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.