Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Praying with the Pope

Last Friday I shared evening prayers with the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. We were in Westminster Abbey - and so were a few hundred other people. I guess it was very much trad church, rather than anything of a fresh expression. However, it was an important reminder of the value of the tradition and the need for a range of things to take their place in being church. We certainly need to find new and different ways, but there is immense value in the traditions and in the news that such occasions generates.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Church Unplugged

I have just finished reading David Male's Church Unplugged (Authentic, 2008), a fascinating account of his involvement in the formation of the Net, a fresh expression of church in Huddersfield. Here is a description of church with a difference, and in a way that works and engages with culture. It is an illuminating account, packed with constructive suggestions, but not ignoring the difficulties. Male identifies ten 'essentials' that need to be engaged with in this kind of challenging, but exciting, work. He also offers questions at the end of each chapter, so the book really works as a kind of manual which could well accompany a serious consideration of setting up a new form of church. As he himself concludes - p. 169 - "I hope that in some way this book will act like a handle that will enable you to open the door for the gospel to a new place, community or group. I do believe God is calling us, his church, to find ways to release the good news into our neighbourhoods, communities, networks and nations."

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Emmaus Road Type Evangelism

Part of what is fundamental to the Gospel is that we are called to share it. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. But how are we to understand and expand all this in terms of mission and evangelism? How, in particular, can we define evangelism? The Bible says a great deal about evangelism and there are many examples that we could cite. Stephen Cottrell suggests, and I agree, that for many of us, for a long time, the controlling Biblical paradigm for evangelism has been Paul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus Road. We do say that it doesn’t need to happen quite like that – but that story and that encounter between God and Paul have described the essence of what we have thought needs to happen. Even for Paul, of course, this moment was one step on the journey – but an extremely significant one and so this has been the example and the effect, as Cottrell says, is that: “it encouraged the church to think about conversion in terms of a moment of response, and evangelism as somehow catching, or even creating, that moment” From the Abundance of the Heart, Stephen Cottrell, Darton, Longman & Todd, 2006, p. 35). I do believe that such moments can, and do, happen, and it’s great when they do. But, sadly, I also agree with Stephen Cottrell that this has “meant that many churches didn’t really engage in evangelism at all: we just couldn’t imagine being involved in this type of ministry.” Of course, there are plenty of churches that can imagine just that and they do it well. But is there another Biblical model to be used? The one I want to use at this point is the story of the Easter Day encounter on the Emmaus Road. Again I should admit to drawing on Stephen Cottrell who comments: “This story also contains a dramatic encounter and a real turning around, but it is more obviously a story of gradual transformation within the context of an accompanied journey” (p. 36). These two disciples were on the rebound. It had all gone wrong, so horribly wrong. Their hopes, along with those of so many others, had been dashed. Jesus was dead. How could this have happened? In their conversation they went over the events of the last few days, struggling to understand what had happened. As the conversation continues, they are joined by a stranger. We are let in to the secret. They don’t know it’s Jesus – but we do. They go through it all. They get involved in some quite deep theology. In due course they arrive at the village. The stranger makes to go on. But they invite him in – and in the breaking of bread the light of realisation dawns. Stephen Cottrell again: “People are waking up asking questions about where life is going and what it is about. Many people don’t feel as if they have any sense of belonging in a confused and frantic society. People long for community but don’t know their next-door neighbour’s name. They are having dreams of another way of living. They are having nightmares about where the world is going” (p. 37/8). We are called to be, in the words of Richard Gillard’s hymn ‘companions on the road.’ That’s evangelism. If you happen to have the opportunity of some Damascus Road evangelism, and you feel called to it, great! But, with God’s help, may we all engage in Emmaus Road evangelism.

Thursday, 16 September 2010


In 2004 the Church of England produced the report ‘Mission-Shaped Church’. Though, in the first instance, an Anglican document it has proved to be extremely useful across the board and has provoked a whole range of further publications, like Mission-Shaped Spirituality, Mission-Shaped and Rural, Mission-Shaped Youth, Mission-Shaped Children, Mission-Shaped Evangelism, and Mission-Shaped Questions. The fundamental thought is that we need to do things in a mission-shaped way. I agree. As the report comments: “If the Church is not missionary, it has denied itself and its calling, for it has departed from the very nature of God.” The Mission-Shaped Church Report reflected on fresh expressions church – different ways of doing things – and gave them the fresh expressions name leading to the formal launch of the fresh expressions initiative in 2005. That was initially an Anglican and Methodist initiative, but now the United Reformed Church and the Congregational Federation have joined in. And lots of things have been happening. The Mission Shaped Ministry course is offering a valuable resource to those who want to engage in this ministry with a difference. Training of pioneer ministers is taking place – and a whole range of different ways of being church are developing.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Missionary Character

“If Christianity loses its missionary character anywhere in a civilization, or at any time in a given era, or in any society, it is forgetting its origin and surrendering its identity.” So says J├╝rgen Moltmann (in Mission - an invitation to God's future, edited by Timothy Yates, Cliff College Publishing, 2000, p. 19). Part of what is fundamental to the Gospel is that we are called to share it. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. That, of course, happens in many and varied ways. When I was in Zimbabwe in March I saw people sharing the Gospel by running schools, operating HIV/Aids clinics and leading playgroups. In Taiwan in May I saw the Gospel shared through engagement with the indigenous communities and their culture. Last year in New Zealand I saw people engaging in encounter with schools and immigrant communities and so sharing the Gospel. And as I travel round the United Reformed Church's Eastern Synod I see the Gospel shared in all sorts of ways – through playgroups and lunch clubs, through messy churches and cafe churches, in one place by providing a home for the post office, in another a home for the local library. And so on. Every church needs to consider the question of its missionary character and what it is being called, for the moment, by God to do.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Essex Country Show

Yesterday I went to the Essex Country Show at Barleylands near Billericay. It was fascinating - lots of stuff to see, do and buy. There were many stalls - food stalls, craft stalls, stalls demonstrating various activities etc. etc. There were lots of engines and vehicles. There was a small fun fair. There were demonstrations of various crafts. There was live music. And there was the Churches' tent - which was the main reason I went. I am currently Chair of Churches Together in Essex and East London and we are responsible for the tent, though most of the work is done by Churches Together in Billericay. We were giving away free tea and coffee. We had a couple of clowns who engaged with our visitors, particularly the younger ones. We had a few stalls - and offered the opportunity to just sit down and chill out. And once an hour our lively puppets performed. How valuable to be present at such an event - and with a range of creative things happening!

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Olympic Games 2012

Last Saturday, together with a group from the United Reformed Church, I went on a tour of the site for the London Olympic Games in 2012. Already things are moving towards a recognisable stage. We drove round the site in a coach, seeing the main stadium, the broadcasting centre, the swimming pool and the accomodation taking shape. It is a large site taking shape and everything is currently on target or in advance. We then spent some time considering the implications and impact of the Games coming to the UK, in particularly hearing about the 'More Than Gold' organisation which supports the churches in using major sporting events, especially the Olympics, as an opportunity for encountering the community. In some senses this is the biggest thing to come to the UK since the Olympics were last here - and the vast majority of people will have some interest in something Olympic. Sport, culture and religion are the main three things in which people have an interest, but sport undoubtedly tops the list. Here is a chance to engage.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Taking It In Stages

I have been reading Steve Hollinghurst's book Mission Shaped Evangelism (Canterbury Press, 2010) in which he explores a whole range of issues around the crucial matter of evangelism. One thing that particularly struck me was his suggestion, near the end of the book, that effective projects tend to operate on three levels - p. 242. First "build relationships in the wider community on their territory." Second, "create or find places where Christians and non-Christians build relationships and explore issues." He suggests social action projects and book groups as two possible examples of this. Then, third, "establish discipleship groups explicitly aimed at those who want to explore and deepen Christian faith." Hollinghurst suggests that much of our mission falters because we ty to jump straight from stage one to stage three. We move immediately from encounter to the attempt to disciple those we have encountered - and it doesn't work because we have missed out the need to build relationship.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Playing the Game the Right Way

At the moment I am reading a book called “Balti Britain” by Ziauddin Sardar (Granta, 2008). Sardar is a British Asian and the book takes him in search of his roots. I am finding it fascinating because it offers many links with my time in Birmingham and indeed that city is not infrequently mentioned in the book. The book is very much about identity. At one point Sardar recounts a conversation with his then 13 year old son concerning the boy’s love of cricket – and the dilemma of whether to support England or Pakistan. Sardar introduces this with a reference to what he calls the Tebbit test – pointing to the time when Norman Tebbit made the rather surprising suggestion that who you support in cricket indicates where your loyalties lie. 13 year old Zain Sardar suggested to his father – “What if I choose to support both England and Pakistan?” “That,” responded his dad, “would be a wise choice. But does that mean you will always be hoping for a draw?” “It means,” Zain replied, looking rather thoughtful for his age, “It doesn’t really matter who wins. What matters is how the game is played.” I hope you can make the link. Winning and success aren’t really church terms and yet, in a sense, they are what we so often want and are looking for. But what matters, and what we are called to, in whatever sphere our service may lie, is to play the game the right way.