Back from Bethel! Reflections on an inspiring church.

http://www.ibethel.org/It has been a while since I last posted, for which I am truly sorry!  The last 6 weeks have been hectic with large events, moving house, and right in the middle a trip to visit Bethel Church in Redding, California.  This has been a hugely privileged time in which I have learnt a lot and God has done much in me.  I’m still processing all that’s happened and thought I would share some of that with you.

We were in Redding for 10 days and we packed a lot in!  We were in about 6 services across the two weekend, went to the healing rooms, received some ‘Sozo’ ministry, attended a 3 day ‘Leaders Advance’ conference, and spent time with some incredible people.

Why did we go?  About 5 years ago I came across Bill Johnson, the Senior Pastor of Bethel, at a conference in the UK.  Not just his teaching, but the way that God moved in me during that conference made a lasting impression.  Unbeknown to me at the time, my current vicar was at the same conference and was similarly impacted.  Since then we have learnt a lot from the leadership of Bethel and have found their church to carry the same heart and vision as we do here in Loughton.

http://i1177.photobucket.com/albums/x356/vision4you/Peace-hand-heart-light.jpgWhat heart and vision?  To develop a culture as a church family that expects and makes room for God to move and carrying on moving – a culture that fosters revival.  There are numerous examples in history (both ancient and recent) of God moving powerfully in a community or nation that sees that place transformed, but all too often these last for a number of years and then stop as, through familiarity, people try to take control. We want to be a people who will not stifle, control or restrict a move of God, people whom He can trust.

Bethel have travelled the journey for about 20 years longer than we have.  We went to see the culture, to be inspired, to catch what cannot simply be taught, and above all to meet with God in a fresh way.

So what did we see?  There is an incredible sense of the presence of God and a seeming never ending stream of instances where He has done something incredible.  At every gathering stories were shared of miraculous healings, provision, people finding Jesus, or other incredible things.  These weren’t stories from ‘the good old days’ but from that week, day or even that meeting.  If ‘revival’ describes a move of God that brings transformation, miracles and turns hearts to Him (and I’m aware this is a much debated definition!), then revival has begun in Redding.  Yet rather than being an abnormal occurence running against the grain of the church’s life, or even an overflow of their ministry and actions, it is a desired reality that the church is shaping itself around and seeking to cultivate and press into.

http://christchurchjebelali.com/wp-content/uploads/baptism2.jpgOne beautiful moment was at a baptism service on the final night.  A middle-aged woman became a Christian during the service, went up to be baptised, and in the baptism tank began to see in colour for the first time in her life!  She was healed, not by a ‘big name’ intensely praying, but by her Father God who simply poured out His love on her in response to her coming to Him.  The look on her face will happily remain with me for a long time!

I could (and may well) write a host of posts about this next question, but I’m going to point to some headlines right now: what did we learn?

  1. The foundational, all encompassing distinctive mark and focus of the culture at Bethel is a confidence in and desire to reciprocate and experience the love of God.  This is not a community of people trying to hype things up, force something to  happen, or make a name for themselves.  This is a community of people convinced that Father God loves them, enjoys them and wants to bless them and His world.  There is an overwhelming confidence in the goodness of God.
  2. Flowing from this is an expectancy that God will move and a desire to love others.  Although intercession takes place and miracles are happening, there is no attitude of ‘we’ll prove that our God is better than yours’ or ‘we’ll demonstrate just how wrong you are about everything you believe’.  Rather the attitude is ‘God loves you, has made you incredible, and we want you to realise just how good both you and He are’.
  3. The natural consequences of this kind of view are wonderful to experience:
  • http://lilliemcferrin.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Colluding-in-Joy.jpgThere is great joy as people enjoy God and one another!
  • There is a desire to encourage, build up and celebrate one another.  I didn’t hear a single word of complaint about anything in all the time I was there.  Rather, I continuously encountered people wanting to encourage me, share a prophetic word, or just enjoy time with me.
  • In this place of love, there is still room to mourn together in the tough situations, but this comes with and brings hope because God is with us in every moment and He is always good.

There is far more I could write.  What I’ve put here I haven’t doctored for readers who may have a totally different belief system than me.  I’m well aware things I take for granted may seem crazy to others.  But I wanted to share things from my perspective, as I see them.  I would love to hear your comments and reflections!

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Is Jesus Enough?

http://dobbse.net/thinair/2004/05/finger-pointing.gifThe challenge of preaching is that your preaching is challenging.  They say that when you point the finger there are four pointing back at you (or at least 3 fingers and a thumb!).  When you stand with a microphone and the responsibility to voice what God is wanting to say to that group of people on that evening through that particular passage – then every word you utter resonates straight back in your heart too.  At least I hope and pray that it will never be otherwise!

On Sunday I preached a message that hit me with a challenge that will resonate for some time to come.  This isn’t a comment on the quality of the preach, but rather the significance of the word God gave me to speak.  You can listen to it here, but this is the crux….Is Jesus enough?  Just Him, not what He brings, gives or is able to do, but simply Him?  Whether we understand or not, even when the way he seems to act (or fail to do so) offends our sense of what he should do…is he still enough?

My text was John 6:25-40 – a conversation including Jesus’ famous declaration that “I am the bread of life!”  But what struck me is how this conversation is Jesus returning to the crowd he withdrew from at the start of the chapter in order to give them another chance to invite him in.

http://www.beliefnet.com/Prayables/Scripture/Loaves-and-Fishes.aspxYou see, the chapter starts with the feeding of the 5,000.  There is a crowd of thousands in a remote place and hungry.  So Jesus feeds them with a little boy’s packed lunch.  Jesus isn’t just generous and offers to buy everyone dinner, he does something totally beyond, something utterly unexpected.  Jesus doesn’t play by the rules we play by, he doesn’t even bend them slightly, rather it’s like he’s playing a totally different game.

Yet the crowd miss the point.  Confronted with a miracle that’s meant to be a sign, to be evidence of who Jesus is, they miss the invitation to receive Jesus and they simply see the free lunch.  They search around for some concept within their understanding of life with which to label Jesus.  They call him the ‘Prophet’ they’re expecting – not God himself come in human form – and then they try to control.  We read that they wanted to sieze Jesus and make him King.  So Jesus withdrew.

You see Jesus didn’t come to help us play the game of life better, to live a better life.  He came to give us a new life, to bring us into a new game, to enable us to live by different rules – where God himself is with us, our Father, our faithful provider.  Yet so often when we experience something of God’s power or an answer to prayer, we focus on the gift not the Giver, we seek to maintain life as we know it and simply add God on top.  We tame God with a label we understand and seek to control.  Jesus withdraws.

http://revbickers.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/e100-bible-reading-challenge-miracles_3.htmlThe very next event is another miracle.  The disciples are in a boat in the middle of the lake and a storm has arisen.  Jesus doesn’t just swim out like a hero to help them, he walks on the water towards them.  He plays by different rules.  The disciples are terrified, but all they need is Jesus to say ‘It is I’ and they invite him into the boat.  They don’t wait for a deeper explanation, to understand fully, to know what to do.  All they need is to know it is Jesus and they invite him in.  We’re told that immediately they reached the other side.  By inviting Jesus in they find themselves playing the other game, His game, with different rules.

The conversation Jesus has is him giving the crowd another opportunity.  He challenges them to lift their eyes from ‘food that spoils’ and to see the ‘food that lasts to eternal life’ right in front of them.  He explains that the only work they do is to believe in and receive Jesus.  To let Jesus in.  When they ask for a sign his message is simple – you’ve seen enough already – I’m here.  God himself has come in human form and stands in front of you – you’ve seen enough to know I’m good – all that remains is to invite me in.

I’m challenged.  How many times have I seen God move, experienced incredible provision, seen physical healing, known emotional change in my own heart?  And yet I’ve quickly focused on that provision not the Provider.  I’ve wanted Jesus so long as he continues to do what he has always done.  I’ve gained some understanding of how God works and I’m happy for Him to do so within those boundaries…but I don’t want anything that disrupts my grasp on how life works, on how God works.

Sometimes when it seems that God has stopped doing what He once did the issue is that we’ve started to control, to focus on that particular provision, to limit what God is allowed to do in our lives.  We’ve focussed on gift not Giver and so the Giver withdraws.  The incredible news is that He’ll always give us another chance – but are we open to the conversation?  To the challenge of our understanding and priorities that centers on the one simple question: is Jesus enough?  If we had nothing else, if He ceased to do all that we’ve known Him do before, if He gave us only himself – is Jesus enough?

The disciples amaze me.  After many have left because the conversation was so offensive, Jesus asks if they are leaving too.  They reply: ‘To whom would we go?”  These men left everything before they saw a single miracle, simply at the invitation to ‘come follow me’.  They’ve gone so far that it doesn’t matter if they understand or not, if they like it or not, they have nowhere else to go but where Jesus is.  I want to be in that place, to say ‘Jesus, you are enough, more than enough, no matter what – all I want is you.’

How about you?

Leadership Journies 1 – Rest and Confidence

http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-FkX3Cvglwgw/UO96WHj16qI/AAAAAAAAM7c/BGq8dvvLXKY/s1600/L+plate.jpgOne piece of advice I’ve heard from almost every leader I’ve come across is this: never stop learning.  It doesn’t matter how many years of experience you have or how many letters come after your name – there is always more to learn.

I’m at the start of my ministry.  And I’m in this for the long haul.  So I want to learn.  I’ve had the privilege of growing up under the leadership of some great men and women.  Everyone learns from mistakes and experiences, but there is little point repeating mistakes of those who have gone before if we can avoid it by conversation!  So I’ve started to meet up with as many of these leaders as are willing to simply to learn whatever they can teach me.

The first man I met with was my old youth leader and a huge influence in my teenage years – Steve Delves.

Steve was the first person to release me into positions of leadership and got me to preach.  I’ve met few people as comfortable in who they are and as able to draw others out into the people they’re made to be.  Yet the main things we spoke about were rest and confidence.

http://feministing.com/files/2013/02/work-life-balance-sign-post.jpgHow do you balance work and rest?  When you’re role has no clear time boundaries, you can feel always on call, you’re in a vocation rather than a career….how do you not overwork?

Steve took me back to the beginning, back to Genesis.  On the 6th day God created man and woman – right at the pinnacle of the creation, the final act.  On the 7th day he rested.  So what was humanity’s first day?  It was rest.

Often we think we have to work before we can rest, that we have to get everything done and dusted before we can even think about stopping.  Yet the first day of man was to rest.  We work from rest, not rest from work.

Steve found this insight in Mike Breen’s book Lifeshapes, but it’s something that has influenced him greatly. Rest is the source of our work, not the reward for it.  Right at the heart of this blog is the understanding that we are called to be faithful, not effective.  This faithfulness is itself the most powerful course, because as we walk hand in hand with God, he moves through us.  It is His strength that achieves His purposes through us.  We rest in Him and allow Him to work.  In a sense, our biggest job is to give up control, which takes incredible trust, which takes a deep awareness of the love of God.

No wonder Steve went on to say we have to be really careful to make sure our plumb line in deciding how well we are doing is what God is saying, rather than what people are asking.  Yes, we care and love those around us, but we are called first to respond to God’s lead rather than the demands and felt needs of those around us. Father God cares even more than we do for every person in our minds, He will not neglect or leave anyone stranded.  Responding to God is in itself the best way to respond to the people around us.

We’re called to be faithful and faithfulness comes from rest.

If you could give any advice to your younger self when you began leadership, what would it be?

You know more than you think you do.

Steve explained that most of the angst and stress he felt during leadership came from insecurity in himself or God.  Confidence in what he was thinking, decisions he made, ways that he led would have settled him far more.  It’s not that he would have done anything different, but he would have enjoyed it far more – been more at peace – worked from rest.

http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-ent-FNvEbyM/USOCpWwIScI/AAAAAAAAAvs/VLluVWvb72o/s1600/How_Confidence_Can_Improve_Your_Life_and_Fitness_Goals_From_Empower_Your_Body.jpgWe are always learning, we are never the finished article, there may well be better ways that we could do the things that we do, but we’re not called to be the best.  We are called to be faithful.  To fix our eyes on God, give up control, and allow Him to do whatever He wants to do through us.  When we focus on walking in that relationship with Him, on being the people God has made us to be, we can have far more confidence in who we are because our confidence is in the One who made us.  Don’t second guess as if it all depends on you.  Keep right with God and trust as if it all depends on Him.  Here we find peace.  Here we find rest.  Here we see God move.

Colours on the Horizon – viewing the future from the Father’s table

There is a new season coming for the church.  A season characterised by creativity and community.  As a friend and I were praying and talking yesterday we were struck afresh by how true this is, how we can see signs of it already bubbling up, but how we have no idea what it will look like.  Like colours on the horizon we can see signs of it, but can only walk to it step by step, doing what God says each moment.  This isn’t a set model that we can develop a tried and tested strategy to reach. We feel like we have been given an opportunity to explore what it might look like in one particular church gathering that we’re part of.  Exploring by simply doing what God says to do each step.  First we began eating together, now we want to encourage, demonstrate and release creativity and expression towards God.  That is what has inspired this poem.  It’s not meant to be polished or amazing, it is the beginning of an expression of praise through creativity, of me finding a voice I didn’t think I had, in the hope that others might find theirs.  (Click on the image below to read the poem.)

Background Image from http://lloydbleekcollection.cs.uct.ac.za/images/bleek_nb_lowres/BC_151_A1_4_015/A1_4_15_01494.JPG

Dwelling: The Christian Life Part 3

From: http://dailyjesusnow.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/dwelling-in-gods-secret-place.htmlFaithfulness is the center of the Christian life, perseverance is how we respond to opposition, dwelling in God is where the two come together.

Psalm 91 is considered by a number of scholars to be a psalm describing spiritual warfare.  (Why not read it now?)  The references to ‘the fowler’s snare’, ‘deadly pestilence’ and ‘the terror of night’ for instance, are probably references to demons and gods of the nations at the time.  In other words, this psalm is talking about how we find safety in the battle that we enter as Christians.

So how do we find safety?  The answer in this psalm comes in the very first verse:

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High, will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. (Psalm 91:1)

When it comes to opposition and spiritual warfare we are called to dwell in God.  There is huge similarity to the call to perseverance we find in Nehemiah.  Again it is John Wimber who helped me see this incredible truth that, no matter what the enemy may throw at us, nothing can harm us when we dwell in God.

Wimber describes how, during the second world war, numerous bomb shelters were being built near his home in America.  One day there was an accident by one of these shelters and a house was blown up.  Wimber remembers hearing a man say, “What a shame the house wasn’t in the shelter rather than near it!”From: http://myweb.tiscali.co.uk/homefront/shel/shel2.html

God is our shelter, the one in whom we are safe.  It is not enough to live near God – to have right doctrine or remember a particular experience from time ago – we need to live in Him today and every day.

Dwelling in God is a journey.  It is a journey of intimacy.  And it is this intimacy that links perseverance and faithfulness together.

Jesus said “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.  The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them” (John 14:21).

Dwelling in God is to remain in love with Him.  As we love Jesus we are loved by the Father – this is the place of safety – the place where no opposition can harm us.

Yet this love and dwelling comes from obeying God’s commands.  Does this mean that God does want us to achieve for him, to fulfill his tasks before he will love us?  Only if we misunderstand the commands of Jesus.  The greatest command is to love God with everything we have and to love our neighbour.  The command Jesus wants us to obey is the command to love Him, to live with Him, to be His children – the command to be faithful.

Let me conclude like this: the three words of these three posts are different angles on the same theme.  Faithfulness. Perseverance. Dwelling.  There is a mission for the church, callings for every Christian, a purpose for which we are made.  These are important and worthy of all that we have.  But these are not the essence of the Christian life, they are not tasks God expects us to fulfill or goals we are meant to achieve.  We could do nothing to save ourselves before Jesus saved us and we can do nothing by ourselves to achieve the purpose Jesus saved us for.  We were saved when God brought us into relationship with Him and now the focus of our lives is to keep in that relationship.

Faithfulness means walking with God; perseverance means not getting distracted; dwelling in God means trusting we are safe when we simply stay with Him.  The Christian life is about faithfully persevering in dwelling with God.

Perseverance: The Christian Life Part 2

From: http://www.gembapantarei.com/2008/11/7_leadership_lessons_from_a_mountain_goat.htmlThe purpose of the Christian life is to be faithful – to live with God as the kind of person He has made us to be.  This is what we are called to focus on and put our effort into.  This is the essence of the last post.  But there is more.

There are callings that God places on our lives, things that He is wanting to do through us.  Ephesians 2:10 describes the Christian as God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works prepared in advance for us to do.  We are called to put our effort into being the person God has made us to be, but there is also a purpose he has made us for.  This purpose is something that God will work through us as we focus on living faithful to Him.

Yet I wonder how many of you have, like me, experienced the reality that when we put our face to the work God has given we begin to face opposition?  When we hear the call of God and decide to walk with Him, things often get difficult.  The fact remains that we are in a battle and this battle is real.  But how do we fight it?

Here the book of Nehemiah reveals a simple yet profound truth.  Our secret weapon in spiritual warfare is Perseverance.

Nehemiah is a book in the Old Testament that described the work of Nehemiah in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.  A number of years after God’s people had been exiled and Jerusalem destroyed, the Persian King gave Nehemiah permission to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city.  What we read both describes the historical situation and offers an example of how the Enemy brings opposition to God’s work and how we respond.

Opposition to the work comes mainly from Sanballat, the leader of the neighbouring people who did not want Jerusalem rebuilt.  Throughout the book we see numerous attempts from him to obstruct Nehemiah.  First he mocks and ridicules the very idea of rebuilding the wall.  Next he begins to threaten.  Later he calls Nehemiah to have a conversation giving a false sense of security, but then begins to spread lies that Nehemiah is seeking to revolt.

Mockery, accusation, distraction, and lies.  Ring any bells?  Anyone who begins to follow a clear call of God, no matter how great the experience that led to that call, will experience some or all of this issues.  Having moved cities or started a new role or stepped out in a particular way we’ll face ridicule that we’re being stupid, accusation that we’re doing the wrong thing, distraction that we should be busy with something else, and potentially even lies accusing us of things that have no basis in truth.  We may even find, like Nehemiah, that close friends of ours begin to speak the same things to us – even when well meaning.  It was one of Nehemiah’s friends who tried to convince him to hide in the temple due to fear that Sanballat was sending people to kill him.

What was Nehemiah’s response?

From: http://dwellingintheword.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/654-nehemiah-4/

This is what I find particularly interesting.  Nehemiah fought this opposition by simply keeping on keeping on.  He persevered with what God had said.

Too often we can slip into thinking, as soon as opposition raises it’s head, that we need to stop, turn aside and ‘deal with the opposition’ before we carry on with the work.  The assumption is that we must first make this opposition stop before we can continue with what God has called us to

John Wimber, whose teaching brought this to my attention, puts this wonderfully: ‘Nehemiah didn’t stop building the wall in order to fight the opposition. Rather, he fought the opposition by building the wall.’

Now, Nehemiah didn’t simply ignore opposition.  He took some precautions by arming some of the workers and setting people as watchmen.  He also brought every issue to God and we repeatedly read that, when accusation or threat came, he went straight to God in prayer and asked for help.  But he kept on building.

The Christian life is a call to faithfulness and the response to opposition is perseverance.  Why?  Because ultimately it is God who works through us to do what He has planned to do.  Our job is to keep in step with Him – to be the people He has called us to be in order that He can do through us what He has purposed to do.  There is no opposition that can stand in the way of that and there is nothing that can harm us when we dwell in Him.  And that is the topic of the next post.

Shining like very English stars…

ShineMy posts so far have been fairly theological, today I’ve got something a bit more personal on my mind.  Well, personal for the Anglicans amongst us.

What with the appointment of Justin Welby as the new ABC and the shambles of the vote on women bishops, the Church of England has made a number of headlines recently.  Most of these have been somewhat predictable commentary and I’m not wanting to throw out another opinion on women in ministry right now.  I have actually been struck by something quite different.  Something that I feel I should have known, but has hit me afresh like a slap in the face, namely, that people not only see the Anglican church as marginal and harmless, but that is precisely what they like it for.  Anything that rocks the boat is an issue.

A few months ago I began reading The Week magazine (I’d thoroughly recommend it) and a couple of articles grabbed my attention.  In the light of Justin Welby’s appointment a whole page was given over to assessing Holy Trinity Brompton, the church where Welby came to faith.  The general tone of the article was highly critical of HTB and the Alpha course.  Critical because, on Alpha, “people at a low point in their lives” find themselves “love-bombed” by “friendly, smiley, tactile Christians”.  The problem is that HTB flies in the face of the Church of England’s “national character”.  How?  Because, where the CofE is prized for its “reassuring – if marginal – presence in every community”, “HTB’s evangelical charismatic approach, with its declarations of beliefs and encouragement of regular Bible study, is at odds with all that.”  In other words, a church that actively loves people who are in difficult situations, has a clear sense of belief, and encourages study of the Bible, is at odds with what is valued about the Church of England!

Just last night I gained another insight from the same magazine in reference to an interview with Ian Hislop.  He described being ‘born again’ whilst at school in a time when “The evangelical message spread like wildfire through the school.  Membership of the Christian Union swelled from 12 to 300.”  The number of boys having prayer meetings in dormitories and talking about having found faith left the staff “terribly worried.  You know, being sort of Church of England, people want a very quiet and moderate faith.”  The article ends by describing how, today, “Hislop’s faith is of a more traditional Anglican hue. ‘I go through periods of lack of enthusiasm and increasing doubt’.”

I am in no way wanting to criticise the church or to judge someone’s faith – Ian Hislop shared what is personal to him.  However, perhaps because I grew up in a lively and growing Anglican church, I have never really viewed the CofE in these terms.  These articles in a sense put in writing the attitude that I have noticed and suspected is held by many people in towns and communities across the nation (if they even think about the church at all).  My reaction has been multi-faceted….

– On the one hand it is fairly depressing!  That we have a reputation for being marginal, quiet, unenthusiastic and doubting is not the greatest commendation for a people originally accused of “turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

St Mary's Church– Yet, there is also an encouragement.  Colours show far brighter against a grey background; words are heard more clearly in a quiet room.  I’m encouraged because the truth of the gospel of God’s love is seen in the way we love one another and faith is seen in the way we step out trusting God to move.  When so little is expected from us, it doesn’t take much for people to take notice.  I’ve seen the power of simple actions even over the last couple of weeks at St Mary’s in Loughton.  We held a Christmas Fayre where everything was given away for free: quality items; services like nail painting, family photos and face painting; food and drinks; and prayer.  A number of people were deeply impacted because they simply don’t experience this kind of love or generosity in many other places.  The next day several people came to church for the first time and one even came to faith.

Simple acts become more powerful and simple words more audible against the background of the ‘national character’ of the Church of England.  What excites me, however, is that this popular perception of the CofE is quickly becoming out of date.  As I look at the members of my local church family, my other clergy colleagues, the leaders in each diocese of which I’ve been a part, I see a multitude of people with strong faith, deep love and a desire to demonstrate and show the truth of the gospel.  The reality is we will cause offence for some who simply don’t want the church to make a sound, but for many who are seeking love, truth and God they will more than want to listen.

We ARE the church on mission… (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 2)

So, last post I introduced Michael Moynagh’s argument that mission is a task for the Christian community, not individuals alone, and the need to recognise that ‘church’ can be any Christian community in any context – not just Sunday gatherings in residential areas.  This post I want to offer a response….

Yes Michael!

I couldn’t agree more that the Christian community is essential for mission.  I think Hauerwas is spot on that it is in this community that we learn what it is to be Christian, that we learn the language, actions and perspective that shapes us to live faithful to God.  I think Newbigin is totally right that the gospel will only look credible today when people can see a community who are actually living it out.  We can shout opinions all we want, but if we can’t point to a community of people actually living as if those opinions are true then they’re seen to be empty and hollow.

A couple of minor points I’d like to tweak a bit….

For example, Moynagh argues that, although Hauerwas recognises the problem of Christians being isolated in most of their lives by suggesting we should be sent out in pairs, he doesn’t go far enough to see the missional role of community because he is stuck with an assumption of church as the Sunday gathering in residential areas.  Maybe, maybe not.  I would argue (indeed, I have argued in an MPhil where I also strongly stated the missional role of community), that Hauerwas’ thought includes a concept of improvisation (thanks Sam Wells for the terminology).  Part of our character being formed to speak, see and think faithful to Jesus, is that we find new ways of expressing that faithfulness in new contexts.  Thus, new forms of church are not excluded by Hauerwas, they’re arguably a natural progression of his thought…..we should see them emerging!

But that is a minor point…..here are two more significant comments….

1) We are never going to avoid being sent out alone…..from any community.  Moynagh is so right that we need to encourage Christian communities to form in different spheres of life.  But that doesn’t mean we will all be able to have a community in every sphere of our lives.  For one thing, real community requires a level of commitment that simply can’t be spread amongst a work church, gym church, neighbourhood church and pub church…..we’ll form loose networks not real community.  That means we are going to find ourselves sent out from our community at some point…..and I think that’s ok…..

2) …more than ok, I think it may be necessary.  Another unease I felt was the underlying assumption that we all have very different spheres to our lives that are distinct to one another.  The assumption that I need a church at work as well as in my neighbourhood because these are two distinct spheres of life that have little contact with one another.  Now, that may in some ways be true, but one of the concerns I have about contemporary society is our willingness to compartmentalise our lives as if how I am in one place has no bearing on how I am elsewhere.  I may lie at work because that’s what you do there, but I won’t lie ‘in church’ because it’s not right……and I’m cool with that.  I wonder if the church should be a community that challenges the assumption we can compartmentalise our lives, rather than seeking to provide an alternative community in every compartment of it…..

So these two points lead me to end with this thought: does it make a difference if we see our mission as to form disciples rather than to plant churches?  (Neil Cole of the Organic Church movement argues this….it’s not a Sam original!)   Is the greatest need not for Christian communities in every sphere of every individuals’ life, but for Christian communities that form disciples who see their life as a whole and live faithful in every part of life?

The church is not simply a community to which I belong, it is a something of which I am a part – we are the church.  And we are the church everywhere we go.  Wherever and however often I gather with the rest of the community, I will always be the church in every part of my life….there is never a time when I am ‘isolated’ from that community, when the church is no longer with me or relevant to me.  That is not to say I won’t feel ‘isolated’ and there are certainly ways for Christian communities to improve in supporting one another when we’re not gathered together, but we remain part of that community whether we are physically together or not.

This is a thought that may require more space to get more clarity!  I’d value your thoughts….I’m still thinking this through.  In any event, I strongly recommend having a read of Moynagh’s book – it’ll get you thinking and give you some ideas!

Mission: alone or together? (Talking to Michael Moynagh Part 1)

Not cheap, but worth it!If you have any interest in organic church, emerging church, missional communities, fresh expressions, new monasticism or any other recent expression of church and mission READ THIS BOOK: Michael Moynagh’s Church for Every Context written with Phillip Harrold.  He brings together about a decade’s worth of theology and practice around new forms of church and mission.

Chapter 7 piqued my interest in particular as Moynagh poses the question: is mission by individuals or communities?

Reflecting on Stanley Hauerwas and Leslie Newbigin (guess why I was interested?), Moynagh argues that, though we often recognise the importance of the church community for mission, our general model is to gather in a residential area and then send individuals off alone to evangelise throughout the week.

Hauerwas recognises
the importance of church community as the place where Christian character is formed.  This community shapes the language, actions and perspective on the world of its members and thus shapes them to live distinctively.  It is in these distinctive lives, shaped around Jesus, that Christians point people to God.  Similarly, Newbigin argued that the only way the church can faithfully and credibily represent the gospel in today’s society is by a congregation of men and women who believe and live it.

So the church as community is essential for mission….but…

Moynagh argues, both Hauerwas and Newbigin seem restricted by their inherited view of what ‘the church’ actually looks like – they have in mind gathered congregations meeting in residential areas on Sundays.  This means they continue the model we see all over the place of the majority of mission being left to individual Christians sent out into the week on their own.  In workplaces, leisure centers, schools and colleges, Christians are left isolated from the essential community.

The solution? Recognition that mission is the task of the community not just the individual.

Moynagh sees precedent for this in the nature of God – that He exists in community as the Trinity; in human nature – that we were made ‘male and female’ – made for community; in the history of the church – that Jesus formed a community and the early church met as community in homes, public places, shops and other places of life.

Moynagh gives a couple of examples of what he has in mind:

1) Mid-size communities that begin to meet maybe twice a month in a particular place with a focus on mission in that place: maybe an estate, or helping disabled children. These communities can begin to plant further communities from them.

2) Groups of Christians starting to meet in work places to run courses or find ways of serving their workplace.  They could invite other people in by simply explaining what they do: “We discuss how to serve our workplcae, then read and discuss a story about Jesus, then play some music and those who believe pray quietly”.

There are a myriad of examples, but the point is to find simple and practical ways to form Christian community wherever we are.  We need to recognise that a community living faithfully to Jesus, demonstrating His love, and being easily accessible for those who don’t believe, is extremely effective for mission. (Point of interest: I concluded my MPhil with a very similar sentiment.)

In my next post I’ll share some of my reflections on this, but for now what do you think?  

Is mission a call for communities or individuals?  

If you’re a Christian, do you feel isolated during the week with a pressure to ‘do mission’ on your own?  

Do you have other ideas for how to form Christian community in different spheres of life?

Post a comment and let me know…

Doing for or Being with?

Iain McGilchrist was not the only speaker at the Young Priest Theologians network meeting (for posts on McGilchrist see this and this), the other was Sam Wells, who is actually a bit of a hero of mine…but that’s by the by.  I found Wells as challenging as I found McGilchrist interesting.

Wells began with this question: what is the greatest problem of human existence?

When we look around the world and see violence, hunger, disease, and suffering, I think we can agree with Wells’ summation that mortality seems the greatest problem. So much of the grand project of humanity today is about overcoming our limitations, our mortality.  Obviously, this has always been a major problem, but in recent decades a shift has taken place.  With advances in science, technology, knowledge and understanding, these limitations no longer seem inevitable – they now appear more like problems to be solved.  There is a greater emphasis in medicine to cure, not simply care for, the sick.  We celebrate overcoming limitations more than anything else whether it be in olympic/paralympic sports or jumping through the sound barrier or ridding nations of diseases.

This is good!  But Wells threw out a challenge for the church.  Whilst the human project at the moment is focussed on ‘doing for’ people, is this really the emphasis of God’s call to us?

What is the greatest human problem wasn’t mortality?  What if it was isolation?

Wells asked us to imagine a few common scenarios, like buying a birthday present for a family member we’ve grown distant from.  We don’t really know what they want or how to close that gap so we end up spending too much on something they probably won’t like.  Their face as they open it tells us we were right and we leave their party frustrated.  Or inviting all the wider family round for the weekend and stressing in the preparation so that we dominate the kitchen, get angsty with those around and end up spending the weekend fussing over dishes and desserts.  We say goodbye lamenting not having actually talked and collapse exhausted.  The issue is that ‘doing for’ in these situations doesn’t mend the relationship or allow for community.  ‘Doing for’ is laudable, but it leaves many things undone.

What is the Christian hope?  Heaven?  What is that?  Not clouds and harps, but being with God.  The whole biblical story is saturated with the central purpose of God with us – Immanuel – the name God took when he came in human form.  Creation was about God making us for relationship; the incarnation was Jesus coming as Immanuel to be with us; the last words of Jesus to his disciples were ‘I am with you always’; and the final words of Revelation (the last book of the Bible) are that a time is coming when God will dwell with us for eternity.

Wells challenged us to think whether the mission of the church is to ‘do for’ – to solve the world’s problems – or to ‘be with’ – to be a community of people who will pay the cost of true relationship with others.  This is a harder call.  ‘Being with’ requires a shaping of our lives around others in a way that ‘doing for’ does not.  We can’t simply provide knowledge, technology or money for others – we need to give time, vulnerability, ourselves – without witholding the rest.  Yet we see the value in the problems we cannot solve….Christians are called to be those who stand with others even in situations that seem to have no solution.

This isn’t a denial of ‘doing for’.  Scripture is clear – love that isn’t practical is no love at all.  Yet it strikes me that fundamental to it is a focus shift off ourselves and onto Jesus.  If we believe that we are creatures, not the Creator, and that Jesus has already secured a future where the ‘problems are solved’ – a time is coming when there will be no more tears, pain, or suffering – then solving the problem is not our job nor our need.  Rather, our mission and call is to show the world that God has come to be one of us and God has done it all, that He is with us in every situation.  We show it by living it – living with God and with others – by not avoiding relationship or the difficult conversations needed to deal with past hurts or the giving up of control so we have time to be with others.

There is a huge challenge here, especially in a commuter town like Loughton – how do you give time to be with others when no one has time to be with you?  Yet we already see the power of it.  Some of the greatest changes I have seen in people’s lives since being in Loughton are amongst those who have come into our Cafe and simply found a place where they are loved and listened to.  In this place a deeper change seems to come than in solving someone’s problem alone.