learning the art of going fishing

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… or, reflections on creating spaces for missional conversations

A short time after I arrived in Cullompton I received a telephone call from the secretary of a church nearby.  They had recently refurbished their building and wanted me to go and give them some pointers on how best to use it to ‘get new people in’. 

“We have thought of doing cafe church,” she said, “But we’re not sure how.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I couldn’t even begin to unpack with her how thoroughly mistaken I thought her church’s attitude was to conceiving their future mission.  It seemed  they wanted to learn ‘the art of fishing’ without even leaving the building.

At the heart of the Christian faith is relationship: with God and each other.  This does not happen in a vacuum, nor does it always happen in a church building, and certainly not (although there are occasional exceptions) during an act of worship.

I have often heard faithful church members bemoan the fact that no-one new joins their rapidly declining congregation.  “They don’t come,” said one woman to me at a recent Sunday morning service, when I asked her whether her church had reached out to the newbuild estates down the road. “The local evangelical church knocked on every single door, and they only got a few.”

It saddened me. They were a lovely, warm, welcoming group of people, and their church building was potentially a vital community resource.  But they hadn’t yet grasped the twenty-first century reality, that people generally do not just start ‘going to church’.

If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, we have to be it ‘in‘ the world – not just in the church building. This requires venturing into the unfamiliar, both location-wise and context-wise.  Whether we like it or not, forming and developing relationships among those whose cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

The process of ‘fishing for people’ as Jesus called it, does not take place in the fisherman’s hut. It involves working out where the fish are and going to that location, before even considering casting a line or net. And even then, we can’t expect the fish to just ‘bite’ the line or swim into the net. They have to think there is something worth swimming that way for.

Creating a ‘bait’ – a means of engaging those who might otherwise not be interested in becoming ‘fish’ – requires creative thinking.  It is not easy to step outside of one’s own horizons to imagine what might attract a non-church person to become a follower-of-Jesus.  It requires, first, understanding oneself: what it is that fires and inspires us as Christians that might be attractive to others, but also what are the assumptions of which we need to be aware when trying to communicate our dearly held faith?

The second stage is creating the ‘line’ or ‘net’ – the hook that will attract the catch.  Is it an activity? a venture? or simply a conversation starter?  What it is will depend both on the fisher and fish – it will have to have potential to work for both, and as already established, it is unlikely that the location will be a church building.

And then there’s the vital stage – that bit where Jesus is mentioned.  And God. And faith. And what it means. And the hope that they won’t run a mile…

… in my experience they usually don’t, and all things considered, things turn out okay. What’s the worst thing that can happen? They say no. And you can try again with them another time… or not.

The thing about fishing is that a fisher can never guarantee a catch. I guess the life of an evangelist is just the same…

To read more about creating spaces for connecting with people who don’t go to church go here.

Read more about relocating mission here.

The Hug Cullompton years: a concluding reflection

fullsizeoutput_15f1For the past nine years I have been tasked with exploring whether it is possible to ‘do’ church differently, in ways which are both true to the Reformed Tradition and contextually relevant in today’s world.

The experiment, I am afraid to say, has proved inconclusive.  What has emerged from my ministry might be described as ‘church’ but equally it might not.  There are those who would say that, because Hug Cullompton is a community of faith, who all believe in Jesus in one way or another and have a sense of call to discipleship, we must be ‘church’.  Others would suggest that, because we are non-credal and have no expectation of adherence to particular doctrines, we cannot be.  The most appealing response is: ‘it is what it is – do we have to define it?’ but, attractive as it sounds, that doesn’t really answer the question either.

I have always liked Calvin’s definition of ‘church’. It is about activity rather than place:

Wherever we find the Word of God surely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there, it is not to be doubted, is a church of God.

Unfortunately in this instance the quote does not particularly help. For in the 21st century, with its technological advances and changes in learning styles, preaching need no longer be the main vehicle by which the Word of God is proclaimed.  Certainly Hug Cullompton has celebrated both sacraments to which Calvin refers (Baptism and Communion), and we are no strangers to picking up a Bible and exploring what God might be saying to us through the words on the page, but does that make us ‘church’ in the Reformed Tradition?

My intention in this article is not so much to give a firm answer to the central question, but rather to share some reflections that might help ministers, congregations and others reflect on their own sense of calling to walk alongside others who do not yet know Christ, or whose understanding of God varies from the norms expounded within our church walls.

I have been encouraged by my strategy group to ‘wonder’ rather than to ‘offer solutions’. So here it is. Just one thing, a sort of health warning: this is not a paper with all the answers to the problems of the church. Nor does it suggest how the United Reformed Church might alter its course in the light of my research post.  I would never be arrogant enough to suggest that might be possible, even if it were desirable.  The reader is fully entitled to disagree with part or all of what I write. I am simply recording observations borne out of real life experience – with quite a bit of theologising thrown in.

Introduction

The first time I met the woman whose vision for a support group became Hug Cullompton, we sat and had tea in her treatment room. She explained her ethos, borne of a belief that all the energetic power we harness and use in our daily lives is of God.

“We are all connected by the same power or energy,” she said, “What you might call the Holy Spirit.  It is the energy I use to help people heal themselves. At the end of the day it isn’t me who does the healing – it is the divine power working within someone that enables them to heal – to become whole.”

I had heard this sort of theorising many years before, but it wasn’t a concept I had particularly engaged with. I thought about the Holy Spirit, moving as a wind over the unformed earth before creation (Gen.1.1), as the force necessary to maintain human life (Gen. 6.3) and inspiration that fills an individual with “skill, intelligence and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (Ex. 35.31).  I considered the feminine Spirit of Wisdom recorded in Proverbs 8, the Holy Spirit that impregnated Mary (Luke 1.35), that came upon Jesus during his Baptism (Mark 1.10), went out of him as he healed the woman who grasped at his cloak (Luke 8.46) and touched the apostles with tongues of fire on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.3).  Why shouldn’t this also be the energy of which Sue spoke?

The sort of religiosity articulated and demonstrated by my colleague in her healing ministry is what Chapman, Naguib and Woodhead call Holistic Spirituality, one of three titles under which they categorise ‘Alternative Spiritualities’ (2012, 183).  Unlike Paganism, which is distinctively British and polytheistic, Chapman et al distinguish, but also make comparisons between, Holistic and New Age spiritualities. They suggest that common threads exist between the two:

  1. Their approach to religiosity is more to do with personal experience than knowledge. They tend to understand God in “practical, immediate, embodied and emotional” ways rather than gaining theological knowledge through texts.
  2. Their perception is of an immanent, caring God, in whom the feminine aspects of care, healing and nourishment are recognised. This contrasts with the remote, judgemental, male God found in the pages of the Bible and doctrines of the church.
  3. They often have a deep connection with nature, perceiving an inter-connectedness between the creator and created. This sort of spirituality is often outworked through activity or social activism.

I would like to suggest that these connecting threads provide a good springboard for my reflections on my experience of Hug Cullompton. I have reordered and refined them slightly in order to provide an appropriate framework for my reflections, and added a fourth:

  1. Reconsidering how we understand and experience God;
  2. Shaping faith communities in the image of a Trinitarian God;
  3. Taking our faith out onto the streets; and
  4. Reconsidering how we engage with those ‘outside’ the church

Experience and ‘Knowledge’ of God

John Calvin, the theologian who is probably most famously associated with Reformed Theology, epitomised both his time and theological approach by writing a treatise more than 1500 pages long. In it he outlined everything he felt needed to be known by Christian congregations to enable them to become ‘true’ church – modelled, as he saw it, on the basis of the Biblical text.

Calvin’s first chapter is entitled ‘Knowledge of God’, and it forms the framework of the rest of his book. In it he argues that the individual Christian is responsible for developing their own relationship with the divine. This isn’t just through book learning – although Calvin did maintain that knowing the contents of the Bible was vital to knowing true faith. For Calvin knowing God is about both head and heart. And it is through that deep, expressive relationship with God that one grows as an individual and becomes what God has created them to be.

Unfortunately the ‘heart’ bit of Reformed Theology can be somewhat under-represented, lurking underneath reams of bookish learning, so that one might end up with an incredible knowledge of the Biblical text, but less idea of how to absorb its teaching in a way that deepens one’s spiritual life.  By contrast those who practise alternative spiritualities might be accused of doing exactly the opposite: developing such an experiential approach to understanding God that the accompanying teachings and disciplines, key to living a spiritually mature life, can be neglected.

My view is that a balance of the two is vital if one is to develop a lasting faith. To gain spiritual maturity requires a deep, fulfilled relationship with the Divine; being able to dwell in their presence, but also learning to walk the way of Jesus in the day to day. It is this outward facing aspect of faith that enables individuals and groups to become missional, seeing their role as faithful accompaniers, walking life’s path alongside, and hand in hand with, others.

Being a member of a community, for whom this inward/outward attitude to belief is an imperative, has been both a delight and a challenge: a delight because there is no need to push the organisation to think missionally; but also a challenge, because the way we order the organisation, frame our language and open ourselves up to listening to the beliefs and ideas of all those we encounter can be difficult to get used to, particularly for any new person coming in.

Shaping faith communities in the image of a Trinitarian God

An example of this how theory works in practice is last year’s AGM.  Until recently Hug Cullompton has attracted predominantly women. For the first time last year we had two male Huggers participating.  We operated in our usual way, with a few minutes of silent reflection, followed by the official reports and sharing out of offices for the year.  We then had a vision session to consider ideas for a new community project.  There was no formal presentation, and each person spoke in turn, with the pictures, words and phrases that came to mind drawn on a flip chart.

The meeting was as formal as we ever get – which, to our new Huggers, was far more informal that they were accustomed to.  During the silence one read papers and played with notebooks.  When we reported absolutely no activity on our bank account they were both extremely surprised. That our major plan for the year consisted of a collection of meanderings on a piece of A2 paper appeared to them extremely haphazard.  And yet, a year later, when we returned to that piece of flip-chart paper, we could see on it the shaping of our main project for the year – starting Culm Valley Men in Sheds.  It was all there, the culmination of months of prayer, preparation and activity marked out in glorious technicolor.

Members of my strategy group have been fascinated by the way Hug Cullompton orders itself and shapes its common life.  There is no hierarchy. Instead each equal member brings what they have to offer and, through a sense of true mutuality, receives what they need in return.  We have always invited participants to come and go as they desire, accepting that sometimes the stresses and strains of everyday life prevent people from having the capacity to do more than simply cope. At such times Huggers are invited to step back and let others take charge.  As a consequence our officers are only ever appointed for a year, more or less on a revolving basis, and our activities are limited to those we can successfully manage using the resources which come our way.  Yes I am ‘a minister’, but I am regarded first and foremost as a Hugger, an equal, with a particular set of  giftings which go with that calling.

I would like to suggest that the way Hug Cullompton works is both counter-cultural and incredibly healthy.  One Hugger describes it as ‘right-brained’, a creative and intuitive process, often associated with the feminine.  It seems to me that this modus operandum might be considered perichoretic – a theological term which describes how the persons of the Trinity (God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit) relate. There is a mutuality and unity within our organisation which enables different personalities to thrive, each with their own identity and skill set which comes to the fore at different times.  Our expectations of what can be achieved are based on an assessment of need, availability of talent, and trust in a God who will provide what is required (in that order). Yes, we meet all the legal requirements of a charity, but the ways we structure ourselves and carry out our business are exceptionally fluid.  Those who are  comfortable functioning in a traditional business, academic or public service setting can find it quite unsettling to start with, but usually they do get used to it.

Taking faith onto the streets

Hug Cullompton’s ‘Mission Statement’, the Hug Prayer, is an active and considered response to the Lord’s Prayer. It demonstrates very clearly that the motivation behind the organisation is more than simply a commitment to good works. The result of lengthy negotiations regarding language and understandings of God, the process itself, which I have already detailed in a former article, was a way formalising that which we already knew: that a faith community was only truly active if it was acting in the world.

For me this sentiment goes to the heart of what the Christian faith is all about.  We are called by God to walk the way of Jesus, utilising every aspect of our lives and harnessing our skills in order to become more faithful, more loving, and more Jesus-shaped.  This understanding of what it means to be Christians in the world is termed Incarnational Theology, and I have already written about it at length.  My experience is that this is achieved, not by sitting in a church listening to sermons and singing songs with fellow Christians, but by following the example of Jesus: getting out there, sharing giftings, skills, enthusiasm, love – and in Hug Cullompton’s case – hugs.

My challenge has been how to interpret this theology outside the parameters of the institution of the church; and it has been one of the most enlightening aspects of my ministry.  I have learned three very important things:

  1. ‘Being Christ’ in the world means being alongside people in the world, regardless of their faith, background or views about Jesus.
  2. Being ‘church’ in the world isn’t about growing huge congregations, creating rotas or building empires – in fact I would like to suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven is the opposite.  Bringing hope, transforming communities and demonstrating Christ’s love can be achieved by exceptionally small groups of people. All they need is a willingness to share what God has given them partnered with a huge amount of faith that God will provide the rest.
  3. I have discovered that people with no active Christian faith actually find the subject fascinating.  Unless we grow the confidence to be able to speak from the heart about what being a Christian adds to our life, we will never be able to persuade others to join us.

Evidence suggests that, in Britain today, people are most likely to be attracted to Christianity by knowing someone who is already involved, whose life is exemplary, and who holds a key to happiness that the searcher would love to try for themselves.

Reconsidering how we engage with those ‘outside’ the church

An important factor in engaging with those outside the church is learning to communicate in their language. I tend to say that it took me four years to ‘unlearn church-speak.’ Christians speak a language that seems foreign to those outside it, so much so that often we can confuse and turn off people who might otherwise be quite interested in engaging with us.

A key factor in learning to communicate with the now-members of Hug Cullompton has been revising the language I use to speak of God.  In the church we are so used to speaking about God who is ‘Father’, we forget how excluding such language can be to those who simply don’t see God in that way.  Chapman et al. suggest that, in the past century, some feminists have “viewed the male God and saviour of Christianity, mediated by a male priesthood, as central to the ‘patriarchy’ they were trying to overthrow” (2012, p.181).

However I would like to go further than simply recommending that we speak of God using ‘inclusive’ language.  I would like to suggest that we are moving beyond a binary age in which God is experienced or spoken of as female/male.  As we begin to hear the voices of those whose gender and sexuality is fluid, there must surely be a voice to say that they, too are created in the image of a God whose identity is recorded in the Biblical creation story (in the original Hebrew) as plural rather than male or female. (Gen. 1.27)

I have found Church language to be the defining factor in the decision by a huge number of women with whom I relate to leave the Christian faith behind.  Not only have they found the structure, imagery and language of the church disempowering, they have found other spiritual paths which have been positively more affirming.  Steve Hollinghurst and Paul Cudby both draw parallels between Christianity and neo-Paganism with regard to traditions and rituals, but contrast the Christian and Pagan ways of understanding and speaking of God, as well as the empowerment and leadership opportunities for women within these movements.

The tendency of many in churches in Cullompton has been to label all spiritualities which do not fit within the normal church parameters “the Occult”. The term itself, from the Latin root meaning ‘secret, hidden or covered over’, is equated with certain supernatural practices, powers and phenomena. While I agree that all of this exists – and is something to be wary of and avoided – it in no way reflects anything I have encountered during my journey with the members of Hug Cullompton.  Interestingly, a fellow Hugger described recently how her experience of Wiccan ritualistic practices, which she ‘sampled’ at a festival, frightened her. “There was so much power in it, and I didn’t like it.” she said, “It felt as though God’s energy was being harnessed and mis-directed. I won’t have anything more to do with it.”

The question is, how do we relate to those who have already achieved spiritual maturity without feeling the need to join ‘the church’, those whose path is acknowledged as being heavily influenced by Jesus and Spirit-led, but whose experience of Christianity has, in direct opposition to the ministry Jesus modelled (Luke 8.1-3), been disempowering, disengaging, and totally unaffirming. Do they need to be ‘saved’ or ‘converted’; or is it just possible that God might have God’s way in the world, through them and alongside them, despite their rejection of church in the past?

Conclusion

I am nearing the end of a very long journey. It has been at times one of utter delight, but also at times one of misery.  I  have been at the same time loved, accepted, criticised and rejected because of this post. I have encountered beliefs that I never thought I would, and I have opened my mind to some, whilst closing the door firmly but gently on others.

Of all my experiences, the two most important things I have learned?

  1. That Jesus loves me.  I can understand why Karl Barth, one of the most prolific and longwinded theologians of the twentieth century, said it.  In the midst of all the confusion and challenge that pioneering brings, a sense of being loved and accepted, just as I am,  both by God and those with whom I journeyed, has sustained me in my faith and carried me through some very dark times.
  2. The Christendom era, and the church as we know it, might be coming to an end; but the God we know, who cannot be contained within the pages of a book – even one as holy as the Bible – will always be alongside us.  The challenge for us is work out how best to do it, then fall into step.

 

References

Chapman, M, Naguib, S and Woodhead, L., “God-Change” in Woodhead, Linda and Cato, Rebecca, 2012, Religion and Change in Modern Britain (Abingdon, Routledge)

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

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

 

What to do about angels…

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… or, a reflection on what we understand by the term ‘angel’

Last week I took my final pub carol service at my current local, the Pony and Trap.  It was a fabulous occasion, with readings taken straight from the Bible and carol singing led by the community choir.

The theme of this year’s service was Angels.  We heard the story of the Angel Gabriel visiting Mary and the choir of angels singing for the shepherds in the fields; and the choir led us in the singing of Angels from the Realms of Glory.

In my view Christmas really isn’t Christmas without angels.  They feature heavily in the Christmas story, as they do sporadically throughout the Bible. The word ‘angel’ means ‘messenger’, and describes a being, either in human or heavenly form, who appears in the world to impart the news that God is about to intervene to change human history.

‘Everyday Angels’

The angels in the Christmas story appear in a grand spectacle – they command their terrified recipients to “not be afraid.” Although their appearance may be far less remarkable, I’m convinced that all of us have experiences of angels in our lives, someone whose activity or message makes such a subtle change in our experience that if we are not alert we might miss it.

A member of Hug Cullompton once spoke about the ‘everyday angel’ who held a door open for her when, exhausted and laden with shopping, she had thought she could go no further.   At the carol service I described the landlord and landlady of the pub as ‘everyday angels’. They have what I call a ‘remarkable ministry’ to their customers, offering loving care (as well as serving a drink) to anyone who comes through the door, regardless of how they look, act and sometimes smell. If an angel is God’s messenger, and God is love, then (as I told the congregation gathered in the pub on Thursday night) the demonstration of unconditional love they demonstrate in their pub makes them ‘angels’ in my book.

Talking about Angels 

In my everyday work angels are a common topic of conversation.  Opinions on them are incredibly varied, probably as varied as those I encounter about the existence, nature and identity of God.  Some people think they are acts of the imagination – the creation of someone needing an emotional crutch to hold on to.  Others can describe what their Guardian Angel looks like, even down to the clothes they wear.  There are those who view angels as just another pie-in-the-sky idea of those peddling a ‘fake God’, and equally there are those who take seriously what the Bible says about them, believing them to be agents of God through which the direction of human history is changed forever.

Although I don’t think I’ve ever seen one, I can quite well believe in angels. If I can believe that a man who walked this earth 2000 years ago and died on a cross was God in human form, why not believe God acts in other miraculous ways to save the world and/or its people?  The thing about belief is that it cannot be proved right or wrong – and anyone who says any different is mistaken.  My daughter recently asked how I know God is there. I replied:

You know when you are trying to go to sleep and I’m in the next room? You can’t see or hear me, but you know I’m there, you can sense my presence.  Well that’s what God is like for me.  I can’t see or hear God, but I know God is there. And just knowing God is there makes me feel better.

Perhaps angels are a bit like that – or perhaps not. Who knows? After all, isn’t everything to do with belief just a leap of faith?

Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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… or, the art of choosing words carefully when we speak of God.

One of the most fascinating conversations I have had in recent years was about what to call God. We were writing our prayer, which is a response to the Lord’s Prayer. Although it is the term Jesus himself used, we really didn’t feel comfortable with using the term translated into English as ‘Our Father.’

I suspect that, when we hear the word ‘God’, each of us conjures up a different image. It might be negative or positive, one that either we have had since childhood or which has developed over the years, and it might be visual or otherwise, depending on how our mind works.

For those familiar with Christian language there is an ocean of imagery to draw on. For a start we describe God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit (or Trinity).  We hear the prologue of John’s Gospel which tells us that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  Jesus called God “Abba”, meaning Father, and in the letters of John at the end of the Bible we read that “God is love.”

But strip away all that Biblical foreknowledge and what do we have? I would like to suggest that the most famous image of God is Michelangelo’s in the Sistene Chapel at the Vatican.  In his ‘Creation of Adam’ painting, God is a depicted as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch Adam. Such an image hardly correlates to a creative, loving God who, through the Word, gives shape and meaning to life.

The members of Hug Cullompton who participated in the six week process of creating the Hug Prayer agonised for many hours, days and weeks over how we would address the divine creative power who is entirely beyond us and yet in our midst.  In the end we settled for ‘Divine Embrace’, because no noun seemed adequate. The only option left was to use a term that summed up our collective experience of him/her/it.

It might seem this post is about language, but actually it is an attempt to raise a far deeper and more profound issue we in the church face: not only how we articulate the shared concepts which have shaped our understanding of the world and the one whom we believe created it, but the very concepts themselves.

I know very few Christians who, when shown the picture of Michelangelo’s picture of God, think it’s an accurate depiction of what God is like.  And yet, the way in which many Christians name, address and speak of God gives the impression to the outsider that the God we believe in is imperialistic, judgemental and very, very male.

So what are we to do? Should we abandon all those terms we have grown up using, and which roll off our tongues comfortably? Should those who pray addressing God as “heavenly Father,” be told they can no longer do so?

Of course not.  I would not dream of robbing anyone of the essential elements of their faith and the way in which they name it.

But we do have to realise that such terminology could be alienating to others who have already considered and rejected the image of God as a white haired, bearded man, loosely robed in a Romanesque toga, frowning as he reaches out from his heavenly cocoon to not-quite-touch humanity.  Using terms such as ‘Lord’, ‘Master’ and ‘heavenly Father’ with them could be positively unhelpful.

Language is a powerful thing. Terminology comes with a lifetime’s back-story, rendering the phrase “sticks and stones might break my bones but names will never hurt me” null and void.  Let us choose it carefully, lest we unwittingly turn away those who most need to experience God’s ‘Divine Embrace’ for themselves.

living creatively with difference

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or, getting to the heart of what really matters

When I started training for ministry in 1999 I was introduced to a whole new range of terms – well, not introduced, actually.  I was expected to know them. They included the words conservative, liberal, fundamentalist, evangelical and open. I knew the first two – although I associated them with political voting preferences rather than types of theology – the others were new to me.

I realised very quickly that I was supposed to select one or two of these terms to describe ‘where I stood’ theologically. Whichever combination  I chose would also tell people what style of worship I preferred.  Invariably people would say, “Well, I don’t like boxes, but I suppose I would describe myself as…”, immediately putting themselves in whichever shaped box most suited.

My introduction to those terms also signalled the start of my education in how much the Church struggles with difference.  I have observed over two decades how using such labels creates divides within churches and denominations.  Even today there remains a legacy of suspicion, deflecting the church from its main task of demonstrating, and introducing people to, the joy of a faith in Christ.

One of my most inspiring theological discussion partners is a local Christian about my age.  There are fundamental differences between us.  She would probably describe herself as an ‘evangelical’, while I hail from the more ‘liberal’ end of the tradition. Embarking on a missiological journey alongside non-Christians has enabled us to set aside those differences which, in other circumstances, might have caused problems.  We can accept that only one of us believes in creationism (the idea that God made the world in six days), and we can agree to differ on whether the image of the future as depicted in the book of Revelation is meant to be taken literally or not. What might potentially divide us pales into insignificance when set alongside what really matters: following Jesus and enabling others to do the same.

Moving beyond such issues, in order to hear what God might be calling us to do and be, has been profoundly important for both of us.  Working alongside people, for whom these sets of labels have no meaning, has exposed how theological difference has impacted on the Church’s sense unity, and inspired in us a greater determination to follow the path that God has set for us – to be disciples of Christ in communion, each in our own way.

I am saddened when I hear of faithful Christians seemingly unable to move beyond the unhelpful divisions of the late twentieth century.  I am not saying that the issues on which churches differ don’t matter; but I wish they could work more creatively to resolve them, adopting an attitude of openness and listening rather than barely disguised hostility.

Perhaps then we could focus on reaching the 94% of people in Britain who don’t go to church, rather than tying ourselves up in knots over what divides the 6% who do.

For an article about reaching the 94% of British people who don’t go to church click  here.

learning to search for common ground

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…or, delving beneath the surface of linguistic difference

One Easter the local Baptist Church hall was transformed from preschool into Art Exhibition. On Good Friday, I agreed to steward, on the proviso I could nip out when the joint churches ‘Walk of Witness’ arrived so I could do a reading.

That morning the other volunteer steward arrived to be greeted by crowds at the door. She hurried inside, wondering what was going on.  On finding the exhibition deserted, she came out just in time to see me, sporting my clerical collar, reading the story of the Crucifixion.

Afterwards, we sat and talked. We had met through a previous Hug Cullompton art exhibition, and had become friends. Over previous cups of tea she had shared with me her childhood experiences of church – where she was told not to ask such awkward questions, and was sent off to play elsewhere as she was thought disruptive to the other children.

Her questions had, in my view, been quite typical ones. She had wondered why God should be described as a man and how ‘he’ had created the universe.  What I would consider a healthy curiosity had been deemed by her Sunday School teachers insolent.  As a consequence my friend had rejected the church, much as the church rejected her, and taken her own, rich, spiritual path, totally away from formal Christianity.

As we drank tea and ate the homemade cakes she had brought, we discussed the meaning of the Easter story. She said:

“If you’d told me two years ago that I would be sat here talking about Jesus, I would have laughed in your face. Nowadays I even find myself praying to him.”

What my friend described was not a ‘conversion’ experience. That’s not what this was. Fundamentally my friend’s views had not changed. Her belief in a divine, benevolent, creative power remains, as does her passion for nature. She continues to understand Jesus as a powerful energy to whom she can pray. Her issue is not belief; it is the accompanying doctrines of the church with which she cannot identify.

I have found it is often the doctrines and practices, which we ‘in the church’ take for granted, that present huge problems for those struggling to articulate and make sense of their beliefs. Language that rolls off our tongues without a second thought can alienate and exclude, to the extent that many walk away from Jesus, rather than try to work out what they consider to be unfathomable concepts.

I have often been heard to say, “I find that what people believe tends to vary a lot less than the differences in the way they describe it.”

As fewer and fewer people associate with the Church and its way of articulating itself, missional conversations are increasingly going to require delving beneath the surface, listening for what people actually mean by the language they use.  I often find that people who speak about their beliefs in very different ways to me actually believe the same things.  If Christians are to communicate successfully what they hold dear, it is for them to step outside the comfort of their own doctrines and traditions, and listen without judging. I suspect that, if they did, they would often find they are standing on common ground.

For more about the how to go about sharing the faith in secular England, click here.

 

forming community through (a) prayer

lords-prayer-statueThe story of the ‘Hug Prayer’

A friend recently asked me, “Why do they keep changing what they put in the Bible?”

I was confused. As far as I was concerned the contents of the Bible were more or less fixed in the second century, give or take the odd section, and a bit of arguing over the ordering of it its contents.

The person with whom I was speaking was actually referring to the modern version of the Lord’s Prayer. She couldn’t understand why the ‘proper’ one was no longer used in her local parish church. I explained the history of the Lord’s Prayer, the words of which were originally spoken by Jesus, probably in Aramaic (a dialect from the first century CE),  then later recorded in Greek.  By about the fourth century most people who could read the Bible, read a Latin translation of it.  It wasn’t until the fifteenth century that the Bible began to be translated into the vernacular (national languages, including English), with what we now know as the Authorised, or King James version, being used from 1611. The version to which my friend was referring, using a modern translation from Greek into English, is the one formally adopted by the Church of England in 1989.

The Lord’s Prayer has played an important role within the life of Hug Cullompton.  In February, 2015, while we were starting to think of putting some of our values onto paper,   we decided that, rather than write a vision or values statement, we would compose a prayer, outlining our beliefs and motivations as a community.  One of the Huggers came across an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer  online.  It is written by Mark Hathaway, who describes it as “something between a poetic translation and “midrash” based on the ancient roots of the Aramaic words of the prayer.” 

Mark Hathaway’s interpretation helped us think about our own understanding and response to the words of Jesus and, after much debate (including a three month email conversation making sure we were all happy with the terminology we used), we adopted our own ‘Hug Prayer’ in May, 2015.

The process we went through might sound simple and short-lived. The reality is that the prayer was three years in the making.  Until we had relaxed into a way of being and thinking together, respecting each others’ very different spiritual views, it would have been impossible, even to open up such a conversation, much less to write a prayer we could all agree on.  The issue of the way language is used to understand and communicate ideas about faith is a huge one, which is probably why I will return to it again and again. This was a mere example of the complexity.

I await permission to reproduce Mark Hathaway’s interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, so in the meantime, here is The Hug Prayer without it:

Hug Prayer copy

 

 

 

the problem with the word ‘church’

DIEWoUzWsAAqMfHA few years ago my husband and I went to visit the ‘Sagrada Familia’, in Barcelona. Designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, and begun in 1882, it is as famous for being unfinished as its magnificent architecture.

Consecrated despite being unfinished, it is intended as a place for people to go and praise, pray, learn and reflect.  Gaudi himself said, “La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work in the hands of God and the will of the people.”

The Spanish word for ‘church’ is iglesia, derived from the Greek word κκλησία (ekklesia). Like the English term ‘church’, iglesia is used to describe both a place of Christian worship and the community of people who meet there.

However, for the earliest Christians, ‘church’ was never about buildings. They met in each other’s homes (Col 4.15; Philemon 2) to break bread, pray and worship together.  Each day they would go about their daily lives, telling others about what they were learning and experiencing as followers of Jesus (Acts 2.41-47). They were κυριακός (kuriakos) – meaning they belonged to God – the term from which ‘kirk’ (Scottish) and ‘church’ (English) are derived. And if the book of Acts (2.47) and Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (1.6-10) are accurate in their depiction of how their example impacted on their wider communities, as a way of life it was irresistible.

These ekklesiae (plural of ekklesia), as the churches were known, were not only irresistible in the way they demonstrated love, generosity and grace. They were radical too.  The term ekklesia, literally translated, means ‘the called-out’.  In Jesus’ time it was a term routinely used for an elected civic body in the Roman Empire. By adopting it for their own use, the earliest Jesus-followers were demonstrating that they were already operating as organised groups. More notably, they adopted an egalitarian structure which was, at that time, totally counter-cultural. There was no distinction between slaves and free citizens, women were as likely as men to lead the churches, and Jewish believers had parity with Gentiles (non-Jews). Most importantly and radically of all, they refused to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as a god – and that was what really marked them out and set them apart from others.

I dearly wish we had two words for ‘church’ – one for buildings and one for communities – but we don’t.  The Sagrada Familia teaches us that there is nothing wrong with the awe-striking magnificence of an iglesia/church – after all, our ability to appreciate such beauty is a gift from God.  But there is more to ‘church’ than draw-droppingly beautiful buildings. As Christians we are called to ‘be’ church – shaping our lives as Jesus taught and the early disciples demonstrated: to love God with a passion, and to live in community with an attitude of generosity and grace that others just won’t be able to resist.

To read about a theology of church based on love click here.

 

 

Communicating Christianity in a strange new world

fullsizeoutput_138cHave you ever thought about the sheer strangeness of the church? As an institution it has so many particularities: the way its customs are practised, the terminology that is used, the many assumptions made about all sorts of things, from the beliefs one must have to the way furniture is placed.  While these things are food for the souls of many regular churchgoers, to those visiting for the first time they might seem, well, just plain weird.

Pioneers wrestling with trying to breach the gap between church practice and common cultural experience tend to use the language of “unlearning”.  However, as one Hug Cullompton volunteer pointed out, “You don’t want to unlearn everything you believe. What you need to decide are those things on which you won’t compromise, then stick to them. Everything else becomes open to discussion.”

Existing missionally in the gap between a clearly defined set of Christian doctrines and the experience of people who have no knowledge of, or background in, the church, has had interesting ramifications for me.  To be open to encounters with people outside the church, and managing not to not baffle them with Christian language or concepts, requires a level of generosity in hearing – not only people’s faith stories, but also their attempts to articulate their beliefs.

As I have listened to, and conversed with, people in the community who have no historical association with the Christian faith, I have realised two things.

  1. Many of their beliefs are similar to mine, but they either have no language to articulate them them or do so in terminology that might be described as ‘folk superstition’ or ‘alternative spirituality’. 
  2. For people to sense that I value their beliefs, they have to feel I respect them, whether I agree with them or not. 

I therefore decided on a personal policy of never telling anyone they were wrong.  I could disagree with them if I felt it would be helpful, but I couldn’t disrespect them.

People experience the divine in different ways, and have profound questions about the meaning of life. But often they struggle to articulate these thoughts and experiences, and feel as though there is nowhere they can safely explore them. For many with whom I have walked this journey, the story of Jesus is as foreign as the Greek Classics, and the last place they would look to find meaning is the church.  Some consider it a bigoted and outdated institution, others have had negative childhood church experiences, some reject the church because of the way it is portrayed by the media; but mainly, they just see Church as an irrelevance that has nothing to do with them.  To turn the tide requires walking, not only into today’s culture as it is, but trying to do so whilst looking at the church through the eyes of someone else.

A fascinating reflection on speaking of Christ into a foreign culture is Vincent Donovan’s Christianity Rediscovered (1970, 2nd ed. 2001). Donavan was an American Roman Catholic priest, sent as a missionary to the Masai Mara in Kenya.  He arrived at the church compound, with its huge church, hospital and school, all virtually empty. “Where is everyone?” he asked. “They don’t come,” was the reply.  Disconsolate, Donovan tried to work out why the Masai didn’t want free education or hospital treatment, and why they didn’t come to church. Eventually he decided the only way to find out was to ask them.

Donovan bought an old truck and headed out into the desert. When he located the Masai, a nomadic people who existed using centuries old practices, he joined them.  Over a period of time they told him about their god, ‘Engai’.  Donovan heard elements of his own faith reflected in these descriptions, and gradually he was able to begin speaking about Jesus.  He told them about God made human, a God present with them there in the desert, a God who is love.  Donovan’s ministry did eventually result in the emergence of a Masai church community. But they never did develop the habit of visiting the compound. The European culture they experienced there was just too foreign to them.

Donovan’s is obviously an extreme example of inculturating church into a culture utterly different from his own experience. However, what he learns about meeting people where they’re at, and communicating the gospel in a way they can understand, provides a useful reflective tool for those wishing to work with people who have never ‘been to church’.  Where we go, how we live and the way we speak all have implications – and unless we can speak into our culture in a way those we want to hear can understand, the prospect of success is always going to be limited.

So how do we go about equipping ourselves to take on the task?  There are all sorts of resources: books, websites, training courses.  Here are a few:

  1. The London Institute of Christianity has a huge number of free resources for those wishing to start thinking about sharing their faith in the community.
  2. The URC’s Walking The Way initiative has lots of helpful suggestions of how to develop a whole-life sense of discipleship, including sharing one’s faith.
  3. The Church Mission Society publishes a variety of devotional texts and courses on the theme of mission and discipleship.
  4. Robin Greenwood’s book, Sharing God’s Blessing: How to Renew the Local Church, has great advice for churches.
  5. Aimed particularly at those working with young people, but which is just as relevant to anyone wanting to communicate Christianity to those with no church background, is the excellent Here be Dragons by Richard and Lori Passmore.
  6. If you’re looking for a good survey of a number of well known resources try Mike Booker and Mark Ireland’s Making New Disciples: Exploring the Paradoxes of Evangelism.
  7. For inspiration you could try Brian McLaren’s The Great Spiritual Migration.
  8. If you’re only going to read one thing to challenge and inspire you, do read Vincent Donovan”s Christianity Rediscovered. You won’t regret it!

It is my belief, however, that you can’t ‘learn’ talking into a culture from a book, however good and worthy that book is.  The only way to do it is by getting stuck in: go out into the world, listen to what people are talking about, and respond. For those not used to explaining their faith it might sound really difficult – and to start with it probably will be. But I promise, it does get easier.

A few weeks ago I was conversing with a deeply committed Christian who wasn’t used to speaking about her faith. She asked how she might do it.

My response was, “Practice. I assume you are here (at church) because it makes a positive difference to your life.” she nodded. “I assume you’d like others to experience it.” She nodded again. “Well, they’ll never know that unless you share it with them. So why not just be honest and tell them what it is about being a Christian that’s so great?”

I haven’t seen her since. I wonder how she’s getting on!