Is God a man? No, of course HE’s not!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

learning the art of not fitting in

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One year, two perspectives. This image is part of a 365(+1) project, my friend Tilo and I are working on. If you want to see more, check out our website zweisichtig.de.

…or, when being beyond the fringe of the church becomes a bit uncomfortable

Shortly after writing our Hug Prayer in 2015 we decided to renew our window display. The prayer, smartly framed, took pride of place alongside a number of other eye-catching items, including some beautifully coloured and shaped crystals.

A week or two later one of the huggers came into the Hug Hub looking distressed. She had been at a Christian study group the evening before, and someone had drawn attention to the crystals in our window.  Apparently there had been absolutely no conversation about the contents of our new prayer, but everyone had an opinion about the crystals.

Apparently we were “dabbling in the occult.”

Our first instinct was to laugh – partly because the notion that we “dabbled in the occult” as an organisation was completely ridiculous, but also because they hadn’t credited at all the sentiments behind our prayer, the main elements of which were, after all, given to us by Jesus himself.

However, there was a more serious aspect to this.  The conversation demonstrated that the Christians in this particular group (and possibly others in the town) might think that we were somehow trying to corrupt others into following harmful ways.

Hug Cullompton has intentionally chosen to identify itself as a community of welcome for all, including those who have either suffered rejection by the church, or who do not relate to, or have any interest in it.  As a community we accept that people find God in lots of different ways and through a variety of practices.

Because of this we have come into contact with, and ministered to, vulnerable individuals who have been manipulated by people claiming to have particular spiritual gifts. Often their mental wellbeing has been seriously affected. It is a privilege to walk alongside these folk, to advise them, pray with them, help them achieve healing and assist them in finding peace in a God who loves them.

One consequence of the comments from the Bible Study group was that we removed the crystals from the window; not because we didn’t think we had a perfect right to put them there, but because ultimately we are a community which desires peace, reconciliation and empowerment in our town. We didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.

I hope that by now the people present at that group (many of whom I know and work alongside regularly) have realised how unconsidered and hurtful their accusation was – and that they have changed their minds.

I tell this story, not to name and shame the people in the Christian study group, but to illustrate how difficult (and hurtful) it can be to ‘be the Body of Christ’ at or beyond the fringes of the institutional church.  I used to joke that the church people in the town thought we weren’t ‘proper Christians’, while the non-church people we worked with in the community assumed we were a Christian group. In some ways they’re probably both right.

The truth is that we just don’t fit into a box. And intentionally so. My fellow Huggers are much better at feeling comfortable with it than I am, and it has taken a long time for me to realise that fitting into a box isn’t important.  What matters to me is that we are faithful to God and to each other, that we act with integrity, and that we are alive to what God is calling us to be and do… and I’d say we do that in spades!

making our mission and ministry Jesus-shaped

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

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

Stepping out into the unfamiliar

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

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

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

Facilitating transformation with a commitment to the long term

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

Trusting that God works beyond the bounds of church congregations

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

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

 

‘Mission With’ – more than just a theoretical concept

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

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

‘Coincidence’ Number 1

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

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

‘Coincidence’ Number 2

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

‘Coincidence’ Number 3

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

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

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

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

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

 

The trouble with Baptism: Part One

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read some background about the Sacrament of Baptism click here

A theology of touch

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or, why Hug Cullompton hugs in the first place.

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

The importance of touch

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

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

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

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

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

Healing through touch

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

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

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

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

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

The touch of the Holy Spirit

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

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

The Body of Christ in reaching out

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

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

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

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

Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

living creatively with difference

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or, getting to the heart of what really matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thinking again about ‘Worship and Mission’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Changing Sunday Morning Worship (or not!)

Let us begin with the issue of worship.

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

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

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

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

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

Changing the focus of the church

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Realistic about Who Can Achieve What

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

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

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

Attracting New Sunday Morning Worshippers

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

learning to search for common ground

two red heart decoration on ground
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

…or, delving beneath the surface of linguistic difference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Walking the journey from despair to hope…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suggested Reading:

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

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

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

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

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