making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

anonymous-blur-boy-572463… or, learning, through reading the Bible, how to serve others as Jesus did.

Since handing in my notice last week (I am about to move to pastures new), I have been reflecting, not only on what has been achieved through my ministry, but why and how.  To do so I have returned to a Bible passage I used for a piece of Ministerial Theological Reflection several years ago. It is the story of an encounter between Jesus and a man called Legion, and can be found at Mark 5.1-20. Below is a summary of four main features  of Jesus-shaped mission and ministry I have drawn from the passage:

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

  • Jesus and his disciples have crossed Lake Galilee to  “the country of the Gerasenes”. Not only is this unfamiliar geographical territory, it is Gentile, so the religious and cultural background of the people is very different to that of the Jesus and his disciples, who are Jewish.
  • Location and cultural identity is important. If we are to be the ‘Body of Christ’ in the world, it is not just for those to whom we comfortably relate to in our familiar day to day lives.  Venturing into the unfamiliar, among those who cultural identity and way of thinking are different to ours, is a necessary part of Christian witness.

Seeing Christ in everyone, and expecting to learn from our encounters with them

  • Legion, whom Jesus encounters when he first arrives, has significant mental health issues, such that he has been forced to live in the graveyard outside the village for the safety of himself and others.  There is not a less likely candidate for the accolade of ‘first person to identify the true identity of Jesus of Nazareth.’ Although there is no reason why he should know who Jesus is, Legion approaches and bows down before him, addressing him both by name and title: “Jesus, Son of the most High God.”
  • Sometimes we need to be challenged to see the world from  a different spiritual perspective. To be open to learning from, and being surprised by, such encounters are evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, and can be symbiotic – a process resulting in positive change on both sides.

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

  • As Jesus sets about healing Legion’s afflictions, Legion suddenly becomes afraid. He is unsure of his future identity without the accursed mental afflictions which have tortured him for so long.  And yet, when his fellow villagers arrive at the scene, they find him “clothed and in his right mind.”  Jesus entrusts him into the care of those who know him best and can support him longterm.
  • This is a process I have seen many times in my chaplaincy ministry. Change can be a slow business. Presented with the possibility of change, people who are so used to things the way things they are, face an unknown reality stretching into the future. It can be terrifying. Genuine transformative change is a lengthy process, and requires more than a single quick-fix solution. Ongoing support needs to be facilitated, not always under the auspices of the church community.

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

  • The villagers ask Jesus and his disciples to leave. We are not told whether it is because they are afraid of his healing power or annoyed because he has chased a perfectly good heard of pigs to their death in the lake.  One thing we do know is that, when Legion asks Jesus to take him with him, Jesus says, “No,” asking him instead to go and tell the people in his own village what Jesus has done.
  • Our ministry in the world doesn’t always result in new church members.  We cannot see into the future of those we serve, nor can we guarantee that those who cross our paths will continue along them with us.  All we can do is bless them as they go, asking that they tell their story of transformation as they do so.

What I call ‘Jesus-shaped mission and ministry’ is also known as ‘incarnational theology’. To read more about the scriptural background for my incarnational theology click here.

 

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…

‘Mission With’ – more than just a theoretical concept

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

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

‘Coincidence’ Number 1

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

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

‘Coincidence’ Number 2

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

‘Coincidence’ Number 3

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

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

Version 3

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

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

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

 

The trouble with Baptism: Part One

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…or, the dilemma of how to welcome non-practising Christians into church to have their Baby ‘Christened’.

In the year or so after giving birth to my daughter, it felt as though I had cornered the ‘Naming Ceremony’ market in my local area.  I got to know quite a few of the parents of babies born around the same time and, when they discovered my profession, asked if I was ‘licensed to do Christenings.’

The answer is that, as an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the United Reformed Church, I am.  My call by God to preside at both adult and infant Baptisms (the ceremony at the heart of a child’s Christening service) has been recognised, and I have been formally trained.  At my previous church I baptised many babies, with the majority of the parents choosing to maintain or develop their relationship further with the congregation afterwards.

Not all did though, and there was a prevailing attitude that it was the fault of the parents – that they had somehow ‘used’ the church to get their baby ‘done’ under false pretences.

As a new parent myself, and as a minister in a role far away from the institutional norms of the church, I have come to the conclusion that this is not at all the case.  Generally speaking, parents love and want the best for their baby.  By having them ‘Christened’ they see the opportunity to mark an important rite of passage, celebrate the birth with family and friends, and do all they can to ensure their child is protected and cared for in the event that anything should happen to them.

Not all churches have the same tradition when it comes to the Sacraments (sacred ceremonies that mark God’s activity in human lives), but generally speaking, Baptism marks the candidate’s initiation into the Church. If they are adults they declare their faith and make promises to obey God and play their part in the life of the church.  For babies, unable to speak for themselves, the parents make the promises on their behalf, nominating Godparents who will assist them in the task.

I would like to suggest that the gap between the church’s formal understanding of the sacrament of Baptism, and the prevailing cultural understanding of ‘Christening’, is absolutely massive.  Parents who are not practising Christians, but have a sense that bringing their child for God’s blessing and protection, are not at fault.  They simply want to celebrate the new life they are miraculously holding in their arms, and receive God’s blessing on themselves and their child.

I do not blame church congregations for feeling used when their normally quiet Sunday morning services are invaded by a family they have barely even met before, hoards of noisy children, and inappropriately (in their eyes) dressed adults.  But I also do not hold it against those who are delighted to be in church, wearing their best new outfit, and anticipating a moving ceremony followed by a great big party.  Why shouldn’t they go to church? And why shouldn’t they be able to celebrate before God? Aren’t they God’s children just as much as those who have been attending week in, week out, for the best part of eighty years?

Sacraments are not an irrelevance. I should know, I’m in the middle of writing a book about them! But neither are they an excuse for those within the church to assume an air of scathing superiority.  ‘Christenings’ are a genuine opportunity to engage with people who may not have thought about faith before but who, on looking for the first time at that tiny bundle for which they are totally responsible, feel a stirring of something beyond themselves which might be vaguely recognised as ‘spiritual’.

The question is, how do we, within the church, help new parents harness that emotion and start to make the journey from vague spiritual stirrings to full-blown faith in Christ? If it is the first time in years (or ever) that they have thought about God, perhaps it is a bit much to expect them to be ready, within a few weeks and after a few ‘lessons’, to declare their own faith and promise to bring their child up in the life of the church.

I suspect that, in practical terms, Church baptismal traditions which have developed over centuries or, in some cases, millennia, are unlikely to be changed overnight because of one blog piece.

My experience is that, by setting the conversation about the ‘Baptism’ ceremony within the context of the ‘Christening’ event, it is possible to have conversations with new parents about what Baptism actually means and requires. They can then make an informed choice about the most appropriate way to celebrate the birth of, and ask God’s blessing on, their child.

They may well still choose Baptism (because culturally a ‘Christening’ does require ‘water’), but at least they will have a better understanding of what the water and sign of the cross on their child’s head signifies. And who knows, the ceremony which should really be a key marker on a journey of faith, might well, by the grace of God, become the initial signpost.

To read some background about the Sacrament of Baptism click here

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.

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)

learning to search for common ground

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…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.

 

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)

Church ‘in the thick of it’

action-administration-austria-258644.jpg..or, refocusing the core identity of the church

I recently attended a session entitled ‘Ministry on the Edge’, although I wasn’t sure what ‘on the edge’ meant. Was it working in ‘edgy’ roles, ministering to people ‘on the edge’ of the church or engaging with those on the margins of society?

I was reminded of a time I had accompanied an ex-offender to his first appointments on release from prison. I was a community chaplain at the prison, and it was my job to meet him at the gate.  During the forty minute bus journey to get to his home town, we talked.

He told about his family life. His mother was a heroin addict.  His father had left when he was three. He had been in and out of care throughout his childhood, and his oldest brother was a well-known local drug dealer.  Not visiting his brother was a condition of his release, due to the likelihood of him getting mixed up in criminal behaviour and re-offending.  Instead he was given a place in a hostel on the edge of town. When I saw it I was shocked. I wouldn’t have placed my worst enemy there, let alone someone struggling to go straight after a life of crime.  I knew he wouldn’t stay there, and I would be seeing him back at the prison in the very near future.

That piece of ministry might have been in an ‘edgy’ role with a person ‘on the margins of society’ and certainly on the fringes of the church; but, to him, that day was a pivotal moment in his life, and I was there alongside him.

One of the things I love about Christian ministry and service, in all its different forms, is the way God calls the unlikeliest of people to place those who might be considered ‘on the edge’ at the centre of their concern.  The media might represent the church as an institution preoccupied with processional activities and doctrinal wrangles, but in reality, day by day, people, motivated by their faith in Christ, are visiting the sick and lonely, feeding the hungry, supporting those who want to turn their backs on a life of crime; and bringing hope to the hopeless.

What might be considered ministry ‘on the edge’ is, in reality, ministry ‘in the thick of it’ – ‘being’ the hands of Christ.  All around the world, both within and outside the bounds of church, Christians evidence their faithfulness through faithful action.

Jesus said:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.   (Luke 4.18-19)

That’s what churches do.  That’s what Church is.  While processional activities and doctrinal wrangles are both part of the rich fabric of the church, that’s not what Jesus claimed it to be about. It is by locating its core right in the thick of it, alongside the impoverished, the imprisoned, those who suffer inequality and the oppressed, that I believe the church can best fulfil its calling. In that way, we will get a better glimpse of God’s future – and the future of the church.

For more on relocating the focus of the church, click here.

Relocating church into ‘the thick of it’

sand-wood-floor-garden-japan-material-580713-pxhere.com

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)