Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Saints and Parables

Most of the stories that Jesus told, parables as they are more often termed, were just that, stories – stories put together to illustrate a point. And yet, though they were apparently not about actual people, they could well have been. They were surely about the sort of people that you might encounter every day. Was there a Samaritan who provided the model for what we now know as the parable of the good one? Probably not, but there could have been. Was there an actual farmer sowing seed who didn’t get it all to land in the right place? Actually there were probably loads of those. Was there a woman who was delighted to find a lost coin? A father whose wayward son finally returned home? A woman who baked bread? A tax-collector who so genuinely prayed? The stories are all about ordinary people – and the stories about ordinary people are used to describe the Kingdom of God. November 1st is All Saints Day. When we talk about saints, I guess our first thought tends to be about people who we regard as specially holy. Possibly some of those who appear in the pages of the Bible – Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Perhaps the Gospel writers – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Or there are others amongst the early church leaders – Saint Augustine and Saint Ambrose, Saint Francis. Or, if we want to move more up to date, we will probably think about people like Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Mother Teresa. And, of course, all these people offer us great examples of being a saint. But we are all called to be saints. Being a saint is nothing special – well, actually it is something very special. But it is not anything that we might do that is the special thing that makes us a saint. The special thing comes from God – and is there for all of us. The particular, and different, word that we sometimes use to describe God is holy. God is holy. And the wonderful thing is that we all have the chance to grab a piece of the action that we might call holiness – because God offers it to us. God is reaching out to us. In the days of Jesus’ earthly life, the Pharisees and others thought it very easy to get contaminated. If you were in contact with something that they would have described as ‘unclean’ then it was inevitable that the uncleanness would spread in to you. But Jesus turned the notion upside down. He could see that it was perfectly possible, indeed far more likely, that God’s goodness and love would transform the things that are wrong with us. And so sainthood is possible – even for us. Indeed, it is more than possible – we are called to it.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Doing a New Thing

Let’s just note a few of those points in the Bible where the challenge to do something new is explicitly present. In Isaiah 43:18 and 19, for example, the prophet utters the challenge: Stop dwelling on past events and brooding over days gone by. I am about to do something new; this moment it will unfold. Can you not perceive it? Even through the wilderness I shall make a way, and paths in the barren desert. Often we look back to a golden age that, if we’re honest, is probably not as golden as we remember it. There’s nothing wrong with looking back. There’s nothing wrong with recognising the value of what’s happened. But there is everything wrong with getting stuck there. We need to look for God’s doing “something new”. But, of course, there is another perspective to recognise. We should not ignore and forget the words of the preacher, Ecclesiastes 1:9/10 – What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which there can be said, ‘Look, this is new’? No, it was already in existence, long before our time. Now, even though it goes against my basic thesis, I think this is a very important and valuable insight. Sometimes we think that we have got a monopoly on difficulty and struggling. Not so! For example, we struggle and agonise about how to deploy clergy and look back to that golden age – there it is again – when such things were not a problem. But this really isn’t a new problem. If you look back to accounts of Congregationalism in the 1930s, for instance, you’ll find there were some very similar debates. Things don’t actually change that much, and I am not sure whether that worries me, or reassures me – but I do believe it is so; and yet, within that context, I am still looking for God’s new thing. And I want to reinforce the need to do that by moving into the New Testament and, first of all, quoting something Paul said. It’s in 2 Corinthians 5:17 – For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has gone, a new order has already begun. As one commentator says, “all who have died with Christ are now in him and have been made new.” Putting it another way, God is about transformation. That’s what God offers us – and that’s what, in his name, we should offer to others. The slate can be wiped clean. We can have a new start. Of course, the preacher is right to say that, in a sense, there is nothing new. But, because of what God does for and with us, we are constantly full of new potential. As in so many things, the point is to have the right thing in the right place. And we might well reinforce that with, for the moment, one final Biblical comment on newness and it needs to be, surely, words of Jesus – and I look to that double parable in Matthew 9:16 and 17 – No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for then the patch tears away from the garment and leaves a bigger hole. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; if they do, the skins burst, and the wine runs out and the skins are ruined. No, they put new wine into fresh skins; then both are preserved. Jesus’ main message is about God’s Kingdom – and in proclaiming the Kingdom Jesus is proclaiming a different way of life. Jesus is talking about new possibility, about things being transformed. What Jesus places on offer does not leave people unchanged. New relationships happen. New resources become available. New structures need to be brought into play to make things work. And I guess that the challenge for each of us is to work out what that means for us in our situation. It is relatively easy to identify the good things of the past, though it is, of course, important to do that – but what is the new thing to which God is pointing us at this time? That raises more challenging questions and, most likely, a range of interesting possibilities.

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Emperor's New Clothes

I imagine you may well be familiar with that story by Hans Christian Anderson about ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. The vain emperor always goes about extremely well dressed. Elegance is his hallmark – until two scoundrels hatch a scheme to get the better of him. They tell him they are fantastic taylors who “have invented an extraordinary method to weave a cloth so light and fine that it looks invisible. As a matter of fact it is invisible to anyone who is too stupid and incompetent to appreciate its quality.” They are commissioned to produce a very special suit of new clothes for the emperor. And the emperor thinks he is getting a real bargain. Not only will he have a wonderful suit – but he’ll be able to discover which of his subjects are stupid and incompetent – because they won’t be able to see it. The prime minister, on being sent to check progress, discovers an empty loom - and breaks into a cold sweat. If he admits he can’t see the clothes, he’ll be regarded as stupid and probably dismissed from office. And so he admires their wonderful work – and that’s what he reports back. The tailors come to measure the emperor. They seem to be holding a large roll of cloth, but the emperor can’t see anything. He panics and admires the fabric he can’t see. The new suit is finished, tried on, and shown off to the people. Nobody wants to be regarded as stupid, and so they all admire it. All except a child – “The emperor is naked.” The boy’s father grabs him and takes him away – but the crowd finally see sense – “The boy is right! The emperor is naked! It’s true!” The emperor also realises it is true, but really can’t admit it – and so carries on with the illusion. The theme of new things is a common Biblical concept. God deals in making things new. But the story helps to remind us how critical it is to look for authentic newness – and not that illusory newness that is akin to those so called emperor’s new clothes. The church has much to value in its traditions, much in what has brought us to this point on which we can build. But the church needs always to be looking for new challenges, always to be looking for those new places to which God is taking us.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Knowing When To Stop

Do you know the story of the magic porridge pot? A poor girl who had nothing and was often hungry was visited by a disguised fairy and given a pot. She was given the instructions that when she wanted to eat she should say, “Cook, little pot, cook.” Then, when she had had enough, she should say, “Stop, little pot, stop.” Fine and good – until, one day, when the girl is out, her mother is hungry and asks the pot to cook. But she has forgotten how to make it stop. And so, the pot just keeps on cooking. Every street in the village gets filled with porridge before the girl comes home and gives the command. I suppose there are echoes there of the Midas story. How wonderful it would be, if everything we touched turned to gold. Well, of course, actually it wouldn’t. What we really want is that everything that we want to turn should turn the gold, but not the rest and, if we make a mistake, can we turn it back please? It’s part of human nature that we find it hard to know when to stop. Often in the Gospels, the crowds keep asking Jesus for more. Paul reminds us of the value of the different contributions that we all can make. All the gifts are gifts for service. All the gifts are gifts for the church. If a church leader, whether it be the minister or one of the elders, or the leader of a particular group, were to stand up and say, “Well, I’m God’s gift to the church,” we’d immediately get a picture of someone puffed up with self-importance and unready to serve. Yet, of course, it depends how you say it – because that actually is what we all should be saying, not arrogantly and self-importantly, but humbly, and with a willingness to serve and be used. The important thing isn’t what gift you happen to have, because that’s God’s choice. The important thing is that you use it.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

In the Steps of St. Paul

I have just started reading Roland Allen's "Missionary Methods - St. Paul's or Ours". Allen was an Anglican missionary in China from 1895 to 1903. He then returned to England to take charge of a parish, but also spent the next 40 years writing about missionary principles. He himself recognised that he was ahead of his time - but that didn't stop him from posing some challenging ideas. Allen suggests that we can learn a lot by looking at Paul. The apostle achieved a tremendous amount and Allen suggests that his approach was more planned than we sometimes think. Allen suggests that our tendency to regard Paul as exceptional is misleading and that we rather ought to be looking to his methods for guidance as to what we should be up to. Paul's approach is certainly challenging - but isn't that what we need?

Friday, 2 October 2009

Mission Shaped

That mission is central to what we do and are is something to which we would all subscribe. But sometimes the idea is easier than the practice. I don't know any churches that wouldn't claim to have mission potential. The problem is the gap between the actuality and fulfilling the potential. It is also true that all sorts of things shape us. Culture is important. The things we do, the places where we have roots are very important. Do we really root the church in mission? Do we really allow the church to be mission shaped?

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Fresh Expressions

There are many ways in which today’s church is engaged in exciting and innovative things – but perhaps one of the best ways to explore this question is through a brief consideration of what is commonly known as ‘fresh expressions’ and, in particular, the programme (if that’s the right word) that is known by the name and of which the United Reformed Church has recently become a full part. Fundamentally, fresh expressions are looking for and at new ways of being and doing church, Messy Church and CafĂ© Church perhaps being amongst the most obvious examples to cite. But it is also helpful to look behind some of the specific stories at some of the theory and theology that undergirds what is going on. Indeed, this may prove to be the most helpful part of our consideration. We should admit, as they do, that “a phrase like ‘fresh expressions of church’ can be vague and unclear. Sometimes the label is used to cover almost anything – even a new church noticeboard!” However, they (on the website that offers the theory behind the practice – www.sharetheguide.org – offer two things that describe a fresh expression or what we might want to call a pioneering opportunity and four characteristics that should define that. So what are they looking for if a particular “thing” is to be seen as a fresh expression? It should “come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples” and should “have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church and for its cultural context.” They then emphasise four characteristics. Fresh expressions are: - Missional – serving people outside the church; - Incarnational – listening to people and entering their culture; - Educational – making discipleship a priority; - Ecclesial – forming church. It is perhaps interesting to consider whether these fit anything we are doing, whether we might emphasise some rather than others and, indeed, more of what we would mean by them. What 'fresh expressions' might we engage in that really contribute something?

Saturday, 26 September 2009

Big Chef, Little Chef

During the flights that were necessary for this summer’s trip to New Zealand, amongst many other things, I watched the three Channel 4 episodes which describe how top and innovative chef Heston Blumenthal was brought in to Little Chef to try and transform its fortune. The first Little Chef opened in 1958, the same year as Britain got its first motorway. For many it has become a British institution but, 50 years on, in 2008 was failing to attract the level of customers it needed in order to be viable. Chief Executive Ian Pegler brought in Blumenthal giving him the remit of transforming the chain’s fortunes. Despite being horrified by sampling the fare on offer, Blumenthal eagerly took on the challenge seeing it as an opportunity to transform – and so save – a British institution. Pegler encouraged Blumenthal to engage in ‘blue sky thinking’, but was obstructive in many ways, for example, being reluctant to give him the accounts. The programmes followed his creating new dishes, costing and trialling them. He battled to persuade the committed Little Chef staff that other things were possible and could be an improvement. The story contributes to my thinking about how we can 'get the church sorted' in a number of ways and raises questions like: - How ready are we to do something different? - How much are we prepared to pay for quality? - How do we keep the currently committed on board? - What are the new ‘dishes’ we should be offering? - Are we prepared to be open with potential partners? - How do we go different without losing the brand?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Just Get On With It

Sometimes we seem to think that we need to discover all sorts of new challenges in order to be a relevant and effective church. I am sure it is good when that happens - but I do sometimes wonder if we unnecesarily push ourselves too hard. Sometimes, I think, God just wants us to do what we can. Yes, all things are possible with God - but he doesn't demand the impossible of us, if that is not a contradiction in terms. I like a comment of Walter Brueggemann's which, I think, fits in here: "I have found myself growing in resistance to sermons that purport to speak God's command. I have found myself discovering that mostly I do not need more advice, but strength. I do not need new information, but the courage, freedom, and authorization to act on what I already have been given in the gospel" ("Finally Comes The Poet, Augsburg Fortress, 1989, p. 84).

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

A Magic Wand?

We all sometimes wish we had a magic wand and could use it to solve many of the range of problems that confront us. That must have been so for Job's friends. Though calling them his 'comforters' contains a degree of irony, I am sure they had no wish to see him where he was - and would have liked to be able to offer some way of relief. Sometimes, of course, we are wrongly positive and try to evade pain and hurt. It doesn't work, at least, not for the hurting one. Commenting on one of the early speeches by Bildad (8:11-22), Katharine Dell says: "We often feel in life that we want to put everything right for people. In a situation of despair, when there really is no cure, we want to be able to wave a magic wand and make it all better. We want to see the one in pain being able to laugh and be joyful again and we want a better life for them. This is a similar moment of affirmation by Bildad. He assures his friend that all is well with the doctrine that seems to have gone so badly wrong. He wants to be affirming and positive. ("Job", Bible Reading Fellowship, 2002, p. 69) It really doesn't help to assure people that all is well when it blatantly isn't - and what is true on the personal level is also true on the communal level here. But we can be there for people.

Monday, 20 July 2009


At the moment I am reading Dave Gorman's "America Unchained" which recounts the story of his attempt to cross the USA coast to coast without using any "chains". He would only stay at hotels/motels that were not part of a chain, only eat at places that were not part of a chain, only buy petrol at garages that were not part of a chain. The book offers an interesting reflection on the large part that "chains" have come to have in our lives most of the time. It is true that most high streets look much the same. But it set me wondering how chained we are, and how chained we should be, in the church. It would seem that we are concerned with liberation and freedom in a big way which suggests we might be strong supporters of Gorman's quest. Yet part of church is that we are linked to each other, wherever we are. There is a sense in which any individual congregation will, and should, do its own thing. However, that should not happen in an isolated way. We are part of the whole Body of Christ, the whole People of God. That's why I belong to a denomination, and why I think it's right that I should do so - but it is also why I hope that, one day, we'll bring all the denominations together. I guess it is a bit of a forlorn hope - and that's why, across the denominations, I am clear that what unites us is more important than that which divides.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

The Church as Shrine

The Church is the people. That is fundamental - though when we talk about 'church' people will often have the picture of a building in their mind. Our buildings can be a great resource, which massively enhances our mission, but equally a huge drain on our energy and resources. We do often talk about special places, sometimes describing them as 'thin' places, and I like the idea of the church as a shrine, even though the commitment some people sometimes have to the building can cause a range of problems. As with so many things, it's a question of balance. Sally Gaze explores this in "Mission-Shaped and Rural" (Church House Publishing, 2006), suggesting it may be a useful way to see how to recognise the value of some rural church buildings. She writes - p. 90 – “The idea of the church building as a shrine is extraordinarily helpful in understanding the place such buildings have in the hearts of some parishioners. Pilgrimage and sacred space have an important felt place in popular contemporary spirituality. Many church tourists report feeling that ancient church buildings are spiritual places – and that may be particularly true of remote churches. ...... A shrine is a place that a person might visit quite seldom, but has great emotional importance. People might also feel quite strongly that some changes should not be made to a shrine.” So, if nothing else, this notion may help us to understand how some see things. However, Sally Gaze doesn't want to use this as a means of weighing us down with buildings' responsibility. She remembers that God's 'house' was originally a tent - and suggests - p. 96 – “Perhaps the Church, as God’s pilgrim people of this day, also needs to learn to ‘pitch the tent’ of God’s presence and have a lighter attachment to buildings.” In the end, as already hinted, both can have their places. Ideas of shrine and pilgrimage can be very helpful, but so can those of molbility, flexibility and the church as a tent. What matters is mission and call - p. 97 – “Church communities need to be freed to discover the part of God’s mission to which each is called so that it becomes God’s mission which limits and shapes their choices about how and whether to use church buildings.”

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Sharing Marbles

There's a story of two little London lads who were protesting their undying loyalty to each other. The first little boy said to the other, "Hey, Bobby, if you had a million pounds, would you give me half?" "Course I would," came the reply. "What about if you had a thousand pounds?" "I'd give you half, just the same." "What about if you had a thousand marbles?" "I'd give you half of them," replied Bobby. "What about if you had two marbles?" A moment's pause, and then a rather different response. "That's jolly well not fair. You know I've got two marbles." Principles are great - when we can keep them at arm's length, when they are pure theory. It's when we start having to put it into practice that we run into trouble. But a call that is really just a theory is not actually a call. God wants action. I like that description in Mark 6:34 – When he came ashore and saw a large crowd, his heart went out to them. His heart went out to them. That’s how we should live!

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Just Mission

Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, in a little book co-written with his wife Barbara, entitled “Just Mission” (Mowbray, 1993) suggests four keys way in which we can, and should, engage with people. The Butlers first concept is that of presence. We just need to be present. They write: “Jesus had a mission – and the first thing he had to do to carry out his mission was to be here – he had to be in the world before he could change the world – he was born in a particular time in a particular place, and from living this particular life he changed lives at all times, everywhere. Likewise, before we can engage in mission of any sort we must ‘be there’.” Quite so! I think that sometimes we underestimate the simple fact of our presence. We have lived through a time of declining numbers at church in the mainstream denominations in the UK. That, of course, is not the overall picture – which is very different. Of course, there have been some churches telling a different story and it is also important to note that there is finally some evidence that this trend may be bottoming out. But even in our secular society it is amazing to see the extent to which people sometimes turn to the church. As someone once put it: ‘people do like a church to not go to.’ We live in a world that is loaded with information. We can easily be like the little girl who received a book on penguins from her grandmother. Her thank-you letter read: ‘Thank you for sending me the book on penguins. I now know more about penguins than I wish to know.’ Maybe so – but let us recognise the value of our just being there and the recognition others have of what we represent. The second theme needs to take us further and into doing and is, quite simply, a question of action. There are things that we need to get on with, all of us. It is very easy for us to get socialised into particular ways. Sometimes we need to consider whether God is calling us to do something different. There is the Hindu story of the tiger cub brought up with a flock of sheep, so that it grew to behave like a sheep and eat grass. One day a tiger strayed into the flock and the sheep scattered, but the tiger cub was asleep and the tiger caught it, surprised to find that it was a tiger. The tiger cub would not believe it was anything but a sheep, so the tiger took it to a pond and forced it to look at its reflection, challenging it to behave like a tiger and not like a sheep, challenging it to become what it already was. Sometimes we need a similar challenge to appropriate action. The Butlers third theme is that of proclamation. They actually call it witness. We need to tell the good news. We need to speak about God’s love. We need, as someone has said, to gossip the Gospel. If you have got some really good news, you want to share it. That’s natural. I’ve passed my driving test. I’ve passed my exam. A new baby. A new job. Whatever it is – we want to get the news around. It ought not to be any different when it’s a question of how we treat the Gospel which, of course, literally means good news. And then the Butlers’ fourth category is spirituality. It’s prayer. It’s being with God. It’s reading the Bible. It’s finding those inside resources that we need in order to do all the other things. It’s touching the hem of his garment. And maybe that means we need to be open to doing things a bit differently sometimes. A Kenyan Christian wrote to a friend having returned home after a visit to England – and made the comment: ‘The Church in England is very strange. They always start their services on time, even when the Holy Spirit hasn’t arrived!’ Now I am sure we see things differently from what is represented by that comment – but I do suspect there is something important to learn there. So let’s get on with the task that ought to be of our very essence and that we might easily describe as ‘just mission.’ Let’s recognise that just our presence makes a difference. Let’s look to do just those actions, big and small, to which God is calling us for the moment. Let’s just tell the story, in so many different ways. And let’s, first of all, look to God for the spiritual resourcing we need.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Church Entrepreneur

I have just finished reading Andrew Mawson's "The Social Entrepreneur" (Atlantic Books, 2008). Lord (as he is now) Mawson has certainly achieved a great deal. I remember being part of a United Reformed Church team visiting Bromley-by-Bow in the relatively early days in the 80s - though even then some of the workshops were up and running and the "tent" had been created in the church. Everyone can't possibly be an Andrew Mawson - and end up with the Olympics on their doorstep - but I see a lot to learn in what he writes. He certainly says a lot of good stuff about church relating to community and I am attracted to the idea of entrepreneurship. If church is going to work, we need to be innovative. We need to relate to our local contexts. We need to engage with the issues that really matter to the local people. Mawson has a way of identifying and using talent that is just sitting there. I think there's a lot to learn.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Joining the Dance

Many images are used to describe the church - and they have helpfully different things to say. We can certainly see the church as being like a dance and, given that it is the people who are the church (not the building!) it is for us to join in that dance. As Robin Greenwood puts it: "To become skilled performers of the faith is to learn to dance Christ’s dance. Dancing may not be a frequent activity for us. Imagine being gently and laughingly cajoled into standing up and taking part in the ceilidh of the kingdom" ("Local Ministry" ed. Robin Greenwood and Caroline Pascoe, SPCK, 2006, p. 14). Let's join that dance!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Unless A Grain

John Bell points out: "If we believe in the resurrection ... we have to allow some things to die. God doesn't deal with corpses, with moribund institutions and lifeless people who linger or malinger, trying to avoid the end. God deals with bodies which die and are raised to new life" ("Wrestle and Fight and Pray", Saint Andrew Press, 1993, p. 43/4). That is an important lesson for the church. I suspect we spend too much time on resuscitation. Sometimes it is the moment to let things go. Things do come to an end - and we need to allow that to happen to make way for the new. There can be a church mentality that wants to keep things going. New things have to be added on, rather than replacing things that are finished. That leads to overload. We need to learn the lesson of the grain of wheat.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Church Play

Using images is frequently a helpful way to explain things. It is a technique often used by Jesus. The parables tell us huge amounts and the images they contain often help us to understand how we should live and what God's Kingdom, or reign, is like. Quite a few of the images mentioned in the Gospels can applied to the church. For example, the vine, light and salt all offer an indication of what the church should be like. In "Wrestle and Fight and Pray" (Saint Andrew Press, 1993) John Bell poses the question as "to which sport Christianity might be most favourably compared." Bell offers a number of suggestions: "Is it like cricket which, from the outside looks absurdly dull, but which the enthusiasts are keen to assure us is really exciting? Or is it like tennis, fairly predictable, but with the word 'love' used in public from time to time? Is it like golf, something essentially easy - putting a ball into a hole - until you see the size of the hole, the size of the ball and how far they are from each other? Is it a team game, like rugby, which needs people who are light on their feet up front and people who are very solid to prop up the rear? Or is it like snooker, something which only a few folk can play very well, but which has a vast army of armchair critics?" In the end, John Bell rejects all these suggestions and, instead, identifies wrestling as the one. The story of Jacob immediately leaps to mind, but there are many other parts of the Bible that would support this notion. Wrestling is about struggling - our faith helps us to struggle as we should. Bell is looking for a sport to describe Christianity. I would want, of course, to be clear that we should not make an exact identification between the church and Christianity - though I would hope that there are more than a few links. And this image helps me to be positive when, as is often the case, I see the church struggling.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Slow Down!

We often describe following God as being like a journey. Indeed, one of the key ways in which we might describe the life of faith is as pilgrimage. However, we do need to think about where there journey may take us, and how quickly. Too often we are in too much of a hurry, and forget that we need to recognise that God's timing might not be quite what we expect. The aim, of course, is always that of transformation. We believe that God can transform things. In "Recovering the Sacred Center" (Judson Press, 1998) Howard Friend reminds us of the need to allow our perspective to slow down - “In Scripture, stories of transformation are journey stories. Typically, these narratives consume more time than their characters expect, and they demand more of them than they ever anticipated. Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees with no idea that before God’s promise would be fulfilled, twenty-five years would pass. Jacob dreamed, as he rested his head on a stone pillow at Bethel, with no idea that his sojourn would wend through a decade and more. If they had known they would wander for forty years in the wilderness, the children of Israel might have remained forever in the grip of Egyptian slavery. As his personal reflections reveal in Galatians and as Luke reports in Acts, Paul spent three years in Arabia “recovering” from his conversion experience and as many as nine years in a ministry of minimal success before his missionary work bore fruit. Those who dare to lead at the cutting edge, who dare to blaze fresh trails towards the reinvented future church, need to muster this kind of determination and stamina.”

Wednesday, 25 March 2009


"The book of Acts is a record of the struggle of the church to be the church" (Allan Boesak). Sometimes we think it was all great at the beginning, but then we ought to just read the New Testament. There are many stories of struggles and conflicts. Paul and Peter had very different views - and they both had to do lots of new learning. There are many dramatic scenes indicating God's presence and intervention. But, just as God helped the church in the then struggle to be the church, so he will help us in the struggle to be the church in our day.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


"To this day we are treated as the scum of the earth, as the dregs of humanity" - 1 Corinthians 4:13. These are not exactly the most exciting and encouraging words about being church. None of us want to feel like rubbish. But to be authentic church, that is just what we need to be ready for. We are called to turn expectation upside down. Using another metaphor, we are to be "fools" for Christ. I wonder if we are ready for this underside of being church. Of course, it is not that we are to be rubbish or dregs, just that it may be that that is how we are treated.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Undisciplined Abundance

Allan Boesak has a sermon by that name in his book "The Fire Within" (Wild Goose Publications, 2007). The sermon is based on the Parable of the Sower and the reckless generosity of God portrayed by the parable's central character. Boesak challenges our conventional explanations about the different types of ground. He says: "And God sows, with exuberant generosity, with unalloyed, wasteful joy, with undisciplined abundance, in the hope that some seed will fall on fertile ground, yield something, so that God's Word will not return empty." I think we need to learn to be more random in being the church. We tend to focus on being targeted. We want everything to count and to produce results. There is probably nothing wrong with wanting that - it is just not likely to happen. We need to learn, instead, to throw the Gospel around, realising that some won't hit the target - but lots will.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

The Shack

William Paul Young's "The Shack" (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) is a fascinating read that, to me, says a lot about life, church, and all sorts of things. It has the sub-title "where tragedy confronts eternity". Confronting eternity may not be the way we would most often put it - but is that not precisely what the church ought to be about? The book is a novel, but it is a novel that deals with truth. It is concerned with relationship, forgiveness and God - and, through the medium of a fascinating story, explores these critical themes. I found it intensely moving and significantly challenging. Again these are descriptions that I would want to use of the church. The church ought to be intensely moving and significantly challenging. The book wrestles with the timeless question of how we deal with unspeakable pain - and, yes, I do think the church ought to be wrestling with timeless questions. I guess we all need our own 'shack' where we can go to find God in a new way.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Snake Sandwich and Bird Salad

Commenting on the Acts 11 vision in which Peter is challenged to take a different view as to what is OK and what is not, particularly in respect to food consumption, Walter Brueggemann suggests that it as though Peter hears God saying, "Have a snake sandwich and a bird salad" (Walter Brueggemann, 'Inscibing the Text', Fortress, 2004, p. 88). The point is that the ritual law said that these things were unclean and should not be consumed. Peter, however, has had a vision which suggests he might eat anything. There are times when God takes us in different and unexpected directions. We, too, can be the subject of a vision which shakes us to the very core. We tend to think we know where we should be heading. This story is a reminder not to take that for granted. Does God have different ideas for how we should do and be church? If so, are we ready to see the vision?

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Transforming Moments

I was leading worship at Denton this morning. Denton is a tiny village, about five miles from Bungay, in Suffolk. The United Reformed Church and the Church of England worship together, using the two buildings alternately. There were about 25 people there, including 3 small children - and we had a good service. The final hymn was Graham Kenrick's "Shine, Jesus, shine" - and we enhanced the music by giving the children some percussion to play. Two of them came out towards the front to play the triangle and a kind of tambourine. The little girl (about 2 or 3 years old) playing the tambournine came up the step on to the platform beside me and held the instrument out towards me. I took and gave it a few shakes before returning it to her. She played it a bit and then offered it back to me. It was clearly my turn again. Bearing in mind she had never seen me before, that was - for us all - a transforming moment which contributed significantly to "making" the service - and all very appropriate as the lectionary theme for the day was the transfiguration. Let us all be alert for those things in church life that provide us with little transforming moments, glimpses of the light and love of God.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Spirit Will Not Be Regimented

Walter Brueggemann offers some wise words about the Bible - “ .... God’s wind blows through and blows past all our critical and confessional categories of reading and understanding. That blowing force that powers and enlivens, moreover, pertains not simply to the origin of the text but to its transmission and interpretation among us. The Spirit will not be regimented, and therefore none of our reading is guaranteed to be inspired. But it does happen – on occasion” (The Book That Breathes New Life, Fortress, 2005, p. 33). What he says about the Bible applies similarly to the Church. We do like to try and pin God down - but it won't work. God is always breaking out of our categories. We cannot contain the Church. The Spirit will not be regimented.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Come Over To Macedonia

In Acts 16:9 we have recorded a vision received by the apostle Paul in which he saw an appeal for help - "Come over to Macedonia and help us!" I am intrigued - and challenged - by Paul's response which is desribed in the following verse: "As soon as Paul had this vision, we got ready to leave for Macedonia, because we decided that God had called us to preach the Good News to the people there." I can't help wondering how that compares to the responses that we sometimes offer to God's call. Mind you, a reluctant response is certainly in line with how many of those whose stories in the Bible reacted. Jonah actually set off in the opposite direction. Moses tried his hardest to convince God that he wasn't the right person. Isaiah and Peter were both unconvinced that they were sufficiently worthy. But even these reluctant characters ended up doing that to which they were called. How about you - and me?

Saturday, 14 February 2009


I have just finished reading Paul Torday's second novel "The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce" (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2008). I enjoyed it a lot and see it as a well constructed read. The book's central character, Wilbeforce - and he is almost always known by his surname - inherits a large wine collection, having previously been introduced to the delights of drinking the stuff by the former owner. Wilberforce becomes totally addicted to the drinking of wine - no effort and no expense is too much. I think my favourite bit is when, in hospital, a nurse asks him how many units of alcohol he drinks a week. He doesn't know what a unit is, so asks, and, on being given the explanation, does some quick mental maths and comes up with the answer 'about 260'. She is sure he must have made a mistake and suggests he might mean 26 - until he explains that he drinks 4 or 5 bottles of wine a day! The wine has indeed become irresistible. I don't want to commend that model of drinking alcohol - but I do wonder whether our version and/or experience of church has the level of irresistibility that it ought?

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Catholic - Missional - Monastic

Some more notes from Brian McLaren's "The Last Word and the Word After That (Jossey-Bass, 2005), p. 214-6 where he reflects on “the emergence of catholic, missional, monastic faith communities ..... Catholic – with a lowercase c – meant “ecumenical,” a post-Protestant celebration of the church in all its forms ..... Instead of protesting what we’re against, we’re pro-testifying: telling the story of what we’re for ....... .. Missional meant focused on the good of the world. We’re exploring the territory beyond both Imperial Christianity and consumerist Christianity .. beyond the Christianity that seeks the good of one nation or the Christianity that exists to satisfy customers. We’re pursuing a faith that seeks the good of God’s whole world. Our mission is to join God in God’s saving love for all creation. . .... monastic suggested an order of community or practice. An order is different from a denomination, which is a group defined by structure and doctrine. An order is defined by practice. ... there’s a lot of doctrine hidden in each practice, but ... the best way to get to good doctrine is through good practice, instead of the other way around .... .. our basic practice is to love each other .... ... our five queries help us focus on that one monastic practice of love. When we ask how it goes with our soul, we’re asking how our soul is faring in love. .. ... the term faith community helped them get around the baggage associated with the word church. ..... Wherever Jesus is at work, church is there. ... That doesn’t exclude the institutions, but it doesn’t privilege them either. It’s very all-encompassing, a deeper approach to ecclesiology.” (The 'five queries' is a system of mutual support in which a group get together and ask each other five questions.)

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Deep Ecclesiology

It is important that church which really matters can happen anywhere and in a huge variety of forms. Brian McLaren - and others - refer to this as 'deep ecclesiology'. McLaren develops the point in "The Last Word and the Word After That" (Jossey-Bass, 2005) p. 195 - “There are many wild ideas associated with the word church. It’s like barnacles stuck on the hull of a boat, or maybe like those noodles burned on the bottom of your pot there. For some people, church is an institution of a modern society, right alongside government and the media and art and science and business and education, servicing the public or a segment of the public. For others, it’s a vendor of religious goods and services, servicing the needs and wants of customers. .... Deep ecclesiology .. means .. we honour the church in all its forms, from the most historic and hierarchical forms of church – Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox – through the middle range of more congregational or local Protestant churches to the low range of storefront churches and house churches and even below that. .... Some forms of church don’t last centuries or decades or even years. There are very ephemeral forms of church .... Jesus said, ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name.’ According to deep ecclesiology we’re churching right now.” Church has happened in many forms, and will continue to do so.

Sunday, 8 February 2009


I went digging in the snow today. The frozen ground was a little hard for what was a very significant moment in the life of the church at Cambourne. Cambourne is a (relatively) new community, not far from Cambridge, with an exciting church development where the United Reformed Church are in partnership with the Baptist Church, the Methodist Church and the Church of England and also engaged with the Roman Catholic Church. Despite the snow on the ground, around 100 people gathered this afternoon on the site of the future church building to break the ground as a symbol of the imminent start to the construction. It was good to be part of such an important point in the church’s life. In a brief service (c. 40 minutes) with a specially devised liturgy we celebrated this point. Hymns, prayers and readings surrounded thoughts about the past – “Do you remember the time when ... ? – a focussing on the present – “What I like about Cambourne Church is ... “ – and an anticipating of the future – “I would love to see a church where ... “ The minister of Cambourne, Revd. Peter Wood, reminded us of the importance of patience and yet encouraged us to look for what God is wanting us to do – and leaders from the denominations – including me! – stuck spades in the ground as a symbol of this part of the Church project in Cambourne. We summed things up with ‘the Cambourne prayer’ – “God, You have gathered us in this place at this time to be your church. May all that we do and are build your kingdom. Amen.” I am sure that there is ground that we all need to break, even if we don’t have such a significant moment to mark just now. Is your shovel ready?

Saturday, 7 February 2009


In "Sharing the Blessing" (SPCK, 2008), Kathy Galloway writes about visiting a church in the township of Guguletu outside Cape Town in South Africa. It is a church with a huge community programme, particularly focused on people with HIV. Above the door of the sanctuary, placed so that people see them as they leave worship are the words 'Never give up' - and the congregation have a song: 'Bambalena, never give up.' Such sentiments are especially pointed in such a situation of great need - but are they not something that ought to be part of the life of every church, whatever the situation in which we find ourselves. It is all too easy to give up - but very different from that to which God calls us. We all have tasks. We all have roles. Don't give up. Sometimes it might be right to move on. Some things do need to go - to make way for other things. But don't give up! BAMBALELA!

Monday, 2 February 2009


Today has been probably the most disrupted across the UK for a long time. Not everywhere, but large parts of the country have been effected by snow. Things have ground to a halt, with many people not getting to work, schools being closed etc. It all sets me wondering whether the church is as disruptive as it ought to be. I believe that we are called to make an impact - and I don't see how we can be doing that if folk don't notice us.

Sunday, 1 February 2009

A Welcoming Church

Graham Cook, former Moderator of the Mersey Synod and former Moderator of General Assembly, once said that one of the key things in the United Reformed Church’s self-understanding is that it sees itself as a welcoming church. He said that, time and time again, he heard people describe themselves that way. And I have to endorse the comment. It is something I have frequently heard also. But Graham Cook goes on to question how accurate it really is – and he does so by posing the sometimes uncomfortable, but very necessary, question as to how ready we really are to welcome those who don’t fit in. At its most acute, is it not true that we are a bit alarmed if someone appears on the scene screaming and shouting (cf. Mark 1:21-28). You might want to say that’s justified, and maybe it is, but what about those whose not fitting in is not as extreme and vocal?

Saturday, 31 January 2009

In Bed with a Mosquito

There is a saying, ‘If you think you are too small to make a difference, then you have never shared a bed with a mosquito.’ And I can vouch for that. In the early nineties we lived for three years in Panama City in the Republic of Panama. Most of my time and work was in Panama City itself, but occasionally I would need to go to other parts of the country. I remember one particular occasion when I return to Panama City after being up country for a few days, and made the claim that I was absolutely covered with mosquito bites. My wife told me not to exaggerate, but I insisted I had got at least fifty bites and, to prove the point, started counting – and stopped when I got to fifty. I still didn’t get any sympathy – I was just told that it was my own fault for not doing the right things to prevent it from happening. But I can assure you – to return to the saying – ‘if you think you are too small to make a difference, then you have never shared a bed with a mosquito.’ There is, indeed, plenty of evidence around that little things do matter and that small contributions, of whatever sort and in whatever sphere, can make a difference. That difference can be for good and it can be a real irritation. In the Church we need to recognise the value of the little things we can do, and ensure that the difference we make is for good.

Friday, 30 January 2009


Ubuntu is a Bantu word which is to do with what defines us as human. It is in our relationships with others that we are defined and affirmed. It is about community and sharing. The concept has crept into various spheres, including that of computer software. Things that are ubuntu are readily available and shared. I am sure it would be good if there was more of UBUNTU in church life.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Yes We Can

'Yes we can' is a phrase that I most associate with Bob the Builder, the children's TV, book etc. character who is more than ready to take on any building project with supreme confidence. Faced with any situation and being asked the question 'can we fix it?' Bob and his colleagues will always answer, 'YES WE CAN.' But what a good motto for the church - Yes, we can! With God, Yes we can! I am convinced that we need to take a positive and confident approach to whatever challenges confront us - believing that, with God, all things are possible. You see, I do believe: yes, we can!

Monday, 26 January 2009

Staying Put

We tend to see mission as taking us places and, of course, frequently it does - but sometimes we are simply called to be. Some might call that presence evangelism. Just being around and standing up for what God calls us to can be the thing to do. It is even the case that we might sometimes then be led to some really good things. That is certainly what is going on in Iconium, as recorded in Acts 14:3 - "So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them" (NRSV). Loveday Alexander comments ("Acts", BRF, 2006, p. 108): "Mission here is a matter of staying put in a difficult situation as long as one can, doing one's own part in 'speaking boldly for the Lord' - and, much more importantly, watching in awe to see what God is doing."

Sunday, 25 January 2009

It's Ahead of You

How good we are at looking back! We yearn for the 'good old days'. But we need to look ahead. One of the commonest messages that Jesus proclaimed was that 'the Kingdom of God is at hand'. What that meant was - you're approaching it! It's ahead! Too often we look for the Kingdom and think it must have been there back in Biblical times, or back when the church was doing things differently, as we tend to think, better. But Jesus' message was that we are heading for it. We just need to look out, see it, grab it, be part of it.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Gone Fishing

We are so good at avoidance techniques, at losing focus – and we find all sorts of good ways of doing that. Brian McLaren’s book “The Church on the Other Side” (Zondervan, 1998, 2000, p. 142) retells a story which I am sure I have heard in some form previously. It’s about a fishing club. Its members avidly studied fish, discussed fishing techniques, read books and magazines on angling, bought the best equipment, held meetings to indulge their fascination with fish lore and, in general, led active, fish-oriented lives. But after a while somebody asked, “Has anyone actually caught one lately?” The room was silent. Quite so! Let us always be ready to find the focus that God wants us to take for any particular moment of our lives.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Mission Is All We Do

Brian McLaren stresses the importance of reaching out and that we should have the capacity to do so. He offers this definition of church: "A self-sustaining organization that does ministry and produces a surplus of energy and money over time. In other words, it attends to its own needs and, in so doing, miraculously generates more than it needs, so it can give to needs beyond its own borders" (Bruan D. McLaren, "The Church on the Other Side", Zondervan, 1998, 2000, p. 140). I fully support that concept, but fear that, too often, we get stuck concentrating on our own needs. However, McLaren rightly presses the point, quoting Mike Regele - "We must be the church for others. If we embrace the notion that the local congregation is the front line of mission in the twenty-first century, then we must see mission as all that we do" (Mike Regele, "Death of the Church", Zondervan, 1995, p. 220, quoted in McLaren, p. 142). We certainly should be seeing mission in all we do.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Keep Pedalling

I have stuck up on my study wall a card which carries a comment once made by Claude Pepper: "Life is like riding a bicycle - you don't fall off unless you stop pedalling." I think the illustration can be carried across to church. God calls us to keep being church. If we keep up being what God calls us to be, then we will be church. If we stop, we won't be.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Passwords are a huge part of life these days. We need them in all sorts of contexts. I have certainly got several - the advice is not to use the same one all the time. We also have PIN numbers, security questions etc. What are the passwords to church? Are they words like welcome, hospitality, celebration, joy, hope? Or are they words like boring, dull, declining? And what are the security questions? Are they designed to let people in - or keep them out? Another of the many such challenges these days is the demand to do Risk Assessments? However, as a colleague recently suggested to me, perhaps one of the church's greatest risks is not being willing to take enough risks! We are called to a Gospel of risk.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

A Country Dance

There are lots of good ways of doing and being church around and there is no blueprint. What is important is to find the right way in each place. It is also important to look for ways in which we can work together. The way of a united congregation, which has been a big part of my experience, is certainly not the right way for everyone and every situation – but it is surely always right that we should be looking that we can and ought to be doing together. “Conversations on the Way to Unity”, the 2001 Report of the Informal Conversations between the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church, uses a fascinating metaphor as it describes the process in which it has been engaged: "As in a country dance, there was a forward and backward movement of agreement and disagreement between the churches and among the representatives of each church. Partners changed according to the issue and as fresh light was shed on the matter under discussion. From time to time a harmonious circle was formed, foretaste of things to come." So where are we in the dance?

Monday, 19 January 2009

Power Plays

Martin Luther once said, "God made the world out of nothing, and it is only when we become nothing that God can make anything of us." Though we have probably said it often, I still think we need to learn that conventional expectaions around power don't work. The Church comes at things from a very different angle - or it should. The Bible has many usefully challenging comments on power. One of the most significant and well known is those words recorded in 1 Corinthians 1:25 - "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength." Similarly, Zechariah 4:6 - "Not by might, not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts." We do all have power - which is precisely why we need to learn reliance on God.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Each Moment's Challenge

Sometimes we, in the Church, think we have to do and be everything. We need, rather, to learn to be a piece of the puzzle. God's picture is much bigger than the one that we can see. It is true that God has something, probably quite a bit, for us to do. But our task is to respond to God's call, without doing more and without doing less. Paulo Coelho has a helpful saying in his "Manual of the Warrior of Light" (HarperCollins, 2002) - "A responsible warrior is not someone who takes the weight of the world on his shoulders, but someone who has learned to deal with the challenges of the moment" (p. 133).

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Come and Celebrate

"One problem I failed to list .. is that we too seldom get to celebrate. Nehemiah's wall was finished, and they celebrated; David's temple was completed, and they celebrated; Moses' tabernacle was finished, and they celebrated" Brian McLaren, "The Church on the Other Side", Zondervan, 1998, 2000, p. 135. Celebration ought to be at the core of church life. If people are thinking 'it's boring' what's going wrong? Do we create enough opportunities for celebration? Do we see celebrating as one of the defining characteristics of the church?

Sunday, 11 January 2009


"Tell me the old, old story" - so says the old hymn - and, indeed, telling 'the story' is central to being church. Our task is to tell God's story, and to tell it in such a way that it makes a real impact. The story, to begin with, for us, comes from the Bible - and it has lots of exciting stories within the story. We can tell of Noah, Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah, Esther, David, Daniel, Ruth, Peter and Paul, to name but a few. But the story doesn't end there. We can also tell of Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa and so many others. And we can tell stories of people we know and stories of today. It is all part of the church, and all part of God's wonderful tapestry. Sometimes we want to be philosophical and put things in the abstract, and there's a place for that - but nothing beats a good story. So let's find good ways of telling all the stories of the wonderful things that God is up to today, and working out through us who are today's church.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Turbulent, Seditious and Factious

At the moment I’m reading a biography of John Bunyan. It’s not a standard type biography. It’s written by the historian Christopher Hill and seeks to explore how Bunyan’s personality and writings were influenced by the context in which he lived. The sub-title of the book is “John Bunyan and his Church”. But the title is “A Turbulent, Seditious and Factious People”. Is that a description that we ought to seek to live up to. Are we a turbulent, seditious and factious people? Ought we to be so? It might seem the answer should be ‘no’, but I want to suggest a bit of ‘yes’. A turbulent people. I think that the church could do with a dose of turbulence. Now, of course, anything in the wrong measure is going to go wrong – but, in the right measure, I think we need this. Something that is effected by turbulence is something that is stirred up. And I think we could do with being stirred up. Wasn’t that precisely what the Spirit did on the Day of Pentecost? I have always seen that as a rather turbulent experience for the first disciples – and, precisely for that reason, it shook them into action. I don’t think we’ll come to any harm if we let God shake us into action. And then a seditious people. My dictionary defined sedition as ‘conduct or speech tending to rebellion or breach of public order’. Maybe we don’t want to engage in breaching public order – but would a little bit of rebellion move us in the right direction, sometimes. I believe that we can learn a lot from the way in which the church has been to the forefront of rebellions that have transformed history in a positive way. Wilberforce and others rebelled against slavery. Martin Luther King and others rebelled against racism. There are plenty of issues around still that need people to speak up – and I Christians are often to the forefront of those who do precisely that – examples include the Jubilee 2000 campaign and the ongoing programme to encourage the cancellation of debt, allied, for example, to ‘Make Poverty History’ and the 2007 Set All Free Campaign addressing questions of ongoing slavery. I think we need a bit of sedition. I think there are plenty of issues around that need the critique of a Christian challenge. And then what about the third element – a factious people. Here my dictionary definition is “characterised by or pertaining to a faction or factions”. Now again you might think that would be something I wouldn’t advocate – but it is all a question of what we mean. If our faction is a case of being faith-based, then I am all for it. If our faction is a case of being Christian, then I am all for it. Being an effective church in today’s society is not necessarily an easy task but, with God’s help, and that is always available to us, it is certainly a possible one.

Friday, 9 January 2009

The Church as River and Tree

Near the end of his book "Simply Christian" (SPCK, 2006, chapter 15), Tom Wright uses two images to describe the church. In the first place the church is like a river. This brings all the different elements into a single flow. All belong to one another, and go in the same direction. At the same time the church is like a tree. Jesus is the root, and from the root has grown an amazing plants, with branches going off in all sorts of directions. Interesting, challenging, and powerful images!

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Bible Based

“It’s a big book, full of big stories with big characters. They have big ideas (not least about themselves) and make big mistakes. It’s about God, and greed, and grace; about life, lust, laughter and loneliness. It’s about birth, beginnings and betrayal; about siblings, squabbles and sex; about power and prayer and prison and passion. And that’s only Genesis. The Bible itself, with Genesis as its majestic overture, is a huge, sprawling book.” So writes Tom Wright, making a comment on the Bible as 'the book God breathed' ("Simply Christian", SPCK, 2006, p. 148). The Bible is certainly crucial to Church, demonstrated for Reformed Christians in the centrality of the Word, and its preaching. Wright wants to stress the Bible as a source of energy for doing the work and the will of God. I think that is spot on - and how helpful to know where to go looking for some of the energy we need to do whatever it is that God is calling us to do for the moment. Armed with that energy, how can we help but be effective churches?

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Groups and their Advantages

In the Church we tend to put an emphasis on inclusivity, and rightly so. The Church is for everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, regardless of background, culture, education, interests and all the rests of it. God welcomes all. I love the concept of All-Age Worship, even though it is sometimes difficult to do it effectively. I am convinced it should be part of church life. But do we need to learn to put specialisms alongside the all-embracing concept? There is definitely a place for the "catch-all", but I am convinced that there is also an important place for targeting. Women's groups have long been an important part of the life of many churches. Men's groups have tended to be less prominent, but have also played an important role. These days I see targeting interest groups as a halpful way of focussed engagement. For instance, I have been involved in Book Groups and a Film Group where, on a monthly (usually) basis we have met to either discuss a very varied range of books or watch and discuss a film. It's amazing what comes up!

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Open Table

A very simple - but effective - initiative that I have heard of more than once recently is something I have heard named as 'Open Table' or 'TableTalk'. It is simply getting together round a table, with some refreshment, to talk. The refreshments could be pretty well anything - coffee and cake, soup and bread, whatever. The talk needs, at most, a light hand in direction. It is a chance to talk about anything and everything - and that tends to lead to all sorts of interesting places. The whole point is to be there at a regular time, whether it is weekly or monthly, and encourage others to come and join you.

Monday, 5 January 2009

The Carpenter's Arms

One of the good ideas for engaging with the local community that I have heard of happening in more than one place recently is an initiative known as 'The Carpenter's Arms', or something similar. The concept is to strike a deal with a local pub or restaurant - which gets renamed for the night, 'The Carpenter's Arms'. Choose one of the quiet nights of the week - perhaps Monday or Tuesday - and come to an agreement that you'll get them a full house if they will lay on a three course meal at a reasonable price. Agree the menu, then get inviting people. Everyone then meets fpr a good night out and, at one or two strategic moments, some discussion ideas can be fed in, perhaps having being left lying on pieces of card on the tables.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Worship as God's Initiative

"When we worship, God is the main actor. .... Worship is one of the main tools in God's workshop. It is God's gift, which God uses to refashion us in the divine image and to end our alienation" ("A Culture of Peace", Alan Kreider, Eleanor Kreider, and Paulus Widjaja, Good Books, 2005, p. 111). There are various things that we might regard as pretty critical to the life of a church, but we can certainly agree that a church cannot exist without worship. Indeed, though we may want to put other things alongside it, we would surely always identify worship as at the centre of church life. We are inclined to think of worship as something that we do. It is certainly something in which we have the opportunity to participate - but we do well remember that it is God who makes it possible, it is God who makes it happen.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

God's Perspective

In his book "Exclusion and Embrace" (Abingdon Press, 1996), Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf comments on how God's truth emerges - "We enlarge our thinking by letting the voices and perspectives of others, espcially those with whom we may be in conflict, resonate within ourselves, by allowing them help us see them, as well as ourselves, from their perspective, and if needed, readjust our perspectives as we take into account their perspective." Though it is obvious, this question of seeing things from others' perspectives is always going to be difficult, not least when we are trying to grasp that God's perspective is likely to be different from ours. For example, we would be likely to think that the church could do with less conflict whilst, in all probability, the church could really do with more conflict. The issue is not conflict of itself, but how we tackle it and whether we allow it to be a growing point. We will never be fully aware of all the aspects of God's bigger picture - but at least we can recognise that it exists!

Friday, 2 January 2009

Culture of Peace

"When Jesus talks about the Church, he says nothing about structure, governances, or style of worship. But he does talk about a community that is reconciling and reconciled. For Jesus, the Church is communities of his disciples who are being disciplined into communities of peace" ("A Culture of Peace", Alan Kreider, Eleanor Kreider, and Paulus Widjaja, Good Books, 2005, p. 68) We are so good at trying to define Church by all sorts of methodologies, most of which limit it needelessly. We need to learn that all that is needed by way of definition is that which is far more fundamnental, namely peace and reconciliation. The Church is not, fundamentally, about particular ways of doing things - but it is about making a real difference in the very essence of how life happens. "The Church is called to be a culture shaped by God whom we worship and by the story that we hear and tell .... we have an exciting destiny - to become not a moral majority .. but a prophetic minority" (ibid. p. 58).

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Touring Churches

Since taking up a new appointment at the beginning of last July, I have been trying to visit every church alongside keeping up the regular run of things. As Moderator of the Eastern Synod of the United Reformed Church, I have some responsibility for around 140 congregations of the United Reformed Church across the east of England - in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and a bit of Hertfordshire. I've still got a good number to visit, but I am excited by what I have seen so far - and convinced that there is plenty of evidence that the church is alive and well. Yes, there is more we could be doing - that is the nature of things - and not the same as saying that there is more that we should be doing. Probably there is, but the gap is much less - as different church communities respond to God's call to them. For the most part I have simply visited the building and met a few folk to chat over the important things that are part of being church for them at the moment. In doing this I have heard many fascinating and encouraging stories. Too often we are worried about what we are not doing - when what we need is the confidence to do what God is calling us to do, sure that he won't call us to do something that we can't manage and confident that he has a call that is just right for us - and doesn't want us to be worrying about all the things that others are called to do.