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.