Friday, December 23, 2005

Christmas greetings

The chances are I won't blog again until next week.

So may I take this chance of wishing you all a very happy Christmas.

I hope you get a chance not only to reflect on the Christmas story but to meet its central character. The wonder of Christmas is that God's word became flesh and moved into our neighbourhood so we could talk face-to-face.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Best of 2005

Christmas is the time of year when newspapers and magazines pick their best of the year - books, music, movies.

I always scan the lists for confirmation of my taste. I notice that I have five of the Word's top ten albums of the year and five of Q's - though they're a slightly different five.

The albums I've bought this year that I'm still listening to on a regular basis are Kaiser Chiefs, Coldplay, Gorllaz, Hard Fi, Arcade Fire, Dylan's No Direction Home, the Magic Numbers, the Blind Boys of Alabama with Roy Harper (or is that the other way round?) and Neil Young. These are all really fine pieces of work.

My top three albums of the year, however, are Eels Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Elbow's Leaders of the Free World and Kate Bush's Aerial - these three are head and shoulders above the rest for originality, lyrical power and musical beauty. Each in their own way show that pop music can deal with profound and grown up issues and cast a new light of life's struggles and joys.

If you're still compiling Christmas lists, put these albums on them - you won't be disappointed

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Is there anything new in the Christmas story?

Sometimes as I'm preparing for Christmas, I begin to wonder whether I've already said this. Didn't I take this angle last year, I ask myself; haven't I adopted this approach before? Sometimes it's hard to see anything new in the Christmas story and what should be the most exciting of stories becomes stale and samey.

Well, I've had one of those days - and then suddenly, an epiphany (which is appropriate given the season!)

I'm writing my script which retells the Christmas story as it actually happened (according to Matthew and Luke) in the order it happened taking due note of the passing of time and it hits me.

I ought to fill in the context, I guess. Following on from Kenneth Bailey - that great New Testament scholar who's lived most of his life in the Middle east - I believe that when Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem they would have stayed with a cousin of Joseph. He would have had relatives there as it's his ancestral home and it would have been unthinkable that one of those relatives would not have made room for Joseph and his wife-to-be

(on a technical note: there probably would not have been a commercial inn in Bethlehem. They tended to be at the mid-way points on roads between trading centres. And the word translated 'inn' in Luke 2:7 means guest room - it's the word used in Luke 22:11 for the 'upper room' where he celebrated his last supper with his friends. Where Luke speaks of a commercial inn - as he does in the parable of the good Samaritan - he uses a different word altogether.)

When Mary went into labour - some time after arriving in Bethlehem - the guest room was full of people. There was no privacy for her to deliver her baby. So she went into the section of the house downstairs where the owners would keep their animals at night. It was warm, dry and there was an ideal cot for the baby! There she could go with the women who'd be on hand to assist and deliver her baby in relative privacy - at least away from the prying eyes of men!

The shepherds are summoned to the house that Jesus was born in by angels. They come. They see. They worship. They start telling people in the house what the angel told them. And suddenly I'm thinking this is probably the first time that half Joseph's family will have heard this. I wonder what they make of it? I wonder how long it is before the whole street knows?

Something as ordinary and everyday as the birth of a baby is suddenly an extraordinary, once-in-history event: God's anointed saviour is arriving in the world. The one who will reverse the effects of the Fall, defeat death, satan and all forces of darkness and evil has been born in the Bethlehem equivalent of a suburban semi.

God comes right under the noses of people - and they don't think anything of it until shepherds who'd been sent by angels - angels who didn't appear to anyone in the house or street where Jesus was born - turn up and spill the beans. It's amazing.

I love Christmas. I never fail to see something new in the story. This is the lynch-pin of history, the night when God came to set things right. And no matter how often I read it, it still blows me away.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Christmas stuffing

It's been busy - hence the lack of blogging this month. Christmas is jammed full of stuff - planning services, visiting people, sorting out things that'll have to happen early in the New Year, shopping, writing Christmas cards, etc

In the middle of all that we've been doing a short Advent series on Jesus @ the movies. We reflected on grace and vocation through Babette's Feast and we looked at whether there were tips on movie watching from Paul's visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-34), while taking in material from Pay it Forward and X Men 2. It's been fascinating.

One thing it's confirmed is that this way of doing theology has a lot to do with age, temperament and upbringing. There are people in my church who think we've nothing to learn from the movies and indeed never visit cinemas, while there are others who try to watch a film a week and who reflect on what those films are saying about God, us and the meaning of life.

A number of things have struck me from all this. One is the number of Hollywood people who are committed Christians. I was particularly struck by the fact that Scott Derrickson, writer and director of the Exorcism of Emily Rose - a film I haven't seen - is a committed Christian, a graduate of Biola University and he has some fascinating things to say about Christians and horror movies.

I guess the main thing that doing this brief series has reinforced to me is that God is concerned about what's happening in the world beyond the Christian ghetto and that he wants his people out there mixing it with people who hold all kinds of views about life. That's what Paul did in Athens - he walked the streets, read the history, got into the poets and philosophers and engaged in debate and discussion.

There's a such a contrast between Paul and so many of us. We're not interested in dialoguing with the world. We seek a monologue - where we speak and the world listens. We don't know enough about what our neighbours are thinking and saying to be able to engage in a conversation with them about things that concern them.

Hollywood composer Barry Taylor reminds us that there's a great debate happening across America - and I guess across the UK too - concerning God. But the church isn't involved because it's happening in movies theatres and by and large we don't go there. That's a pity because Paul would.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Freedom to be a community

In preparing for the men's Bible study this evening, I've been reminded what an amazing letter Galatians is. Angry, passionate and containing the most incredible charter for freedom ever penned.

I've been particularly struck by 5:16-26. If his first hearers were not to submit to the Law, what was to stop them living morally chaotic lives? The Spirit. Simple as that.

God's Spirit is the powerful presence of the future (as well as God himself) in our present. He ensures we triumph in the battle between the present evil age and the glorious age to come (Galatians is a wonderfully apocalyptic book!).

5:17 is not saying that we flail helplessly, pulled first one way by our flesh and then another by the Spirit. Rather, it's reminding us that because we are indwelt by the Spirit, we cannot choose as our way of life, behaviour that is opposed to God's will. Rather we can only do - that is, we are only allowed to choose to do - what God wants. More than that, though, the Spirit in us is God's investment in us not only choosing that b ut also being able to live it because he is the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead.

Amazing stuff.

And there's more. We don't do this alone. The fruit of the Spirit is not about more loving, joyful and peaceful human beings but about more loving, joyful and peaceful human communities. Churches ought to be places marked by acceptance and love, peace between us, joy in one another's company, faithfulness in relationships, self control in the way we speak to and about one another. They ought to be that. But...

But, they can be that because that's the kind of community the Holy Spirit grows when a group of Christians tell God that's what they want and commit themselves to walking the way of the Spirit.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Keeping the faith

It's advent this Sunday, so new things in the morning, but in the evening we're finishing our series in 1 John.

I do wonder whether anyone in the church knows we're in such a series! We started back in late September and interspersed reading 1 John with prayer and cafe church. Running a series is good for the preacher and those involved in leading services. It also seems to have helped those leading our homegroups. But I'm beginning to question whether those attending find it that helpful. After all, if you miss a couple of evenings in a series that doesn't run every week, it's not long before you lose any sense of continuity. Ah well...

Anyway, this week we're thinking about keeping the faith. John stresses the need to hear the testimony of God about the truth of what we believe, follow the example of Jesus who in his fleshly life (so emphasised by John) kept true to his mission and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to give us the resources to live as God wants us to. It's great Trinitarian stuff!

But we often tend to read it as speaking to me as an individual; how I keep the faith in my isolated walk in the world, out there among colleagues who don't see things the way I do.

John, however, talks about an eternal triangle, involving God, me and my brothers and sisters. He writes not to individuals but to individuals in community. He does not suppose that we'll keep the faith on our own. He assumes that we do this together, that we'll support and encourage one another.

But I wonder if there's also more to it than this. John was writing to communities - possibly in ancient Ephesus - where life was more settled and local. People worked where they lived. The people they lived and ate with were the people they worked alongside in whatever trade the household followed. Very few lived in one place and worked in another. very few lived with one group of people and worked with a different group. So for them, the opportunities to help one another live out their Christian faith were more frequent and came in every strata of the daily routine.

Our lives are not like this. so how do we meaningfully support and encourage those brothers and sisters we only see once a week at church - assuming we all attend every week - or once a fortnight at home group - assuming we get to each one of those. We can go several days or even weeks between encounters.

Can we do it virtually? Can we find a way of using texts and emails as a substitute for being face-to-face? Many recoil at such a notion, arguing that you've got to be with someone to support them. But is this really true? Many churches have for years run a telephone prayer network, where requests are phoned around a group of people who pray for specific situations they've received alerts about. Sometimes members of the network pray with each other on the phone.

Is doing the same thing by text or email or through MSN messenger really that different? It's just a thought. We'll see how people react to it on Sunday!

Going to see Elbow at Brixton Academy tonight. Can't wait!

Still no latte, but...

Last Sunday we had another cafe-style service - our seventh - celebrating our 142nd birthday.

We built a cairn of stones at the front of the church representing all the memories and stories held by people in the church - some of whom had first come in the 1930s. We played pass the parcel, we thought about the nurture of the rising generation and we had a liturgy of passing on the baton from the older to the younger people in the church.

It all worked well.

Cafe church is becoming a fixture of life here. Most people accept it as part of the monthly programme. We're also getting quite a few visitors to each one.

So the plan is to continue them into the New Year. I'm hoping they'll continue to evolve into events that combine conversation and liturgy, ritual and fellowship.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Service and services

Kez, commenting on the last posting, is right to suggest that we need to get out more. We've had a bit of discussion about this already on this blog.

But even getting out more doesn't alter the fact that we've got to think about what kind of service we offer those who come seeking us out. Alan's point is that there are still significant numbers of people who want the church. Indeed he argues that some are called to be church members to keep the church going for the benefit of its non-members. This is a distinctive (and possibly eccentric) spin on Archbishop Temple's idea that the church is the only club that exists for the benefit of its non-members.

I guess my bottom line is that I want people to meet and engage with Jesus. They might do this as they access a service we offer - whether that's a regular Sunday gathering or something special we do because they ask us (a dedication, wedding or funeral). But maybe they are more likely to do this if we go out looking for ways to make contact with them - in the pubs and clubs of our communities, at the school gate, at work, etc - as Kez suggests.

I say this because I don't think I buy Alan's idea that people are 'cultural Christians'. I'm not sure what he means by this beyond the fact that they hold residual Christian values (precious and in need of re-inforcing any way we can). I'm not sure what this has to do with knowing Jesus in a living and vibrant way that changes our values and lifestyles.

But I'm happy if 'cultural Christians' come to my church seeking a dedication (our alternative to baptising babies), a wedding or a funeral. It is a pastoral opportunity that enables me to talk about the Christian story and how it impacts on their lives. More than that, it's an opportunity for Jesus to touch their lives in unexpected ways. I'm all for it.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Basic models

I've been reading an intriguing book by Alan Billings. It could well be standard middle-of-the-road Anglicanism for all I know - but since I'm not one of those...

Alan is the reason I'm a Christian. He prepared me for confirmation in the early 70s before I defected to the free church across the road (better girls!) But the indelible mark he left on me was that Christianity was absolutely about the world we live in. God is interested in the world and not just the souls of people.

His book looks at why people in a secular culture come to church to have their babies baptised, get married and bury their dead. He argues that it's because people are 'cultural Christians' and when faced with these key moments in their lives want to face them in some way in the presence of God.

It's an intriguing and sometimes compelling argument. I do find myself in sharp disagreement over his definition of Christian and hence wondering whether his label 'cultural Christian' really has any validity. But it's made me think - and not many book do that.

What I am really wrestling with at the moment is his discussion of different churchmanship - the parish versus gathered model. This is ecclesiology 101 but it came as a forceful reminder to me as I read it this morning that this one reason why we - a gathered church - struggle with being inclusive.

The argument is that the parish model enables the church to include everyone in a defined area and in some way offer to serve them. The gathered model says that church is for the people who have chosen to be part of it and our only engagement with the wider neighbourhood is for evangelism.

I want to be a gathered church doing parish-style ministry. But is that possible? Do the 'cultural Christians' who live around me - if that's what they - see my church as a valid expression of the Christianity they think they want when they are hatching, matching or dispatching? Or is the default position of English people to seek these services from the church of England - of which we have plenty.

I am just embarking on marriage prep with a couple who are not church attenders at the moment, though she used to come to our church when she was younger. They want to get married in church for precisely the reasons Alan suggests in his book - 'it's not really proper getting married anywhere else.' 'I want God to be part of the ceremony'.

But I suspect that most people like this couple would seek out the parish church rather than my Baptist church.

The question I'd like to work with for a while is this: can we identify an area - not well served by other churches - and offer to be a 'parish' church to its residents? What would we have to do that was different? What services would we have to provide?

More fundamentally, how could we let people know that we were operating in this inclusive, parish way and were not just a congregation for those opting to join and prepared to get over the hurdles to associate with us?

Ah, questions, questions. What fun!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Spam and blogs

Time was when spam was just a rather unpleasant processed meat product. Now it's also an irritating intrusion into the blogosphere.

I have decided to activate the word verification software which ought to prevent automated comments from being left - so I won't have to go through deleting ads for second-hand cars or various money-making schemes.

It only adds a simple step for you if you want to leave a comment - so please don't be put off!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Emerging from what?

Much chat about the so-called emerging church seems to assume that it comes from nowhere in the sense that it consists of groups forming in homes or pubs with no connection to any other Christian community. This is because many emerging church groups are set up by those who have left what stuart Murray calls inherited church because they cannot function within it.

I have for some time thought, however, that new forms of church will also need to emerge from traditional/inherited churches or those churches will not see the decade out.

I'm sorting out a cafe-style gathering for our evening anniversary service this weekend which is an exercise in looking back - sharing memories, telling stories - and looking forward - what memories will the rising generation be forming in the coming years?

It's got me thinking about whether the church of the future really can emerge out of the church of the present and the past. Is it possible for the rising generation to begin to create a church in its image as the generation currently dominant in the church has created a community in its image over the past 30 years or so?

More specifically, I want to help us explore what those currently running the church need to be doing to prepare the next generation to take the church on. The dilemma is that we so train and nurture people that they will only be able to perpetuate the current structures. How can we nurture our young people and young adults in the ethos and values of Christian community in such a way that they are able to give their own shape to those values in the churches they create?

Even more importantly, how can we give space to the rising generation to begin creating church that meets their needs while still functioning within the framework of community that meets the needs of the current leading generations?

One obvious response to this is to allow the creation of lean-to groups - gatherings of people who want to explore different ways of doing things - which are resourced by the church they lean against. Those involved in such groups would be members of the supporting church. In a sense this is an adaptation of the church planting model so popular in the 1970s and 80s but it might create space for experiment and adaptation, for the exploration of what shapes work for church in very specific contemporary social contexts.

It will be interesting, as we do a ritual handing on of the baton from the over-40s to the under 40s on Sunday evening, to see what emerges from it. Will it just be a nice thing to do or will actually shift the balance of power within our community with the current generation genuinely making room for the emerging generation to explore, spread their wings and create new ways of doing things? We'll see.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Isn't life busy

It's been really hectic since getting back from Prague and Budapest - I suppose that's the price you pay for having a holiday!

Listening to the wonderful Kate Bush album - you either love or hate her, I guess. I've loved her since Wuthering Heights and bar the rather disappointing Red Shoes, she's not made a bad album in almost 30 years.

I'm also reading Alan Billing's Secular Lives, sacred Hearts. Alan is the guy who first interested me in the Christian faith 35 years ago. A middle of the road Anglican whose brand of the faith I rejected in my early days as a Christian in favour of a more certain evangelicalism, I now find considerable wisdom in his reflections on the role of the church in a time of no religion.

Life's busy-ness has been exacerbated by having to edit and sign off the Autumn edition of Talk, the Magazine of Mainstream, the Word and Spirit network within the Baptist Union of Great Britain. It's a good issue but I wish we had the budget to make it look more interesting. Particularly worth checking out is Peter Oakes' article on The New Testament, The Roman Empire and Shopping. It's great stuff.

So, now we're into planning the next session's teaching programme, lining up the home group sessions and wondering why lots of this stuff increasingly fails to capture the imagination of the ordinary Christian.

Is it just me, or is it getting harder to create a programme in church that appeals to a broad cross section of our Christian public? I am about to embark on discussions with my leaders about launching a lean-to programme of home and church based alternatives to our normal church programme.

If anyone has such a 'shadow structure' operating in their churches and would like to share their wisdom with me, I'm all ears.

Monday, October 31, 2005


Just back from a week in Central Europe - Prague, Budapest and Vienna.

Prague is wonderful. It was very moving for a child of the sixties to stand in the old town square under the statue of Jan Hus and remember the days in 1968 when the Soviet tanks rolled in and the time 20+ years when Czechs thronged the square celebrating their freedom from communism.

It's particularly moving because Hus was a Christian reformer who campaigned for freedom for Christians to develop an expression of their faith for themselves rather than having to follow the one laid down in far away Rome. In particular, he wanted ordinary believers to have communion in both kinds regularly, that is to have both bread and wine whenever they attended. It's hard for us protestants who value celebrating the Lord's supper the way we do that for centuries people were barred from the table except at Easter when they got bread dipped in wine from the priest.

For many years I had a lapel pin of a chalice in my lapel that was given to me by a Czech believer I met in the 1970s - when it was tough for believers. It symbolised for me the freedom that we have in Christ and the freedom we campaign for believers to celebrate their faith in the way their conscience suggests they should.

Lots of other lovely things happened that I'll refer to in subsequent blogs...

Good to be back

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Faith and young people

It's been furiously busy over the past week or so. Lots of things happening at church and a funeral for a troubled family. It's always the problem of church life, isn't it, that we plan and strategise and events conspire to delay or derail those plans.

We're off to Prague and Budapest at the weekend for a break - beer, jazz and conversation, history and architecture (what more could one want!) - but not before I've done a session with schools workers.

Preparing for this I've been re-reading David Voas and Bob Mayo and have got my hands on a paper by Nick Lear which is full of good stuff. I want to reflect on what difference the fact that young people know next to nothing about the Christian faith makes to our approach to Christian youthwork and schools ministry. Does this ignorance suggest indifference or hostility or potential interest?

I've blogged before on what Mayo thinks - that it's an opportunity if we're clever and creative. I think the jury might still be out. One of the issues is whether 'faith' is an option that's of any interest at all to young people. If Mayo's right that most teenagers live in a happy midi-narrative that the world as they experience is generally benign, what place would faith have in that?

What I'll be interested to hear from schools workers is whether there are social differences at work here. I would have thought that suburban kids generally inhabit a happy midi-narrative derived from reasonable income and supportive family life, combined with attending good schools and achieving reasonably well both academically and in sport. But kids in urban areas who are poorer, perhaps discriminated against because of race, facing family pressures at home and not seeing school as a place of opportunity might inhabit a midi-narrative that is not so happy.

This observation is either obvious or a cliche, I guess - and I know the pressures on suburban kids can be quite intense.

But Mayo's research raises the question about what the gospel is for these young people and how they might access it. People with no perceived needs, generally don't respond to the gospel of meeting needs - whether those needs are practical and social or emotional and 'spiritual'. If people don't feel in need, do they respond to a saviour who meets their needs? Isn't the proposition just simple gibberish?

I'll let you know how the group I'm talking to responds to this. If you have views, let me know.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The journey is all

Paul Lavender again makes a helpful point, one that Dan Kimball makes in his book Vintage Christianity, which is that people see their spiritual lives as a journey not a destination, that they are in perpetual motion, with nothing fixed and settled. To a great extent they are not looking for answers, rather their spiritual lives are nourished by questions, by exploring, by seeking fresh ideas and experiences.

For some Christians this is a difficult notion because we have been discipled into the view that we have 'the answer', that 'the answer' is everything that matters and that people need to hear 'the answer' - regardless of what question they're asking.

Of course, it should be pointed out, that such a view of spirituality applies to a minority of people. The Kendall research - published as Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead The Spiritual Revolution - suggests that while many people in Kendall are attracted to alternative spiritualies, they still constitute an underwhelming minority of the general population - about the same or slightly less than the number attending church.

Bob Mayo - whose research I've alluded to before - would go further, especially in relation to young people, and say that they are not on a spiritual quest of any kind. They are happy in their 'midi-narrative' that life owes them material comforts and a good time, but issues of spirituality are matters of indifference to them. They go clubbing because they like music not because they are looking for a transcendental experience of some kind which the boomers and Gen Xers before them might have been (if Tom Beaudoin in Virtual Faith is to be believed).

All this, it seems to me, points up the strength of a going and waiting strategy suggested in the last blog. What kind of journey are our neighbours actually on? We might assume they go to the gym and yoga because they are seeking contact with some higher power. But they might go because their mates do it, they want to shed a few pounds or they fancy the yoga teacher. We might assume they visit old church buildings only because they have penchant for medieval architecture when in fact they yearn for contact with the mysterious and the divine.

All this suggests we need to listen rather than guess, go where they are, hang around and wait to hear what makes them tick. In this process we'll make new friends - a hugely valuable thing in its own right - and we'll hear what makes our new friends tick. Only then should we be praying for the insight into how we introduce our new friends to our old friend, Jesus.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Going and waiting

Paul Lavender has rightly spotted a flaw in my party strategy which is simply that it's an alternative one-size-fits-all mission strategy. I don't intend it to be.

He rightly points out that where he lives - in the North of England - parties are a bit middle class. People are more likely to congregate at the pub or Starbucks (surprisingly not seen as middle class - his phrase).

I guess this points out an obvious but essential thing: mission strategies need to fit the locality they're being tried in. If people don't go to parties, don't throw them. Find something people will come to. The point remains that we're doing this because we want to meet and hear them talking.

John Drane in an excellent article called 'Patterns of Evangelization in Paul and Jesus' (in Joel B Green and Max Turner [eds] Jesus of Nazareth: Lord and Christ, Eerdmanns 1994) suggests that Paul's missionary strategy consisted of two major elements 'which we may describe as "going" and "waiting"' The going bit we're very happy about - that's the Great Commission in action (though there's a good case to be made for saying that the commission is to make disciples, the going bit is taken read since we 'go' into the world every time we leave our homes - but that's a different story). Waiting sounds tricky. After all, if you've made the effort to go, shouldn't you set about speaking immediately?

Drane's point is that this is precisely what Paul didn't do. He went and waited, watched and listened. 'As well as going, his was also a strategy of waiting,' he says, ' creating space in which people could be themselves, and as themselves could decide without coercion how and when to respond to the challenge of the gospel.'

I guess what I'm suggesting is that we create waiting spaces, situations where we can meet and listen to our neighbours whether that's in our homes at parties, in the pub after work, over lunch, wherever. The point is that our neighbours feel able to be natural and we are meeting them because we want to know them. Where the relationship goes from there is genuinely open.

Drane argues that Paul followed the strategy of Jesus - both in his actions - partying and eating with whoever and allowing them to set the agenda by asking questions and making observations - and in his teaching - for instance in the parable of the 'waiting' father in Luke 15.

Of course, our desire is that people will hear and respond to the gospel. But if we wait before we speak, maybe they'll hear it in language they understand, from people they've come to know and like. At least then they might give our story a fair hearing.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Love your neighbour

Phin has spotted the major weakness of my new mission strategy - to have more parties - which is that we don't know our neighbours. We live fragmented lives; for many of us our homes are dorms we return to at night to sleep in, our lives are lived where we work. Increasingly, we even play on our own - solitary hours on gym machines fighting the signs of aging.

This is a parody, I appreciate - though I'm guessing it's not far from the truth for many of us and those who live on our streets.

I guess where I live, life is slightly more settled. People tend their gardens, wash their cars, walk their dogs. It's possible to see the same person regularly and hence actually meet them. My next door neighbour is good at parties - any excuse and she's cracking open bottles and inviting people to celebrate - and she gives me a clue to how it could be done.

Pick a date - say Halloween or bonfire night (in the UK) or kids starting school/university or changing jobs - run off a number of invites for your immediate neighbours (15 houses/flats in your street/block), say that you're having a party to celebrate whatever it is, everyone's welcome, bring a bottle. Obviously, we'd need to invest in some drink and nibbles - possibly even a BBQ and fireworks for bonfire night. Post the invites through people's doors and see what happens...

In some neighbourhoods it will at least start a conversation - neighbours might call round asking if we're serious, what they should bring, can they bring their children or a friend.

I think for it to work, we've got to be totally flexible - whatever our neighbours want to do, we ought to let them do (providing it's legal and doesn't endanger the lives of everyone there!). What we might find is that people really are looking for connection with other people, they really are isolated and would like to know their neighbours. If we achieve nothing else, we'll have created some social capital - and that's a result.

Sometimes I think Christians want to be religious all the time when what we need are people who'll model being human beings in a world that's lost the template. After all, Jesus came to renew us in our humanity, to restore what sin has left defaced and mangled. He was always at parties as far as I can tell, a nightmare for religious people, but a model of what it means to be a human being in the image of God to everyone else.

If anyone's tried this, let me know how it went. When I do it, I'll post the outcome...

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Is church too hard?

Mark in his comment on my last post hits the nail on the head when he suggests that needing to restate our vision every three months is a product of our modern targets-obsessed culture.

Last night I outlined the strategy I think the church should be adopting to reach people in response to that dreaded question - 'where are we going?'

Part of my answer was so complicated that even I lost track of it! But the core answer was really simple - 'let's have more parties', I said. 'Let's invite our neighbours into our homes for a social event with no agenda beyond having conversations with the people who live around us.'

Let's do this a couple of times and then let's touch base with one another and ask 'what did we talk about? What did our neighbours want to talk about? What were their concerns and interests?'

Having done this, we might be in a position to think about how we share our faith with our neighbours in the light of their interests and concerns.

It's not rocket science. I've said it before. But I'm more and more convinced it's something we need to try.

I'm haunted by the fact that people under a certain age know very little about the church and the Christian faith and that people over a certain age know rather too much. Most of the people in our church are over a certain age and assume everyone knows as much about church as they do. More than that, they think everyone else is interested in the church and what it has to say.

What we need to learn is that not only do they not know anything about the church and the Christian faith, they are not interested in it either. All Bob mayo's research points in this direction. I think we'd have to conclude the same from David Voas' work.

But this isn't a bad thing. It just means we need to communicate with them in a different way to the way many of us have grown up with. Hence the need for parties where we listen and pour drinks, pass canapes or sausage rolls and hear our neighbours speaking...

Who knows, we might just hear the voice of God.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Dreaded questions...

There are two questions I dread being asked as a minister. The first is 'what exactly do you do?' We'll not go there!

The second is 'where are we going as a church?' It comes in many variations. I remember being asked by a very serious young woman newcomer in my previous church 'what is your vision for the church and how can I get on board with it?' I wilt before such interrogation!

But I've been asked twice today 'where are we going?' so it's made me think.

As usual, it's also made me a little obtuse. You see, I'm not sure the church ought to be going anywhere. We're here doing our stuff Sunday by Sunday. More than that, we care for people, visit the sick, teach the young, provide a place for the generations to meet each other, offer spiritual direction and counsel and pray for one another and our neighbours.

Where should we be going, exactly?

But I know this is a question about strategic planning and I need to take it seriously. After all one of the reasons why people get involved in church is that they feel they can make a contribution, be useful and make a difference.

The trouble is that the church is not a business, its members are not my salesforce. So I can't say, our aim is that this year we'll contact 500 new households, convert 10% of them, recruit 50 more children to our Sunday School and baptise 30 new believers. Not that it wouldn't be great if that happened! And I know ministers who'd say 'we're praying for 50 newcomers this year.'

Well, we had over 100 newcomers in the past year. But before you get too excited, we are the same size as we were this time last last year, so we obviously leak. Or maybe that's just the natural cycle of suburban life - people come and people go.

But where are we going? I would like to see more families joining the church - people with children at home aged between 30 and 55. In my mind I have the committed, well-adjusted, hospitable and gifted couples who take family life in their stride and have time to spare for church activities.

But who am I kidding? What I want to do is reach the 30-55s who aren't currently aware of their need for a relationship with God, who are struggling like the rest of us keeping too many balls to count airborne and who have no desire to help me build a church.

The thing is that as soon as I start to think about where we're going a mass of contradictory goals come into view. I want more people who would love to serve God in caring for people, hosting groups, sharing the load in Sunday school and other areas of the church's ministry. At the same time, I want to build a place where burned out Christians can find refuge from the demands of an ecclesiastical machine that has a habit of sucking Christians in and spitting them out all dry, wizened and used up. And then I want to build a community where those who have no interest in God at the moment are made to feel intrigued about what he might have to offer them because of what they see in the lives of Christians around them.

So, where are we going? I guess this has always been the dilemma for churches. It's the old tension between maintenance and mission, between caring for the flock and searching for the lost sheep.

I'd like to think that as a result of what we do, more people will know Jesus this time next year than currently do at the moment. How will that happen? Ah... That is what the question 'where are we going?' is actually asking. Sadly, I don't know the answer to that one...

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Are we really family?

These days we tend to see the New Testament's use of family language to describe fellow Christians - especially brother and sister - as conventional. Indeed gone are the days that Christians in the UK routinely refer to each other as brother or sister.

But for the early Christians this was anything but routine. One of the revolutionary aspects of their new faith was that through Jesus people who were not related became kin. That Paul thought this was worth stressing is seen in the fact that in 1 Corinthians, a letter written to fractious and divided community, he uses sibling language 39 times to stress the closeness of the bond that exists between Christians. He especially uses it when he wants to draw attention to behaviour that is inappropriate to our new family status - such as in 8:8-13 where he uses the word brother four times.

At the end of Romans in a list of greetings to various people involved in various house church groups across the city, he also uses the language of family - Phoebe is 'my sister', Rufus' mum has 'been a mother to me also', many in the list are described as 'beloved' - hardly the language we use of work colleagues.

And he uses it to stress the need to welcome one another (15:7). The situation is probably this: many of those named - especially the Jewish ones - are Jewish Christians who have recently returned to Rome having left in the late 40s when the Jewish community or parts of it were expelled from the city by Claudius. It's possible that those expelled were mainly Jewish Christians because historians of the day tell us that the expulsion happened following disturbances instigated by 'Chrestus' (possibly an early Latin miscontrual of Christ).

Now they were returning and needed to welcomed back into the predominantly Gentile house churches that were thriving in the city. Paul says these people - of different race, background and dietary behaviour - are brothers and sisters, family, kin and so should be welcomed with open arms and offered hospitality. It is possible that Romans 12-15 has been written with this in mind to ensure the family life of the churches in Rome is built up and the newcomers welcomed and included in the various groups that met around Rome.

For us it reminds us that we are family. If we are followers of Jesus, we are blood relatives of all the others followers of Jesus - whether we get on with them or not. We need to welcome one another, be hospitable, seek to help where we can and not discriminate against those who are new or different from us.

God gloriously calls us to be one family in his son Jesus - as Paul reminds us in his great Bible study in Galatians 3 which culminates in the ringing declaration of 3:28.

It also has something to say about church and post-church groups which I'll reflect on in a sbsequent post.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Latte, liturgy and living together

People leave church for all kinds of reasons. But one of the key ones - according to the published research and conversations I've had - is the behaviour of other Christians. People want to know Jesus but a few years of carping, criticism and condemnation by members of the church can be very waring and cause people to leave.

The sad thing is that many of these people are reticent to try another church because they assume the same thing will happen again.

Worse, the experience can corrode their faith. After all, if this is the way Christians behave, maybe that says something about the faith; maybe it means that it doesn't work, that it's not really true.

Jesus talked about those who cause little ones to stumble - something about mill-stones and lakes, I seem to remember. Paul wished that those troubling the Galatians would emasculate themselves (Galatians 5:12). Such talk makes you wince and wish for caveats until you've talked to some of the people whose faith has been shipwrecked by older brothers and sisters.

This is why Paul goes on to urge his Galatian readers to love each other or they risk biting, devouring and destroying one another.

Often our judgmental attitudes mask insecurities that we are afraid to admit or are born of wounds inflicted on us by others during our Christian lives. We perpetuate a cycle of harmed and harming.

So, here's an idea: if there's someone in your church that you don't get on with, who seems more likely to tear you down than build you up, invite them to join you for a latte (or whatever trendy beverage takes their fancy) and a chat about life (especially the things you have in common). It's much harder to knock chunks out of someone you know, whose vulnerabilities you've seen, who've passions and struggles you've shared.

Of course, it might make no difference but it's only set you back the back the price of a beverage.

This is a liturgical act - Romans 12:17-21 in action - and as such might bring God's light and love into situations and relationships which badly need both.

It's just a thought

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Leaders of the free world

As the leaders of the free world - and those parts of the world under their heel - gather in New York, Elbow come storming over the horizon with their third album appropriately called Leaders of the free world.

For the uninitiated Elbow are the cream of the current crop of bands from England's North west. In writer Guy Garvey, they boast a songsmith of rare talent and sensibility.

In many ways this album picks up where A Cast of Thousands left off. Yet in so many ways it is an enormous leap forward both lyrically and musically. The lush textures and spare arrangements create a backdrop to musings that pack a real emotional punch.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Life beyond church

Thanks to those who commented on my last post. What particularly got folk was this notion of not being likely to continue believing once you've stopped belonging - which was something David Voas suggested in his paper.

In a subsequent email, he did suggest that he was referring specifically to Christian teaching that says attending church is vital. Clearly if you stop attending, you stop subscribing to that part of the package. He agrees with Richter and Francis that stopping church attendance is not the same as losing faith.

But he adds two important observations. One is that Robin Gill at Kent uni has produced evidence showing that people who don't attend church tend to lose their Christian beliefs over time. The other is that Steve Bruce - an advocate of a thorough-going version of the secularisation thesis - argues that people say they still believe but that those beliefs have clearly become less important to them otherwise they wouldn't have stopped attending.

However, I'm still inclined to think that there are a lot of people who've stopped going to church because it's dull, doesn't help them with their daily lives, takes up vast amounts of time and energy on trivialities or teaches too narrow a version of the Christian faith (all the reasons Jamieson puts his finger on) but who have not stopped believing in the core doctrines of the faith. Indeed they want to carry on believing.

So, we come down to a debate over what constitutes church. For the sociologists, the answer is the institution identifiable on every street corner of the land with structured services at set times and a membership regime that means you're either in or out. And this is fair enough. But it's not what the New testament means by church.

So, many who have stopped attending the institution might well be part of informal Christian gatherings - whether these are loosely constituted post-church groups or meals with believing friends that involve chat about Christian things and might even end with a prayer. These gatherings don't show up on the sociologists' radar for obvious reasons. But they clearly happen all over the place and often help to reinforce the faith of those who've stopped attending institutional church.

Such groups are networked in New Zealand and I gather Alan Jamieson is publishing a follow up to A Churchless Faith soon that argues that such groups are essential to those who've left church but who five years on are still maintaining a Christian faith.

Keep the conversation going...

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Sociologists and faith

I've been reading some very interesting work by a sociologist called David Voas. He and a colleague, Alasdair Crockett, have been looking at data from the British Household Panel Survey and British Social Attitudes Survey searching for insight into Christian belief and church belonging in contemporary Britain.

For many years lots of us have been attracted to Grace Davie's suggestion that while church attendance is falling, Christian belief is still important in British society. More people believe than belong and Davie's 1994 book Religion in Britain Since 1945 was subtitled Believing without Belonging.

It is this notion that Voas and Crockett set out to challenge. And their article in the February 2005 issue of the Journal Sociology 'Religion in Britain: neither believing nor belonging' is pretty convincing. I have to add that as a working pastor, it's also pretty sobering and thought-provoking.

One of their key findings delivered using a telling image from the science of radioactivity is 'in Britain institutional religion now has a half-life of one generation.' This is based on data that indicates that children from families where two parents go to church are around 48% likely to become church-going adults themselves. Where only one parent attends church regularly (by which they mean once a month), the outcome is halved.

This gives our church's current thinking about and search for a youth worker a certain edge!

But another comment in the article also caught my eye. Talking about data that suggests levels of belief mirror those of belonging, Voas and Crockett say: 'If people choose not to belong it is a clear sign that they do not believe religious doctrine. Whether or not they are confident that God exists, it is apparent at the very least that they doubt the Almighty much minds whether they spend Sunday in church or in the shops.'

This assertion seems to contradict the findings of Richter and Leslie in Gone But not Forgotten and Alan Jamieson in A Churchless Faith. But I wonder whether it's an observation we need to take seriously. It's possible that what these guys are writing about is a transitional phenomenon. Some people leave church for relational and institutional reasons with their faith in core doctrines in tact but over time if they don't re-engage with a Christian group or church, those beliefs decay (to use the radioactive image).

It is, of course, possible that church leavers are being polite when they suggest that they still believe in Jesus, it's just Christians they can't stand. And, of course, mission thinkers have for a generation asserted that people find Jesus attractive but don't want the church. But Voas and Crockett might have unearthed something we don't want to accept: that there is a much closer correlation between belief and belonging and that when people choose not to belong, they are saying that they have ceased or are ceasing to believe - at least in the way they used to.

This has some implications for post-church groups. I'm going to a meeting on Friday about those, so I'll blog more on this over the weekend.

There is good news hidden in all this, however. Bob Mayo from Ridley Hall, Cambridge, has researched the beliefs of generation Y and found they don't have any - at least, they don't have beliefs or views about the Christian faith. This is good news. They are not disillusioned spiritual searchers who've tried Christianity, found it wanting and are looking elsewhere. They are people who don't know the story, are not hostile to it and if told it in language they understand, will give it a fair hearing.

That too has implications for our search for a youth worker...

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Surviving beyond the church

As I said, a highlight of Greenbelt for me was meeting Jenny McIntosh from Spirited Exchanges. This is the network that grew out Alan Jamieson's research published in A Churchless Faith. It was fascinating to hear her approach and meet Sally, one of the church leavers who has been involved over recent months.

Since writing Why Bother with Church, I've been aware of the need for such a network in the UK and have been talking about it with a number of mates. It seems likely that Greenbelt will take the lead in this - which is fine with me.

I had coffee yesterday with a young woman who has struggled with church over recent years because of a breakdown in relationships and a chasm between what churches focus on and her ordinary, everyday life. Church ought to be a place of healing, somewhere the walking wounded can find acceptance and support. All too often it isn't.

On Monday at Greenbelt I went to a panel discussion where people shared their struggles with church. As a pastor, it was sobering to hear story after story of how church has made believing harder. As I listened, I was reminded that in my first discussions with the church I now serve - some two and a half years ago - I had spoken of the need for lean-to groups that would help those who feel little connection with church as we currently do it to connect with Jesus and see how a life of faith could be a path to wholeness for them.

This week, I presented a paper to my eldership proposing that we establish such a group for those struggling with church (such a group is different from lean-to groups established with the purpose of introducing people to faith in Jesus - somethin g I'd also like to do). So watch this space...

I propose this with some reservations, however. Many post-church groups are a forum for the big whinge, people gathered to tell their stories of how they've been misunderstood, abused, let down and failed by the church. If that's all that happens they can be quite toxic places.

In our conversation about Spirited Exchanges, we reflected on its role in helping people to put their lives back together. Sally spoke of the group's role as a kind of detox. I asked her to identify the toxin - was it the church and her experience of it or the gospel, the faith that the church rather imperfectly embodies?

It strikes me that this is the crunch issue. The kind of post-church group that I'm interested in is for those who still feel that they want to take Jesus seriously but who can't find him in church for all kinds of reasons. I appreciate that for some disentangling Jesus from church is difficult, that their struggles have been caused by the fact that the church has in some way obscured or distorted Jesus in the way they have taught the faith and behaved towards one another.

For this reason, it seems to me that post-church groups ought to be avowedly Trinitarian and open to links with other Christian groups (including churches). As a pastor, I think my role is to present everyone complete, whole in Jesus (Colossians 1:28). So any post-church group I'm involved in must have as its goal helping people to reconnect with Jesus and continue growing in him, being transformed by him from one degree of glory into another.

We'll see what happens. I'm interested in hearing from anyone - especially those in South East London - who'd find such a group (either physical or virtual) helpful.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Finding God on the margins

Just back from Greenbelt. Had a fantastic time.

For those of you unfamiliar with it, Greenbelt is a Christian arts, music and teaching festival that happens every year. It's awash with great music and stimulating speakers but the really wonderful thing about it is meeting people, hearing stories, sharing laughter and somewhere in the mix finding God.

Among the highlights for me were hearing Naim Ateek from Sabeel in Jerusalem, meeting Jenny McIntosh from Spirited Exchanges in New Zealand and liustening to Duncan Senyatso from Botswana.

I'll be blogging later in the week about how my thinking was stimulated by what I heard.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Have you missed me?

Well, I'm back. Two weeks of uninterrupted sunshine, swimming in the sea virtually every day (no surf sadly) and lots of good food and wine with friends.

And I've been thinking about nothing. It's been bliss!

Now I'm home to 190 emails - most of them spam - and a list of stuff to do.

I rediscovered Jeff Buckley's Grace while I was away - what an extraordinary album. I also heard the album by Willy mason which was interesting.

I read Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down - probably the best thing he's written, funny and thought-provoking. And I dipped into Richard Middleton's The Liberating Image - demanding but fascinating.

But frankly, I was too busy relaxing in the sunshine and the sea...

Friday, August 05, 2005

hitting the beach

Well, I've packed my wet suit and body board and am quitting the blogosphere for the beach.

Just in case the British climate is true to form, I'm taking a book or two. I've just picked up Richard Middleton's The Liberating Image (it's £4 off at wesley Owen so go and get a copy). Middleton is one half of the duo that produced Truth is Stranger than it used to be (the other half being Brian Walsh). Everything he writes is worth casting an eye over, so I'm looking forward to this meaty study of Genesis 1.

And for light relief - you'll be pleased I'm hoping for some - I've got the new Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby novels, Dave Nwokedi's Fitzgerald's Wood - a first novel from a mate of mine who's also speaking at this year's Greenbelt - Bono's autobiography and Eugene's Peterson's Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places.

I'll probably manage ten pages of one of them, gloriously distracted by waves, ice creams, walks in the hills, conversations with friends and family and watching movies, sharing meals and drinking wine. Let's hope, anyway!

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Discipleship and growing up

I've just had a most agreeable lunch plotting the future of our youth work. Nick, my youth work consultant, helped me to clarify a few things. He also suggested that what we wanted to do, though good (even essential), was not common.

One of the problems we face - I think in common with a lot of churches - is that we are quite good at gathering and teaching children and young people. Over the years hundreds have been through our youth work. But many of those young people are not making it to the world of adult discipleship. Somewhere between A levels and mortgages, they lose interest in the church and possibly in Jesus as well.

So our plan is to appoint a youth and young adults worker, someone who will create a programme, recruit, envision, enthuse and train a team of good volunteers (as well as taking on the many excellent volunteers we currently have working with our young people) and build a work that disciples people from their teens into their twenties.

What are the reasons why twenty-somethings fail to stick in the church? What puts young adults off being disciples of Jesus? If we can answer these questions (and others), then maybe we can create a way of working with our teenagers that gives them the resources to navigate the choppy waters from education to work, living at home to being independent, having a child's faith to being an adult disciple.

Many of the issues we need to address are those being tackled by emerging church thinkers. In some way we are gearing up for creating the church that will replace the existing one - that is surely the task of each generation: to mould structures that embody the gospel in a way that is attractive to our contemporaries. For this reason the person we appoint will be part of our core leadership team helping to shape (and be shaped by) the overall vision we have the church.

Obviously the person we're looking for will be exceptional - but there are exceptional people out there, looking for a challenge. Maybe it's you...

Cooking up a storm in Birmingham

So, what do you call a gathering of 12,000 Baptists? A rumour of Baptists? A gaggle? Possibly a confusion...? Who knows!

I'm just back from the Centenary Congress of the Baptist World Alliance in Birmingham, a strange and perplexing event. I was involved in the fringe festival, hosting a twice-daily music and chat show called Congress Unplugged - it was great fun and seemed to go really well. Through it I met lots of great people - from the UK and around the world.

The Congress proper was an altogether more staid affair, dominated by Americans and their acolytes. Everything of significance happened in English despite the fact that native English speakers were a minority of the delegates. Most of the keynote speakers were American - Rick Warren, Tony Campolo and Jimmy Carter - or European - Myra Blythe, Steve Chalke and David Coffey. Even the speakers from other continents were Western-trained and enculturated.

I guess this is to be expected but it's still a tad disappointing. Anyway, all power to David Coffey who was inducted as president for the next five years - bring on the revolution, David!

Our visit to Britain's second city co-incided with the arrests of terror suspects and a tornado - I don't think the BWA's presence caused either of these things!

listening to Editors - a very accomplished debut album called The Back Room - and Krystaal - an amazing funk, hip-hop, rock and fusion band from Congo now resident in Canada. The band make great music and have an amazing story of endurance and God's grace to tell. They single-handedly made the congress worthwhile!

Now it's tidying things up ahead of going on holiday. I read yesterday that thousands of blogs are started every day but only 13% are updated regularly - so I'm not doing too badly...!

Monday, July 25, 2005


we did our final cafe-style church before our summer lull last night. Tackling genetic engineering and therapies, we ranged over a load of controversial topics.

It seemed to go well - good buzz of coversation around the tables, people who came reluctantly leaving saying it was excellent, others wanting to know what issues we're tackling in the autumn. But we haven't had as many text messages at the last two as we had at the start - perhaps the novelty is wearing off!

In the autumn we need to think about doing kinds of subjects and running the events in a different way. I'm keen to experiment with a more liquid worship format - like the one we used with the cafe church on suffering that featured a labyrinth and a gazebo of life.

We'll do a bit of a review at the end of August

Monday, July 18, 2005

being and doing

So much discussion of where the church is going is a debate about structures. But one of the really significant things about Stuart Murray's Church After Christendom is his desire to move the conversation from shape and structures to values and ethos.

I've been thinking about this recently. Partly because I had a leaders day at the seaside last Saturday and partly because I've been asked to produce something for the church website about who we are.

I was having a chat about mission with a mate in the Scooter cafe in London's Lower Marsh - good coffee, great atmosphere.

we identified four values that ought to shape our mission:

1. welcome - non-judgmental acceptance of any and all

2. praying with not for people - this is about walking with people on their spiritual journey, open to encountering God in unlikely places. The Biblical model for this, of course, is supremely Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10-11 (a hugely important story for our context and thinking).

3. hospitality - possibly the most important value to relearn. Someone once told me that fellowship is not a matter of who you meet with, but who you eat with. The gospel writers tell us far more about Jesus eating and drinking with people than about him worshipping in the synagogue and temple. Why is this? Probably because they thought it mattered.

4. sharing stories - we still think evangelism is about imparting propositions, getting people to grasp abstract theology about God, themselves and their sinfulness, the atonement and the like, answering difficult questions about suffering and other religions. But we are called not to be philosophers or even apologists (though we need both in the church). We are called to be witnesses, that is people who tell others what they've seen and heard. So let's tell people our stories and the stories of things happening in our church and the church around the world. And let's listen to people's stories and see where God is lurking in the background.

Such values would have a marked effect on our structures of mission. But we can go deeper.

Underlying these values are other values to do with risk and safety. We talk about moving from maintenance to mission (and that's good) but often that talk is still hedged in the language of control - we're in charge of what we do, we set the strategy, lay the ground rules and bring people into places where we feel safe because we are in charge.

How about deliberately creating environments of risk? Pete Ward wrote a wonderful book called Growing up Evangelical which outlines how over the past 50 years or more, the evangelical church has strived to create a safe, comfortable place for its young people, a Christian bubble where our young people will be safe from all the pollutants of the world. It's a brilliant and sobering read.

All we've succeeded in doing, of course, is growing a generation of isolated Christians who are fearful of the world and cannot communicate with people not soaked in church culture. On top of that, we've seen young people flowing out of the exit doors of the church, never to return.

The values outlined above - welcome, praying with people, hospitality and story-telling - need to be earthed away form the structures we've created to help us feel safe. We need to be living these values at parties hosted by our neighbours, in pubs frequented by our work colleagues, at social events where we're guests and therefore cannot create the structure of the gathering, where we have to work with someone else's agenda - exactly where Jesus put himself.

So how do I describe who we are as a church?

Friday, July 08, 2005

Fresh thinking on communion

Michael Bird's blog - Euangelion - is a welcome addition to the blogsphere. He is soon to be resident in Scotland, teaching NT at the Highland Theological College. Recently, he put up an excellent post on communion which really set me thinking.

'The way I understand table-fellowship in Jesus' ministry and the early Palestinian church is that, for a start, it took place around a whole meal,' he says. 'Furthermore, Communion is not meant to be an intermission between singing and preaching, it was a symbol of the radical inclusiveness of all those who call on the name of the Lord Jesus and it foreshadowed who was going to be vindicated in the future age. When the early church sat down at their table-fellowship meals they were eating the hors d'heuvres of the Messianic banquet!'

He even cites the wonderful Robert Jewett: 'The purely symbolic meal of modern Christianity, restricted to a bit of bread and a sip of wine or juice, is tacitly presupposed for the early church, an assumption so preposterous that it is never articulated or acknowledged.' (Robert Jewett, 'Tenement Churches and Pauline Love Feasts' Quarterly Review 14 [1994]: 44).

This view is not controversial among NT scholars, but is unheard at Baptist church meetings. This is a pity because communion really does need rethinking in our post-Christendom context.

It seems to me that we are missing an opportunity to tap into a desire among many in our culture for symbols and mystery, intimacy and fellowship. We tend to tag communion on to the end of our services in our Baptist tradition - a prayer, a crumb and a sip before the closing hymn. I wonder if this is a fitting way to remember Jesus.

Jesus was a man who spent a lot of time having meals with friends and enemies, meals that involved food and conversation, that symbolisejust jiust his view of fellowship, but the creation of that fellowship through people relating to him.

It would be good to find new ways of celebrating communion in our churches that reflected some of Jesus' practice. It might open the door for us to offer intimacy without sex to a generation that seeks connection in all the wrong places. It might enable us to get to know people, share their lives, in ways that our current structures don't. It could be a way for Jesus to touch people in a way that our songs and sermons don't.

It's just a thought. Maybe people who've tried new things could share their stories

Rumours of God

I guess we've all been dreading what happened yesterday in London. As the news unfolded, I felt my heart sinking. The image I found particularly chilling was that of the bus in Tavistock Square, ripped apart by a blast and looking like so many buses we've seen in footage from Israel.

But as well as the horror, I've been struck by how many church people have been interviewed over the past 24 hours - vicars opening their buildings, Salvation Army people offering a listening ear to victims and emergency service personnel alike, bishops asked to reflect on what it means.

At the heart of our 'secular' society, the rumour of God persists.

The other thing I've been struck by are the Londners going to work this morning - boarding buses, queuing for trains, filing into the underground - saying that life must go on, that we are not going to be cowed by these attacks.

I want to hug these total strangers and thank them for their spirit. In them - though many of them are unaware of it and would deny it if asked - the rumour of God sparkles and fizzes (though in an understated English kind of way!)

Our prayers are with those who have been bereaved and injured by these outrages, with those emergency workers who tirelessly worked to bring help in the immediate aftermath, with the police and forensic teams, picking through the remains searching for clues and with our political leaders considering their response to these attacks.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

the whole world's watching

On Chigaco's magnificant first album Chicago Transit Authority, there's a track called Prologue which features demonstrators at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chigaco on 29 August 1968 chanting 'the whole world's watching'.

Well, nearly 40 years on, the world's eyes turn to a golf town, Gleneagles in Scotland, where the leaders of the G8 gather today. In their hands is the fate of countless thousands across the poor world, especially Africa. And we're watching.

We're looking for bold actions on aid and trade that will result in the economic fortunes of the poor being turned around. Of course 8 men can't change the world single handedly. But these 8 can adopt policies that will make a significant difference to the lives of the world's poor.

Our church has been praying as have thousands of others around the world. Let's keep praying that these guys will put the poor ahead of national self-interest.

Monday, July 04, 2005

simple truths

I've just got back the eye hospital where a charming and efficient male nurse practitioner lanced and drained a cyst I've had on my eyelid for some months. He also outlined a regime of eyelid hygiene that he said I should follow to avoid similar growths appearing in future.

We Brits are so lucky to have the national Health Service! I was in an out of the hospital in just under an hour. I didn't need an appointment. The waiting area and treatment rooms were modern, clean and well equipped. My treatment didn't cost me a penny. It's great.

While sitting in the waiting area - not that I was there for long - I was reading some stuff I'm writing on Galatians ahead of a Bible study I'm leading this evening.

I was struck by the similarity between Paul's core argument about the Christian life here and in Philippians - the book we've just finished preaching our way through on Sunday evenings.

In particular, I was reminded how important it is we understand pisteos christou (Galatians 2:16) faith of Christ rather than faith in Christ. Our salvation rests not on any work of the law (including our faith) but on our trust in Jesus who was faithful to the mission God gave him. Our ability to live the Christian life depends on us living as Jesus did - putting our faith in God and being fired by the Holy Spirit Paul's argument in the second half of Galatians).

So often Christians want to impose stuff on people. If you want to live a proper Christian life, they say, you must do this or that - whether that's speaking in tongues, giving up alcohol, wearing ties in church, believing everything the man on the platform says. It was what Paul's rivals were telling the young church in Galatia. It was a lie then. It still is. Paul says what matters is the faith of Jesus and our trust in that. Full stop.

The trouble with imposing stuff on people is that when they find out that what we've added to the gospel doesn't have to be believed, they begin to doubt whether the gospel has to be believed as well. So we need to make sure that we proclaim the unvarnished, unadorned, simple message of Jesus and the cross and trust God to help people live it.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Contentment...take two

Trouble is, the realists complain that contentment must be harder than that. You must have to work at it, buy the manual, do the programme. Maybe. But I'm not convinced.

Contentment is about getting the clutter out of our lives.

Why is that the church clutters up our lives with stuff that seems important, but which, on closer inspection, turns out not to matter at all? So much of what we do in church just fills our time. It doesn't achieve anything.

Churches do all kinds of things that look important. From time to time vacancies arise in these important ministries and we look to fill them. We can't find the people. We feel discontented because people clearly aren't committed. Maybe we should pause, take a step back and ask ourselves: 'does this job really need doing? would we miss it if it didn't happen? could we do it in a simpler, less bureaucratic way (oh churches and bureaucratic systems - don't get me started!)?'

Scarily, the answer is almost invariably 'no, no and yes'.

Contentment is about faith and friends. And so is church. Church is meant to be a place that promotes and models contentment. So we should be majoring on faith and friendship. Yet so often we find ourselves discontentedly seeking better systems of pastoral care, mission, youth work, worship, whatever; hectoring people to be more committed to these systems and warning that the the church will miss God's blessing if we aren't committed to them. O Lord, forgive us!

In Philippians Paul's stress is on faith in Jesus - which is why he spends so long establishing a correct picture of him and what it means to model our lives on him - and friendship with one another. Look at how warmly he speaks of Epaphroditus and Timothy (2:19-30), how he urges Euodia and Syntyche to agree with each other (4:2f) and how gratefully he speaks of the church's friendship with him in good times and bad (4:10-20).

What matters to Paul is that we put our trust in the King - not the pretenders seeking our allegiance, be they Caesar, Blair, Bush or consumerism - and that we commit ourselves to each other. This is why he stresses how we ought to behave towards one another (2:1-4, etc). And such commitment is not about talk, but about doing things (4:10-20).

It's why Paul stresses that we shouldn't be competing with each other, trying to be top dog; but rather we should be co-operating, seeking each other's welfare. We live in such a competitive culture - where employees are pitted against each other, where every job interview is a battle against the other applicants, where every relationship appears more like a warzone than a flower garden.

we need to learn to relate to each other as Jesus relates to us (2:5). We learn it in church and live it in the world.

It's the secret of contentment. It really is that simple. It's just doing it that's a tall order. but if we trust in God....

Read Philippians 2:12-13 and tell me it's impossible.

Friday, July 01, 2005

secrets of contentment

I've got an eye infection. I'm having to squeeze slime into it every three hours which makes my vision blurred. So I'm finding it hard to concentrate for long periods. I've got lots to do; all kinds of deadlines looming. Feeling quite stressed, really. Ah well!

I'm listening to Joni Mitchell's Don Juan's Reckless Daughter - what an album! - and thinking about contentment. And despite the shambles all around me, the work remaining to be done, visits not made, appointments heading my way, I'm feeling quite contented.

Paul talked about having the learned the secret of it (Phil 4:12) in a wonderful passage at the end of Philippians - I've been getting so much out of this letter over recent weeks. And the secret is faith and friendship, trusting in God and knowing who and where your friends are. Not much of a secret really, but how often we lose sight of it.

Still, this evening, with Joni playing, the sermon in the bag, the family all here, friends calling tomorrow, I'm feeling content. Praise God...

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

More thoughts on living up to our image

We went to see Coldplay at Crystal Palace on Monday evening. A group of us sat on the hill overlooking the stadium watching the gig on giant screens and through binoculars. It was great. Coldplay are a really good live band. They sang songs from each of the three albums and Chris Martin was chatty between songs. They are growing in stature.

Part of the conversation inevitably touched on church. A friend from Glasgow was describing his church in ways that made me really envious!

For one thing he talked about his 'community'. Indeed all the language he used suggested that the Christian group he's a part of is less an institution and more a family. That thrilled me. But even more wonderful was the fact that the group's main mission strategy is making friends and having parties. How good is that?!

As we speak, I'm working on a 'party strategy'(!) for our church to talk through at our leaders' awayday in July with a view to launching it in the autumn. Such a strategy could be the way to open up a dialogue about the Christian faith on the estate we live on. It's long term and has integrity. On top of that, it sounds a great deal of fun!

Spent a lot of time in the car yesterday, during which time I fell in love with the album by Ben Harper and the Blind Boys of Alabama called There will be a light. Gloriously life and faith affirming gospel blues - and it's only £4.99 in the HMV sale!!

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Living up to our image

Preparing for cafe church on issues of life and death - namely abortion and euthanasia - I have been struck afresh by the wonder of the thought that humans are made in the image of God.

We often think this has to do with some attribute - like personality, reason, emotions, language. And it maybe does include all those things and more.

But commentators seem to agree that the key to this is relationship. God, a trinity eternally existing in a love relationship in him/herself, creates beings also able to relate to each other and to him/her (I use both pronouns because the image of God consists in the man and the woman together (Gen 1:27).

There is much stress in our culture on autonomous individuals having the power of choice over their own lives and destinies. I wonder if this is at the root of the epidemic of loneliness and broken relationships. We are alone in our choices, isolated in a world where we have to stay on our toes just to survive. In space no one can hear you scream, said the tag line for Alien. The same is true in our neighbourhoods.

Genesis stresses that we are beings made for relationships, people intended to make choices out of those relationships, knowing the support of family, friends, colleagues; including them in the decisions we make about our lives so we benefit from their wisdom and experience; recognising that our decisions effect others for good or ill.

I think, too, that God's image lies in us taking responsibility for our calling. After all, God gave us the task of managing his world. And I wonder if it's also seen in us working for redemption. Again, following the Fall, God didn't give up on us. Instead he immediately set in motion a plan to redeem and restore his creation and the people he created to be at the centre of it. So to reflect something of God, we too will be people who do not give up on 'lost causes', but rather work for redemption, believing that in the power of God, guided by his agenda for the planet, we can make a contribution to ensuring that all people enjoy the fullness of life God wants for all.

I'm looking forward to cafe church on Sunday; I hope it proves to be life-affirming. I hope it also encourages all of us to live up to our image.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

more music

Busy week of conferencing and planning meetings. Away four out of five days, living out of a suitcase.

The conference was excellent but it's good to be home.

I've been listening to two new albums as I travel - driving is a good time to vet new music.

The first is Coldplay's new one X&Y. Yes, I know it's cool to be disparaging of Coldplay's output - too earnest, over-produced and grandiose. But - as George Michael once said - we should listen without prejudice. And what we hear are great tunes, lovely singing, faultless playing and bucket loads of emotion. Chris Martin can't help it if he believes that it's possible to work for a better world, that people could be nice to each other and that there's more to a pop song than boy meets girl.

I know he can be over-wrought and that he has a tendency to over-parade his insecurities. But he writes interesting songs - high praise in a terrain of bland and unchallenging music.

The other one is the debut by The Magic Numbers. This is bright, breezy, guitar pop with a decidedly hippy bent. The four-piece from Hanwell in West London have been hailed as a new Mamas and Papas - a reference surely lost on anyone under 40! It's not a bad comparison, though. Their harmonies are sensational, their tunes gossamer light, fragile explorations of love and life in a troubled world. It's great stuff.

Monday, June 13, 2005

diving deep

Just back from a church weekend away and about to leave for a ministers' conference. Ah, flaming June!

Over the weekend I was leading fifty people from a church in West London on an exploration of how we do church in McWorld (post-modern, post-Christendom, globalised, all-embracing conumer society, etc) by working through themes in Philippians. I've been reading Philippians through these spectales for a year or more and am finding myself diving ever deeper into the mind of the apostle and the heart of God.

This week I'm at the Baptist Union's Newly Acredited Ministers' Conference. I always enjoy this gathering. It's a chance to meet old mates and help ministers in the early stages of their of first pastorates reflect on what's happening in and through them.

I shall be continuing to read Philippians. Having led five sessions on this letter over the weekend, I am more and more aware of the fact that I have only scratched the surface of Paul's argument.

In my own study of this letter I have been particularly helped by Peter Oakes' monograph Philippians: From people to letter - a truly inspiring PhD thesis examining the social and economic context of the letter and Paul's theological response to it. There have also been a raft of helpful articles exploring the relationship between Philippians (and other Pauline letters) and the power structures of the Roman empire (particularly in JSNT but also in three collections edited by Richard Horsley).

What has struck me afresh over recent days is how Paul has based his whole argument on the life of Jesus. A pattern emerges where Paul talks about Jesus as the exemplary servant in chapter 2, shows how he has modelled his life on that of Jesus in chapter 3, and calls his readers to do the same. His use of the language of 'thinking' and 'serving', in particular, leads us to ask profound questions about what we are living for, who we are trusting and whether our Christian faith has any relevance for our lives outside church.

It is this last thought that I have been particularly wrestling with over the past few weeks. It seems to me that Paul sees no distinction between our lives 'in church' and our lives in 'the world'. Wherever we are, we are to live lives of humble of service, looking out for the interests of others, doing nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit, considering others better than ourselves, not complaining, grumbling or arguing but shining the light of kindness, grace and care into our workplaces, homes and sports clubs, as much as into the church.

At the same time, he is certain that will only be possible of churches are places where we learn these values and live them as examples of what happens when Jesus truly takes hold of a group of human beings and they begin to embody the values of the coming Kingdom, God's agenda for the whole of creation.

This is exciting and scary in equal measure. Can you imagine what would happen to our communities if Christians actually lived this way? Paul says that we should have the same attitude as Jesus (2:5). How about it?

Friday, June 10, 2005

prodigals and post-Christendom

I'm listening to Moby's lovely Hotel album - possibly up there with his best work; some tracks are just bursting with life-affirming energy, I can't help grinning broadly as I type. There is a very revealing interview with the artist in the current issue of the excellent Relevant magazine -arguably the best Christian magazine on the market - in which Moby talks candidly about his faith in Jesus and his exasperation with the church and Christians.

He strikes me as typical of one type of so-called prodigal - those who grew up with some church connection and faith, but who have stopped attending. Some prodigals have walked out on their faith, viewing it as a phase of their life that they passed through, as well as church. Others - and I suspect the majority - have given up on the church but are still intrigued by Jesus and would like to know him better.

Thousands of people are leaving the church in Britain every week - Stuart Murray has the figures in his book Church After Christendom (which is well worth reading, by the way). But many of those are doing so, not because they've lost their faith in Jesus, but because they can't deal with church anymore.

Maybe this trend is part of the breakdown of Christendom; people are realising that the institution can be separated from the faith and they're choosing the latter but rejecting the former. Maybe it's part of trends in our culture away from high-commitment activities, away from joining organisations and towards greater autonomy in terms of consumer lifestyles...

Now there are problems here, of course. The New testament would find the idea of a solo Christian a totally alien concept. As someone has said, it takes a church to raise a Christian. But the question 'what is the church?' has never been more pressing than it is today.

Is church what happens in ecclesiastical buildings up and down the land Sunday after Sunday? or is it something else. Stuart Murray suggests we start using 'church' as a verb not a noun. Church is something we are and something we do, rather than something that is.

But the question is what will that look like? We're so used to talking about church in terms of hymns and songs, sermons and Sunday schools, centrally planned mission activity, ministers and volunteers, that we cannot begin to ask what church might be like without any of these things.

But maybe the presence of so many prodigals in our midst means that we need to start asking these questions. Many of them are still interested in Jesus. In fact, many of them still find Jesus the most compelling, dynamic, intriguing, beguiling and wonderful person they've ever met. Is this a challenge to our current churches or what?

As Moby sings on Spiders 'we just had to ask/maybe someone out of heaven/would hear us down here'.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Sun, sea, surf, etc

I've just returned from a few days with friends in Devon. Lots of walking in the sunshine and God's amazing creation. A chance to recharge batteries and focus on what matters.

I am always acutely aware of God's presence in some of the places we go - Bantham, Hope Cove, Soar Mill Cove. Perhaps it's because significant encounters have occurred in these places in the past, perhaps it's because they are particularly numinous, maybe I am just particularly touched by the landscape.

Now it's how I translate these encounters into ministry over the weekend.

Next weekend I'm doing a church conference on post-Christendom issues. Actually my title is 'Christians in McWorld', focusing on my favorite Pauline text at the moment - Philippians 1:27-4:2, how we stand firm in a difficult place. I've been reading Stuart Murray's two books on post-Christendom, however, and they are excellent - full of stimulating analysis and ideas.

This whole post-Christendom idea - coupled with Brueggemann's picture of the church in exile - is very helpful in charting our position in these interesting times.

Been listening to Arcade Fire's Funeral - quite the most amazing music to have come out of Canada in this millennium! Reminiscent of early Talking Heads, but full of wit and musical diversity.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

cafe church debrief

We had our second cafe style church on Sunday. We tackled the tough issue of why a God of love allows so much suffering.

A good number came - possibly a bit down on the first one.

This time was more liquid in structure - if that's not an oxymoron. We gathered together in the worship area - laid out as a cafe - for introductions and preliminary inputs. Then we dispersed to a labyrinth that offered resources for creating a theology of suffering based on the themes of creation, fall, hope and faith. There was also a 'gazebo of life' where people could pray in a variety of ways - using art materials.

Then we reconvened for some more input and feedback. We had a lot of good comments and impossible to answer questions texted to us through the evening - so there was plenty of interaction.

Again the major comment on the evening was that it was too short - it ran for an hour and 40 minutes. Lots of people appreciated the labyrinth and especially the chance to think for themselves. Some left wondering if we'd given them enough of an answer - but I think that's inevitable given the subject.

It took a lot of setting up - but I had a great team helping me - but was less stressful than the first one.

All in all, a good experience. Roll on the next one....

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

prayerless days

There used to be a cheesy poster displayed outside our churches saying 'seven prayerless days makes one weak.' Ffortunately we don't do that kind of thing anymore.

Sadly, like a lot of cheesy things, it contains an essential truth that we might have lost when we threw the posters away: we need to pray. If God's people want to see God working, we need to pray. If we are in need, we need to pray. If we are rejoicing that everything in our lives is hunky dory, we need to pray.

Another cliche suggests 'prayer changes things'. Like lots of cliches, it's true.

When Tony Blair was re-elected, I wrote to him, saying 'well done' - a third consecutive labour term is historic. My concern for his third term is that he drives forward the agenda on making poverty history in his role as chair of the G8 and EU this year.

I also assured him that we would be praying for him. The Make Poverty History agenda is unachievable without prayer. There are too many deep-rooted structural powers that will not be shifted by human effort, argument and dialogue. They are spiritual and are shifted only through the exercise of spiritual power that is tapped and unleashed through prayer.

So as we march and write, campaign and inform, we also need to pray. If we want fewer children to die of stupid poverty (Bono's phrase), we need to pray. If we are to have the energy to sustain this campaign for this year and beyond, we need to pray.

The cliche has it that 'prayer is the powerhouse of the church'. And that's true too. Prayer releases God's power in our world that is vital for achieving anything.

So let's not have prayless days otherwise we will be too weak to change the world.

Blogging addiction

Mark Goodacre on suggests he might be addicted to blogging. He has to blog everyday. I have the opposite addiction. I have to read his blog everyday - it's broad, informative, essential - and I get twichy when he doesn't post for a day or two!

Yesterday I was preparing for cafe church and watched Pay it Forward - a film starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and the remarkable Haley Joel Osment (the boy in Sixth Sense). I had intended to watch a couple of scenes but got hooked. It's an absorbing tale of what would happen if people acted towards others with grace, doing favours for those who don't pay them back but do something for someone else (three people, in fact) as a result of someone doing them a favour - paying it forward.

It sounds a bit cheesy - but actually packs an enormous punch at the end (well, it had me in tears!). I guess I was stirred by the suggestion that an individual can do something that impacts the lives of hundreds of others. It struck me as a deeply Christian idea.

I'm not sure how it helps me prepare for Sunday but it's given me ideas for other events.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Opening the cafe again

Our next cafe church is looming. The tough issue this time is why does a God of love allow so much suffering. It's a big, intractable issue that we can't do justice to in an hour and half - but we'll have a go at provoking some questions, some thought and some empathy for and with those who suffer.

It's always struck me that suffering is a complex of problems not a single issue. It's to do with philosophy and morality, ethics and metaphysics, of course, but it's also about politics and how we organise ourselves as communities and nations. It's a good topic to follow on from Make Poverty History. How much of Africa's suffering is made by us and the way we organise things like trade and aid?

And then of course, suffering is an emotional and pastoral issue. It's a problem because it hurts. And it hurts so much it's hard to think straight.

So on Sunday evening we're going to try and tackle some of this using video clips - Apollo 13, Bruce Almighty, Schindler's List, I Giant Leap - drama, a bit of talking and music - especially the Vigilantes of Love's Resplendent.

On top of that we're going to have a gazebo of life in our welcome area - a place to pray about suffering (mine, my friend's and the world's) using words, paint, crayons, clay and whatever else comes to hand. And we're going to build a sort of theological labyrinth - a series of stations that will take us on a theological journey into the heart of what our faith says about suffering and how we think about this issue in the presence of God.

The aim as always is to make people think. On top of that, I feel that we also need to help people express themselves - their anger, pain, joy, frustration and faith. And we need to realise that however hard we think and pray, we'll not get an answer, just pointers to help us live better, more faithful lives in the mess this world is.

I'm excited and scared stiff in equal proportions...

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Lots of balls in the air

Vigilantes of Love Audible Sigh arrived a few days ago. What a blinder - song after wonderful song.

It's been the soundtrack to a busy time. Lots of balls to keep up - a men's Bible study, cafe church planning, developing the worship group, hosting a series on spirituality for everyday life, getting down to thinking about how I'll edit Talk (the magazine of the Mainstream network), planning an outreach on the estate we live on and visiting people interested in exploring the Christian faith.

It's the usual stuff of a minister's life.

Reflecting on it, it's possibly one reason why there's so little experimentation at the heart of churches. You'll recall that I've been thinking about how we can improve the quality of learning among our people - especially in the evening services. But services are one thing we ministers know how to do, so when there are lots of balls to keep airborne, we can do services on autopilot.

But this needs to be resisted. Services lead to many of the other things we do - conversations about discipleship, rites of passage and guidance. They also do something intangible - they set the tone, the 'feel' of the church; they create the atmosphere in which everything else happens and which determines whether or not people access all the other things the church has to offer.

So it matters that we keep thinking about our services, keep raising the quality, keep pushing the envelope of experimentation.

However, we also need to recognize that for increasing numbers of people, services are one part of the church's life they don't participate in at all. They might come to a mid-week gathering - parent and toddlers, youth work, an English class - but never on Sundays.

So, here's a load of other balls to juggle with. How do we help these people access all that the church is about and not just the single activity that they are drawn by. For example, the mum or couple who comes to a parent and toddler group might not think of coming to anything else, might not even realise that anything else happens in the church that might interest them. So, how do we open up to them the range of possibilities that the church offers for social and spiritual activities and growth?

The Vigilantes of Love earth all this talk, reminding me what really matters - the quality of our relationships and the need to depend on God (even when he seems a little out of focus).