Sunday, 8 August 2010

Scarecrow Ministry

Scarecrows are both strange and useful and dressed in whatever comes to hand. Is that a good description of ministry? Perhaps not. Scarecrows have a role to scare, but they also have a role to protect. Perhaps that gets us closer. We might not want to stress 'scaring' as an aspect of ministry - yet there are things we should scare off - hatred, injustice, greed etc. There is certainly much that we need to protect and which we might describe in terms of love, goodness, kindness etc. Barbara Glasson develops the concept of scarecrow ministry in Mixed-up Blessing (Inspire, 2006). She talks about it as "believing in the possibility of something yet unknown" just as a scarecrow "stands over an empty allotment" (p. 91). We often don't know where our ministry is taking us and the call may well be to just hang in. We certainly don't always know what fruit is going to appear in a particular place. Often the task, like that of the scarecrow, is one of watching and waiting. Often we are rushing round doing things, when we would do a lot better to just wait and see what emerges. "Scarecrow ministry is less about planting something and more about looking lovingly at an empty patch, hoping for signs of life, staying with the belief in the invisible things God has sown" (p. 92). What else can we learn from the scarecrow? Its arms are wide open. That is a symbol of acceptance and welcome, and can be demanding in terms of energy. The scarecrow's task is to scare away the birds. What are the birds that we need to be scaring away? The scarecrow often looks ridiculous, dressed, as it usually is, in random clothes. Are we prepared to look ridiculous when that is what's needed? One is reminded about that stuff around the foolishness of the Cross. The scarecrow gets to the point where it needs to be dismantled. We are much better at beginning things than we are at ending them. We need to remember that what we are concerned with is God's story. Certainly we are part of the story, but the story is always bigger than us. "Scarecrow ministry is only a means for the seeds to grow. When the seeds have taken root and are growing then the scarecrow has done its job. All ministry is about facilitating God's work, participating in God's story, nurturing God's people" (p. 103).

Saturday, 7 August 2010

The Bread Church

In May I visited Liverpool and went to the premises of 'the bread church'. Nothing was happening bread-wise or church-wise because we were just there for a meeting, but it was interesting to see these particular premises. People meet there just to make bread and chat. There is often some sharing of food and some worship. The fascinating story is told in Barbara Glasson's Mixed-up Blessing (Inspire, 2006). It's a new way of church which Barbara describes as scarecrow ministry - "like a scarecrow I felt that my job was to watch and wait" (p. 88/9).

Friday, 6 August 2010

Zimbabwe and Taiwan Reflections

Earlier this year I was fortunate to visit, first, Zimbabwe in March and, then, Taiwan, in May, in both cases going with United Reformed Church colleagues. Those two situations were very different, but one thing that they shared in common and that spoke to me was a concern to discern what God is telling them, as a church, to do.
We saw some amazing projects in Zimbabwe where there is great poverty and a huge challenge from HIV/Aids. For example, we visited Highfield Uniting Presbyterian Church on a Monday morning. We met with a group of lively women who form the nucleus of the HIV/Aids project that is linked to the church. They told us how they make peanut butter and floor polish in order to sell these goods so that the small profit can sustain the work they do in support of each other and others.
The creche that also uses the church premises was in the church along with a number of other local creches as some local dignitaries were visiting for a presentation event. This meant that we were able to go and look round the room where they usually play which was set up for their return. In many ways it was not unlike a UK nursery with a hospital corner, shop corner, nature corner cafe corner and so on – except that the things with which they could play were all home-made, though creatively so. But thank goodness health and safety hasn’t kicked in – as most of the things they play with would be condemned in this country.
In Taiwan we spent quite a bit of time visiting some of the indigeneous groups and seeing how the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan is working in those areas. One particularly impressive project was at Bunun where the minister, himself from the local indigeneous group, got so concerned about the migration from the area and the lack of opportunities for work that he has created a major cultural project, with local crafts made and sold, a restaurant and cafe, accommodation, a regular cultural show and a whole complex that showcases the Bunun culture and keeps it alive. And all this is done from a Chritian base and as part of the mission of the church.
Sometimes we get concerned about what we can do as a church. I understand why that happens, but I’m not sure that we should. What we need to do is to listen for what God is calling us to do – and we can be confident that God won’t call us to something that is beyond our capability.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

(Don't) Touch My Mess

There's a picture of a dolphin on my office notice-board with a couple of divers in the background and the caption - Don't touch my mess - you'll screw up my world! That is often how I think, and yet is it not true that the church's task is precisely to touch other people's messes? The Bible is certainly full of stories as to how God 'screwed up' various individuals' worlds. A flood did it for Noah. For Abra(ha)m it was a journey into the unknown. Isaiah saw a fantastic vision, S/Paul a blinding light. God is certainly good at turning people round. It is also interesting that people often don't find God where they would expect. I don't believe that God calls us to leave other people's worlds untouched. God wants to make a difference, and does so through us. There is a crucial question for the church as to what we are doing to really make a difference. People need help with their messes. What are we doing about that?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Defining Fresh Expressions

‘Fresh Expressions’ has developed a definition of new forms of church – “A fresh expression is a form of church for our changing culture established primarily for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. • It will come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. • It will 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.” This offers some key indicators. First, it is important to recognise the context in which we are looking to engage. Being “a form of church for our changing culture” requires the making of appropriate links with culture. Just as Peter needed to respond to the challenges of taking the Gospel to a Gentile culture (Acts 10), so we need to adapt to today’s society. Secondly, we need to learn to reach out to “people who are not yet members of any church”. Jesus was clear in his refusal to recognise the barriers that divided up people in his day, thus offering us a model of inclusion and going, rather than waiting for people to come to us. Thirdly, we must recognise that God takes the initiative and is already present in any situation that we might enter. Listening and service are prerequisites for effective engagement with any whom we might encounter. Fourthly, we should accept that we have a mission. The common usage of mission statements in a huge range of contexts should help our understanding, and perhaps our description, of our mission. We certainly need to find good ways to tell the story. Fifthly, we need to ensure that what we are looking for is ‘real church’. “The goal of beginning a fresh expression is not to create a permanent shallow place of faith or ‘Christianity-lite’. The goal is to create a context and community where mature disciples are formed and flourish.”[1] All encounters with people in God’s name are good, and we may not know what has been achieved, but the task is to make disciples. When we talk about disciples we are talking about growth in our faith. The way and the end are Christ shaped. Fresh Expressions are not about new products but transformation of individuals and church to a more open and accessible way, rather than an unmoving model. Church happens when Jesus Christ is around, a verb rather than a noun. [1] Steven Croft’s chapter ‘What counts as a fresh expression of church?’ in “Evaluating Fresh Expressions” ed. by Louise Nelstrop and Martyn Piercy, Canterbury Press, 2008, p. 11.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Emergency Planning

Today I was at a meeting which was considering questions around planning for emergency incidents in Norfolk. We all hope they won't happen, but know they can, and some will. It is good - and right and proper - to be ready. That got me thinking about all our planning. What planning do we do for church life? How effective is it? How well do we carry the plans out? (Sometimes I fear that we get stuck at the planning stage!) And how is our planning for mission? What is that achieving? Planning is good and vital - but a waste of time unless it delivers.

Monday, 2 August 2010

To Pray Is To Change

"To pray is to change" - so says Richard Foster (Prayer, Hodder & Stoughton, 1992, p. 5). How right that is, and how challenging! How often do we pray hoping that our prayers will keep us in just the same place? As I noted three posts ago, Foster also quotes Dom Chapman saying: "Pray as you can, not as you can't" (p. 7). That, too, is good advice. Prayer plays a key part in all we do - if we let it.