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?