It appealed particularly to those with British Christian backgrounds, looking for spiritual practises relating to ecology and creativity, and with a focus on the feminine attributes of the divine.

In the meantime, Linda Woodhead suggests, belief for some was transferred entirely outwith the spiritual realm.  With the advent of the welfare state, and ending of church provision of health and social care, the British nation had a new ‘God’ to believe in: the National Health Service (2012, 159-160). Spiritual practices founded in the use of plants and energetic techniques straddled both the sacred and secular realms, satisfying those who had lost faith in the church, but weren’t yet ready to leave a spiritual path entirely behind.

Connections between healing and wholeness have always existed; but in recent years they have started to gain credibility within the healthcare profession. In Cullompton the surgery opened in 2010 was built with an ‘integrated complimentary care’ centre attached.  The Managing Partner, a practising Christian, has been advocating for many years the use of non-invasive complimentary therapies alongside what is generally known as ‘traditional medicine’ in the treatment of patients. Interestingly they have now begun to issue ‘social prescriptions’ and started a Community Life Hub.  The aim is to tackle loneliness and isolation through the provision of interesting and stimulating activities rather than prescribe anti-depressants and pain killers en masse.

Navigating today’s religious and spiritual milieu

To a certain extent the history of religious change explains why those who engage with what might be called New Age Spiritualities are treated with such suspicion by the church. For many Christians belief is not simply about experience. It is also about the adoption of a certain set of doctrines which combine with experience to create belief.  Refusing to accept those doctrines is like challenging the validity of a Christian belief system in its entirety.  For the average Christian this is an uncomfortable business.

During this ministry I have adopted a policy of never telling anyone they are wrong. There are times I have been profoundly challenged by the beliefs of those with whom I engage – sometimes fellow Christians as well as others.  But in challenging myself to listen openly to the views of others I have been able to work out what I truly believe, as well as being able to share in creative conversations about faith and spirituality.

However, there are some practises I have chosen never to engage with, either because I am simply not convinced they are genuine, or because they make me feel uncomfortable.  We call it “the line I won’t cross”. For me these have mainly been to do with mediumship and clairvoyance.  Although I have an open mind, I am not convinced I can tell where illusion ends and genuine spiritual practise begins.  And it works both ways. There are Christian activities I would never expect another member of Hug Cullompton to join in with, although I could, and sometimes do, invite them.

My principle is that if I practise a faith founded in the belief that the Holy Spirit can work through any encounter, why shouldn’t I be influenced by someone on a different spiritual path to mine, as long as I feel it is a genuine path and there is no danger or malice in it? And what might I learn that I didn’t know before that might help me understand myself and my relationship with Jesus better?

Suggested Reading

Woodhead, Linda and Catto, Rebecca, 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain (London, Routledge)

Hollinghurst, Steve, 2003, New Age, Paganism and Christian Mission (Grove Booklet)

Cudby, Paul, 2017, The Shaken Path: A Christian Priest’s Exploration of Modern Pagan Belief and Practice (Winchester, Christian Alternative)

what’s really going on when sacred and secular collide?

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Last week a Remembrance sermon preached in Hinckley, Leicestershire, went viral.  Some have condemned it as a tirade, entirely inappropriate for such an occasion, while others see it as a faithful representation of what Jesus taught.  The social media response has ranged from outright disgust to full agreement.

Such a variety of responses demonstrates the nation’s lack of common agreement on what is appropriate when secular meets sacred in the public realm.  I would suggest this is representative of a far bigger issue facing, not just those of us engaged in Christian mission and ministry, but every aspect of society.

There can be no denying that the political and social influence of the institutional church in Great Britain is waining.  The modern age and its quest for certainty and scientific truth has given way to a new era, as yet unnamed and undefined. This post-postmodern paradigm, characterised by constant technological, social, political and economic change, has created a milieu of ideas that render old certainties null and void, not least in the field of religion.  Churches in the inherited model faithfully maintain a set of traditions, doctrines and practices shaped for a modern age,  while generations of spiritual seekers explore ideas of faith and belief almost entirely outside these parameters.

The result is an ever increasing gap between what the church offers and public perception of what the church is there for.  A good example of this is how Great Britain as a nation deals with grief.

Public displays of grief as a signifier of a change in religious perspectives

It is now more than twenty years since public grief over Princess Diana’s death spilled out onto the square in front of Kensington Palace in the form of flowers, candles and soft toys.  What might be remembered as mass hysteria highlighted an issue that the church had already slowly been coming to terms with: that the spiritual thirst of a huge swathe of the British population is not being quenched in any way by organised religion.

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Differences in perceptions of how people can appropriately grieve are huge. In the past decade there have been many news stories of arguments between families and cemetery authorities over what constitutes a dignified symbol of mourning. I would like to suggest that the reason for this is a lack of joint understanding about what is sacred and what is profane. Where once families would have placed crosses and angels on headstones – symbols of their confidence in the departed’s passing to a better place – it is now not uncommon to see symbols of their life here on earth: teddies, windmills, and even football shirts.

In the case of Princess Diana, informal outpourings of grief over her death gave way to a formal act of mourning.  A televised state funeral took place, with all the pomp and ceremony the Palace and Church of England could muster. But Elton John sang at the service and Diana’s brother took the opportunity to pillory the Royal Family. In the meantime books of condolence were set up around in town halls around the country so that the population in its entirety – religious or not – could pay tribute.

Since then a curious practice of combining the sacred and profane at moments of public grief has become normalised in England.  Across the country roadside shrines have been springing up where fatalities have occurred – a noticeable one being over the M5 after a terrible accident near Taunton in 2011. There is currently one just north of Cullompton which has as its centrepiece a huge cross.

Increasingly human rites of passage are celebrated outside the context of  the church, and placed either in the hands of the state or the mourners themselves.   Civil celebrants now regularly take funerals, and weddings in hotels now outnumber church weddings.  During a recent preschool visit to my local parish church, one parent said of the font: “Well I don’t suppose it’s really needed anymore.”

From religion to spirituality: what is really going on?

For many decades sociologists have described the process of decline of the institutional church as ‘secularisation’, claiming that the decline in church attendance is evidence of a waining interest in faith and religion.  However, in recent years this assumption has been challenged.  It has been suggested that, while traditional church practice is declining, new ways of exploring faith and expressing spirituality are on the rise.

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In 2012 Religion and Change in Modern Britain, the culmination of the government funded Religion and Society Programme, was published.  In its introduction, Linda Woodhead, the co-editor of the book, questions the validity of the secularisation debate. She suggests that assumptions made by scholars about the faith of the British population, and the questions they have been trying to answer regarding religion, have been the wrong ones. Rather than counting people who are engaged with organised religion, Woodhead suggests that sociologists should be seeking to understand  how political, social and economic developments impact on religious thought and vice versa, examining how changes in religious practice reflect and relate to other aspects of life and exploring the extent to which belief underpins or holds back social change.

Woodhead uses the example of healthcare to demonstrate the changing role of the British church, both formally and informally.  During the pre-modern and early modern period there was a clear link between faith and healing.  Public health and social care was provided by practitioners such a midwives and deacons on behalf of the church.  Throughout the modern period the influence of science increased, reducing the perceived value of faith-based care provision and casting doubt on its efficacy.

The ultimate expression of this was the formation of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom in 1948, and those who worked outside the parameters of scientific endeavour were increasingly ostracised, with their knowledge and expertise called into question.  Woodhead argues that, while the Labour government was furnishing the British population with hopes of a socialist utopia, religiosity, perceived as being in decline due to the loss of power in the traditional church, was transforming.  From the 1960s onwards, within Christianity, a new form of evangelicalism took hold, with the likes of Billy Graham playing to stadia of tens of thousands.  Seemingly by contrast, but also symbolic of the privatisation of religion, interest in New Age and neo-Pagan spiritualities was on the rise.

Often connected with both evangelicalism and alternative spiritualities is a focus on personal healing, salvation and human growth.  Since around 1990 there has been a huge increase in the influence of holistic approaches to healing, many of which are founded in Eastern religious belief rather than Western science.  In Cullompton, for example, as well as the Natural Health Care Centre which exists totally apart from the National Health Service, is the Culm Valley Integrated Health Centre.  The vision of a local GP who also happens to be a practising Christian, it combines both NHS services and complimentary therapies on one site.

Woodhead argues that:

religion returns to healthcare under the market regime – but in a new form… It is not simply a case of religion taking up where it left off before the NHS, because it is significantly changed under the new conditions under which it arises… This is no ‘folk religion’. It is a form of religion which is as inseparable from advanced consumer capitalism, popular culture and the media as the Church of England is from the nation state. (pp21-22)

So where is God in all this?

Woodhead’s observations and call for her peers to question their own underlying assumptions holds merit.  Analysis which moves from simply counting patterns of human activity to considering the impact on religiosity of myriad social, political and economic influences and trends, and its impact on them, has to be a good thing.

However, I do find the perspectives of Woodhead et al lacking in one thing: a focus on God – or should I say, revelation?  When Woodhead suggests that belief in the NHS has replaced belief in God I think she is mistaken.  The NHS might be one thing to believe in. But if her initial premise is correct, and there is much more to faith and belief than attendance at church, should she not consider that there might be a revelatory force driving it?

I started going to church as a young adult in the days when Peter Mandelson said, “We don’t do God.”  I have trained and ministered against a backdrop which I always assumed was hostile to faith, and was afraid to bring it up in conversation (“Never talk about sex, politics of religion”).  I believed the white (predominantly male) middle class minority who controlled the media when they said that people had no time for, or interest in, religion anymore.

But my experience of people, both in Manchester where I previously worked and now in Devon is very different.  Whether it be in prisons, toddler groups, art exhibitions or Mind, Body Spirit fairs, I find there is a yearning for conversation about God, faith, belief and the universe (although they might well not have the language to articulate it); a conversation between two equals, where we can explore together what it means to have faith.  Unfortunately it is very rarely assumed by those I encounter that such a conversation would ever take place in a church.

I would like to suggest that the secularisation of certain spheres in the public realm has given a false picture of the levels of faith in this nation.  It has assumed that a population which no longer attends church no longer believes.  And while it might be that what people believe falls outside the realms of traditional doctrine, that does not necessarily make it untrue.

And so we return to the Remembrance Sunday sermon preached in Hinckley, Leicestershire. The comments made in response to the publication of the full text are pretty much polarised.  This may not be convenient for those researching levels of religiosity in Great Britain, but they certainly do demonstrate one thing: people care enough to respond – meaning they have some sense of the spiritual significance of Remembrance Sunday.

Whether genuine levels of interest in faith and God in the complicated milieu that is twenty-first century British life will ever be truly fathomed remains to be seen. It is certainly my hope that they will.

Incarnation and divine experience: finding inspiration in the pages of the Bible

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… or, why a load of words written thousands of year ago inspire me today.

One of the currently in-vogue words among mission-type people is ‘incarnational’. Whenever it is used there is always lots of nodding.  For the first several years I heard it bandied around, the term troubled me. I wasn’t sure I truly understood what it meant. I knew God became ‘incarnate’ in Christ – so it obviously had something to do with God taking on bodily form. But what did that have to do with me? And how could my ministry be described as ‘incarnational’?

In the past months I have reflected on the term at length. This is the first in a short series of articles, through which I intend to tease out what I understand by the term ‘incarnational’. I will explain why I consider it so important in the context of twenty-first church mission and ministry, and how it has been outworked in my particular context.  As is my habit (partly because it reflects the theological tradition from which I come) I will begin exploration in the pages of scripture.

Incarnation and Identity in the Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament

Essentially the Bible is a book about relationship: between human beings and a God who loves them. Described in the first book of the Bible as the pinnacle of God’s creation, human beings, from the earliest times, let God down, both in their obedience to God and love for one another.  The story known as The Fall, in which Adam and Eve are tempted by a serpent to take a bite from the forbidden fruit, is symbolic of the breakdown in relationship between creator and created.  When God searches for them in the garden,  Adam (the name means human being) and Eve (whose name means alive) hide, ashamed and exposed. This is their last physical encounter with God. The result of their disobedience is expulsion from the Garden of Eden and a recalibration of their relationship with a now-distant God.  The journey towards redemption and reconciliation with their creator, who still loves them, will be an timeless one, with many twists and turns along the way.

The Hebrew scriptures – the Jewish Bible and Old Testament of the Christian one – tell the story of that journey. There are swashbuckling heroes and and nasty villains;  paupers, prophets, priests and kings; all searching for the redemption that will bring them back into full relationship with an elusive and at times seemingly fickle God.

These people, whose stories are recorded in scripture, are the Jewish ancestors of Jesus and his first disciples, a people whose self-identity was as a holy nation. Despite their propensity to sin, they understood themselves to be chosen by this God, who communicated with them through a variety of means.  Although generally a distant deity, God could, and did, respond to the people when called upon.  Over the generations a cycle of rites of passage, worship practices and feasts and festivals developed, during which the stories of their ancestors were retold in a way that gave shape to people’s lives and helped build both their corporate and individual identity as people of God.

An important element of that corporate worship life was the burnt offering or sacrifice of animals.  In burning all or part of an animal or plant, the smoke emitted was believed to create an odour ‘pleasing to the Lord’, transforming it into a heavenly substance, and providing a link between heaven and earth (Lev.1.14-17).  When they are burned, God responds.  An example of this is in the incredibly moving interaction between Jacob (also called Israel) and God when he is on his way to Egypt in search of his lost son Joseph (the one with the ‘amazing technicolour dreamcoat’):

When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
Then he said, ‘I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph’s own hand shall close your eyes.’ (Gen. 44.1-4)

Through Jacob’s sacrificial activity, God breaks ineffably into his human consciousness, assuring both his identity and legacy, in just the same way God did with his Grandfather, Abraham.

Again and again throughout the Hebrew scriptures, at times when all appears lost, God breaks ineffably into the human consciousness of the people of Israel, acting to assure their salvation.  And in first century Palestine, when the punishing rule of Roman occupation seemed an inevitable future, God broke ineffably into human consciousness once again. Only this time the form God took was human.

Incarnated identity in the New Testament

God, taking on bodily form in the person of Jesus, signifies the beginning of the fundamental restoration of the relationship between God and humanity.  The God who walks in the garden of Eden, searching for the shamed Adam and Eve, is the same God who befriends, heals, serves and commands in the everyday ordinariness of first century Palestine.  No longer is there a need for burnt offerings to thin the divide between heaven and earth. It has been permanently breached in the most glorious way; for in Jesus the ability to see God is opened to all.

This concept of bodily redemption is then modelled in the earliest Jesus-believing communities, who describe themselves as the ‘Body of Christ’ (1 Cor. 12).  This corporate embodiment is outworked, both through their tangible attachment to each other, and the way they reach out together to the world around them.  Rather than making sacrifices of animals, the followers of Jesus reaffirm their identity as God’s chosen through the sharing of bread and wine together; and it is not long before this possibility is opened far beyond the reaches of those born into the Jewish bloodline.

The way of life lived by the Jesus-believing communities, recorded in the Book of Acts, demonstrates how this body of otherwise unremarkable fishermen, zealots, wives and mothers become exemplars of what it is to live as people with God ineffably present among them:

 Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2.42-47)

Through a combination of Biblical, literary and archeological evidence, it is possible to piece together a picture of how the earliest Christians lived.  The image is of small communities popping up throughout the Near East and Mediterranean Europe. They gathered to share food and friendship, to learn more about Jesus, and to commit themselves to modelling a way of life which was gracious, generous, egalitarian and compelling. For more on communal eating and worship practices in the earliest Christian communities click here.

Relevance for Today

Of course all the events referred to above were said or spoken between two and four thousand years ago, and canonised (selected and ordered) almost 2,000 years ago. There are those who say it is out of date, that it has no relevance to, or bearing on, our lives today.  But regardless of how literally the words in the Bible are taken (and in ancient times many words were meant figuratively rather than literally), there are universal truths to find amongst the pages.

Without doubt, the human race is fatally and fundamentally flawed. What we have done to each other and to our planet in recent history is enough to testify to that. And if, as a species, we were able to obey the Ten Commandments given to Moses in the Pentateuch , strive to learn from the ancient teachings in the wisdom literature (books such as Proverbs and Ecclesiastes), and follow Jesus’ example and teachings from the New Testament, the world might look very different.

As it is we can only make a difference where we are, in our own realm.  At the end of the Bible is a future vision of a new heaven and new earth.  In that new world the nations, identifiable in their uniqueness, live in harmony. There is food enough for everyone, and love reigns.  And we do live on a planet where that is humanly possible.  It is also our ‘humanness’, flawed as it is, which prevents that happening.

But…

The Bible teaches me that it is not all hopeless. The picture of goodness, painted in the words and deeds of Jesus and his followers, is inspiration enough to make me want to try and model it, both in my personal life and in my professional dealings. So therein lies the basis for my incarnational theology.  I am called to ’embody’ the person and teachings of Jesus, to see others through the eyes of God incarnated, and to love my planet and its inhabitants, however hard they sometimes make it.

More next time…

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…”

…or, the Biblical precedent for breaking bread together round a table

Today, many churches are adopting table fellowship – or the practice of sharing food and drink round a table – as a way of attracting people to explore faith in Jesus.  One example is how this ideas is impacting the church is the Eating Together book in the Holy Habits series by Andrew Roberts.

Far from being a novel idea, this practice models that of the first century Jesus-believers and earliest Christian communities.  I would like to suggest that the close relationship between eating together and the formation of early Christian identity referred to in the Bible, makes a compelling argument for adopting eating together as a way of forging Christian community in the twenty first century.

Banqueting, or more particularly sharing food and drink, is found throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. According to the writer of John’s Gospel Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding banquet (John 2.1-10); he is invited to a ‘great banquet’ by Levi , where tax collectors and others are reclining with him (Luke 5.29-32); and John sets the Last Supper within the context of banquet (John 13.1-26). By combining scriptural accounts with archaeological and other written evidence, Biblical scholars have suggested that sharing meals was a key aspect of the worship life of first century Christians.

First century banquets – a model for early Christian gatherings

From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (2003), Dennis Smith’s exhaustive study of Greco-Roman banquet practice in the first century CE, demonstrates that sharing food and drink in a social and religious context played an important role in both Jewish and Gentile communities. Archaeological evidence suggests that synagogue architecture of the first century was based on the Greco Roman dining model, and many Jewish festival practices followed the same pattern.

Banquets held in the first century followed a model detected in Assyria as early as the sixth century BCE and adopted by the Hellenics 300 years later. As great admirers of Hellenistic culture, the Romans could to see for themselves the benefit of encouraging a banqueting model which built a sense of community at a time when traditional tribal and ethnic groupings were being challenged. Through the medium of eating together, individuals were able to reinforce social status whilst enabling social mobility and, in one to of the earliest examples of charitable fundraising, banqueting provided a means for poorer members of the community to organise and pay for their own funeral.

Banquets were held in temples, hired rooms or in individual people’s homes. In the first half of the century they were small in size, with dining rooms holding between seven and 11 people. Archaeological evidence shows that alterations were made to both houses and public buildings in the latter part of the first century CE to facilitate larger numbers of diners.

Only people who could afford to host them held banquets, although there is evidence that the nature of some associations enabled people from lower classes to participate. Hosts tended to invite people of a similar status similar to their own, and there would be a guest of honour, seated to the right of the host, whose role was to direct the proceedings. There is evidence that women attended as guests, but only infrequently and always at a low ranking place. When they arrived guests were placed in rank order on couches around the walls of the dining hall, reclining to reflect their status as being able to afford leisure time.  Slaves served food, washed guests’ hands between courses, and dealt with any drunken behaviour between guests. Dogs and uninvited guests might be tolerated, but arriving late was a taboo. Once the banquet started, no invited guest was permitted to enter.

Whether it was a religious festival, collegial gathering, association of tradespeople or funerary organisation, the format was always the same: a meal (deipnon) followed by entertainment (symposion), which often included a philosophical debate. In addition the Emperor Augustus had instituted an obligatory toast to be made to the Emperor, to reinforce his divine status and to promote cultural self-understanding as a subject of the Roman world.

During the deipnon the host would often provide food and drink, but sometimes guests would bring their own, to be distributed by servants. Portion sizes varied according to status, reinforcing the rank of each individual guest. During the symposion the guests would continue to drink and there was usually some form of musical entertainment. Often a flute girl would play, although in reality she would often double up as a courtesan. Discussions would take place on various themes, the participants would sing, and fellowship would be shared.

Radical practices for a radical new faith

Dennis Smith’s suggestion, that worship within the earliest Jesus believing communities was in the form of a symposion, has merit. At the Last Supper Jesus is the host, while the beloved disciple reclines next to him, and they share food and drink together, followed by a long period of discourse (John 13.1-26). Although this account may be more reflective of the experience of the writer than Jesus himself, that the banqueting model used in the narrative shows a familiarity with, and acceptance of, this form of commensality. Paul’s suggestion to the Corinthians that each person contribute “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation” for the upbuilding of the community, also suggests this might be the case in the earliest churches (I Cor. 14.26).

Although on the face of it the common banquet pattern was followed,  in Paul’s letters we find a model of table fellowship which radically challenged accepted norms.  From fragments of information a picture emerges of myriad groups in a number of different places, each struggling to make sense of their new faith, and work out how to practice it in their own community/ies through their eating policies and practices.

Paul is clear that in the community of Jesus believers there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, or male and female. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28). This in itself is a radical statement, for of course the Romans maintained strict control on social stratification, reinforced by banqueting practices.

When Paul challenges the Corinthian Jesus believers to wait until all are present before they begin to eat (I Cor. 11.33-34), it implies that members who are slaves and would finish work much later than the free, would miss out on the start of the meal unless it was delayed. Although Paul’s reference to the women in Corinth talking too much is not nice (and possibly a later addition), it does at least demonstrate that they were included as full members of the eating community (I Cor. 14.34-36).

Generally Jews would not share meals with Gentiles (non-Jews), even if they were liberal enough to attend banquets at which Gentiles were present. In defining themselves as members of the ekklesia (church), the Jewish members were released from strict observance of the Torah regarding food. However, Paul asks them to be courteous to those for whom this is an issue: “if your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14.2-15).  Similarly he writes to the Corinthians,”All things are lawful,” but not all things beneficial.  “All things are lawful, but not all things build up… Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God” (I Cor. 10.23,31).

These differences were about more than demonstrating equality among members. For in reality those who arrived as slaves left as slaves, and those who were wealthy and had hosted the meals remained so after their guests had left.  Jews remained Jewish and Gentiles remained Gentile. My suggestion is that these practices reflected an eschatological understanding of what participants were entering into by becoming part of the fellowship of believers. This was no future ideal – it was a reality they saw very much in the present.  Where Greco-Roman society promoted inequality and maintained allegiance to Rome through table fellowship, the churches did the opposite; and by so doing created and performed rituals that reinforced that identity.

Worship round the table: its relevance for today

Fast forward two thousand years, and we find worship among most Christian communities very different. Fifteen hundred years of Christendom Church practice has, in many ways, caused a sanitised version of that radical existence, with services having more in common with assemblies or public meetings than times of deep, identity-forming fellowship. Congregations might share a cuppa before or after their service – and indeed it is an important aspect of relationship formation – but I would argue that the format of traditional Sunday morning worship reflects very little of the reality of worship as described in the Bible.

As Christendom fades and a new era as yet un-named begins, that assembly-style way of receiving and taking in information feels less and less relevant as a way of attracting people and forging community.  In response to this congregations up and down the country are exploring new ways of worship – or perhaps it might be said they are returning to ancient ones.

Today’s missiologists (such as Jim Belcher and Kester Brewin for example) suggest that ‘successful’ churches are ones which offer the opportunity to form a deep relationships with God; modelling lifestyles on the example and teachings of Jesus; and allow the Holy Spirit to fire and inspire every aspect of daily lives.  What’s more, commensality is a particularly effective way to achieve this.

My experience is that table fellowship – gathering together round a table to share food and learn more about Jesus – is an exceptionally good way to do this.  Through eating and spending time together, engaging in deep conversation, and even sharing bread and wine in Remembrance of Jesus, community is formed, identity emerges, and people are literally fed, both physically and spiritually, to lead lives modelled on Jesus himself.

Further reading:

Andrew Roberts, Holy Habits: Eating Together (London, Bible Reading Fellowship)

Dennis Smith, 2003, From Symposion to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World, (Kindle version from Amazon)

Wayne Meeks, 2003, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (Yale University Press)

Hal Taussig, 2009, In the Beginning Was The Meal (Minneapolis, Fortress)

Mary Douglas, “Deciphering a Meal” in Clifford Geertz, 1971, Myth, Symbol and Culture (New York, Norton)

Jim Belcher, 2009, Deep Church (Downers Grove, IVP)

Kester Brewin, Signs of Emergence (London, Baker Books)

 

 

 

Baptism: navigating the waters

two person riding kayak
Photo by Ibrahim Asad on Pexels.com

… or, a simple guide to where Baptism comes from, what it is, and who can have it.

Four years ago my partner in marriage and I had our baby ‘Christened’.  The event itself was one of immense joy, and lots of people came from around the country to celebrate and share the occasion with us.  But the simplicity of the service in no way represented the agonising which took place beforehand.

The details of the event itself were easy: in the community centre with a Devon cream tea to follow, and presided over by a local URC minister. Which ceremony we would choose was not such an easy decision to make: Baptism or Thanksgiving? What was the difference? As an ordained minister I knew what I wanted – but my desire to allow my daughter to choose Baptism for herself later was different to that of my husband.  He couldn’t see why we wouldn’t choose the option of having her properly initiated into the church.  It was one of those cases where theological knowledge didn’t actually help.

I don’t think ours is an uncommon experience, and I wish there had been a simple guide when we were deciding what we wanted.  Hopefully this quick guide to Baptism will help others with the same dilemma we had.

Baptism in the Bible

Baptism as a practice predates Christianity. It was undertaken in the first century by Jewish people who wished to recommit themselves to living a holy life. The ceremony would involve being immersed fully in water.  It signified the forgiveness of sins and a new chapter in a person’s spiritual journey.  John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was renowned for Baptising candidates in the river Jordan. He himself Baptised Jesus.  However, he was always clear that his Baptism would in no way equate to the one initiated by Jesus.

After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1.7-8)

Although Jesus is not recorded as Baptising anyone, his parting instructions before he ascends into heaven are, amongst other things, Baptising believers in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28.19). There are several incidences of Baptism recorded in the Book of Acts, and it is referred to frequently in the other books of the New Testament. Here are two examples:

  • According to the Bible, the first Christian convert on mainland Europe was a Macedonian cloth trader called Lydia.  She first encounters Paul, the persecutor turned evangelist, at the river on the outskirts of the town. Paul goes there to pray and meets a group of women, including Lydia. The author records how “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  (Acts 16.14)  In the next verse she and her entire ‘household’ are Baptised.
  • Paul himself went through a radical conversion experience which included Baptism. He was blinded by a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, then taught in the ways of the faith by Ananias, a Christian leader he was originally on his way to arrest. Paul (who is at that point called Saul) is recorded as being Baptised shortly afterwards. Ever the zealot, he begins to proclaim Jesus the ‘Son of God’ (Acts 9.20), so successfully that he becomes the subject of the arrest warrant he himself used to use.

So what is it all about? 

Baptism is a Sacrament, described by Thomas Cranmer, author of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, as:

visible signs, expressly commanded in the New Testament, which are joined with the promise of free forgiveness of our sin and of our holiness and union in Christ – there are but two: Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.  (1547)

The Reformed understanding of the sacraments, reflected in the words of Cranmer and in the theology and practice of the URC, is that there are two Gospel Sacraments – ceremonies or activities which Jesus commanded his followers to adopt. They are Baptism (Matt 28.19) and Holy Communion, also known as the Supper of the Lord or Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) (Matt 26.26-29//).

Through the immersion in, or pouring on of, water; the love and saving grace of God, offered so freely to all who believe, are acknowledged, celebrated and received.  participants are united with Christ and bound to each other, receiving through the power of the Holy Spirit the spiritual nourishment needed to empower them for the journey of faith ahead.

The water used is what is known as a ‘signifier’, a visible sign of the activity of God.  It is not simply a marker.  In the act of confessing faith and asking for God’s blessing, ordinary things are made holy, and God becomes present among those gathered as the water is poured or the candidate dunked.

Who can be Baptised?

There are two generally accepted kinds of Baptism:

  • Believer’s Baptism – when the candidate is of an age to make their own commitment to Christ. This can be done by full immersion (in a river, baptistry or pool), or over a font.
  • Infant Baptism – a ceremony sometimes known culturally as ‘Christening’, when an infant is brought by their parents to be Baptised, usually over a font.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, Baptism has been a key initiation ceremony, a signifier of a person’s sincere commitment to following Jesus.  The candidate is required to declare their faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then be immersed in water or have it poured on, as a symbol of the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit and their new identity as member of the Church. Whether infants were Baptised in Biblical times is unclear.  We do not know if the ‘household’ of Lydia, Baptised in its entirety, included minors, and other corporate references to Baptism are equally unclear (Acts 16.33, 1 Cor. 12.13, Gal 3.27, 1 Peter 3.21).  However we do know that, in the third century, Cyprian advocated infant Baptism, and by the fifth or sixth centuries it had become an accepted practice.

While all churches advocate Believers Baptism, not all offer the Baptism of infants. Roman Catholics and the Church of England routinely Baptise babies, while the Baptists, as their name suggests, hold Baptism in particularly high regard.  For them it is a key marker, an occasion during which a person demonstrates their commitment to following Christ, and is therefore only possible for those old enough to make that decision themselves.

Within the United Reformed Church, only two of the three contributing traditions practise infant Baptism (Congregationalist and Presbyterian). The Churches of Christ follow a tradition of Believers’ Baptism by full immersion – with ex-Churches of Christ URCs still in possession of their Baptistries.  One thing which unites all three is the conviction that, whenever it happens, and by whatever means, Baptism – the ceremony through which one enters the church – can only happen once.

Baptism or Thanksgiving/Dedication?

The journey to becoming a Christian can be a complicated one, and is unique for each person. For some it is a momentary experience, a sudden ‘being born again’, so powerful that a person is changed forever. For others it can take as a long as a lifetime.  Being Baptised, whether it is a choice made on a child’s behalf by their parents or by a believing adult, is just as individual, and the expectations of what is appropriate will be influenced by the practices adopted by the tradition with which they are most familiar.

For those feeling unready to declare their faith and commit to following Jesus, but who want to celebrate the birth of a child and have him or her blessed, there are alternatives.  In the URC there is a Service of Thanksgiving, which includes the blessing of the child.  The benefit of choosing this ceremony is that the child is given the option of deciding for themselves later whether or not they want to be Baptised.  There are some for whom the presence of water is important.  It is a signifier – more than just a symbol of God’s love and blessing – and not having it just wouldn’t seem ‘proper’.

As can be seen from this outline, the sacrament of Baptism is a holy act, located at the very heart of church life.  Christians believe that through it, God is at work, so it is never to be taken lightly.  Anyone considering Baptism for themselves or their baby should contact the church they would like to conduct the ceremony, and should expect there to be some form of preparation before the ceremony can take place.

A theology of touch

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or, why Hug Cullompton hugs in the first place.

The Bible tells us that humankind is created in the image of God (Gen. 1.26-27) .  We are embodied, an immortal soul housed in a temporary shell (2 Cor.5.1-5).  Like Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 2, we are meant not to be alone, but to live in relationship with others; and living in relationship with others – whether we like it or not – necessarily includes physical touch.

The importance of touch

That Jesus’ way of revealing his messianic identity runs contrary to accepted cultural norms, should be no surprise to those who know their Bible.  He is renowned for dining with sinners and befriending the lost.  But the most revealing encounters of all, those which flesh out the identity of Jesus as the most unconventional of saviours, invariably include touch:

  • He demonstrates his priestly identity by laying his hands on and blessing children (Matthew 9.13-15 //);
  • He is anointed by a woman whose hair is hanging lose (a sign of disrepute), and who wipes the perfume away with mix of her hair and her tears (Mark 14.3-9, John 12.3-8 //); and
  • On the night of the Last Supper, when he institutes the sacramental practice of sharing bread and wine in remembrance of him, he first washes the feet of the disciples – an activity usually carried out only by the most lowly (John 13.3-14). The man, who is God made human, turns Kingship on its head in a supreme act of servanthood.

And when, following the meal,  Jesus is arrested, the ultimate betrayal is committed through the most intimate of touches – a kiss (Mark 14.43-46 //).

After the resurrection Mary Magdalene reaches for him in the garden (John 20.15-18), Thomas is invited to touch his hands and his side (John 20.26-29), Jesus is bodily present as he walks alongside a couple on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35), conversing and sharing a meal with them, and soon afterwards he appears on the beach, cooking for, and sharing breakfast with, his disciples (John 21.4-14).

A whole host of scholars, including Ched Myers, NT Wright, James DG Dunn and Andrew Harvey, have explored at length the radical nature of Jesus’ ministry (see ‘Suggested Reading’ Below).  Bob Johnson, in his book When Heaven Invades Earth, suggests that the true greatness of Christ is revealed, not in messiahship as understood by his first century peers (they expected a revolutionary overthrower of the Imperial Roman Power), but in his solidarity with the poor, the disempowered, the lost and the alone. The most remarkable thing is Christ’s willingness to touch those considered untouchable – because, as sacred creations knitted together in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139), no-one is beyond God’s touch.

Healing through touch

A major part of Jesus’ ministry was healing – bringing wholeness to others.  He cured physical diseases, but also relieved mental infirmities and offered forgiveness to those who needed it. Despite a cultural hesitancy to allow physical contact with people who were considered ‘unclean’ (due to illness or lack of morality)  Jesus was never hesitant in touching anyone. Early in the book of Luke, Jesus “lays hands” on all those who come to him at sundown for healing.  To heal a deaf man with speech difficulties he puts his fingers in the man’s ears, and spits on his hands then touches his tongue. Later a man’s sight is restored after Jesus mingles mud with spittle and rubs it on his eyes.  When a woman who has been suffering from menstrual problems for 18 years touches his cloak, Jesus feels the power go out of him. Although he has not seen who she is, it is the sense of touch which is important. Her reaching for him, combined with her faith in his ability to perform miracles, results in her miraculous healing from a longterm illness which, according to the culture of the time, had made her unclean in the eyes of her peers.

There is something both intimate and earthy about these physical expressions of loving service.  Jesus isn’t afraid of getting stuck in; of allowing human beings to be physically touched by God.  Although Jesus’ healing power is not dependent on touch –  he is recorded as both raising men from the dead and healing two children close to death without needing to be alongside the bodies or even present – there is an expectation that, by the laying on of hands, Jesus heals.

In acknowledging the importance of laying hands on someone, Jesus is being recognised by his peers as having more than a coincidental healing talent. His actions are equated with anointing. They are holy acts – acts which bring physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness to the person on which they are laid.

This focus on wholeness has been explored at length by the members of Hug Cullompton.  The way we eat, pray, exercise, laugh, live and worship, both together and in our daily lives, are discussed regularly. Wellbeing Wednesdays is our opportunity to extend our theology of touch to anyone who is in need of help, whether they come for regular ‘sessions’ or just pop in on the off-chance. The member who started Wellbeing Wednesdays is herself a healer and life coach, practising a variety of disciplines in order to help people look beyond physical symptoms to the emotional or spiritual issues might be at the root of their discomfort.

We never suggest that people stop taking the advice, medication or treatment offered by their GP and other health professionals, and we will often give details of nutritionists, osteopaths or other professionally qualified practitioners who we think might be able to help. But while the NHS really only has only limited resources to address medical problems, at Hug Cullompton we can give the time needed for to a person to begin to explore finding wholeness.

The touch of the Holy Spirit

During his final evening with the disciples, Jesus promised them an advocate, the Holy Spirit (John 14.25-26, 15.26-27; Acts 1.6-8).  This is the aspect of God which came to the apostles on the day of Pentecost, and the person of the Trinity which remains present in the world to this day.  In the book of Acts the coming of the Holy Spirit is described as being like tongues of fire, touching each one on the believers (Acts 2.1-3).  Throughout history followers of Jesus have described a similar experience when they feel the power of the Holy Spirit. It may not be seen or heard, but it is certainly experienced as a tangible ‘thing’.

Bill Johnson’s theology of healing is a pneumatological one (meaning it is founded on an understanding of how the Holy Spirit works in the world). He argues that, in becoming fully human, Jesus emptied himself of his divinity (Phil 2.5-10), and became entirely dependent on the power of Holy Spirit to carry out his work in the world.  It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that Christ heals infirmities, feeds thousands, stills storms and walks on water. Johnson’s conclusion is that, by the power of the same Spirit, all humans can equal this – a rather far fetched assumption to say the least!  However, the presumption that human empowerment, in the name of Christ and fuelled by the Holy Spirit, can achieve immeasurably more than can initially be envisaged, is not (Eph 3.20-21). Miracles do happen, healing does take place. I have seen with my own eyes, and experienced for myself, the healing power of prayer.

The Body of Christ in reaching out

From very early on in their history, Christian communities described themselves as  the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12).  This understanding of corporate embodiment is a fundamental aspect of the common Christian life, both in the way individual members feel a tangible sense of attachment to each other, and how they reach out together to the world around them.

Hug Cullompton has certainly adopted an attitude of corporate embodiment. We committed, from day one, to be there for ourselves, each other and out town.  We have initiated projects which address personal wholeness and healing, but also others which embrace and promulgate a holistic vision for residents. We have made tea, given hugs, prayed with and ministered to a multitude of people in the past five years. In addition we have promoted talent, encouraged people to explore the Arts, raised money for the local swimming pool campaign and started an organisation providing friendship and purpose, specifically for men.

Our name – Hug Cullompton – is no coincidence. Both the title and ministry attached to it are based on a great deal of prayer, reflection and mutual love.  As a body we reach out to touch others – both individuals and organisations.  In committing to bring about wholeness to our town and its residents, we practice what Jesus both preached and demonstrated:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

Suggested Reading:

Dunn, James DG, 2011, Jesus, Paul and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans)

Harvey, Andrew, 1999, Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ (New York, Putnam)

Johnson, Bill, 2003, When Heaven Invades Earth: A Practical Guide to a Life of Miracles (Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image)

Myers, Ched, 2008, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (New York, Orbis)

Wright, NT, 2012, How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (London, HarperOne)

 

 

 

 

Thinking again about ‘Worship and Mission’

fullsizeoutput_13fe…or, being realistic in churches about what can be achieved.

In Worship and Mission After Christendom (2011), Alan and Eleanor Kreider suggest that, until recently, the terms ‘Worship’ and ‘Mission’ were rarely used together as a single phrase. In Christendom times responsibility for ‘Worship’ was the job of professional clergy, created for a population who habitually attended once a week.  Meanwhile the task of ‘Mission’ was handed to a separate group of professionals, employed and commissioned by organisations such as the London Missionary Society, Church Mission Society and Baptist Missionary Society, who were sent overseas to convert non-Christians in far away lands. Meanwhile, the job of congregations in this country was to fund and pray for them. (pp.1-3)

In many churches the prevailing culture which separates worship from mission remains so utterly dominant it is hard to break.  Religion has, until recently, been the preserve of our personal lives. That is not to say individual Christians haven’t always lived out their own call to discipleship. It is simply that responsibility for a church’s corporate mission was seen as the responsibility of a small group of experts.

Those in the habit of ‘going to church’ have been used to listening to a sermon, the contents of which they can absorb and adopt privately, with no requirement to discuss what they have heard; not with the worshippers sitting next to them or – heaven help them – with someone they might encounter outside the church.

Even for those who know change is both necessary and inevitable, being the product of Christendom culture makes the challenge of becoming actively ‘missional’ uncomfortable.  The truth is that, for most members who are the product of Christendom Church, the transition from passive worshipper to full-on evangelist is terrifying – and utterly implausible.

What then, are we to do, if we who are passionate about the Church and want to see a future for it, actually find the prospect of ‘evangelism’ terrifying?

Changing Sunday Morning Worship (or not!)

Let us begin with the issue of worship.

Steve Aisthorpe, in his fascinating study The Invisible Church: Learning from the Experiences of Churchless Christians (2016), starts by debunking seven myths about why churches are in decline. One is “if congregations do the right things leavers will become returners.”

Although 30% of leavers surveyed in the 2015 Faith in Scotland study said they would consider returning to church if they were offered a different style of worship, the majority said they wouldn’t. While some non-attenders interviewed by Aisthorpe would consider joining a small group for discussion, the majority have found leaving the church liberating, enabling them to pursue what they believe to be their Christian vocation outside the bounds of institutional religion.

This implies that, while offering different opportunities for Christian worship and/or formation holds merit, simply changing services on Sunday mornings is not the answer. Adding the odd chorus or discussion section to a traditional service format is not going to attract anyone new – although it might appeal to some who are disillusioned but still attending.

The positive outcome of this myth-debunking is to relieve traditional congregations, who value their style of worship and are fed spiritually by it, from feeling they ought to change.  My suggestion is that, when it comes to Sunday mornings leave well alone, but get those who do attend to accept that, while it is right for them, their preferred method of spiritual succour is not  for everyone.

If Jesus is for everyone – and I sincerely hope every Christian believes that – then an alternative form of worship and/or Christian formation needs to be found – or at lest experimented with, at a different time and possibly in a different venue.  Sunday morning worshippers need not attend these new activities – but they should be advocating for, encouraging, praying for and blessing them. That in itself is a change in attitude, changing the focus of the church from inward to outward looking.

Changing the focus of the church

In their book The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (2012), Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim suggest that, to create fertile ground for the church in the 21st century, a change in mindset is needed. They suggest that, rather than using time and energy maintaining the church as it is, Christians should be encouraged to think creatively how they might best contribute to the mission of God.  

In practice this means refocusing one’s efforts away from church activities, and concentrating on how to be ‘salt and light’ in the world.  Focussing the growth of the church on attracting people on Sunday mornings with the expectation that half the British population will wake up one morning with a sudden desire to ‘go to church’ is utterly unrealistic.

One of the benefits of this change in focus is that it releases members of churches which no longer provide huge numbers of activities, from toddler groups to tea dances, from a sense of failure and guilt.  “We used to..” and “We’ve already tried…” are rarely helpful ways to start a sentence when discerning what God is calling churches to next.

Instead members might consider their own life of discipleship – not necessarily the rotas they are on or church organisations they support – but their own day to day activities.  It might be that in their spare time they do the shopping for a neighbour or help out at a local charity shop. In their professional lives they might work in an office or provide a service for others.  As members of a family with friendships they will have a circle of relationships to which they are committed.

Hirsch and Catchim suggest that none of these things are divorced from the life of faith, just because they do not take place within the confines of a church building or context of a church family.  Discipleship is the act of living as a follower of Jesus; not just at church but during every hour of every day. Serving the Church – which is the body of Christ – is incorporated into all these things; and they are all aspects of building the Kingdom of God, regardless of their level of interaction with the institutional Church.

Church members will often display a sense of guilt because they can’t manage to take on yet another task for the church.  By transforming the way discipleship is defined, channels are opened up for people to continue their walk with Jesus guilt-free, liberated to enjoy life more, and become an example of Christianity that inspires and attracts people to want to know more about.  The London Institute of Contemporary Christianity has excellent resources to help churches think in this way. One course,  Fruitfulness on the Front Line, has been successfully used by churches. See here how it inspired members of Muddiford United Reformed Church.

Being Realistic about Who Can Achieve What

Despite what seems like a relentless desire by some within church traditions to equate discipleship with evangelism, they are not the same thing. Paul’s describes a multitude of gifts required to “build up” the Christian community (Ephesians 4.1-16). Only one of these is ‘evangelist’.  Discipleship can take on many forms, one of which is persuading others to follow Jesus, but not everyone has strong debating skills in their make-up.  Trying to make people what they’re not – for the sake of Christ – is not, I would suggest, very Biblical.

For those congregations without natural evangelists it is very depressing to keep hearing they must ‘make new disciples’ if ‘making new disciples’ is understood only to refer to evangelism. The truth is that few people come to faith through hearing a testimony and undergoing an instant radical conversion experience. For most it is a journey and, if current experts are to be believed, a longer one than it once was.

There are ways of helping people along without headlong evangelistic fervour. A more realistic way of doing it is accompaniment. Someone being accompanied on those first steps of faith might eventually be ready to attend a course such a Alpha or Essence, but equally, if not more important, is the gentle presence of someone alongside, who is open to questions, having been inspirational enough to make someone want to ask in the first place.

Attracting New Sunday Morning Worshippers

I am constantly amazed by those who are puzzled that no-one new comes to their church – when they have never invited anyone.  “Isn’t that the job of the minister?” asks a member of a congregation which hasn’t had its own minister for many years, and has no real prospect of obtaining one.

The evidence is that the majority of people who start to attend church do not do so in a vacuum. They are attracted by the example of a Christian known to them, are invited to church by them, are welcomed when they attend, and are accompanied as they are introduced to what ‘going to church’ is like.

For someone completely new to church culture, attending a Sunday service can be both intimidating and puzzling. Although the members of a church have emotional attachments both to their fellow worshippers and building, new people will not.  Troubling aspects of services such as poor preaching, problems with the music, inadequate heating or uncomfortable chairs will be overlooked by those emotionally attached; but if someone trying church for the first time is bored, cold or uncomfortable it is unlikely they will return.

Churches which do grow through worship services invest in creating a quality worship experience.  This is not to say everyone wants church to include a professional worship band and renowned preacher.  But acknowledging and committing to addressing issues which might be putting off current worshippers from inviting someone else to ‘come to church’ could be a start in transforming the quality of worship experience they offer.

This article has been an attempt to make a few tentative suggestions for those who desperately desire to see their church grow and thrive, but cannot see a way beyond the current decline. The changes I am suggesting are not expensive – except for churches who might decide to employ professionals to continue a traditional pattern of ‘Worship and Mission’. They are to do with realisation, a change in attitude, and a change in focus; simple ways to share a faith in Jesus which can be sustaining, challenging, and ultimately irresistible to others.

Suggested Reading:

Aisthorpe, S, 2016, The Invisible Church: Learning from the Experiences of Churchless Christians (Edinburgh, St Andrews Press)

Hirsch , A and Catchim, T, 2012, The Permanent Revolution: Apostolic Imagination and Practice for the 21st Century Church (San Francisco, Jossey Bass)

Kreider A. and Kreider E, 2011, Worship and Mission After Christendom (Milton Keynes, Paternoster)

Walking the journey from despair to hope…

beach-sea-coast-sand-ocean-horizon-531737-pxhere.com… or, facing the reality that the church needs change and working out how

I remember the day I first discovered that the church in Great Britain is in decline.  The year was 2007 and I was sitting in my first MA seminar.  The module was entitled Secularisation and the Church, and on the screen was a graph charting the decline of the different denominations. The United Reformed Church (URC) line was the steepest.

I remember feeling angry. I was a relatively newly ordained minister, with a church maintaining its numbers, despite a number of deaths among older congregation members. As a church we generally blamed our lack of substantial growth on the church down the road, attendance there being a prerequisite for admission to the  local church school.  As I stared at the line-of-decline I felt as though I had been deluding myself. Our failure to attract new attenders had less to do with church school policy and more to do with societal and cultural changes to which we, as the church, weren’t responding . It seemed I had dedicated years of my life, and my future, to a failing organisation.

For the next few years debate continued on whether or not Britain had become secularised  – as though denying a truth would make it go away.  The way I see it now, even if it wasn’t the case then, we are living in a secular age – if we mean, by the term ‘secular’, an age in which British people generally no longer understand the world through the lens of formal religion.  What the sociologist Peter Berger (1990) termed the ‘sacred canopy’, under which people make meaning in England, has indeed been seriously compromised, if not fractured.

Which raises a question: what is the Church to do about it?

A book which tackles this subject is Mark Ireland and Mike Booker’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (2015).  It is a follow up to Evangelism: Which Way Now? published in 2003, which outlines and assesses a variety of evangelistic courses.

In Making New Disciples Ireland and Booker begin by acknowledging the societal and cultural changes which have impacted the church since the publication of their first book:

  • Increasing secularisation in Britain has resulted in the marginalisation of the church in public life;*
  • Britons claiming to identify as Christians are now a minority, and even fewer align themselves with any particular denomination;
  • People are less likely to join institutions of any kind, including the church;
  • Many of those who do not relate to Christianity see the Church as “repressive, sexist, homophobic and often associated with child abuse”;
  • Research has shown that Christians are less likely to attach importance to passing on their faith than teaching manners and a moral code.

*although sociologists such as Grace Davie and theologians such as Elaine Graham are arguing for the reverse of this – labelling it a ‘post-secular age’

They suggest that what they call ‘standard’ churches no longer appeal to the majority of British people.  Grace Davie suggests that, for those now into a third generation of non-participance in institutional religious life and hardly any understanding of the Christian narrative at all, Church as a concept holds virtually no relevance.

Despite all these negative facts about the state of the institutional church, my personal experience is that there is still an interest in, if not thirst for, that which is beyond human understanding.  Whether it manifests itself in going to church, performing occasional internet searches, or attending Mind, Body, Spirit fairs, I have found that the urge to identify with, and find some comfort in, a benevolent creative power and sense of an afterlife, is very much alive and well in Mid-Devon.

The question, then, is how do we harness this interest in a belief system among those who wouldn’t even consider ‘going to church’ to find the answers? An even more profound a question is, do we need to?

For Ireland and Booker the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’. They are, after all, committed members of the Church of England.  Their suggested method is what might be called a ‘blended economy’ of church – a variety of different expressions, united in a relationship of mutual prayer and support:

Fresh Expressions and inherited mode churches together, listening to one another and working to see what God is doing, have the potential to grasp a new understanding of the Church of God. It is less a case of ‘traditional’ and ‘fresh’ running in parallel but separate from each other, and more one of a changing, emerging shape, with both old and new being changed by mutual understanding, respect, listening and care. The future could be a new shape of church for all of us. (pp.152-153)

Ireland and Booker are realistic about the ability of evangelistic courses, so popular a decade ago, to bring people into encounter with the church for the first time.  They suggest that people who have no church background are more likely to be attracted through being invited by someone whose faith inspires them, than by seeing a service or course advertised and being enticed in.  They also argue for a richer variety of means of delivering worship, citing Messy Church, New Monastic communities and other forms of Fresh Expressions (experimental ways of worshiping),  as valid ways of doing this.

In a society which is increasingly secularised, there is a need for the church to respond to the variety of beliefs expressed by those around us, with openness and grace. Through reading the book I have identified four key influencers for someone considering exploring the Christian faith for the first time:

  • Example: many of those who come to faith do so because they have been inspired by someone known personally to them, and want to know more about that person’s motivation.
  • Invitation: it is an immense step for anyone to walk into a church or activity which is completely unfamiliar to them. If they are invited by someone who will accompany them throughout it is made much easier.
  • Welcome: there isn’t a Christian I know who hasn’t had one of  those bone-crunchingly awful experiences of going to a new church and being made to feel wholly unwelcome.  Being accepteded and valued from the start is key to a successful introduction to church.
  • Accompaniment: the journey to faith is often a long and complicated one, made much less confusing and challenging for someone if walked alongside someone who is there to love, support and pray for them.

Making New Disciples is a great resource for those looking for ideas and initiatives to attract new people to the church.  The authors highlight the importance of prayer and spiritual development, alongside committing to following Jesus day-by-day (discipleship), and developing the habit of sharing faith with others.  At the heart of it is their assertion that the future of the church lies, not in developing church-shaped-disciples, but a disciple-shaped-church.

Suggested Reading:

Ireland, M. and Booker, M., 2015, Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism (London, SPCK)

Brown, C, 2009 (2nd ed.), The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000 (Abingdon, Routledge)

Berger, P, 1990 (2nd ed.), Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York, Anchor)

Davie, Grace, “Religion in Public Life: Levelling the Ground” in Theos Think Tank, https://www.theosthinktank.co.uk/research/2017/10/28/religion-in-public-life-levelling-the-ground, accessed 31/07/2018

Graham, E, 2017, Apologetics without Apology: Speaking of God in a World Troubled by Religion (Eugene, OR, Wipf & Stock)

Relocating church into ‘the thick of it’

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Is there a difference between being ‘missional’ and ‘mission minded’?

When I first heard the term ‘missional’, I thought it was a made-up word; one of those pieces of jargon that would have its day then fade away, much like a lot of trends.

But the term is here to stay, and as time has gone on I have fallen in love with it.  One reason is that those I first heard using the term were those whose missiology (way of thinking about mission) I most respected, and whose ecclesiology (way of understanding the nature of church) resonated most with mine.

So what is it that makes a church ‘missional’, rather than just ‘mission minded’?  To my way of thinking it’s all to do with mindset. A ‘mission minded’ church understands itself fundamentally as a worshipping community, with a commitment to reaching out to others, serving them or inviting them to come and join. A ‘missional’ church is one which sets down  roots and creates identity within its cultural context; and it is developing from that context that members gather for worship and spiritual nurture.

One of the best books about being a ‘missional’ church is Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch’s The Shaping of Things to Come. First written in 2003, then re-edited and republished in 2013, the premise of the book is that, for a church to be fully ‘missional’, it needs to be ‘incarnational’.  In simple terms this means that it models itself on the identity and actions of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch identity four features of the incarnation which, for them, are key to modelling a church fit for today’s world:

  1. Through the person of Jesus, God identifies with humanity, down to the smallest, seemingly most insignificant person;
  2. As fully human, Jesus’ identity was shaped, both by his context (first century Galilee) and his relationships (with Mary and Joseph, the people of Galilee, his disciples and those whom he encountered during his ministry);
  3. In Jesus, heaven and earth meet, opening up access to God for all, not just the educated or those in positions of power or authority; and
  4. In Jesus we see the human image of God – and therefore the ultimate example of whom we should follow and how we should live.

As a consequence they argue that, for a church to be missional, it should reflect these four features.  It should be:

  1. For everyone, regardless of age, social background or educational ability;
  2. Fully alongside the people with whom it minsters, engaging in, and being impacted by, their cultural context and life experiences;
  3. An experience of heaven meeting earth; where Christ is encountered in transformative, life-afirming ways; and
  4. Modelling itself on the actions and teachings of Jesus.

Frost and Hirsch are critical of many forms of church, suggesting that, all too often, they “make the gospel synonymous with a bland, middle-class conformity, and thereby alienate countless people from encountering Christ.”   They even go as far as suggesting that Jesus himself might struggle to fit in with the vast majority of congregations today.  (p.58)

Instead they call for churches to adopt a way of being which is formed through relationships rather than activities.  Gathering and worshipping become the organic consequence of a growing sense of relationship, with Jesus and between one another, rather than an activity to which people who might be interested are invited.  They describe their vision for the church thus:

An incarnational mode creates a church that is a dynamic set of relationships, friendships, and acquaintances. It enhances and “flavors” the host communities’ living social fabric rather than disaffirming it. It creates a medium of living relationships through which the gospel can travel… a group of Christians infiltrating a community, like salt and light, to make those creative connections with people where God-talk and shared experience allow for real cross cultural Christian mission to take place (p.62)

When they speak of ‘cross-cultural mission’, they do not mean working with ‘others’ in foreign countries. They are actually speaking about their own – in this case Australia. The mission, which they believe is called for by God, is needed within their own communities and with people they know – the majority of whom have no knowledge of, or encounter with, the Jesus whose gospel message they so desperately want to share.

The Shaping of Things to Come might make uncomfortable reading for those who love, and are immersed in, traditional church culture – in fact it does come with a health warning at the beginning.  It is a rare person who wishes to read a book so highly critical of that in which they are so heavily invested – and perhaps at times it is over-critical. However, it does have some important observations to make, and I challenge anyone who reads it not to see merit in the radical change for which they argue.

The question remains, what are we in the church to do?  As I said at the beginning of this article, I do believe that transforming from being ‘mission minded’ to ‘missional’ is chiefly about mindset.  The challenge to us is not dissimilar to the one issued by Jesus to the disciples who were present at the Transfiguration (Mark 9.2-8//).

When Peter discovered himself in the very presence of the Transfigured Christ, his instinct was to build a tabernacle – a dwelling place for Jesus and each of the prophets.  He wanted to stay there, keeping the experience where heaven and earth collided forever up a mountain.  But Jesus was having none of it. He insisted that the consequence of such a sacred experience was to go back down into the valley and to abide there, serving the poor, the dispossessed and those most in need of healing.

In the prologue to his Gospel, John writes that Jesus, God made human, dwelt (literally ‘pitched his tent’) among us (John 1.14). It was from that dwelling place that he sent out his disciples to be his hands in the world.  Again and again throughout Bible we read accounts of transformational encounters between individuals, about relationships forged and communities formed. They were not without issues – and at times Paul is scathing about the way some of the earliest believers treated others. But the earliest churches were, by and large, vibrant, egalitarian communities, sharing worship over meals in people’s homes; with believers and enquirers sharing something of their own, of themselves, with those to whom they were bound by faith.

It seems to me that, in The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch recapture some of the vision of the early church. Such visionary endeavour is not limited to their writing, nor to their methodology. But it is worth a read.  And it is worth reflecting on whether, in the future – or indeed in the present – we wish our churches to be ‘missional’ or ‘mission minded’.

Suggested Reading:

Frost, M. and Hirsch, A, 2015 (2nd ed.) The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century (Grand Rapids, Baker Books)

 

Imaging the Church

abstract-acrylic-art-1061778.jpgI find the very different images used to describe ‘church’ fascinating.  In Avery Dulles’ seminal work he describes five models: institution, mystical communion, sacrament, herald and servant.  He suggests that no one model tells the whole story of the church, but in ‘being’ and ‘doing’ church, elements of these five aspects are at play.

Lexicographers tend to be less imaginative. The Oxford Dictionary defines church as:

  1. A building used for public Christian worship.
  2. A particular Christian organisation with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.
  3. Institutionalised religion as a political or social force.

And rightly so, for that is how the word ‘church’ would generally be defined, both by those who who associate with its institutions, and those who do not. 

The United Reformed Church’s Basis of Union (1972), its founding document, describes the church as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”, the agency through which God’s mission is outworked in the world (Clauses 1-4).  However, its “unity, holiness catholicity and apostolicity… have been obscured by the failure and weakness which mar the life of the Church” (Clause 5).  As a consequence the Church must “ever be renewed and reformed, according to the scriptures, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” (Clause 6).  

Reformed ecclesiology understands the church to be both an embodiment and exemplar of what it is to live in full covenantal relationship with God. It is also an educator to bring people into that relationship.  However it can be argued that historically the Church has struggled to meet this purpose.   In response to this paradox, theologians have developed the notion of the visible and invisible church, the visible church being that which we can see, fallen, broken and imperfect as it is, while the invisible church is the church as God desires it, perfect and in full relationship with God.

In the modern era particularly, with its focus on individualism, becoming part of the invisible church has been connected with the understanding that personal salvation is achieved through belief in Jesus Christ, with those existing outside the church condemned to eternal damnation, even though they may not realise it.

For a minister engaged in a gritty, day to day ministry to those who would be considered church ‘outsiders’, I instinctively felt that this highly theoretical concept failed to engage with the messiness of life.  I also struggled with an understanding of church, membership of which seemed to rest so heavily on one particular doctrine. One member of Hug Cullompton illustrated this perfectly the first time I met her. She said of her experience as a teenager living in the Midlands:

When I was Baptised and confirmed I saw it as the beginning of an exciting new spiritual journey.  I wanted to be challenged and I was desperate to learn more. I went to my minister, who told me I was saved, and that was what counted. I had already ‘made it’. For me that was nowhere near enough.  And that is the day I began to walk away from the church.

Today she is a person of deep faith and spiritual understanding, but none of that is a result of membership of a church.  Hers isn’t a unique experience by any means. That so many people I have encountered have wanted to explore a sense of the divine, but felt unable to do it within the context of ‘church’, truly saddens me.

I decided to search instead for a concrete theology of church and mission, scripturally based and properly thought through; one which I felt genuinely engaged with what it is to be human and in relationship, deeply or vaguely, with a creator God who is love (1 John 4.16).  I read statements from great Reformers reaching back as far as the sixteenth century, but also more current documents such as the Basis of Union, and books such as Ian Mobsby’s The Becoming of G-d: What the Trinitarian Nature of God has to do with Church and a Deep Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century, and Pete Ward’s Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church, both written in 2008.

Both Ward and Mobsby understand the Church to be a living organism. It is the agency through which God in Christ breaks into the world, by the power of the Spirit, incorporating God’s people gathered as one into an eternal, intertwining dance. Moving and constantly changing, and with a strong emphasis on mutuality and love, the church is a reflection of the Trinity.

This emphasis on movement and fluidity reminded me of how Vincent Donovan changed his understanding of church in the face of his experience in rural Kenya. The signifiers of the ‘visible church’ – a hospital, school and mission house – had no relevance among the population of indigenous, nomadic Masai.  The only way for Donovan to bring the Christian faith to these people was to leave the bounds, both of the mission station and his concept of the Church, and venture out, seeing where in the desert God was already at work, and attempting to join in.

My reading and reflection, combined with my experiences on the ground, helped me to realise the need to step out from within the confines of the church which had shaped me.  My aim was not to create either ‘visible’ or ‘invisible’ church, but to join together on a journey of pilgrimage with a group of people, also wishing to make sense of, and give purpose to, the sense of the ‘divine embrace’ they had already experienced.  In Hug Cullompton I found just that: a group of individuals in relationship with God, albeit beyond the bounds of traditional church.  As we began to grow into a community, we became more than friends. We were people on a mission; open to the leading of the Spirit and determined to become agents of change, in the name of the God with whom we were in covenantal relationship, even though none of us would ever use that phrase.

I am not saying that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of church is wrong, I would, however, suggest that, in the light of my experience, it might be missing a clause.  To the first three I would add a fourth definition of church:

  • a pilgrimage people, an ecclesial community, located temporally and geographically within God’s redemptive plan for the world.

 

Suggested Further Reading

Dulles, Avery, 1988, Models of the Church (2nd ed.), (Dublin, Gill and MacMillan)

Karkkainen, V-M, 2002, An Introduction to Ecclesiology, Ecumenical, Historical and Global Perspectives (Nottingham, IVP)

Mobsby, Ian, 2008, The Becoming of G-d: What the Trinitarian Nature of God has to do with Church and a Deep Spirituality for the Twenty-first Century (London, YTC Press)

Volf, Miroslav, 1998, After our Likeness: The Church as the image of the Trinity (Cambridge, Eerdmans)

Pete Ward, 2008, Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church (London, SCM)