Sunday, August 27, 2006

Simple strategic questions...

It was really to good to catch up with people at church this morning. My mate Steve, in particular, was there. He's a missionary in North London and it's always a joy to see and pray with him. He's bringing a group to our church in October to do a bit of training.

In the course of our conversation about strategies, it dawned on me that we need a strategy that deals with three key issues we face as churches: visibility, credibility and the what's-in-it-for-me? factor.

Most people in our communities don't see our churches. How often have you described where your church is and people have said 'oh I didn't realise there was a church there.' I often used to say to Christians that people outside the church don't see the church as irrelevant, they don't see the church - fullstop. I still thinks that true.

Over this summer we've done a couple of things to raise our profile and make us more visible. One was to put a bouncy castle in the high street and invite kids to play. This was led by another church in our community but we were glad to join in. The other was to run a holiday club for senior citizens. Both these events were about getting the church seen. And a few more people saw us.

Then, there's our credibility - when we do things are we competent, do we do what we advertise, do we deliver what we claim we're going to? This is vital in today's world. I think it means churches ought to do less, but to do the few they do really well.

finally, there's the dreadful consumer question - what's in it for me? We might bemoan the fact that we live in a consumer society, but we do; it's one of the circumstances in which we have to do mission (I'll be blogging about circumstances later in the week because I'm thinking a lot about this word at the moment).

So everything we do has to meet a need of some kind if it's going to attract people who think the church is both invisible and incredible.

Does this sound like a good trio of factors to consider every time we do something in our communities? I think so. Maybe it would lead us to do things that are both more fun and more relational. And who knows, we might find ourselves meeting real needs and seeing people come to faith as a result.

Catching up again...

I've been doing some planning over the past week for the autumn - summer is often less frantic in churches (though my colleague, Brian, had a really busy week last week running a holiday club for 60 or so senior citizens).

I'm doing two weekend aways for churches - one in September, the other in October - and I've been pondering themes and getting some stories together.

We're really looking forward to Gareth Davies-Jones visiting Bromley Baptist on 16 September. He's a really talented Christian singer-songwriter with a keen eye for issue of justice. He'll be kicking off our harvest weekend - and hopefully will go down a storm. If you're in the neighbourhood, drop in - kick off is 7:30pm...

Been watching the extensive coverage of Reading on BBC3. Looks to have been a good festival. Inn particular sets by Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys were excellent. But I was also impressed by Feeder and the Spinto Band. Franz Ferdinand were also pretty amazing headlining on the first night. My daughter's actually there, so I'll have to see what she made of them all.

Meanwhile on the decks I ave the new Bruce Cockburn album - Life Short Call Now. Check it out, it's great - his best for a while. Great playing including the introduction of solo brass instruments on a couple of songs which are particularly effective. He treats his usual themes - global politics, love and spirituality - with his usual mixture of insight and wit. But there is a gentleness and warmth about this collection that seemed to be missing on his last outing.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sri Lanka reflections (part 2)

One of the surreal things about Sri Lanka is to visit the tourist resorts on the South West coast. We spent four days in Hikkaduwa at a really well-appointed hotel. The pool was beautiful and warm, the view from our balcony was of the breakers of the Indian Ocean rolling on to a palm-tree lined beach, the service was excellent, the sun shone...

The surreal thing was that the hotel next door was still a pile of rubble from the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. Indeed as you walked around from Hikkaduwa to a temple with a little island chapel, the effects of the tsunami are still plain to see: ruined buildings, half rebuilt homes, shattered boats, even flip-flops and toothbrushes lying in the grass indicating the presence of people until catastrophe came.

Everywhere you go in Sri Lanka - and especially along the coastline - there's evidence of the tsunami and its aftermath. And yet it's hard to get your head round just how enormous it was.

There's a memorial on the road out of Hikkaduwa to the 1200 passengers who died on an express train that was hit by the wave. Opposite and across the road, the railway line has been relaid and trains rumble by pretty regularly. But all along the line, piles of rubble indicate where homes stood on either side of the tracks.

Before going to Hikkaduwa, we'd spent a day with a friend who's a pastor in the Colombo suburb of Moratuwa. He'd been involved in providing immediate relief to hundreds of families left destitute and homeless by the tsunami and more recently in helping fishing communities along the coast to rebuild and get their lives back to some semblance of normal.

As he walked us around one of the redevelopments, I was struck by how basic it all was: wooden buildings, outside toilet blocks and rudimentary sanitation. Our church had helped towards the cost of all this and it was great to see families rehoused and delighted with their new homes.

But one of the frustrations that William and his team faced is that the government and local authorities refuse to run any utilities into the area because it's too near the sea. The government is insisting that all rebuilding take place getting on for a kilometre from the coast. But many of the fishing communities have lived for generations just yards from the sea from which they earn their living. They do not want to move inland. So they would rather live in new wooden houses (brick houses aren't allowed so near the shore-line) with only basic services than the brick homes being built inland.

The nonsense of the policy is that right next door to where William and his team are building wooden homes for fishermen, the Chinese government is building a huge concrete and brick port development which will include moorings for these fishermen and a fish market. Ah well!

What impressed me about William was the easy and calm way he went about undertaking the enormous task of helping these families put their lives back together. He is a model of Christian service - assessing need, listening to people's concerns, seeking their welfare and wanting them to experience the love of God in a tangible way.

It was humbling to see him in action.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Sri Lanka reflections (part 1)

Well, life's been busy since getting back from Sri Lanka. Here's the first of my reflections on our trip.

Part of the reason for going was to teach a course at the Lanka Bible College. Its main campus is beautifully situated just outside the city of Kandy. So the climate's better than Colombo - not as humid. The campus itself is very well designed with a series of buildings clinging to the hillside. The lecture rooms and study areas are excellent and the library is improving - though it lacks the resources to keep pace with the plethora of good theology and biblical studies coming out.

I had 25 students in my BTh group. The degree course is taught in English and all the reading is in English. It's clear that some students struggled with this. For many English is their third language - after Tamil and singala. We mitigated the language problem by producing my lectures - which I'd fortunately written out pretty fully - as notes at the end of each day. I also guaranteed that the exam would be based solely on the notes. I shall be marking that week, so we'll see how people got on.

The students themselves were a fascinating cross-section of people - some well into retirement doing the course out of interest and to make themselves more useful to their churches; others young men and women who held down demanding ministries, often involving quite extensive travel in some difficult places.

Christians make up about 7% of the population of Sri Lanka - about the same proportion as Muslims. The majority of the population is Buddhist. There is a fair amount of low-level harassment of churches - burnings and ministers being beaten up - and there are parliamentary moves to outlaw conversion.

So the students tackling the social history of the New Testament - looking at such things as the influence of emperor worship on the religious environment of the first century, the size of congregations and where they met and the social position of the early believers - were doing so in a context that a number of similarities with the first century. We had some interesting conversations about those connections.

The college is trying to raise the standard of education among Sri Lanka's ministers, seeking to equip them to face the demands of ministry in a changing world. For the most part it does an excellent job and deserves the support and prayers of those in the more fortunate West.

In particular, it needs two things. Firstly, people willing to teach courses as visiting lecturers. As one who's done it, I can say it's a richly rewarding experience and I'm looking forward to going back and doing it again. Secondly, they need resources - books for the library in English and the material and money to translate good English material into Tamil and Singala. The college has its own publishing arm and is able to produce good resources in the local languages with the right levels of support.

It's a good work - do pray for them.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Back from paradise island...

I'm back!! Have you missed me.

Sri Lanka was amazing - lots of experiences, wonderful people, awful sights, eye-popping beauty... I'll try to unpack some of it over the next week.

I finished John Irving's A Prayer for owen Meany sitting by the pool in Hikkaduwa. What a truly terrific book it is - I think Irving's best (though I've just got his latest, so we'll see). The character of Owen Meany is heartbreaking, compelling and utterly magnetic. The novel charts his effect on those around him with a surgical skill - you can see and feel lives being cut up and not really being reassembled as he cuts a swathe through the community he grew up in.

If you've not read it, I urge you to... It's great beach reading but you will need a bit of space to digest the final scene - it's extremely powerful.