Play nice with the other children- and that goes for all of you!

Church is a bit like preschool, and if you’re not sure what I mean, you need to have a look at 1 Corinthians chapter 12 v12-27, and then (if you can without being escorted off the premises) take a visit to a preschool near you… For those who like to compare and contrast, your can listen to Cathy preach on this passage here, then read my reflections on it below… see where we picked up on the same things and where we disappeared into different directions from the same starting point…

Week 5 of our series ‘living the Christian life’ and we’ve been thinking about generosity, compassion, love and now being part of the family- ‘unity’…

I was struck by the way that the passage we looked at seems much clearer and simpler to us than a lot of Paul’s other writings- was he just having a good day, or is it rather that to us this idea of equality and unity, whilst hard to do, is fairly simple to comprehend… but for his original readers the idea of racial and social equality really was a challenging and new concept… anyway, just something that I was wondering in those moments after I’d finished prepping the talk and before I stood up to give it…

Our key passage this week comes from Paul’s first letter to the church that he founded in Corinth- a letter written at least in part in response to problems of division and spiritual hierarchies that were developing among the Christians and churches in and around Corinth.  Paul is writing to encourage the believers to come together around their shared understanding of who Jesus is- their Christology, and in our series on the Christian life this Lent its an appropriate passage for us to look at as we consider what does it mean for Christians to call ourselves one family.

Paul uses the image of the human body here- we are all one body, with many parts- each one of us baptised into one body and given one Spirit. Paul is, in one image emphasising the unity and diversity of the church, but also keeping at the forefront what it is that joins them- baptism in the name of Jesus and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us…

We’re called to love the different parts of the body of Christ- other people in our church, other churches in our village and region, because we are part of the same thing… but in order to do that we have to overcome two hurdles- firstly we have to come to love ourselves- its all very well to tell me that I need to love another Christian as I love my own limbs, but if I’ve got arthritis or a broken wrist, or bunions or just ugly feet, well… I might not feel I can love the other parts of my own body… if I don’t look like a supermodel, dance like a strictly finalist, run like an Olympian, how am I supposed to love what I don’t really like?

This is where the family image comes in- sometimes we don’t really like our families. They know us too well, they know the buttons to push without even realising, all our first mistakes were done in front of them and they’ve heard our stories a hundred times. And yet… family are who we turn to, family are who we’ll walk on broken glass for. Family are us and we are them. If one part suffers we all suffer… but we’d never be rid of them. We don’t always get on well with our families, but we love them.  They define us- I am the son of my parents and the youngest of three children, my remaining grandmother was 101 on her last birthday and I never met one of my grandfathers… none of them are perfect, but they are my family. In the same way, my body is my body- if I was starting from scratch I wouldn’t design one like this, but this is what I’ve got… with these hands, ears, knees and eyes, arms that are too long, feet that would suit a ballet dancer and a wonky rib for good measure, not to mention the various scars that its picked up during the course of my life…

But, each of those scars comes from something that I went through- all of me- a fall here, an operation there, and all of me was weakened and recovered. Each of the parts of my body works together- somehow it manages to balance on a bicycle, to hold a pen and read a book, to do jigsaw puzzles and play badminton. The different parts of our body are suited for different things, but they also work together in harmony to achieve what they could not do alone.

And that is the second hurdle we need to overcome- the realisation that alone each part is weak, vulnerable and ultimately non-viable.  This week I read a comment by a friend about the Europa Cup tie between Liverpool and Man Utd… two teams with a lot of history and not much of it good. He was writing about his own memories of games as a child, of glory hunters following first one team and then the other, of the noise at the ground on match days. Committed fans of each would say that they hate the opposition and yet… without them, what does their own team mean? A football match needs both teams, and is the better when the opposition is quality. If one team just doesn’t show up- either literally or metaphorically, there isn’t much of a game. We need one another to be who we are.

But the key shortcoming of that image is that what brings two football teams together is the desire to compete and win- In the church, as parts of the body of Christ we need to properly recognise that what brings us together is stronger than what keeps us apart- for Christians there is much we can disagree on, from the first centuries where the early church struggled to describe the relationship between Father Son and Holy Spirit, through the various understandings of womens ministry over the centuries, not to mention those things that are of personal taste- which prayer to use and what hymns we prefer… and yet… Christians are united by the truth of the Gospel and the call that it places on us-

We proclaim and confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of the most high God, that he died and rose again to bring forgiveness of sin to all who would receive it, and that he sent the Holy Spirit to be with his followers. During his ministry and as he left his followers he instructed them to continue the work he had begun- of taking that Good News to all the world, of growing in their own discipleship… and we are only here in this place because of the determination of those missionaries sent to Britain, and those who came to the west and brought that message to the people they found… And today anyone who signs up to that, who is part of the body of Christ, all of us are connected to one another, and all of us are committed to one another- their success is my success, my pain is their pain. Where you flourish, I flourish. And as we learn to live more fully as family, as the body of Christ, loving one another, so we will see God’s blessings poured out more fully on all his people.

Our key passage this week comes from Paul’s first letter to the church that he founded in Corinth- a letter written at least in part in response to problems of division and spiritual hierarchies that were developing among the Christians and churches in and around Corinth.  Paul is writing to encourage the believers to come together around their shared understanding of who Jesus is- their Christology, and in our series on the Christian life this Lent its an appropriate passage for us to look at as we consider what does it mean for Christians to call ourselves one family.

Paul uses the image of the human body here- we are all one body, with many parts- each one of us baptised into one body and given one Spirit. Paul is, in one image emphasising the unity and diversity of the church, but also keeping at the forefront what it is that joins them- baptism in the name of Jesus and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us…

We’re called to love the different parts of the body of Christ- other people in our church, other churches in our village and region, because we are part of the same thing… but in order to do that we have to overcome two hurdles- firstly we have to come to love ourselves- its all very well to tell me that I need to love another Christian as I love my own limbs, but if I’ve got arthritis or a broken wrist, or bunions or just ugly feet, well… I might not feel I can love the other parts of my own body… if I don’t look like a supermodel, dance like a strictly finalist, run like an Olympian, how am I supposed to love what I don’t really like?

This is where the family image comes in- sometimes we don’t really like our families. They know us too well, they know the buttons to push without even realising, all our first mistakes were done in front of them and they’ve heard our stories a hundred times. And yet… family are who we turn to, family are who we’ll walk on broken glass for. Family are us and we are them. If one part suffers we all suffer… but we’d never be rid of them. We don’t always get on well with our families, but we love them.  They define us- I am the son of my parents and the youngest of three children, my remaining grandmother was 101 on her last birthday and I never met one of my grandfathers… none of them are perfect, but they are my family. In the same way, my body is my body- if I was starting from scratch I wouldn’t design one like this, but this is what I’ve got… with these hands, ears, knees and eyes, arms that are too long, feet that would suit a ballet dancer and a wonky rib for good measure, not to mention the various scars that its picked up during the course of my life…

But, each of those scars comes from something that I went through- all of me- a fall here, an operation there, and all of me was weakened and recovered. Each of the parts of my body works together- somehow it manages to balance on a bicycle, to hold a pen and read a book, to do jigsaw puzzles and play badminton. The different parts of our body are suited for different things, but they also work together in harmony to achieve what they could not do alone.

And that is the second hurdle we need to overcome- the realisation that alone each part is weak, vulnerable and ultimately non-viable.  This week I read a comment by a friend about the Europa Cup tie between Liverpool and Man Utd… two teams with a lot of history and not much of it good. He was writing about his own memories of games as a child, of glory hunters following first one team and then the other, of the noise at the ground on match days. Committed fans of each would say that they hate the opposition and yet… without them, what does their own team mean? A football match needs both teams, and is the better when the opposition is quality. If one team just doesn’t show up- either literally or metaphorically, there isn’t much of a game. We need one another to be who we are.

But the key shortcoming of that image is that what brings two football teams together is the desire to compete and win- In the church, as parts of the body of Christ we need to properly recognise that what brings us together is stronger than what keeps us apart- for Christians there is much we can disagree on, from the first centuries where the early church struggled to describe the relationship between Father Son and Holy Spirit, through the various understandings of womens ministry over the centuries, not to mention those things that are of personal taste- which prayer to use and what hymns we prefer… and yet… Christians are united by the truth of the Gospel and the call that it places on us-

We proclaim and confess that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of the most high God, that he died and rose again to bring forgiveness of sin to all who would receive it, and that he sent the Holy Spirit to be with his followers. During his ministry and as he left his followers he instructed them to continue the work he had begun- of taking that Good News to all the world, of growing in their own discipleship… and we are only here in this place because of the determination of those missionaries sent to Britain, and those who came to the west and brought that message to the people they found… And today anyone who signs up to that, who is part of the body of Christ, all of us are connected to one another, and all of us are committed to one another- their success is my success, my pain is their pain. Where you flourish, I flourish. And as we learn to live more fully as family, as the body of Christ, loving one another, so we will see God’s blessings poured out more fully on all his people.

So what does it mean to live this out in a really tangible way? A small group of us met up last night to consider this, and one of the things we ended up doing was praying for every street in our neighbourhood- not just our own, or the ones where we knew people, but each street equally, by name… That’s just a start, so what’s next?

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St Paul and the 21st Century- the car of God

All this summer we’ve been learning about the Kingdom of God, in various passages from Mark and John’s Gospels. We’ve recently been looking a what Jesus meant when he describes himself as ‘the bread of life’ and instructs his followers to eat his body… This week, alongside some more about that, we had a second reading from St Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus- the passage in chapter 6 that talks about the armour of God and compares it to the spiritual characteristics that Christians must have in their lives if they’re to continue to grow in faith and remain in relationship with Christ- if they’re to carry on being in the Kingdom of God.

One question that I had as I prepared was whether the analogy to armour is just that- an analogy, or whether its a more exact parallel- whether when Paul talks about the helmet of salvation he’s talking about something that is really essential, life-saving, pretty obvious ‘like’ a helmet, or if he means that it is a helmet… I came down on the side of the analogy as you’ll see, but I’d be interested to know if I’m alone here.

Anyway, here’s the script from yesterday, and as usual, the link to the audio file here

When we hear the passage from Ephesians chapter 6, which we just heard, we often think of the first time we saw a vicar in toy armour, or when we saw a youth worker making armour out of kitchen utensils, all to try and illustrate this passage for us… but we won’t be thinking about those things today… well, maybe just a little bit.

Paul wrote to the people of Ephesus that they needed to put on the full armour of God if they were going to stand their ground in tough times, and though we don’t wear real armour today, the spiritual things that Paul was talking about are just as important… but what might be some modern things that Paul would mention if he was writing today? I was tempted to use all sorts of climbing kit at this point, but Paul talks about something that is familiar to people- so something that many people in our society understand is a car… so lets think about what the car of God would be like… and the things you’d need if you were driving in a tough situation…

belt of truth… something that protects you… seatbelt? Without it you are vulnerable. Truth helps to hold us in place in the midst of skids and slides… sometimes its uncomfortable…

Breastplate of righteousness… things in front of you bounce off it… windscreen? Protects you as you’re moving forwards, often without you noticing it- things bounce or slide off it. When a windscreen is doing its job you can see where you’re going, and you are visible- its not just a thing to hide behind but you can still move.

Feet fitted with the readiness of the Gospel- grip and steering, stopping and starting- surely the tyres?

Shield of faith… something you can’t see, but you trust is there, something that will save you in need- air bags and crumple zones? A shield was something you could move, cars now have airbags on all sides… wherever they’re needed… faith is only visible when its in action.

Helmet of salvation… drivers licence- you have to know it, to pass your test… a map or satnav maybe? Tells you where you are going, helps you to get there… a basic but an essential

Sword of the Spirit… which is the word of God… fuel?

As Christians how do we get those things into our lives?

Knowing the word of God in our lives- 2 of them are about this, so its important- not just reading the Bible, but reading it as a way to get to know Jesus and to understand God. A car can’t get moving if it doesn’t have tyres or fuel… the others are all needed too. People sometimes talk about putting on the armour of God every morning, but as well as that, how do we strengthen those things? Through our times together here- we pray, we hear God’s word, we worship- we celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection- we are reminded, encouraged and invited to know more about the relationship we are each discovering with God…

In our other reading from John’s Gospel, we heard Jesus talking about the bread of God, that it’s a symbol of accepting his promise of eternal life… but if you miss a week, are allergic to bread, don’t like raisins, feel funny coming to the front, can’t walk and we forget to come to you- none of those prevent you from receiving the promise of salvation and eternal life in Christ- that is the relationship between you and God that is restored because of Jesus death and resurrection. The bread and wine that we use to celebrate Holy Communion are symbols of that- just as they point towards the events described in the Bible- the last supper, the meals that Jesus shared with others during his life, the manna in the desert, the Passover meal (and the annual repetition of that). Jesus says- you remain in me, and I remain in you- that’s a permanent thing… its not dependant on a top up or a renewal… but we do it every week here at one of our services… because just like putting armour on, or like putting the seatbelt on in the car… we don’t do these things for the times when we don’t need them, but for the unexpected times when we do…

Nobody wants to run out of petrol, get a flat tyre, crash their car etc… and so we refuel in plenty of time, always have a spare in the back, use seatbelts and have airbags that we hope are never used. We take a driving test and then forget half of what we learnt, and when was the last time any of us seriously looked at our windscreen to check for scratches or chips? When we come here on any given Sunday morning we may arrive in a rush, tired from the week, worried about the week ahead, barely able to concentrate or take much in… or we may be in that place of peace and joy, filled with expectation of encountering God until its ruined by the service leader, the welcomer at the door, the music, the grumpy children and the noisy older folk… but somehow, God meets with us on both those occasions. We may not notice it, we may not appreciate it at the time, but God meets with us, his Spirit fills us, we are reminded of what Christ did for us and of the truths of our faith… we are strengthened for the time that lies ahead, and healed from the week that has passed- a trip to the armourer, a weekly servicing for the car…

When Jesus spoke about who he was and what he meant to do, many who heard him said ‘this is a hard teaching!’- why? Because they didn’t want to hear about a man who could give them eternal life, who would plant complicated ideas in their heads about God being with them in all places, who claimed that he really was sent by the Father and lived only to do the will of the Father- promising eternal life. They didn’t want this because some of them wanted a hero to lead an army, a teacher to inspire them to fight against the Romans, while the others wanted a man of peace to help them keep their heads down and wait for the next empire to come along, while telling them that they were doing just fine with God… and Jesus didn’t fit the bill.

He confused them with his wonderful miracles and fascinating stories, his sidestepping the expectations folks had and the connections he made with the wrong sort of people… and Jesus knew this. And many of those who’d followed him for a time stopped, and went away. Because he didn’t fit their bill. But some stayed- they didn’t necessarily understand everything, and they weren’t yet fully formed, but they, like us, and like all those others who’ve worshipped here over the years and are in churches elsewhere today, were willing to say ‘yes’… and so we echo the words of Peter- ‘to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and have come to know that you are the Holy One of God’

As we worship today, in every part of our service, that is essentially what we are doing… our prayers are in his name because Jesus is the Holy One of God. When we celebrate Holy Communion it’s the death and resurrection of the Christ that we celebrate, when we lift our voices in worship, it’s the Son of God who’s name we praise. So let us live in the light of that- ready to endure the challenges set before us, to prevail for the sake of the one who saves us- whether we are clad in the armour of God or driving in the car of God, but living as the people of God.

In terms of some of the other writing that I’m planning to develop, I’ve just been asked to put together some teaching on Mission, which will need to get done first…

Messy business- the kingdom of God, the church and our lives…

This weekend we had a great time clearing and cleaning inside and out at one of our locations- the older church in a village just outside of town.  Alongside members of the congregation around 30 local residents who might at best describe themselves as ‘occasional visitors’ or ‘not religious types’ turned up and grafted really hard throughout the day. With various people coming and going over the day, there were probably around 60 of us involved. It was a great time, and we made huge progress.  We shared lunch together and got to know one another better, and agreed that we’ll do this again at the end of the year…

Now, question to ponder… was this part of a deep outreach strategy? Or was it a way to harness the generous spirit of our neighbourhood? Or was it something else that was just good in itself?

The next morning I was speaking on the ‘continued growth of the Kingdom’- looking at how people respond to Jesus in Mark’s gospel. Its messy, and not exactly purposeful, and its not under control.

Here’s what I planned to say- if you want to compare it to what was actually said, then you can listen to the audio on our website here

We’re continuing in our series on the Kingdom of God, looking once again at its growth. At the start of today’s reading, the apostles gathered round Jesus- they’d been sent out with instructions to go and preach the Gospel of repentance- which is, by the way, exactly the same as the Gospel of salvation… it’s the same thing, the only difference is where you start- if you preach salvation to someone who feels safe they may find it difficult to hear and understand that they need to be saved. Equally if you proclaim to someone who is in the depths of despair that they are lost its not anything new or helpful to them- one needs to be warned of the dangers that they do not see, the other needs to be encouraged that there is hope beyond all that they know…but both are the Gospel of the Good News of Jesus, that through him there is forgiveness and life eternal- through him we can come to God as father…

They gathered round and told Jesus what they’d been doing- this passage here gives one of the really important reasons for why Christians gather together- when we come together on a Sunday morning, when Christian leaders gather at Churches Together or synods, one really important thing that we do is share our stories- not to show off or to moan, but to encourage each other and be encouraged by each other… I wonder whether all of the disciples, or apostles as they’re called here (apostle- sent… Jesus has sent them out so they’re no longer disciples- followers), had pure 100% encouragement when they were out teaching people about Jesus and praying for healing… I doubt it, in fact I’m sure they didn’t… and so each one needed to be encouraged by the others… and then Jesus says ‘come, and get some rest’. This is the second really important thing we do when we gather together- we’ve encouraged each other and been encouraged, and then we are restored by God- we are refuelled ready for what lies ahead of us…

What lay ahead of them- we talked last week about opposition and authority, and here we see that same cycle- there are people suffering, there is spiritual darkness, and Jesus has authority over both…

And people hear that he is coming- they run across the region… their friends and neighbours tell them. And why? Because they are intrigued, because there’s no TV and the football season hasn’t started, but also because nothing like this has ever been seen.

When we talk about God, about our faith, about our church, its important that we know what we’re talking about… it shows through in our words but also in how we talk (which is actually much more important)-

God saves us, and has given us life with him. Our faith gives us purpose in life, and helps us to manage all the things the world throws at us. Our church is a place where we are accepted and challenged- encouraged and welcomed…

Our church has a sense that we have a part to play in what God is doing- in the lives of individuals, in the life of this community and as part of God’s church in this part of the world…

But here’s the twist- we don’t know exactly how its all going to pan out in the meantime… we  don’t know and we can’t control who of our friends will respond to an invitation to come to church, or who might have questions they’d love to ask… just as Jesus couldn’t control people’s response to his teaching and the gospel that his followers proclaimed…

Go, preach, offer healing where you are welcomed, and look for where there is response… it’s a strategy that seems lacking in structure but it is infinitely flexible, its organic and can respond to any situation.

And so we try anything and everything, we’re never disheartened by people’s response because the only failure is a failure to try…  the invitations… if no one you know would like to come to this service, then how or what might be more appropriate? Because its not about the specifics of one thing, its about the overall- are we joining in the growth of the kingdom of God, in all its messiness.

And no mention of any sporting events at all! So there you go.

cheers

A high performance team or a loving family- which one is the church?

I’ve been looking at a few posts on various blogs about leadership and performance, and watching a bit of the Tour de France when I’ve had the chance. Alongside that I’ve been burying people, sitting with people who’re going through the mill, trying to be a dad myself and all the other stuff that goes with life and working as a minister in a church. This week I’ve chaired several meetings and been at others, and right now I’m drawing up a shift roster for a team of 20 people from 11 different churches for the Somersault Festival next week- see this post from last year if you’re not sure what thats about.

But right now I’m thinking about which of those two models mentioned in the title best describes or helps our leadership team at church, the leaders of the churches in our town, the gathered group of reps from local churches (called a deanery synod if you want to know) and our team for Somersault, and actually the congregations of both the churches I lead.  None of them are high performance, but then none are perfectly loving… but which do we want to head towards? In meetings there is a real temptation towards efficiency and performance, but are we getting things back to front? I guess I know what the answer is. I know that the exciting times in the meetings I’ve had this week have come from when we’ve gone slightly off-script and people’s hearts have shone through the agenda or the item we’re discussing. I know that. I know that in the church I’m part of we can organise things, but its when people help each other to overcome the unexpected problem that we’re really buzzing. And its when we don’t do that- when we find ourselves justifying being unhelpful with ‘its not my turn on the rota’ or similar comments, thats when we’re failing at being the church. The blip in performance may be minor, but its a major problem of the heart.

When a team works well, its slick and fast moving, but mostly because there is a clearly defined goal- win the game, sell the product etc. But when a family works well, often the goal is invisible or indefinable- we’re about being us…  The best of teams work really well because they are like a family. The best families eat teamwork for breakfast.

I don’t want to be part of a team. I want to be in a family.

But I want that family to be filled with love. I guess the onus is then on me to model that, to act out of love for those around me so that they’ll join in, and we’ll encourage one another, support one another, stand in the gap for one another.

I could go on to reflect on what Jesus did and what the Bible shows us… but I figure by now you may have got the drift- there’s no job spec for CEO in the Bible, or a flow chart of how the church leadership structure works as a hierarchy…but there is lots of stuff about being part of each other, and loads about love… go find it.

Has God left the building, and should the church follow?

Reposting this from a blog I follow, ‘Holy Soup’. The original post can be found here. Clearly this is written from an American church perspective, but there’s lots to challenge and help us think here in the UK.  Here in Devon the biggest challenge is that we’ve lots of beautiful old buildings in sparsely populated areas- even if the whole population came each week (or didn’t meet in the church but met in a well-heated hall or someone’s house or whatever- you get what I mean), it would fill the existing space… so what to do with these beautiful, costly, ancient spaces that are not easily adaptable? But, thats an aside really… what about the buildings where there is a reasonable population, and where the church space is one of the larger buildings in the community that is publicly available? Read on…

“In a decade, America is going to have a whole different look, as far as what is a church and where is a church. And what about all these empty buildings?” asks American Church Magazine publisher Steve Hewitt in the documentary When God Left the Building.

Verlon Fosner watched his church, Westminster Community Church in Seattle, dwindle to the point that its spacious building no longer fit the shrinking congregation. “The level of desperation was pretty high,” Fosner said. The congregation faced a tough decision.

Shifting and declining churchgoing habits are causing an unprecedented shake-up in the religious real estate scene. Take a look at the headlines:

“Banks Foreclosing on America’s Churches in Record Numbers” (Reuters). “The surge in church foreclosures represents a new wave of distressed property seizures.”

“Churches: The New Risky Bet” (Christianity Today). “Hundreds of congregations have filed for bankruptcy or defaulted on loans.”

“Churches Find End is Nigh” (The Wall Street Journal). “The past few years have seen a rapid acceleration in the number of churches losing their sanctuaries because they can’t pay the mortgage.”

“Decline in Church-Building Reflects Changed Tastes and Times” (The Wall Street Journal). “Construction of religious buildings in the U.S. has fallen to the lowest level at any time since private records began in 1967.”

Even still-growing megachurches are shifting away from building massive edifices. There are exceptions, of course, such as Kansas City’s Church of the Resurrection, which is in the midst of a $90 million construction project.

But, as most congregations shrink and donations dwindle, church members and leaders find it increasingly difficult to justify–or afford–the expense of a cavernous auditorium space that gets used once or twice a week.

So, what does the future hold for America’s aging inventory of church buildings? For many congregations, this question raises some other, bigger, questions about ministry and mission. Beyond that beautiful building on the corner, how is God calling his church? What constitutes truly worthy stewardship of a congregation’s tithes and offerings?

A NEW REALITY

While American culture has often identified a church with its real estate, that may be changing. A few trends are emerging:

1. Make space more flexible. Fixed seating is giving way to movable chairs, allowing the sanctuary space to serve multiple uses throughout the week–for the congregation as well as other community groups.

2. Share buildings. Using creative and cooperative scheduling, multiple congregations can share the same real estate. The Mormons figured this out long ago.

3. Unfasten the weekly gathering. Some congregations follow a modified house-church model, where small groupings meet weekly or bi-weekly in homes or other places. Then all these mini-congregations come together once a month, in a rented public space, for a city-wide worship gathering.

4. Get out and go to the people. Some congregations have turned their real estate woes into opportunities to become truly missional. They’ve sold or leased out their church buildings and taken their ministry to the streets and neighborhoods around them.

That’s just what the people of Seattle’s Westminster Community Church did. When attendance continued to drop by 15 percent a year, the congregation decided to vacate their beautiful building. They rented out that space to local non-profit groups. And they’re using the rental income to fund their ministry dream–Community Dinners.

Verlon Fosner and his Westminster members now go out, five nights week, to various Seattle neighborhoods and provide dinner and ministry for area residents. I recently visited one of these sites, at a local community meeting hall. Westminster volunteers welcomed the neighbors with a tasty meal, nice tablecloths, live music, and a visual artist creating a painting. As the locals began enjoying their dessert, that location’s young pastor offered a simple 10-minute gospel message.

Dinner Church

In Westminster’s former brick-and-mortar configuration, weekly attendance had dropped to 225. Now, its Community Dinners reach 900 people per week.

(Verlon Fosner will be among the resource people at the Future of the Church Summit in Colorado, October 21-23, 2015.)

I mean, really, this is about finding ways to fulfil the instructions Jesus gave to his follwers, and the kingdom manifesto that he introduced in his own ministry… which is exactly the theme we’re picking up for this coming Sunday, so watch and listen closely…

Jesus, you’re confusing me!

So, looking at a few of the parables at the moment- those stories that Jesus told which were deliberately meant to teach something, but seem to do so in a roundabout way that leaves us scratching our heads… we were looking at the Parable of the Talents, which is found in Matthew chapter 25… and here is what I shared with folk. Interestingly, and in a quite groovy way, we had 3 different preachers speaking on the same passage in our 3 services yesterday, and while we all picked up on different aspects and made different links to our own lives/contexts, there was a very cool and solid message of risk-taking coming through… read on:

I remember acting this out years ago, and we had the spoof ‘parable of the 10 talons’ with a vampire… I don’t quite remember whether there was meant to be a huge depth of meaning to that… The thing with this story which Jesus told, as with a number of them- like the parables of the prodigal son, the sower and the good Samaritan, is that many of us have heard it many times, and we know the bits we like- the son is welcomed back, the good soil produces crops, the stranger helps- and in this one ‘well done, good and faithful servant’… the reward that comes to those who are faithful and persevere. The thing is that each of these stories has a sting in its tail (no pun intended)- the prodigal is as much about the hardness of our hearts, the sower about God’s abundant generosity, the good Samaritan challenges us to love with that same generosity of spirit.  So what about the parable of the talents…

There’s a phrase right at the start which gives us a hint- ‘at that time’ in the NIV… what time? In this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is teaching about his return- the end of things, when the Kingdom of heaven is fully present… its not the same as those parables that talk about ‘the kingdom of heaven is like’, which speak of now, into our lives here and now- this is very much looking towards the future… when Jesus returns, on the last day when everything will change. So the first thing we need to have straight is that the judgement in this story isn’t one that is made on our lives right now- the final judgement will only be on the final day. Until then we’re living in the period at the beginning of the story- the master has gone on a long journey and not yet returned. At that point, we will be judged by what we’ve done, by how we’ve lived- but we’re not there yet… Just as at the end of any exam, match, meal etc things reach their final conclusion, so they do in this context and will do when Jesus returns. This isn’t a negative message- a reminder that things have direction and purpose: that the church is not left to drift along

So for us now, we’re in the place of the servants who’ve been entrusted with something by their master, and we have to decide how to act. Often when someone gives me something to look after, I’m incredibly careful, even cautious, about how I use it- I would be worried to get a scratch on something, or to crease it… one the very few occasions that I’ve met with a financial advisor they’ve concluded that I am ‘risk averse’- which some might find amusing given that my hobbies include lots of things that come under the ‘extreme sports’ banner… Many of us have a tendency to do the same, I’m sure.  The thing that challenges me, in the passage we had read to us, is that this is the wrong answer- when we hear of the masters return, the servant who’s been careful and cautious doesn’t receive a word of praise or commendation for not breaking things but is condemned for their risk averse attitude.

The master’s property is to be used, not stored. Its to be put to work, allowed to become what it has the potential to grow into, rather than held stationary. Here, and in every church, we’ve people with many gifts, talents and abilities, and we should encourage folks to use those, of course. But that’s not the whole of the message for us: the church as a whole needs to willing to take more risks. This last week we welcomed 240 pupils from Park School into the church… about half of them had never been into a church before. We had a format that worked from previous years, that we knew the teachers were happy with, but out of discussions it became clear that the less structured parts of the sessions were what really engaged pupils… and so we allowed them to ask the questions for almost half of the time here- with a panel answering them as the questions (sight unseen) were asked. And each day we ran out of time before they ran out of questions, and their questions ranged all over the place- some really challenging, some a great opportunity to share. But at the end of the sessions, each one of us had grown and developed, and each of those young people had heard about the Christian faith from a group of people for whom it is at the heart of our lives.

When we risk things for our faith, when we put it to work, our faith grows, and we grow, and others grow around us, and the church- the kingdom of God, grows too. And if we live like that, we need can be confident that when we stand before our master we will hear those words ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. Being faithful to God isn’t necessarily the same as being faithful to our history, but we’ll leave that for another time!

Have a good day, and take some risks for your faith.

Dem bones dem bones dem dry bones…

So, was speaking about Ezekiel chapter 37, which is the inspiration, would you believe it, for the children’s song- if you’re not convinced go and look at verses 1-14 alongside the words of the song… happy now?

Anyway, it was a family service, so we had 10 kids as the bones etc, one person as the voice of God, another as Ezekiel, everyone else was the sound of the rattling and the wind, and we alternated between them reading bits and me explaining/expanding on what was being said… so these notes probably make no sense, but they contain some of the gist.

If you’re wondering why no posts for the last few weeks- A.G.M. season. No, its not a sport that i follow fanatically, but as leader of 2 churches i’ve had 2 sets of accounts to look over, 2 sets of reports to collate, 2 meetings to chair etc… and now its a nice rest time. Holy Week with all the stuff of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter will be a breeze!

here’s the notes from last Sunday:

Scene-setting: this comes from the writings of Ezekiel, who spoke God’s word to the people of Israel while they were in exile in Babylon.

After Ezekiel’s first speech: This is one of many visions that Ezekiel had- its important as we hear it and try to understand it that we realise this is picture language- it means something else… a metaphor. Ezekiel had these visions because he was listening… he was expecting God to speak to him- he would have had that expectation because God had spoken to him previously. We don’t know whether Ezekiel had an ongoing inner conversation with God (like St Augustine, among others), or whether he had occasional but significant pictures, but he listened to God, and God spoke to him.  Often when we come to pray, its tempting to just bring our list of requests, but its important that we listen to what God might want to say to us.

Prayer day stuff- some things that people wrote down during or after our prayer day- that there is a sense of lightness here, with no need to feel burdened, that the church is a source of light for those who come into the space- people feel Gods presence here. Another person wrote that we need to ‘let the light out’- like a beacon in our community, many who we know remark on the warmth, but was left wondering whether enough light is getting out to those who don’t cross the threshold. The passage from Romans 8- if God is for us, then who can be against us, for we are more than conquerors, but another person had a picture that the church is like a big block of activity balancing on a slim pinnacle of prayer- we need to broaden our prayer base.

These are just the sort of things that we, us, normal everyday Christians, have felt that God is saying in our church over the last few months… the thing is that we put time aside to listen to God, and so we heard from God.

After Ezekiel’s second speech: Do we sometimes feel as though we’re standing still, that we’re sort of alive but missing something- that we’ve lost momentum or direction?

After Ezekiel’s third speech: the breath of God brings life- it reminds me of the very beginning of Genesis… God’s Spirit breathing life into the universe… this picture describes something that cannot naturally happen… God’s holy Spirit brings life where there was none before. Remember it’s a vision… what did it mean to those who first heard it, and what does it mean for us? God’s Spirit turns plans into life… without it all we do is just a whirring of wheels… we’re not able to be who or what we’re meant to be.  BALLOON!! The good news is that God’s Holy Spirit is within all Christians… are we full? Are we being refilled? We need to know its already within us, but also to receive this gift, this help.

After reading is finished… children to go over to Kim.

How can I be more fully alive? How can the church be more fully alive? How do we let the Spirit of God work in us?

In part its to do with knowing where we fit into things- I feel more alive when I am doing the things I’m meant for- when I’m in the right place or playing my part…

In part its to do with our expectations of God- what expectations do we have about how God is going to be at work in our lives or this community? If we look at Scripture we can see that God changes the lives of people again and again- in the Old Testament and the New.

In part its to do with aligning ourselves gradually, as individuals and as churches, with God’s values- of loving service, of seeking justice and opposing injustice, of mercy, of offering forgiveness and grace.  We do this knowing that we’re still the same confused, selfish, grumpy ‘sin-full’ people that we’ve always been, but that God wants to bring healing and transformation to us, and into the world through us. As we do our best to try and allow God to be our Lord, so we’ll gradually hand over parts of our lives, and so allow God to guide us in His ways, because we recognise they’re better than our own plans.

And remembering the balloon- this is what it means for us to grow as Christians, do become more the shape we’re meant to be, so that we will be playing our part…

so go on, be a balloon, not a damp piece of rag (to quote Winnie the Pooh)- its what we’re meant to be…

more not for prophet thoughts, and a Kodak moment

Came across this post here about the decline of Kodak, and some really insightful reflections on church decline in response to it, and it reminded me of how difficult it is to hear truth when its spoken to us. This is something I began to reflect on last week and I want to continue thinking about it. Its not just about church, its about being open to changing situations- i just happen to be working in a church which finds itself in a changing situation.

Or do we? I mean, the first challenge has to be as simple as that- have things changed, are things different? Do we simply, in the words of the game Bop it (great game, insanely irritating voice), need to ‘Do it again, but better!’ or do we need to recognise that we need to start from first principles.

The key to that lies in knowing what we’re about- why we are doing this. To take an example from outside of work/church: when I’m struggling with parenting it really helps me to remember why I’m trying to… (fill in the blank)…. It might be getting them to eat their veggies, sit up at the table, brush their teeth, tidy their toys, play nicely together, not run across the road, stop screaming etc. But by remembering that my hope, the vision, the aim isn’t simply to produce a child that eats vegetables (or whatever it might be this time), but rather to help them become someone who appreciates good food and the people who prepare it, to be healthy and all that stuff, because ultimately I love them and want them to understand that. Sometimes it feels important to ‘win’ the conflict over the dinner table, but at other times I can see the bigger picture.

In church we need to remember the bigger picture too. In fact, in most of our lives we could probably do with remembering what the bigger picture is. Its rarely the same as whatever is bang in front of us- its the background stuff, that actually is more important.

But its hard doing that, and it runs contrary to most of our structures. Get a job, but remember that work isn’t everything. Work hard, but it shouldn’t be your highest priority. Compete to the best of your abilities, but without causing damage to others.  Our society praises selflessness at some levels, but celebrates selfishness to a greater degree.

In church life- care for those who are part of the church and worship God, but remember that God has sent all Christians to care for those who aren’t part of the church and don’t know who God is yet… Worship God with all your heart, but in such a way that you don’t exclude those who’re with you for the first time.  And to be honest, we’ve a lot invested in ‘the way things are’- the traditions of our forefathers have built the place where I work and created the job that I do, for starters.

What would it look like if we honestly approached things from the first principles? If we recognised, for starters, that the world around us is different from the world our parents grew up in (hey, its different from the world I grew up in). And are we willing to change things so that we can do/be what we’re really intended for?

Do we want our children to love us, or simply eat up their dinners? Do we want our lives to have meaning, or simply to have achievements? Do we want our churches to embody God’s love in our communities, or simply to exist in our communities?

Meeting someone new, introducing friends to someone special

This morning we held a thanksgiving at our church, which is something we offer families with young children who are thinking about baptism. Its only a fairly small part of the service, but for the family, standing up in front of people they don’t really know can be quite daunting. Anyway, it got me thinking about welcoming and introductions, and my reflections on this passage from John’s Gospel looked a bit like this. As always, I missed out some great bits and added in some genius replacements…

When we welcome a young child into the church, or a visitor, or a family, or anyone, part of what we’re doing is inviting them to meet Jesus. We’re continuing in what John the Baptist, who this church is named after, started when he said to his followers, ‘look, the Lamb of God’ and pointed them towards Jesus. Up until that point, they’d looked to John as the one who spoke the words of God, who called them to deeper relationship with God, who reminded them of the deep truths that they knew in their hearts. And then he said ‘look- you know I said we need to be forgiven? Well he’s the one who will do that’. He gave his testimony- his own personal account, which isn’t like an equation to be resolved or an issue to be debated, but is his own experience. And his conclusion? This is the Son of God.

BUT, and this is important- he doesn’t force that conclusion onto his followers. He just tells them his story and his observations. What happens next is between them and Jesus. Lots of people met Jesus, and they responded to him in different ways. One reason for this is what they were expecting beforehand. He didn’t do many of the things a prophet ought to, he didn’t bother too much about some of the teachings, which a good teacher should, he didn’t proclaim his authority like the messiah they were expecting. Be he didn’t back down, he didn’t worry about being popular, he didn’t shirk from a difficult task.  Sometimes when I tell people I’m a Christian I end up in a conversation where they try to explain why they don’t believe in God, and when they talk about God I find myself thinking- I don’t believe in a God like that. All the caricatures and misquotes and out-of-context bits put together to make an angry, lazy, inconsistent old man. And I think, if only we could put aside our preconceptions, and meet God. And there’s the old argument that if God really wanted us to know him, he’d do something to make it possible- like send a message, or speak to someone, or send a messenger, or come to earth himself. And as you list those things, you realise that’s exactly what God has done. So lets, for the sake of argument, assume that those ideas are in fact true- that God did come to earth in the form of Jesus, his only Son so that people might meet him.

And this is what happens when someone meets Jesus- the lamb of God- God with us. The two disciples of John who saw Jesus on the second occasion changed direction- they were following John, they started following Jesus. They were by no means bad people. The followed him, and they wanted to be with him- they spent the day together. And then it says this about one of them, Andrew: the first thing he did was find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘we have found the Messiah’, and brought him to Jesus.

Andrew doesn’t get much press in the Gospels, in fact, this is his finest hour: he brought his brother to meet Jesus. He doesn’t try to persuade him of his argument, though one must accept that Simon was vaguely interested in such things. He goes, finds him, invites him to meet Jesus, and then its between Simon and Jesus. Simon, who Jesus looks at and nicknames ‘Rocky’ despite consistent proof over the next few years that he’s as steadfast as a pile of feathers, until he does eventually live up to his name.  The encouraging thing here is that Andrew doesn’t have the responsibility for what happens- its not his ‘fault’ if Simon walks away, and its nothing he can be proud of if Simon chooses to follow Jesus. And that makes things a lot easier.

I guess for us there’s two questions that arise out of this- have I met Jesus? And bearing in mind all that I said earlier, I mean, have I met Jesus rather than my own caricature of him. Have I met the man who faced down the educated and the privileged, and broke the social taboos to draw all sorts of people into his circle of friends? The man who spoke with teachers and priests, tax collectors and prostitutes, Jews and Romans, the sick and the outcast, the young and old? Have I listened to the wise teacher who taught that he would rise from death? Have I met the risen Jesus who simply stood and showed the wounds in his hands and feet?

And when I met him, what did I do? Did I follow him, reject his claims, watch from a distance, ask him questions? Or did I, like Andrew, go to someone I knew and bring them too, to meet Jesus.

When we welcome a young child into the church, or a visitor, or a family, or anyone, part of what we’re doing is inviting them to meet Jesus. We’re here today to meet with Jesus, how will we respond to him?

church: a not for prophet organisation?

A friend just posted a post about the results from some really important work done on growth in the church, which concludes that where people are taking risks, investing in the future and being willing to change things about how the church operates, increasing numbers of people are coming to faith, coming to find out more about faith and having more positive engagement with Christians.  Which is good. Its very good.

What’s harder to commend is that these ideas are still on the very fringe of many peoples perceptions, and while they might be ‘ok for them’, they are less likely to ‘ok for us’.  There’s a verses somewhere about a prophet being accepted in his home town… its harder to hear these things when they are directed to ourselves.

Yesterday I was involved in a session where we were considering how those who follow Christ are called to live in a way that embodies the values of the kingdom, the central concepts of the Gospel and the truths of the Bible in a way that acts as a signpost. We’re able to point people towards a life with God and to highlight what it means to live without God. The shorthand term for this is ‘a prophetic life’, and it sounds really cool. Its a privilege and a responsibility, but it also keeps one grounded- its never about looking at me, but at looking at where I’m pointing.

The problem is that living in that way runs across or even counter to many of the things we’re used to valuing in our society- its anti-materialistic, anti-capitalistic, and anti-a whole lot more things. Although, its not, in case you are wondering, post-millienial nihilism… it doesn’t replace those things with nothing, but with the values of the kingdom of God. And if you’re wondering what those are… watch this space.