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...