Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Strictly Come to Church

Reality shows and those involving public votes have become two of the most common genres of television. In the lead-up to Christmas there have been several programmes which owe a lot to the public vote, including 'I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here', 'The X Factor' and, of course, 'Strictly Come Dancing'. This last has hit the headlines more than once during this last series because of the public's determination to take a view that was at significant variance to that of the judges on occasion. Is it a show about dancing, or is it a show about popularity? The judges would inevitably, and rightly from their perspective, want to put the stress on the dancing. But the evidence would suggest that, in the end, it is more about popularity. But all the talk has got me wondering and asking: just what is the reality that the church represents? What are the really important things? What are the criteria on which we judge what is church? And where does popularity fit in? I want the church to be popular, but popularity can't have the last word.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

High School Musical Church

One of the key things about church is being committed. One of my daughters has just wandered into my study, big smile on her face, her arms full of High School Musical memorabilia - 'look Dad, at all the High School Musical stuff I've got and this is only some of it!' Such experiences often leave me wondering whether we are as excited by all the stuff of our faith. In many ways commitment is not "in" these days - and yet football teams, pop groups, even particular brands have no difficulty in attracting followers. People want to show that they belong and they will go to considerable effort and expense in doing so. What is our equivalent of the High School Musical calendar, annual, CD, tee shirt etc.?

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Join the Revolution

There are many ways of defining the church. Essentially, of course, we are those who follow Jesus. That means - or should - that we are concerned with the things of God and with what Jesus most often described as God's Kingdom. However, in a world where kingdoms are less and less the way that peoples operate, is it perhaps time to update that concept and description? Surely the point that Jesus was making essentially concerned the need to discover a new way of doing things. This particular new way was one that would and should challenge the existing ways. Perhaps we should move to a concept like revolution which would challege us to take seriously the impact that doing things God's way ought to have. It ought to really shake things up and change them. How revolutionary are we as a church? What impact does our church have?

Saturday, 20 September 2008

We Stand on Holy Ground

"The church is more than the human institution we see, with all its human foibles and failings. It's the dwelling of God's Holy Spirit: like Moses at the burning bush, we stand on holy ground, and on that ground nothing less than utter truthfulness will do. Nothing destroys community quicker than equivocation in interpersonal relations. It is not disagreement that destroys Christian community so much as a failure to acknowledge the truth before each other and before God's Holy Spirit." That is part of Loveday Alexander's comment (Acts, BRF, 2006, p. 49) on the Ananias and Sapphira story in Acts 5. It raises some pretty significant questions, perhaps not least: How do we treat truth? What do we do with disagreement? What does it mean to us that we are 'standing on holy ground'?

Friday, 19 September 2008

The Story We Find Ourselves In

I've been reading Brian McLaren's "The Story We Find Ourselves In" - a fascinating novel-type account of the story we all finds ourselves in as part of God's world. We are all part of life. We are all part of the world. As Christians, we are part of the church. What is the story we are telling by how we live in our part of the church? What is the church story that other people can "read" as they look at what we are doing and saying?

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Part of something bigger

Being part of the church is about community. We are not to be isolated - we are part of the group. We should be engaged in partnership. That was something the early Christians soon found out. It can have its difficulties as we will not all always see things the same way, but it is important to receive the sustaining support of those who accompany us on The Way. Commenting on how this was worked in the early church and with particular reference to Acts 2, Loveday Alexander suggests: "Being a Christian is about acquiring a new allegiance, following a new Lord, but that is not just a private matter between ourselves and God. There is also a horizontal aspect to this new allegiance: whether we like it or not, we are part of something bigger. We are setting out on the journey with a band of fellow pilgrims .... (Acts, Loveday Alexander, BRF, p. 36).

Friday, 29 August 2008

When Jesus met Zacchaeus

Zacchaeus was a crook - who ripped off his fellow Jews by overcharging them when they had to pay their taxes. He made his money by loading their bills. And Jesus looked up into the sycamore tree and said, "Zacchaeus, come down because I am coming to your house today. I'm coming to have dinner with you." Jesus could have said, 'Now come on, Zacchaeus, I want to talk to you about what you have been doing. We need a chat. I want to tell you how you have been stealing from these people by overcharging them. You're a crook, a thief - even if the law lets you do what you're doing.' That's what Jesus could have done Jesus could have called a spade a spade - and remonstrated with Zacchaeus on the spot. But not Jesus. Jesus doesn't condemn Zacchaeus. He engages with him. In short, he loves him. That's what we are called to do, to love other people, even when they are messing things up.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Fuzzy Faith?

In his final report as Leader of the Corrymeela Community in April 2003, Trevor Williams wrote: "We must not settle for a fuzzy faith that produces warm feelings, but refuses to embrace the hard realities of life. So, with faith comes doubt, exploration and movement, living in a dialogue ...." Williams is right that we need to get on with the nitty gritty of life - and so be effective. Fuzziness that makes us complacent is unhelpful. However, I do wonder if we sometimes need to be a little blurred round the edges, not so blurred that we don't know what or who we are, but sufficiently blurred that we are open and welcoming to all the searchers who wander our way. How many of today's churches would be openly welcoming to Zacchaeus or Mary Magdalene? I firmly agree with the comment that doubt, exploration and movement are all part of faith and I find each of those ways of approaching faith quite challenging - but it's a challenge we need.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Changing Treasure

That the church is special is fundamental to God's understanding of it. We may not be perfect, but we are loved by God. We ought to take that into account ourselves. We also ought to see ourselves as part of a changing scene. Writing about the Corrymeela story in his book "In War and Peace" Alf McCreary quotes Ray Davey, the founder of the Corrymeela Community, as saying: "We must always recognise that there is nothing sacred about the particular form of the Church at any particular time. It varies from age to age and from place to place. Indeed 'we have this treasure in earthen vessels' - one remaining constant, while the other changes from one generation to another. We need to always be looking to what God would have us do and where God would have us be, recognising that there is a special place just for us.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Nobodies to Somebodies

Critical to our Christian understanding is that everybody matters - and church life ought to reflect that we value everyone. I have been reading Walter Brueggemann's "David's Truth" (Fortress Press, 1985) in which he makes the point about how David emerged from nowhere to greatness, talking about "David's move from a nobody to a royal somebody". (p. 20). "David the outsider without any claim moves quickly and relntlessly to the throne and to the social legitimacy that of course goes with it. .... The erstwhile bandit is now the ruler of the day." It is also relevant, as Brueggemann points out, that the 'nobody', more than likely, will attract other nobodies - "David is indeed the renegade who attracts other renegades and "nonpersons" to himself. His movement thus is politically doubtful and surely subversive." (p. 22). How willing are our churches to welcome renegades? How subversive are we? How clearly do we express that God values everyone? Interesting - and challenging - questions!

Monday, 4 August 2008

The Good Old Days

I was in church yesterday - in the congregation - and we were reflecting on standards and values - and how we always think things were better 'in the good old days'. Things aren't what they used to be. Well, of course, it is true that things aren't what they used to be, and that can be good or bad. The trick is to ensure that we turn things to the good. In today's church it is often tempting to look back - and to think that things have gone downhill a long way. Things are certainly different, but we shouldn't see that as worse or, for that matter, better. What we need to do is to get on with being today's church. It's like that thing of saying that children are tomorrow's church, which moved to saying that children are today's church. Actually, neither are true and both are true. Children are PART of today's church, as we all are - so let's get on with the tasks in which that involves us!

Friday, 25 July 2008

An Emerged Community

Questions of relevance are always critical for the church. How can we effect - for good and for God - those whom we encounter? There is an increasing awareness around of the importance of giving 'community' its desired and necessary precedence. These days there are many ways in which churches seek to be appropriate and these seem to work best with this emphasis on community. I was interested in some comments on these ideas by Duncan MacLaren (in "Mission Implausible") - “In recent years .. there has been much talk of ‘emerging church’. The term is in danger of becoming meaningless if it becomes entrenched (a church cannot ‘emerge’ for ever), but for the moment it seems to be a good way both to capture the sense that established patterns of being church are increasingly moribund, and to give space for experimental patterns of church life to emerge unhindered by premature definitions. ‘Networks’, ‘Cell Church’, ‘Liquid Church’, ‘Transforming Communities’ and ‘Small Christian Communities’ are all ways of articulating what is emerging. .... What all of them seem to agree on .. is that community must take priority over congregation if the church in Britain is to have a future. In one way, this sounds radical; in another, it seems obvious .... ” I hope we can do the obvious so far as being church in an effective - and community-minded - way.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Love Changes Everything

I want to put two things together. The first is that God is love. There are many ways in which we can describe God, many things that we can say about God but, arguably, the most profound is that statement, drawn most obviously from the first letter of John, that God is love. The second thing is that the church is, or should be, about change. That change may come in all sorts of ways and at all sorts of levels, but the church should be bringing God's transforming power to bear on the world. Having made those two points, I want to put them together and use Michael Ball's song "Love Changes Everything" as a commentary on the resultant mix. "Love, love changes everything Hands and faces, earth and sky Love, love changes everything How you live and how you die Love, can make the summer fly Or a night seem like a lifetime Yes love, love changes everything Now I tremble at your name Nothing in the world will ever be the same Love, love changes everything Days are longer, words mean more Love, love changes everything Pain is deeper than before Love will turn your world around And that world will last forever Yes love, love changes everything Brings you glory, brings you shame Nothing in the world will ever be the same Off into the world we go Planning futures, shaping years Love (comes in) and suddenly all our wisdom disappears Love makes fools of everyone All the rules we made are broken Yes love, love changes everyone Live or perish in its flame Love will never never let you be the same Love will never never let you be the same" If you look in detail at some of the things the song says, and apply them to church, I think you will find a very useful challenge emerging.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Putting Peace Around

The Church needs to do all sorts of things. That is clearly so, and any church will engage in a range of activity. However, one thing that we all ought to engage with is the promotion of peace as a way of operating. We live in a world where conflict is often the name of the game - and part of the church's task is to offer the peace alternative. I love the way Fred Kaan sums it up in his hymn "Put peace into each other's hands", especially the third verse: "Put peace into each other's hands like bread we break for sharing; look people warmly in the eye: our life is meant for caring." If we can "look people warmly in the eye", then we are doing something right. If we can't, .......

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Stand Tall

At last weekend's General Assembly of the United Reformed Church in Edinburgh the new General Secretary of the URC (Revd. Roberta Rominger) urged the church to take seriously its potential, saying: "if we can get the glue right between us, we have the capacity for a perfect combination: support and mutual accountability and support on the one hand, freedom for local imagination and initiative on the other". Roberta urged us to get on with the task to which God has called us saying that knowing that God's backing is there should enable us to "stand tall". Too often we lack confidence and fail to reach the prominence we ought. There is nothing to be gained from being a "well kept secret". The church is called by God to be the church. We ought to take that calling, that role and all the possibilities it offers seriously - instead of worrying about what we can't do!

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Mission Implausible

In many ways the task before the church seems an impossible one. How on earth can we engagingly relate with a fast-changing world? What are we to do to demonstrate that the church is a point of resolution for society's struggles? Duncan MacLaren, in "Mission Implausible" (Paternoster, 2004) certainly recognises the problem - p. 22/3 - “Against the gleaming backdrop of cutting-edge technology, Christian faith looks a little tired. Its homely doctrine of providence – God is working his purpose out as year succeeds year – cannot compete with the adrenaline-rush injected by scientific and technological progress. Nor can its story compete with technology’s underlying evolutionary narrative. More than that, whereas progress exalts the idea of the ‘new’, Christianity trades on the value of the ‘old’, the traditional and the authoritative. In a world bewitched by progress, Christianity suffers cognitive dissonance; it tries to tell the old, old story, but people think they have heard it before. Who wants to hear the obsolete, obsolete story? In the modern world, then, while science, ‘is a culturally successful – or rather, perhaps better, confident – form of practice, in the West the church is not’.” So what are we to do to make this implausible mission plausible and effective in the communities in which we are set?

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Bus Timetables and Beatitudes

One challenge for today's church is to deal both with the hugely practical and very specific whilst at the same time engaging with the spiritual and those things that drive us from inside. Today's society knows all about practical issues and wants them addressed, often in a public way, but we tend to keep those things that drive us from inside private and to ourselves. Duncan MacLaren summarises this - "Although the majority of people in Britain continue to believe in God, what they think they know of God they do not feel permission to treat as real knowledge. In the modern world, the bus timetable counts as real knowledge: the Beatitudes do not. Christian beliefs constitute a second-rate, privatized form of knowing.” ("Mission Implausible", Paternoster, 2004, p. 19) Faith and church ought not to be privatised as they should belong to everyone - to the community, but too often, I fear, they are. The church needs to engage with the issues that matter whilst, at the same time, helping people to find that spirituality which brings meaning to life and being.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

On the Way

I returned yesterday from a long weekend in Edinburgh at the United Reformed Church's General Assembly. The Moderator, Revd. John Marsh, took 'pilgrimage' as his theme. Amongst many good things in his moderatorial address he commented: "We're to sustain this pilgrimage journey, walking together through thick and thin, continuing a pilgrimage of faith, during which we share gifts from each other's experience, consider wounds whether suffered or inflicted, and allow visions and nightmares to be expressed and understood. On this pilgrimage there'll be serious giving and receiving; mutual accepting and challenging - to an unsettling degree. And it's a process, a journey. Today's pilgrims are not where they were yesterday - and tomorrow they'll be somewhere else." I like - and support - this idea of not being static. We do need to be on the move, whatever that may mean. I also like the recognition that it's not all good, but a mix. The dream of the moment may be a vision, but it may, also and alternatively, be a nightmare. That is actually worth recognising.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Ragged Trousered Philanthropy

I have been reading Robert Tressell's "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" (about survival on the underside of Edwardian life) in odd moments, a fascinating look at times past but with, as so often, specific polarised perspectives. It is true that we often fail to interpret Jesus' words as we should, even if we are not as extreme as some of the examples in the book, referring to "disciples" who reinterpret some of those inconvenient things that Jesus said. For instance, "... when Jesus said, 'Resist not evil', 'If a man smite thee upon the right cheek turn unto him also the left', He really meant, 'Turn on him a Maxim gun; disembowel him with a bayonet or batter in his skull with the butt end of a rifle!' When He said, 'If one take thy coat, give him thy cloak also,' the 'Christians' say that what He really meant was, 'If one take thy coat, give him six months' hard labour.' Let us be sure that we are sufficiently radical in the opposite direction!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Challenging Church

The Shaftesbury Society Report "Challenging Church" offers loads of encouragement for churches to engage with their local community, but stresses how that engagement will be weakened if we do not so engage in partnership. We need to work together. Near its end, the Report says: "The church is facing a challenge. We are failing to tackle the real and often desperate needs of our neighbours with strategic, sustainable solutions. It’s not that we’re under-resourced – although in some local churches it may often feel like that. And Christians are not short on innovation, passion and commitment. The barrier hindering us from really making a difference is our reluctance to work together for the sake of our communities, our towns and cities and our nation. Duplication and competition have a detrimental effect on church-based community work right across the country. In order to be able to challenge the inequalities at the heart of our neediest communities, the church itself first needs to be challenged: as local congregations, are we guilty of putting our own agendas ahead of our mission? If we want to see God’s transformation come to our neighbourhoods, we must address the duplication and competition that exists between churches in local communities. These issues not only reduce our impact, but our disunity brings dishonour to God. It is only when we start to pray, plan and work together, as the body we are designed to be, that the church will be in a position to make a creative, radical and prophetic impact on the deep-rooted issues facing our society today." There's a lot of good stuff to think about there.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Hungry for Spirituality

"Spirituality is about the hunger in the human heart" - Joan Chittister. "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit" - Galatians 5:25. There seems to be a great hunger for spirituality - but spirituality needs to link to the Spirit. There are many places people look to find whatever it is that they need. Do I need more books, more music, more travelling, or whatever - or do need more means of connecting with God? Do I need more spirituality? The world is full of things that demand attention. Shops and advertisements tell me what I need - but what I need is to stand back from that. I enjoy reading a range of books about people's experiences. Some are biography, but some are more anecdotal - but they tend to intrigue, and encourage, me. Stories of people's experiences are stories of what is possible. Stories of the church, wherever we find them, are stories of what God has done and what, if appropriate, God can do again.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Prisoners of Hope

'Prisoners of Hope' is the title for the Synod Moderators' Report to the United Reformed Church General Assembly, due to start in Edinburgh on Friday. The report sounds the importantly optimistic note that life (and church) is full of hope and possibility. Putting it another way, there is always more to do. One of the notes the report sounds is of the need to branch out - Maybe we need to give ourselves permission more often to think the unthinkable; to go out on a limb, recognising when vision is being submerged in the principle of conciliarity, and to trust each other and open ourselves to the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. Standing in the Reformed tradition it should be of no surprise to us that 'God has yet more light and truth to break forth from his word.' We can be bold. It's in our genes. There are some fascinating ideas there. Can we suggest - in a Reformed context! - that vision might be submerged by conciliarity. That seems to undermine one of our central modes of operation, and yet it is surely true. We need to recognise that God reveals the 'more light and truth' in a whole range of ways, some of which might just not fit our presuppositions. Are we ready for that? It's all bound up with being 'prisoners' of 'hope'.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

This U2 song title provided the theme for tonight's Cafe Church at The Cotteridge Church. It says something quite profound. We live in a world where we like to arrive - while the Christian reality is of being on the journey. Indeed, the earliest Christians were sometimes called the 'people of the Way'. We need to recognise the value of the search and that there is nothing wrong with the continuing journey. I have climbed highest mountains, I have run through the fields, only to be with you .... but I still haven't found what I'm looking for ... The Church is a place of searching and of journeying far more than it is a place of solutions and arrivals - at least, I would dare to suggest it ought to be.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

Pilgrim Church

Today I went on the Bradwell Pilgrimage. Sponsored by Churches Together in Essex and East London, the Bradwell Pilgrimage takes place on the first Saturday of July each year. The "pilgrims" (maybe 500 - at a very rough guess) met at St. Thomas's Parish Church in Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex for a brief act of opening worship. We then walked the two miles or so (about the last quarter mile in silece) to the ancient chapel of St. Peter-on-the-Wall. The chapel is on the site believed to be that where St. Cedd, who originally brought the Gospel to the Dengie Peninsula, built a church around 635. St. Cedd originally came from Lindisfarne in Northumbria, from where he sought to bring the Christian message. The theme of the 2008 Pilgrimage was Water - and we thought of the impact and use of water in a range of ways. There was a variety of activities around and near to the chapel, and the event finished with a wonderful act of worship. It was good to go for a purposeful walk and to use a day to reflect on God's wonderful creation and particularly the impact of water. It was also a good reminder that we are pilgrims, and called by God to walk for him through the world.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Nehemiah - Chapter 4

There are two key points to stress with respect to what began to happen to Nehemiah and his colleagues, as recorded in the first nine verses of chapter 4 which have, I believe, something significant to say to the question of being Church. The first thing is that conflict is inevitable. Sanballat had his indignation roused and he jeered angrily. Now you might well not expect me to start talking about conflict on such an occasion as tonight. But I wonder if one of the problems in the church too often is that we try to sweep conflict under the carpet and pretend that it doesn’t happen to us. We are surely far too nice! What we need rather is to be using conflict creatively. Conflict can, and does, happen – and it needs to be worked through and not ignored. The second point to make is about the importance of prayer. And that’s very interesting – because I actually fear that one of the problems in many churches today is that prayer has lost its centrality. Actually, it’s a fascinating prayer that we have here which doesn’t leave room for any niceties – Make their derision recoil on their own heads; let them become objects of contempt in a land of captivity. Clearly Nehemiah and his colleagues didn’t feel any need to not let God know exactly how they were feeling. And maybe there’s something for us to learn there too. And maybe part of the problem we have with prayer is that we don’t just take things how they are to God – because we can. Nehemiah prayed honestly. He prayed passionately. He prayed realistically.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

I was recently reading some material from the USA about valuing church and was struck by one particular comment: I love my church because it's sort of like the Wizard of Oz - it's about having a heart and a brain. And courage! That may not be the most obvious way of expressing what we need in order to be an effective church, but I think it sums it up. Too often we find ourselves struggling, unsure, making excuses. I understand why that happens - but I want to encourage you to grab the opportunities that God puts your way, and not to worry about those that don't arise.

Sunday, 29 June 2008

St. Peter and St. Paul

Today is St. Peter and St. Paul's day. It is interesting that two such prominent characters share a single day, and yet appropriate as, according to the New Testament, these two were the most influential in the formation of the early church. Today's church is the ongoing community evolving from the first disciple group, the first followers of Jesus, the first carriers-out of his mission. One of the meanings that we can give to the word 'church' is 'called out'. We are called out by God to engage with the world in his name. Of course, the church is not perfect. One commentator (Stanley Hauerwas) says: "It has been said that Jesus came proclaiming the kingdom of heaven but instead we got the church." That may sound a note we can recognise, but it is actually the role of the church to struggle and be battered Hauerwas adds: "It is not Peter's task to make the church safe and secure .... rather, it is Peter's task to keep the church true to its mission." Peter and Paul certainly sometimes found themselves up against it, but they were clear that God's love is for everyone. The church ought not to be a place where barriers are erected.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

Taking the Pulse

The Bible is clearly key to church life. In order to check how that works a recent survey has explored questions around the use and understanding of the Bible. [A summary of the report is available at] Writing about this in the Summer 2008 edition of the Bible Society's magazine Word in Action, Ann Holt comments: "At the Bible Society our aim is to show the Bible connects with those in politics, the media and the arts. We want to take people from just knowing of the Bible to making the most of its message in their daily lives." We certainly do need to discover the appropriate ways of making the Bible connect with all that is involved in life and church. It is encouraging that there is strong evidence with regard to people's positive attitude towards the Bible in many spheres, but we need to ensure that is carried into the practical and spiritual life of the church.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Mary or Martha?

I do like that little story at the end of Luke 10 which tells about Jesus calling at the home of the two sisters and the different ways in which they reacted. Time and time again the story has been used to comment on the relative merits of devotion and service as part of our response to God, the point being that we need both. Balance is what matters. However, maybe there is a case for pressing things a little further. I've been reading Susan Durber's book Preaching Like A Woman (SPCK, 2007) and was really struck by a brief comment at the end of a sermon on this little story. Of course we know all the kind of thing that we usually draw down from it. But Susan suggests: perhaps we need to tell the story differently - and so it might end - "As Mary sits at Jesus' feet, listening to his teaching, she suddenly says, 'Jesus, my sister Martha is busying herself in practical things. Tell her to come and sit here with us, so that she can listen to you as I do.' And Jesus says, 'Leave her alone. She is doing what is best. It shall not be taken away from her.' What is 'best' is surely what is right for us - for the moment.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Taking Risks

There can be little doubt that Jesus was a great risk-taker. We live in an age where policies and safeguards rule the roost. There is an amazing range of things for which we ought to have policies - and they are there to keep us right. However, I have to admit to being a little fascinated that I now can spend so much time thinking about risk assessments and like tasks when I have spent so much of my ministry commending the taking of risks as a Gospel attribute. But then, I suppose that a good risk assessment does not necessarily insist that you don't take the risk: it just likes to be sure that you know what you might be facing. In our insurance culture we try to put in place safeguards against almost any eventuality - but the Gospel encourages us to take the risk.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

Travelling Light

One of the clear instructions Jesus gave his first disciples - as, for instance, in Luke 9 - was to 'travel light'. That seems to cause us some difficulty. We appear to like travelling heavily laden. We crowd the church programme with committees, workshops, reports and meetings. Sometimes I think that we need to just get on with being the church. One commentator (Richard Rohr) points out that: "he calls the Twelve to be dependent and needy, so they go as receivers and not just the guys with the answers - a very vulnerable and never very popular notion of ministry. Francis of Assisi was one of the few who took it seriously." Another commentator (Leith Fisher) helps to root this in our context: "The need for lack of 'baggage' for effective witness and mission is stressed more than once in the gospel. We carry so much deadweight from tradition, doctrine, practice and culture. How are we to let gospel simplicity judge, reform and energise us?" What a good question!

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Where is peace?

Yeserday evening prayers here at Corrymeela were led by Gordon Gray, a retired minister of the Presbyterian Church who has been associated with Corrymeela since its beginning. He spoke of his frustration that those who have worked long for peace have, in some ways, been bypassed in the recognition of what has been achieved. The perpetraors of violence have come in, achieved peace, and been praised for it. Does peace have to be brought about by those at the extemes? It is annoying, to say the least, to think it may be so. Of course, we all welcome what has been achieved, but it seems unfair that the long efforts of some seem unproductive and have not received recognition. On the broader spectrum that raises questions as to how we recognise and receive the contributions of those who have been long assoiciated with something, say a church, and those who are new. Sometimes it is difficult to accept that all are valued equally by God - but that is how it is!

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Place of Reconciliation

Love and faithfulness have come together, justice and peace have embraced - Psalm 85:10. I am currently at Corrymeela in Northern Ireland, so have been reflecting a lot on reconciliation, peace-making and conflict resolution. How crucial it is for the church to be a place where conflict is confronted and worked on! Too often we are too nice and sweep it under the carpet. We need to remember that Jesus was primarily concerned with the people at the margins. It is often not easy to work out the difficult issues. Justice, peace, mercy and truth all seem like good priorities. But which of the four should have priority in a given situation? What if they end up pulling us in different directions? Certainly they will not all always point us the same way. The church needs to face the challenge of these issues if it is to be authentic.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Creating Space

Fundamental to church is that it is there for people. The church ought always to be open, available. I don't mean we should leave our buildings unlocked, though sometimes some are too much locked up. But the church is the people and it is the people who should be open and available. I was at a consultation recently when the question was posed: how can we move churches towards being more hospitable, better able to provide that space in which people can grow and flourish? I do believe that one of the church's key task is to create space for people to encounter - and that can happen in a massive range of ways. The question arises as to what we are doing with the space that is our church - and I do mainly, though not only, mean the building this time. Is our space there for others? And what are the chances of them encountering God there, in the way that they need to do so?

Saturday, 14 June 2008


There is no doubt that there is a great interest in spirituality these days which needs to be juxtaposed with declining church involvement. "While only a tiny minority of people continue to practise formal religion in the developed nations of the world, huge numbers are keenly pursuing spirituality and individual pathways to sacred meaning" - David Tacey in The Spirituality Revolution (Routledge, 2004) p. 39. So how can we engage with this? It is true that a lot of it is nowhere near orthodox Christianity - but plenty of it is, or could be. I think that people do recognise their need of a spiritual dimension. They are just unsure as to how to relate that to conventional church. It is good that people have spiritual awareness - we need to make the most of it, and to encourage it. I think a lot of it is meeting people where they are - which is what Jesus did - instead of insisting that they come to us, and on our terms at that.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Servant Church

The notion of servant church is fundamental, yet challenging. It's not natural to want to be servants. We prefer to be 'top dog'. Yet service is what we are called to do. I was engaged in an interesting discussion at luch-time today about what this means - and how we can engage in effective ministry that serves in the midst of all today's pressures. It is too easy to become detached, or perhaps juggling too many balls. I like the little comment from John Proctor with reference to Matthew 23:1-12 - "Authority in the Church is always loaned and delegated ... Leadership is a temporary role. In heaven there will be no ranks, only worshippers." I can't help feeling that we are pretty good at 'ranks', even though many of us would claim not to be.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Nautical Images

One not entirely uncommon image for the church is that she is a ship or a boat. Indeed, precisely that symbol is used as the emblem of the World Council of Churches. Of course, boats vary a lot - so do churches - and a lot can depend on what kind of boat?! I always remember a friend of mine (Michael Jagessar) mentioning at a consultation that one of our mistakes is to think of the church as a tanker - difficult to manoeuvre and slow to turn round - when what we need is a canoe, portable and flexible. On Saturday I was at another consultation when one of the speakers suggested that we might use the ark, made famous by Noah, as an image of the church. There was room for all despite the immense diversity - but perhaps the biggest surprise was that some didn't eat the others!

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Church in Decline

It is so well documented that the mainline denominations in the UK are in decline that it would make no sense to suggest otherwise. However, I do think there are questions about what that decline really is and implies. On one hand, I think that a lot less people are willing to be nominally part of things and so there is a demonstrable decline that is not real. People who were not really part of the church are no longer shown to be so - nothing has really changed, despite the evidence that it has! On the other hand, it is also true that there is a strong interest in spirituality that does not necessarily manifest itself in commitment to the conventional church. People want to link to God, but not necessarily to the identifiable church. A third factor can also be brought into play, namely that people have a broader spectrum of interests, and so are more likely to miss church more often. The church needs to take its decline seriously, but I am not sure how worried to be about the rumours of the relatively imminent closure of certain denominations!

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Find Out What God's Doing

I finished reading Steve Stockman's "Walk On" (Relevant Books, 2005) today - and was struck by a comment near the end. The book explores the spirituality of U2 and a lot of it focusses on Bono. Near the end of the book - p. 205 - he quotes how Bono "recalled one pastor's recent advice: 'Stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Find out what God's doing. It's already blessed.'" Good advice, but needed advice. I think that the church is quite good at making plans and then asking God's blessing on the particular idea of the moment. We forget that the initiative lies with God. And I do like the notion that, if we find out what God is doing, 'it's already blessed"! The church needs to learn to mean it when it asks for God's guidance. It also needs to recognise that God's activity is not limited to the church. There's a lot happening out there that God's doing. Are we interested in getting involved?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Imperfect Church

"The church is the concrete form in which men (sic) experience the history of Christ" (Jurgen Moltmann: The Church in the Power of the Spirit (SCM, 1977). It is probably thirty years since I read Moltmann's then newly published book - but it is was one of the first expressions of my interest in the theme of the church and what it's about, a matter that is of interest to all of us who try to follow the Christian way. For me, being part of the church has always been a mix of the exciting, the encouraging, the inspiring - but also the disappointing, the struggling, even the annoying! But surely that's how it should be. The church cannot be perfect - because it would not involve us if it was. Our challenge is to learn to live with and through the downsides. Of course, there's much in the church that frustrates me. There is a great deal in the church that I would like to see done differently. But the great thing about the church is that it is God's partnership with ordinary human beings, and so engages with the fact that God values us - and that is something that ought to enable us to see past all the difficulties. Of course, we should hope for - and work for - a better church. However, we can only do that when we value each other, despite all our weaknesses. In the end, I cannot be worried by the imperfections of the church - because it would be something else without them, and that 'something else' would not involve me.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Energy Efficient Church

Being Green is rightly at the top of many agendas these days. We are concerned about our carbon footprint. We take more care with travel plans. We recycle. We do a whole range of things that are concerned with taking care of the planet. One of the simpler things that many of us do is to purchase energy efficient appliances, even something simple like light-bulbs. As well as the value of such contributions to being green, I think there is something broader to learn about church life. How energy efficient is our church life? How much energy do we waste? Here I'm not thinking about electricity, gas etc., but about all the things that we do as part of being the church. I sometimes think that we waste a lot of effort. There is much to be said for being focussed and thinking about just what it is that God calls us to do. Perhaps we could achieve rather more in the Church if we were just a little more energy efficient?

Friday, 30 May 2008

Pizza Church/Chocolate Church

I recently heard - in two different places - of folk doing Pizza Church and Chocolate Church. I didn't get details .... but ..... I can imagine that I would enjoy both of them! Both are good examples of creative ways in which churches can engage with the community - and that's what we need. Another phenomenon - mentioned in this week's "Church Times" - is of getting the use of a Costa Coffee in exchange for guaranteeing a certain amount of sales. We need to find such 'fresh expressions' so that we can reach some of the people we are otherwise missing. But, as these ideas demonstrate, it is possible!

Friday, 23 May 2008

Downloaded Church

I seem to do quite a lot of downloading of stuff. That's part of what makes the internet so useful. I download all sorts of material to use in all sorts of ways. I download programmes which enhance what I can do. I download virus protection which prevents everything from going haywire. Downloading is how I access so much. We need to find ways of downloading church, so that it is useful and accessible to people - and helps them work it out when everything goes haywire.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Pushing Beyond the Boundaries

I think that the church ought to be about breaking out of the boundaries - but too often we allow ourselves to become too constrained! Society tends to operate by knowing the boundaries. We have policies galore to protect us - and I do understand why these things are so important! However, I find it a little ironic that I now find myself doing risk assessments after spending so long preaching about the importance of risk as a Gospel element. I have just started reading Steve Stockman's Walk On (Relevant Books, 2005), which is sub-titled The Spiritual Journey of U2. I haven't got very far yet, but Stockman is exploring the way in which the Christian faith of three of the four members of U2 impacted their life and witness. He explores how they have sometimes found themselves bridging the gap between what might be regarded as traditional rock and roll values and what might be regarded as traditional Christian values. This has not always been easy, and sometimes they have been criticised for their refusal to simply participate in the Christian music scene. But Stockman makes the point (p. 31): Maybe the times they have stumbled and admitted their imperfections have been worth the risk to be boundary-pushers in a world the Church has neglected. Jesus always seemed happier with followers who would chop people's ears off with swords than He was with people who claimed to have kept all the commandments. Didn't he just?

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Organic Church

Our vegetable box came this morning, as it does most Tuesdays. That got me thinking about what organic church should look like. Should we clock up church miles as we do food miles? Certainly, lots of us pass other churches on our way to church. There is not necessarily anything wrong with that - but it is perhaps worth asking why? There might also be a question about our use of pesticides. How do we deal with the "nuisances" within the church? Organic tends to mean high quality and tends to mean expensive - but it can also mean natural, unadulterated, full of goodness, tasty and other such things. My organic box comes with a range of shopping opportunities, free delivery and suggested recipes. I think the church could probably offer parallels for all of those,

Monday, 19 May 2008

Characteristics of the Church

What ought the church to be like? Nick Page offers an interesting list towards the end of his book "The Church Invisible" (Zondervan, 2004): - small, but powerful - passionately committed - based around relationships - explorative and honest - minimally structured - lightly led - connected with life - holistic in outlook - missionary by default - unafraid of emotions - full f creativity - engaged with the culture - unburdened by buildings - a place of refuge There's plenty of food for thought there - and there's also plenty of possibility. Christians should be people of hope. Let's ensure that hope is reflected in how we live!

Sunday, 18 May 2008

More Messy Church

Today we had our second 'Messy Church' at Bournville United Reformed Church and, once again, it was great fun - plus we had 50 people instead of our usual 20 or less. Most of us gathered at 10.30 am. - our usual time - for a brief Communion service (around 20 minutes). We then had tea/coffee/squash as others joined us for 'Messy Church' with a Pentecost theme - I know we were a week late! We had two sessions of about half an hour, each with a range of five different craft activities. There was a choice as to whether to be focussed and concentrate on one activity or rush round and give everything a try. We did flower arranging, clay modelling, fish mosaic making, blow painting, icing individual birthday cakes, origami - and a few other things besides. We then had a brief service - just under 15 minutes - when we thought about the Pentecost story. We sang a couple of hymns, read from Acts 2, said some prayers, lit - and blew out - a large birthday candle, sang 'happy birthday' to the church, had some indoor sparklers - lots of fun. After that we went to the hall to share lunch - and then cleared up! After all, you can't have 'Messy Church' without making a bit of a mess.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Mingling on Level Terms

I have been reading through Matthew's Gospel with the help of John Proctor's contribution to the people's Bible commentary series published by the Bible Reading Fellowship. Today I read that surprising story of the workers in the vineyard, the one about them all working different lengths of time but getting paid the same at the end. What a wonderful story about generosity! And how annoyed we would have been if we had been there all day! We, too, would have been protesting: it's not fair. But I do like John Proctor's comment at the end of what he writes: happy is the church where people mingle on truly level terms; that is one way of preparing for heaven. What a great new Beatitude - and how challenging. We ought to be mingling on level terms in the church. It's one of the few places where everyone matters equally - but is that always played out? I fear that often in the church we are just as concerned about role and position and prestige as folk are in other spheres of society. We struggle with God's upside-down standards - but actually we need to learn to adopt them! If we could really mingle on level terms .......

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Real Church

I just found an old lunch receipt on my desk. About a month ago I was in the centre of Birmingham and had lunch at EAT. Their receipt has, below the company name, the sub-title "the real food company". It's a bit like Coca Cola which is, of course, the "real" thing. There is certainly a blossoming industry in marketing things that are real or authentic. Maybe tomorrow I will find myself writing about organic church - or even church without preservatives! Authentic food is full of genuine flavour. That's a good image for the church. There is a bit of a link with the image of salt, which is there in the New Testament, though it is a slightly complicated link because salt is, of course, a preservative. But the real point of salt is that it brings out the flavour. It's also true that too much salt is damaging. The challenge to the church is to bring out just the right amount of flavour in life. Flavours are good. They enhance taste. They also vary. If I go for an ice-cream, may choose chocolate, vanilla or strawberry or, in some outlets, from a whole huge range of other choices. Sometimes I fear that we seem to want a single flavour of church - which then means that we miss out on all the riches of difference. The real church hits the spot. How many churches like that do we know?

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

God is still speaking

The United Church of Christ in the USA has a very interesting initiative (launched in 2002), 'God is still speaking' designed to emphasise precisely the point that - God is still speaking! In some ways it is a marketing exercise - but is that not what we need to do? We need to get across the message that the Church has much to offer. We need to get across the message that God is still speaking. The programme seeks to devise effective resources that will connect with people and encourage them to give church a try. Some of the material also encourages church members in the task of mission. For instance, a little booklet entitled 16 Ways to say 'I love my Church' makes the point: "Most church members talk about their church only to other members of the church. But they already know about your church! .... If your church adds value to your life, share it!" It goes on to give examples: "I love my church because it's sort of like The Wizard of Oz - it's about having a heart and a brain. And courage!" We all need to think about what's good about our church. If we can't, we can't really expect others to come. If we can, are we doing what we can, and should, to tell others. God is certainly still speaking. Are we allowing that to happen through us?

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Church as Community

People do like a church to not go to! Start talking about closing a church building and you'll soon have a range of objections pouring in. But mos of those objectors won't come near the place on a Sunday. It's the Christianity that matters, not the Church. Well, that's true - only the two are mutually connected. The internet is a great resource for Church - and we should use it to the full - but you can't evade the fact that the church is a community and that community only happens as people engage with each other. Yes, the church is imperfect - but we still need to engage with it. Of course, we can pray on our own, read the Bible on our own - and we should - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't do these things with others. In my student days I spent some time considering questions of privatisation of the faith and of the church. People sometimes try to privatise the church, but it belongs firmly in the public domain. What we share is critical - and that's community, Christian community.

Monday, 12 May 2008

All-Age Church

One of the great things about Church is that it really is for all ages - and it works for all ages. Sometimes, of course, we go into different bits, and have Junior Church and things like that. That's appropriate, and it is good to tailor things to different needs. However, it is also good, from time to time, to be all together - and one of the ways in which we do that is by engaging in what we often call All-Age Worship. The great secret of successful All-Age Worship, I believe, is to have it operating on a range of levels at the same time. That is not easy, and there is a real danger that it becomes lowest common denominator worship, and is directed at the children, with nothing for the adults except the "Ahhh!" factor. No All-Age Worship will hit all the spots always, but, hopefully, it will hit more than one spot at a time and, within a single act of worship, move across the whole range - more than once. Yesterday (Pentecost 2008) I was leading All-Age Worship at Weoley Hill United Reformed Church, where I am currently one of the ministers. I am sure bits of it could have been a lot better, but it was good to engage in a range of ways. We had a small group of pre-schoolers and everybody else was adult, so that was interesting in itself. The service focussed on three symbols of Pentecost - language, fire and wind. We heard a bit of Acts 2 in several different languages. We sang 'happy birthday' and lit and blew out candles. We had some indoor sparklers. But we also discussed which Bible stories make use of our three Pentecost symbols of language, fire and wind.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Community of the lost

Not being the world's greatest map-reader - and not yet possessing SatNav! - I am actually quite used to getting lost. It's usually both frustrating and annoying - and it's always good to find the right way again! Sometimes, when we get frustrated and annoyed with the Church, because of all the difficulties and silly things we encounter, we might do well to remember that the Church is actually a community of the lost. We're all lost. We're all trying to find the right way. Jesus once told a trio of parables to press that point. The stories deal with a sheep, a coin and a son. They thus offer three very different contexts, but they are all about the move from being lost to being found and the joy that provokes. Church is about helping lost people to find their way back - and that's likely not to work if the approach is unsympathetic.

Friday, 9 May 2008


- We all hope for a Church more at ease with the Bible and reading it more. - We all hope that Christ's people will discover a more satisfying and enriching prayer life. - We all hope to belong to a Church in which we are more confident about telling our faith stories and about telling the Gospel story. - We all hope our cities, suburbs and villages may be transformed by the Gospel. So says the United Reformed Church's Vision4Life programme, currently being launched. The plan is for a year focussed on the Bible starting Advent 2008, a year focussed on prayer starting Advent 2009, and a year focussed on evangelism (mission) starting Advent 2010. Vision4Life will offer lots of different materials so that congregations can 'pick and mix'. Any Church certainly needs vision. Programmes are only tools but, hopefully, this will be one that can be used to great effect. Certainly, just as the garden doesn't get dug if we don't get out the spade and do the digging, so we do need to find and use appropraiate tools in order to be appropriate - and effective - Church.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs

One of my favourite ever stories which, I think, says something very significant about Church is told by Robert Fulghum in All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (Ballantine Books, 1986, 1988). He writes (p. 81/2): "Giants, Wizards and Dwarfs was the game to play. Being left in charge of about eighty children seven to ten years old, while their parents were off doing parenty things, I mustered my troops in the church social hall and explained the game. It's a large-scale version of Rock, Paper, and Scissors, and involves some intellectual decision making. But the real purpose of the game is to make a lot of noise and run around chasing people until nobody knows which side you are on or who won. Organising a roomful of wired-up gradeschoolers into two teams, explaining the rudiments of the game, achieving consensus on group identity - all this is no mean accomplishment, but we did it with a right good will and were ready to go. The excitement of the chase had reached a critical mass. I yelled out: "You have to decide now which you are - a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf!" While the groups huddled in frenzied, whispered consultation, a tug came at my pants leg. A small child stands there looking up, and asks in a small, concerned voice, "Where do the Mermaids stand?" Where do the Mermaids stand? A long pause. A very long pause. "Where do the Mermaids stand?" says I. "Yes. You see, I am a Mermaid." "There are no such things as Mermaids." "Oh yes, I am one!" She did not relate to being a Giant, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. She knew her category. Mermaid. And was not about to leave the game and go over and stand against the wall where a loser would stand. She intended to participate, wherever Mermaids fit into the scheme of things. Without giving up dignity or identity. She took it for granted that there was a place for Mermaids and that I would know just where. Well, where DO the Mermaids stand? All the "Mermaids" - all those who are different, who do not fit the norm and who do not accept the available boxes and pigeonholes? Answer that question and you can build a school, a nation, or a world on it. What was my answer at the moment? Every once in a while I say the right thing. "The Mermaid stands right here by the King of the Sea!" says I. So we stood there hand in hand, reviewing the troops of Wizards and Giants and Dwarfs as they roiled by in wild disarray. It is not true, by the way, that mermaids do not exist. I know at least one personally. I have held her hand."

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

75 Minutes To Change The World

Church ought to be about transformation - so why not think about changing the world? That's the theme we took for last Sunday's Cafe Church (4/5/08) at The Cotteridge Church - the 75 minutes is the duration of Cafe Church. As it was nearly Christian Aid week, that provided a lot of our inspiration. Christian Aid offers a particular aspect, but a vital one, of being church. We began by thinking about 'Superheroes'. We were invited to create our own superhero, and then to imagine how that superhero might make a difference in things that really matter. We followed that by a number of games in smaller groups. First, we played a Christian Aid game, 'Trees and Chimneys' which had us thinking about the environmental impact of things we do. Then, we worked with the 'rubbish' that a few had brought in, doing a bit of junk modelling. After that we played the 'Circle Game'. Each small group represented a particular country, though we didn't know which until afterwards. With varying resources we had to produce shapes out of paper which represented money. It was all good fun, but we also learned a lot about a very practical aspect of being church. We finished the evening with a brief Christian Aid video on climate change.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Church as Aperitif

Jesus didn't say a lot about the Church, which wasn't around - but he did say a lot about the Kingdom. So how are we to see God's Kingdom? Is this term just an image (or metaphor) any way? I think it probably is - as soon as we start talking about God we move beyond language. Kingdoms were around in Jesus time, and still are - and I fully accept it is a useful way of describing the possibilities that God offers. Church and Kingdom are not the same. The Church is within the Kingdom - at least, hopefully, most of it is - but the Kingdom is a lot more. There are other images that can be used to explain God's presence and possibilities, one of the most common - and very much there in the Bible - is that of a banquet, or party. There's quite a few stories of parties, and they are all indicative of the invitation God offers to fullness of life (John 10:10). If we see the Kingdom, or whatever other metaphor, we want to use as an indication of the experience of God's love and presence, then perhaps, recognising the immensity of the possibilities, we might suggest that the Church is an aperitif* or perhaps even a starter. The Church should whet our appetite for the wonders of God's love. Does it? *I am grateful to material provided by Roots relative to this coming Sunday (Pentecost 2008) for the aperitif idea.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Postmodern Church

The church needs to relate to contemporary society. Thus, it needs to engage with postmodernism. Some see that as scary, others as exciting. Postmodernism recognises the diversity of society and seeks to embrace it. So should the church. The challenge in engaging with postmodernism is that it "claims that nothing has meaning any more - it's a cultural anything goes" (Charlene Croft, article on It is difficult to engage with something that cannot be pinned down - yet that is precisely what we must do when we live in a society that certainly refuses to be pinned down. I agree that "I think it is imperative that postmodern Christians remain as open and gracious as possible .... Postmodern Christians understand that different interpretations of our faith will naturally evolve to fit different cultural and social contexts. These different streams of faith are neither more or less right, just different .. " (Jared Ott, article on The point is that we need to engage with difference, accepting it, not always trying to roll it towards conformity. Is that not what Paul's image of the body means? We struggle with a postmodern church because we want everyone to be a nose, a hand, a foot, or whatever it is that we are. We need to see the possibilities instead of worrying about the threats. "I saw the collapse of modernity as opening the door for fresh spiritual explorations. True .. the spiritual resurgence that I see brewing is unconventional and even irreverent at times, largely developing outside the boundaries of our institutional religion. But that to me says more about the rigidity of our institutions than the darkness of the current spiritual resurgence; it says more about our old wineskins than about the quality of the new wine fermenting around us" (Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christian, p. 25).

Saturday, 3 May 2008

A New Kind of Church

I've been reading Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian (Jossey-Bass, 2001). The book is a sort of novel, but dealing with questions of faith and effective and appropriate Christian living. One of the central characters, Dan, is minister of a local congregation, but suffering something of a crisis of direction. He hasn't lost his faith, but he is not sure what kind of leadership he should be offering his people. Dan meets Neo (Neil Edward Oliver), his daughter's science teacher, and the two embark on a friendship which has them delving into a range of spiritual matters. The book addresses their individual questions, answers and struggles - but the whole thing is directed at the challenge of being an effective Christian community (church). On one particular occasion they get talking about the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God. They both recognise the importance of the church as the practical way in which anyone can experience being part of God's people, despite the imperfections they might also discover. One of the ways in which we sometimes deal with the gulf between the perfection we might hope for and the imperfection we inevitably encounter is by using the kingdom to signify the ideal. The book, however, stresses that to be only an image, and an image that was relevant to the context because the Jews of Jesus' time had lost their sovereignty and were a subject people. Would Jesus be using different images and language today? Maybe, as commerce is such a big deal with some companies having more economic power than some countries, he would talk about the enterprise of God. Or maybe the image would be drawn from the IT world - the web of God - or the arts - the story of God. Or what other possibilities are there in helping people to understand what God's church is and how they can be part of it?

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Matthew 16:18-19

What does it mean that Peter is the rock on which "I will build my church". And what about having the keys of the Kingdom?

Monday, 28 April 2008

A Panamanian Experience

In the early 1990s (1991-94) I spent three years with the Methodist Church of the Caribbean and the Americas working in Panama City in the Republic of Panama as minister of Rio Abajo Methodist Church and, for the first year, also Paraiso Methodist Church. That exposure to participation in the life of an overseas church was deeply enriching. It is difficult to briefly summarise our time in Panama and all we learned. My immediate thought in reflecting on Panama is heat - it was very hot all the time! It was a new experience working in two languages. As almost all the congregation originated from Caribbean roots, English was very much the first language, though Spanish also played a very significant role. One of my particular engagements was with one of the new communities that emerged after the destruction of some housing during the December 1989 US bombing that ousted Noriega. A mix of Bible Study, children's work and practical support led to the origins of the establishment of a church in that community. Weekly engagement on a Saturday afternoon was an important part of my ministry. Another important engagement in Panama was lay training, especially, though not only, the five weeks we spent on the Valiente peninsula in the spring of 1994. It was an amazing experience - no transport but boat or foot, one phone (usually not working) in the village, water dependent on rainfall. There 13 small churches seek to engage with the indigenous communities across the peninsula, each under the care of a lay evangelist. We ran a course in the main village for a week and then visited as many of the communities as we could for more localised training events. Contextual Bible Study takes on a new meaning when a squealing pig is dragged in to take part in a dramatic presentation of the prodigal son!

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Twinned with Romania

One of the great things about being part of the Church is the variety of links that brings, and it can be interesting in a particular way when those links are international. Over the past three years now, we, at The Cotteridge Church in Birmingham have had a link with a congregation of the Reformed Church in Timisoara in Romania. I first went to Timisoara in May 2005, returning in May 2006 and October 2007. We were also delighted to welcome my colleague from Romania, Pastor Sandor Balint, together with his wife and son, to our home and church in Birmingham in July 2006. The congregation there is engaged in a major rebuilding programme and our congregation has been able to offer some financial support. There is a lot to be learned from such relationships - and it is important to recognise how different churches need to adapt to their particular contexts. The Reformed Church in Romania is part of the Hungarian-speaking community. Timisoara, to the west of the country, near the Hungarian and Serbian borders, is in an area that has, geographically, switched countries and so this community has found itself in a different place without moving. It also operated, until 1989, under Communism. It was the current Bishop, then a young pastor at the central church in Timisoara (Laszlo Tokes) who played a key role in sparking off the Romanian revolution that made country's contribution to the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. Things have changed a lot, but it remains difficult to function as a minority church serving a minority community. The Hungarian Reformed Church of Temesvar-Ujkissoda, the congregation with which we have our link, takes as its motto "joyful past and hopeful future".

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The Velveteen Rabbit

A relevant church needs to 'get real' - by which I mean that it needs to have discovered the things that really matter - and that doesn't necessarily mean the avoidance of chaos and messiness. There's a little section in Margery Williams' story "The Velveteen Rabbit" which stresses the value of a different perspective and asks important questions about reality. The rabbit, which is at the centre of the story, is discussing with the skin horse the question of the things that really matter, what it is that is real. And they have this conversation: "What is REAL?" asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. "Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a srick-out handle?" "Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real." "Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit. "Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt." "Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked, "or bit by bit?" "It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

Thursday, 24 April 2008

Church in a Tent

It is something like 20 years since I visited Bromley-by-Bow United Reformed Church with its imaginative worship area, including a tent. A large piece of canvas (something like a sail) was mounted above the area used for worship to create some kind of feeling of being in a tent. The point was that the church needs to be mobile, ready to be on the move. As the Israelites of Moses' day carried with them a tent that accompanied them around the wilderness and allowed them the provision of a mobile focus for God's presence and their worship, so we need to allow for change, and even transformation, within the church. Society is not static, and neither should the church be. The Bromley-by-Bow "tent" offered an imaginative way in which an important theological truth could be demonstrated very visually. Church buildings may be static for many years, but the church is the people - and that means there is a constant element of change. We need to be ready to pitch our tent wherever God asks us to - for the moment. Joy Dine wrote a hymn on this theme, the last verse of which says: "When we set up camp and settle to avoid love's risk and pain you disturb complacent comfort pull the tent pegs up again; keep us travelling in the knowledge you are always at our side. Give us courage for the journey Christ our goal and Christ our guide."

The Church as Alchemist

I have just been reading Charles Handy's The New Alchemists (Hutchinson, 1999) in which he reflects on the visionary input of twenty-nine individuals, very different, but holding in common a creative, innovative streak that has really made a difference. Handy identifies three common characteristics of such alchemists - dedication (otherwise described as commitment, drive, passion or even obsession), doggedness (the generation of energy and the capacity for hard work) and difference (that is, the wish to make a difference). Handy commends the combination of creativity and curiosity that such individuals demonstrate. They are about new possibilities and transformation - "without alchemy we would stagnate". The book sent me back to Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist and, thumbing through, I came across this comment - ""This is why alchemy exists," the boy said. "So that everyone will search for his treasure, find it, and then want to be better than he was in his former life. Lead will play its role until the world has no further need for lead; and then lead will have to turn itself into gold. That's what alchemists do. They show that, when we strive to become better than we are, everything around us becomes better, too."" For me, there are some good images of church here - searching for your treasure and striving to become better for a start. Concepts like curiosity and creativity are also relevant to the church. However, perhaps the main point to be made is that the notion of transformation, at the core of what the alchemist is doing, is a key element in what the church is called to be engaged in. Transformation can happen in a whole range of ways, but surely needs to be part of what we are and part of what we are offering. I am making all things new - Revelation 21:5.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Round Table Church

Writing in the current issue of "Inside Out" (No. 51), the magazine of the Council for World Mission, Revd. Dr. Christopher Duraisingh reflects back on his period as General Secretary of that organisation in the late eighties and early nineties. In a little summary comment with the title Table Manners he writes: "During my term, I visited Singapore where we ate at round tables with a rotating tray on top. Each person would bring a dish, nobody knew who brought what but we would share as equals. Can CWM learn to throw away the rectangular table for the round table? It is constituted by what everybody brings to it; therefore I insist the vision of CWM is that we need to play our part in adding to this rich table. This means we also need to learn and challenge one another to value non-material resources such as cultural and social insights and personnel." The round table concept brings to mind Fred Kaan's hymn which likens the church to a table and begins with this very concept: "The church is like a table, a table that is round. It has no sides or corners, no first or last, no honours; here people are in one-ness and love together bound." The church is fundamentally non-hierarchical - and I believe that to be true even where there is apparent hierarchy which, I think, is more to do with role than place or position. Like Jesus himself, we are all called to a servant ministry. A few weeks ago, in Lent, the Bishop of Birmingham, the Rt. Revd. David Urquhart was out cleaning people's shoes. Some suggested that he should have stuck with the more symbolic act of washing feet. I don't think so. My feet do need regular washing, but someone else doing that is not going to contribute meaningfully to the cleanliness of my feet. But to have my dirty shoes cleaned .... that really would be a service. How can we really establish and be a round table church? - not one where we are all doing the same things, but one where we value all the things that all the others are doing, and including the non-material resources so aptly identified by Christopher Duraisingh!

Monday, 21 April 2008

Local Ecumenical Partnerships

The Church needs to find new ways of expressing itself, but the old and continuing ways are equally critical and make a massive contribution to the overall picture. One expression of Church, no longer new by a long way but in which traditional denominations can engage in a meaningful partnership, is the "Local Ecumenical Partnership" (LEP). I have now been involved, as minister, in three, one an informal working together that never became a formal LEP, one a new venture that was initiated during my ministry, and the third a well-established united congregation. My experience tells me that LEPs have a huge amount to offer. There are some strands of current opinion that want to suggest that LEPs have reached their "sell by date" and that we need to find new and alternative ways of doing ecumenism. Clearly not every church is, or should be, an LEP. Equally clearly, we do need new and other ways of being ecumenical. However, I am convinced that new form of ecumenism should be complementary, not an alternative. At present, I am seeing several interesting opportunities for forming new LEPs. There is plenty of evidence against the view that this is not now a good way forward. We need to be looking for all the relevant ways of being the Church in our particular contexts and an LEP offers a real chance for integrated cross-denominational working.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Ecumenical Principles

That the Church is one is fundamental. Jesus prayed that they may be one (John 17:11). It is right that there is a huge diversity within the Church, but that diveregence must not be allowed to challenge her fundamenal unity. I don't think it is realistic to be part of the church without being part of a church - though others may disagree. However, I am clear on the importance of the ecumenical agenda. We ought not to be doing separately those things that we can do together. As Pope John Paul II said: "Ecumenism "is not some sort of "appendix"" which is added to the Church's traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does" (Ut Unum Sint, Encyclical Letter on Commitment to Ecumenism, 1995, Section 20). Unity is not about abandoning diversity, but about holding a range of things together. Christopher Ellis comments that: "Ecumenism is not about throwing all our treasures into a melting pot so that we end up with a uniform church." He recognises the importance and richness of diversity, so long as we don't try and work our way round the Gospel's central call to unity. He refuses to accept "invisible unity" as the way to deal with this, pointing out that "the problem with invisible unity is that it cannot be seen" (Christopher Ellis: "Together on the Way", British Council of Churches, 1990, p. 89 and 112.) It is relevant, and supportive of this point, that many of the divides in the contemporary church are within, rather than across, the so-called 'denominations'. That way we can better appreciate their richness, and also forge the critical links across the traditional divisions. The priority of unity should be clear.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

1 Peter 2:9

1 Peter 2:9 offers one of the New Testament's most concise descriptions of church - But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a dedicated nation, a people claimed by God for his own, to proclaim the glorious deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. The concept of being chosen is nice, comfortable and comforting; yet there is a risk that it can smack of exclusivity, and thus seem to contradict all that Jesus stood for. I do think there is a risk of going in the wrong direction here - and that will happen if we use what is said to draw boundaries to keep folk out. But I want to suggest that this is more to do with recognising who we are so that we can be who we should be. We can make a link with Deuteronomy 7:8 - it was because the Lord loved you ... that he brought you out with his strong hand and .... Our distinguishing mark is that we have chosen the love of God. That's what makes us church, and that's what we are called to share with others. Exclusion does not come into it. We are not setting ourselves up as something other. Rather we are simply responding to God's call. Literally we are God's "called out" people. We are called out to take on the priestly role - a royal priesthood. The priestly task is to be a link with God. The church needs to take this on corporately. Through much of the history of Israel the priests were condemned by the prophets for their ineffectiveness. We need to be careful that we don't deserve such an indictment. Only then can we take on the task of proclmation, in action and word, of the possibility of transformation - which is what the church should, in God's Name, be offering.

Friday, 18 April 2008

All things to all people

The Church needs to be all things to all people - which is not the same as saying that every single congregation has to be everything to every individual. Sometimes we try that, but it won't work. The other thing that we do is get fragmented and divided - and claim that we have got the right way. The reality is that the church is, rightly, a pretty diverse operation - and we all need to recognise the valuable contribution of other perspectives. I have greatly enjoyed Brian McLaren's exploration of this in his book A Generous Orthodoxy (Zondervan, 2004). McLaren gives his book the wonderful sub-title Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian. The book explores these different perspectives, discovering the contribution that each makes. In so doing the book does some pretty effective theology because, as McLaren points out: theology is the church on a mission reflecting on its message, its identity, its meaning. (p. 116). I fear that, too often, we have tried to slot church into pigeon-holes, we have tried to curb diversity, we have rebelled against God's disturbing our way of doing things - but where the Holy Spirit is shown the door by the church, an unlocked window is found through which the Spirit will sneakily enter. Thus the Holy Spirit stubbornly refuses to abandon the church even when the church quenches the Spirit .... (p. 34). The church is a wonderful diversity and we really can learn by looking to other bits of it.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Matthew 13:52

Matthew 13:52 offers an interesting possible model for church. So he said to them, 'When, therefore, a teacher of the law has become a learner in the kingdom of Heaven, he is like a householder who can produce from his store things new and old.' I find this a fascinating comment. Strictly, it is more individual than church can be and yet, I think, we can push the boundaries. Surely we are all "learners in the kingdom of Heaven". This verse is also fascinating because a number of scholars think that Matthew is here bringing himself into his account. This is how it is for him and this represents the contribution he can make. What we have here is virtually a parable in its own right in among a string of parables that form Matthew 13. What I see as the interesting point is the necessary mix between continuity and discontinuity. The church cannot, and must not, lose sight of what it has been - but it needs to be constantly renewing itself ("semper reformanda"). The Gospel is clear that Jesus uses Jewish perceptions and practices, but they are reinterpreted in the light of the role that is his. The task of the disciples is to "live and maintain the tension and praxis of bringing out what is new and what is old" (Warren Carter: Matthew and the Margins, Orbis, 2000, p. 297). I think that is a pretty good summary of what the church should be doing. It makes no sense to discard all the past with its huge array of wisdom, but it is equally senseless to refuse to seek out God's new transforming future. Both elements have a critical role - the trick is to know what fits where!

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Messy Church

Messy Church is another concept currently coming to the fore. The idea, as originally conceived, is outlined in Lucy Moore's book "Messy Church" (BRF, 2006). The basic concept of Messy Church is to use craft activities, a bit of worship and sharing food as a way of being church - the point being that churches needs to be "fuzzy round the edges". The original happens monthly on a Thursday afternoon - and is clearly a good and effective way of engaging with parents and younger children. One of my congregations - Bournville United Reformed Church - tried Messy Church on a one-off basis in October 2007. We did it on a Sunday morning in place of the normal act of worship - and it was great - more people than usual, more children than usual, and a real buzz around the place. It was our Harvest Festival; so that provided the day's focus. Tea, coffee and squash were available as people arrived. We had two half-hour craft activities sessions - we divided into two sessions because we didn't have enough room for all thirteen activities at once, though some continued for the whole hour. In each session participants could concentrate on one or two activities or rush around having a little "go" at everything. Each activity had a link Bible verse. So, for example, we arranged flowers (See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these), we made clay fruit (But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control), we made mini fruit kebabs (Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost), we made pipe cleaner bugs (And God said, 'Let the land produce living creatures') - and so on. This was all followed by a brief act of worship (15 minutes) and then we shared lunch. At the moment we are planning Messy Church mark 2 - in May.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Cafe Church Rationale

Different people will inevitably and rightly have different thoughts as to why they engage in particular expressions of church. Lots of people have said different things about Cafe Church - and it can certainly be and do different things. In the Cotteridge context we identified three key focus points. First, we aim to give people a hands-on experience connected to faith exploration. The hands-on can come in a whole range of ways, including discussion. Secondly, we want to encourage people - or certainly to give them the opportunity - to interact with others, whether on a one-to-one basis or in a small group setting. Thirdly, it is important to us to sum the whole thing up in worship. I am always keen to identify Biblical links or precedents - and suggested two possible Biblical precedents for what we are doing in Cafe Church, one being the Feeding of the 5,000 and the other being the occasion when Jesus shared in a meal in the house of Simon the Pharisee and had his feet anointed. A lot of this was exemplified in our second ever Cafe Church (October 2006) which took the theme "Wicked World". We had a number of poems to read, all designed to help us think about the ways of the world. We had opportunities for writing and drawing, including a group effort to write a poem. We had a space for prayer and reflection. We also produced our own "Vox Pop", answering the question "What is 'wicked' about this world?"

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Holy Ground

One of my favourite Cafe Church events at Cotteridge was when we did 'Holy Ground' (November 2007). This was inspired by, and using some of the material from Paul Hobbs' "Holy Ground Project" sponsored by the Church Missionary Society. In the project Paul Hobbs collected shoes and stories from Christians around the world. Using God's words to Moses as a starting point "Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5), people were invited to give their shoes and their stories. Hobbs comments: "For some the idea of giving up their shoes for this project seemed amusing and culturally odd. For others it was costly to give their only pair of shoes in exchange for another." However, the resulting collection of pictures and stories is certainly inspirational. We didn't invite people to donate shoes, but we did invite participants to remove their shoes and have their photographs alongside a brief faith story they had written. We also tried to make shoes (cardboard sandals etc.), walked barefoot on different surfaces, discussed memorable journeys and imagined being in Moses' shoes. Holy ground comes in all sorts of places and ways.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Cafe Church

One of the new genres of church that is increasingly to the fore is Cafe Church. Cafe Church means a variety of things when you get down to the detail, but the fundamental format is church in a cafe context. We have been doing Cafe Church at the Cotteridge Church (one of my current congregations) for about 18 months now. Our way works for us, but we recognise that others "do" Cafe Church in all sorts of different ways. We meet once a month on a Sunday at 8pm. for about an hour and a quarter. Our prime target congregation is young people, but everyone is welcome. On average, something like 25 people gather, with perhaps 60% of them under 18. A good proportion are between 11 and 13, but not all. A planning group, open to all, but tending to attract the same people, mainly, but not exclusively, adults works up the chosen theme for each month. Refreshments are available throughout and the way it works is that the event is a mix of chat, activity and worship opportunity, with a choice as to what you do for most of the time, but all coming together briefly at the beginning and the end. This month (April 2008) our Cafe Church theme was 'The Lord is my Sat Nav'. In a range of different ways we explored questions of choice. We iced buscuits and thought about choices in eating. We designed timetables and thought about choices in education and work. We dressed paper figures and thought about choices in fashion. We thought about choices in music and faith also. In a brief worship closedown we considered the choices we make with or without God.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Boutique Church

There are many models of church - Tesco Church is certainly not the only one. Gerard Kelly (Senior Pastor - Crossroads International Church, Amsterdam) names his version of my Tesco Express Church as "Boutique Church". A "Boutique Church" is one that offers "an experience of worship that appeals directly to a particular niche or people-group". Kelly makes the point that this model "offers hope to the more traditional denominations" and also that churches on this model "have a significant role to play". I think we need to take this model very seriously. One of the problems that many churches have is trying to be all things to all people. Why panic about having no children if God is calling you to a ministry among senior citizens? Further, there is a lot of evidence that bigger churches are likely to be most successful if they are broken down into smaller units. We all need to look to what God is calling us to - and realise it won't be everything!

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Tesco Church

A bit of thinking has been going on about what is sometimes called Tesco Church. Others use equivalents such as Ikea Church. The question is as to whether Tesco (or Ikea) provides us with a model for how to do church. The point is made that the opening of the big Tesco Superstore has the inevitable effect of causing smaller local businesses to close. Would we be better doing church that way? If we had very many fewer churches, but made the ones that remained 'mega-churches', would that have more of an impact? Of course, it might - but I'm doubtful about this one - perhaps partly because, at the moment, most of my visits to Tesco are to our local Tesco Express, limited in range, but high on convenience. And I'm not convinced that that isn't a better model for church - 'church express' rather than 'church out-of-town superstore'.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Liquid Church

Another book which I read not so long ago, which has a lot of intertesting ideas as to how today's church can effectively function is Pete Ward's Liquid Church (Paternoster, 2002). Ward suggests that flexibility is essential and that liquid provides a more appropriate image for what the church should be than many of the fixed ones that we more commonly use. As he says - p. 41: "If we are to envisage a liquid church, then movement and change must be part of its basic characteristic. We need to let go of a static model of church that is primarily based on congregation and buildings. In its place we need to develop a notion of Christian community, worship, mission, and organization that is more flexible and responsive to change. The idea of flow is central in this shift of emphasis. Liquid church would work to express itself as a series of movements or flows. As with a liquid, there would be a spreading, oozing, spilling character to these flows." I like that. I fear we try to bottle the church, when we ought to be pouring it out!

One Size doesn't Fit All

One of the big mistakes churches make is trying to be everything and to do everything. We like to have "one size fits all" churches. We need to learn that different churches can play different roles. We are all part of the Body of Christ and we need to learn that lesson about needing the different parts of the body and how valuable it is to have, as Nick Page puts it in The Church Invisible - "lots and lots of different kinds of churches. Different flavours. All concentrating on the same things, but doing it in different ways .... "

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Cappucino or Espresso

I recently read Nick Page's book "The Church Invisible" (Zondervan, 2004). Sub-titled "A Journey into the Future of the UK Church", it looks back to the early years of the 21st century - i.e. now - from the vantage point of 2040 and offers some challenging perspectives on what the church should be up to. I think my favourite image from the book is the suggestion that the church is like a cup of coffee. Nick Page makes the point that the church often makes the mistake of trying to be and do everything - and that's not what God expects, or requires. "I like espressos. .... Small, but incredibly potent. .... tell your people to stop trying to be like cappucinos and try to be more like espressos."

Images of the Church

The Bible is full of images of the church - vine, salt, body, light and so on. I like to think of different images. One I like is of the church as a rollercoaster. It has highs and lows and it is full of thrills.