Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Did Paul visit the flock?

I've also been listening to Sam's Town by the Killers and discovering a real depth to it.

I'm reading a book by James Thompson called Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision (Baker 2006). It came highly recommended, though I've never heard of Thompson. So far, it's pretty good. He's an NT man so it's a scholarly trawl of pastoral themes in the undisputed Paulines (don't you just love that phrase?! It really is high time someone disputed it - it's one of those givens of NT scholarship that is ripe for demolition.)

It's informed by the New Perspective on Paul (which is good) and majors on Paul's pastoral goal being transformation (a solid idea). I find myself reading it and saying 'yes, I agree with all this, but what I want to know is how did Paul do it - except by writing letters? What did his day look like? Did he visit people, lead Bible studies, preach sermons and chair church meetings?' I'm not sure Thompson is going to answer any of these questions. It's probably not fair to expect him to because that's not the purpose of the book.

But I'd love to know whether anyone has tackled these questions or whether (as I suspect) they are completely unanswerable. Post a comment if you can help or have more questions to add to my list.

AAAhhh ... 'The Kingdom of Doom' on The Good, the Bad and the Queen has just started. What a great track; fabulous strummed acoustic at the start, then the swirl of organ and 'Friday night in the Kingdom of Doom.' It contains the line 'drink all day/coz the country's at war/you'll be falling off the palace wall/I can't be anymore than I say/Oh in the flood we all get washed away.' Sublime.

Hoping to see the Anselm Kiefer exhibition at the White Cube next week or the week after.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Reading, listening and thinking

I'm listening to the Good the Bad and the queen - otherwise known as Damon Albarn's splendid solo album. Backed by some legendary musicians - Paul Simonon of the Clash, Simon Tong of the Verve and Blur's touring band and the great African drummer, Tony Allen - Albarn has served up a suite of songs about London past and present that are inspired and lovely, fragile and robust in equal measure. Great stuff. The man's by far the best British pop/rock artist of the last decade.

I'm reading The Passionate Church by Mike Breen as I think LifeShapes offers the best hope of getting discipleship and discipling written into the fabric of how we are church here. I'm also dipping into the wonderful Robert Jewett commentary on Romans now that a non-damaged copy has arrived. It's fabulous - well informed, provocative and beautifully written.

We're having a series of mid-week conversations about belonging and membership. The first was last week and went really well. We're inviting three home groups at a time to come and share their thoughts and insights.

I've become increasingly conscious over the past week of how linked all these things are (I know, I'm a slow learner but bear with me..!): belonging, discipleship, leadership, the worship life of the church and mission. The trouble is that we tend to treat them as discrete areas to be tackled by different groups at different meetings and I'm not sure which one to address first... And then I discover that actually they're all different sides of the same multi-sided (and therefore illegal) coin and we have top try to address them together.

In the lull between Christmas and New year, I drew up a list of things to address this year and all of those items were on it - along with get new chairs for the worship area so I don't keep putting my back out setting up for cafe church!

I shall sit back and let the lovely music wash over me....

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More on the picture on my cover

A friend who is well informed on art matters tells me that the image on my forthcoming book is by William Morris, the great Victorian designer. It's called The strawberry Thief and is based on drawings he made of birds stealing strawberries in the grounds of his home at Kelmscott Manor.

My informant, AJ, adds:

So - what's the significance for your book? Well, as one of the founder members
of the social and aesthetic Arts and Crafts Movement, Morris' passion was to
champion good design and craftsmanship at a time of increasing mechanisation and
mass production. For some, the movement involved fundamental issues about human society and there was a huge emphasis on 'honesty', on producing products that showed clearly what they were made of and how they worked. The whole movement believed in advocating simplicity and integrity, often emphasising plain
materials and good approach which was to have a lasting influence on
modern design.

The Arts and Crafts movement also traced its origins back to John Ruskin's ideas. He believed that the beauty of medieval art sprang from pride in individual craftsmanship. Developing Ruskin's thoughts, Morris wrote that art was 'man's expression of his joy in labour' and believed that good design could help create a better society.
I like that emphasis on honesty and the thought that good design can help create a better society. Maybe an honestly written book that takes the bible and those who struggle with the church seriously can help make better churches.

So, it's true that every picture tells a story.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Building a Better body

This is what the book'll look like when it appears in March. Pretty, hey?

New books

I've just heard from Authentic Media that my reworked Why Bother with Church? will be published on March 31 under the title of Building a Better Body: the Good church guide. Just in time for Spring Harvest.

And my Galatians book - Discovering Galatians in the Crossway Bible Guide series, a sister to Discovering Luke and Discovering the New Testament - ought to be available this week. I'm looking forward to seeing it...

Questions always come in threes

These conversations are helping to clarify my thinking - and at the same time raise even more questions (ah well, who said anything to do with church was simple?).

Into the belonging/membership/baptism matrix related questions to do with decision-making and legitimacy, the allocation of resources and the future shape of the church come creeping with all their potential to derail neat ideas.

BillyB -not the first member of my church to add his voice to this (but an astute observer all the same) - asks who has the hang up here - members, leaders or newcomers? The answer, I guess, is all three in different ways (though I'm not sure it's a hang up; I think it's a set of questions worth asking).

As a leader, the question for me arises in two specific areas. The first has to do with how we make decisions as a church. If most decisions rest with the church meeting which is attended by at best 20% of the membership, itself about 60% of the active and giving attenders of the church, what is the status of any of the decisions it makes?

How do we do congregational government in a way that takes account of the pressures on mortgage-paying, commuting, family raising Bromley people? I know that many will not be able to be able to make Wednesday evening gatherings - hence the Sunday meeting (but that only attracted a third of members).

So, I'd love to know how we can make use of new technology to have conversations between people who can't make a meeting in real space but can participate in cyberspace. Ideas on a post card or comment here, please.

The second reason it matters to me is that I've had conversations with non-members about joining where I've not been able to justify the intrusive interviewing method and reporting blind to a church meeting before we vote someone in. As one suggested to me, 'they get the right to see whether I measure up but I don't get to assess them in that personal way.' Others are reluctant to expose their life choices to the scrutiny of strangers for perfectly understandable reasons.

I think these are important questions to be asking and answering. It's not about replacing one tired and threadbare system of church organisation with one more attuned to our era that in turn will itself wear out. It's about asking what shape the church should be if it lives by the values of the gospel: how do we create community in a way that enables everyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus to feel welcome and at home, able to to get the resources they need to sustain their Christian discipleship in an increasingly complex environment?

The thought of getting an answer to these questions makes the conversation exciting and worthwhile.

Friday, January 19, 2007

So, who are we?

One of the comments being made about our last family gathering is that there were very few non-members there - a handful at best. A couple of people have suggested that non-members probably wouldn't come unless they were given a personal invite - and there might be some truth in this, though I invited a couple of couples and neither of them came!

I wonder whether there is a residual feeling among those not in formal membership that it's not their place to participate in members' meetings. This suggests that perhaps there is something about our way of doing things that is distinctively baptist and that if you aren't a baptist, you don't feel safe or welcome coming to a members' meeting; and if you are a baptist from another church, you know not to come until you are a member.

There's been lots of intelligent stuff on the other baptist blogs - namely stuart's and Brodie's - that's been teasing out whether there is anything left of a distinctive baptist identity. Douglas McBain used to talk of many of the new churches being baptistic - in that they were largely independent, practiced believers' baptism and were low on liturgy.

One thing, of course, they were weaker on was any notion of congregationalism. And perhaps that is at the core of whatever we mean by baptist identity. I was intrigued top read Bishop Tom Wright's withering attack on a group of evangelicals in the church of England who have recently issued a covenant (the details of which are too complicated to go into!). Suffice to say that a key plank of Tom's attack is that the covenant is congregationalist which is not an Anglican value!

Sean Winter has written about this in his reflection on Baptist/Anglican conversations that have taken place over recent years. He argues that baptism is not the key divider between our traditions but the baptist insistence on congregational government and opposition to episcopacy (you'll have to check out Sean's beautifully nuanced argument on his blog and in his article on ambiguous genitives in Romans).

I wonder whether a key distinctive of our way of being church is that we seek to move forward together, having discerned the mind of Christ as a community (along the lines outlined in 1 Cor 2). This, of course, is why there always seems to be a tension in baptist churches around the roles of leaders and possibly why some baptists - whose sympathies lie more with the new churches - struggle with the church meeting.

I have a more practical struggle with the church meeting and that's attendance, representation and finding a model that works. Undoubtedly, our lunchtime gathering worked. We'll do it again. But it was still less than 50% of the membership. How do we hear the voices of those who are members but who do not come to church meetings? Have they excluded themselves from decision-making by not attending? But if we take that attitude, how will we persuade them to come on board with the direction the church has discerned from there Lord as it gathered?

Some of our younger families have expressed the view that we have too many church meetings, that leaders have been elected to lead and that only big decisions (not clearly defined) need to come to the church meeting. Maybe this has something going for it.

I also wonder how we might use the website for conversations about what the church is doing and where it's going. Maybe there's a place for virtual conversations in getting ideas aired and viewpoints expressed ahead of the church coming together to decide something. Perhaps ideas expressed online could be fed into the discussion when we gather.

We are certainly using our mid-week programme between now and Easter to talk about this whole issue of belonging, membership and baptism (I'll blog about that sometime soon) and those conversations will be recorded in some way so that wisdom expressed there is not lost to the wider discussions.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Further reflections on our lunchtime gathering

I think there's a limit to how many we can accommodate in the format we used on Sunday. About 130 sat down to soup and bread. We could probably have 30 or 40 more comfortably included. So this suggests that we could only get half our membership together for this sort of gathering.

So, could we do two sittings - one on one Sunday, the other the next? It's a possibility. What does it do to our concepts of the gathered body discerning the mind of Christ. On top of that, how do we accommodate friends and other committed people who aren't members.

One surprising aspect of the meeting was that only half a dozen folk who are not members in the formal baptist sense of that word came along, despite our stressing that everyone was welcome and there being quite a few active, committed people who aren't members.

I'd like to know why this was. I suspect that many felt they wouldn't have been welcome, would not really understand what was going on, wouldn't feel as though they could join. This is a shame because I'd have valued their contribution.

Out of yesterday's gathering, we have a scroll of belonging about ten feet long comprising lots of sheets of paper with jottings, notes and pictures glued on it, the fruit of the discussions over lunch that details people's thoughts on why they feel they belong at our church, what they like and dislike. Over the next couple of weeks, we'll collate all this data and feed it into our on-going discussions.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The meaning of life

Just left the BBC's ghastly new show The Meaning of Life - lots of air-headed celebs trying to make us think they know something about anything that matters. It makes grumpy old men look intelligent and bursting with insight!

Anyway, today we had our lunchtime church meeting and here are a couple of reflections on it.

firstly, it went really well. About 130 sat down to eat lunch and chat. The atmosphere was really good - people chatting with people they'd not spoken to before. In fact one table didn't get around to talking about the subject in hand because they were having such a good time getting to know each other.

Secondly, it was great to have a couple being voted into membership who were actually present at the meeting. It meant that everyone voting to have them as members knew what they looked like because they were standing there in front of them! In fact when I asked whether we should welcome them aboard, everyone applauded - which I took to be 'yes'.

I've had one email so far which was overwhelmingly ecstatic about the whole thing. So I think we'd have to say it was a success.

I think we made one basic error and that was moving from the hall where we had lunch into the worship area for the second half of the meeting. When we do it again, we won't do that; we'll stay put in the hall and have the whole meeting sitting round the tables - there's something about facing each other in small groups that opens people up and fuels conversation.

No doubt, I'll reflect some more during the week, but I'd say it was a really positive experience and I urge you to try it at your churches.

The big day arrives

I was at the Mainstream conference this week in rain-swept Swanwick. We had a good time. Mike Breen and Ken McGreavy did the main sessions and were, on the whole, excellent. The seminar strand focused on discipleship and particularly Lifeshapes and, again, they were full of useful stuff. I'll blog about Lifeshapes later.

Since returning on Wednesday, I've found getting ready for today a bit like pulling teeth. It's taken ages for the sermon to come together - even though I have known in broad outline for a week or more what I want to say!

Today is also the day when we are holding our lunchtime church meeting. Around 150 people have signed up for lunch - and no doubt others will stay who have forgotten to do so. This means that there'll probably be twice as many adults there this lunchtime as there are at a normal Wednesday gathering. This in itself suggests it might be worthwhile repeating.

It'll be interesting to see the quality of conversation that happens and how many people who aren't yet members in the formal sense but who feel some sense of attachment or belonging to our community attend and participate. It'll be even more interesting to see how members - especially members of long-standing - respond to their contribution.

I think I'm looking forward to it - though I'm nervous too.

On another - tangentially related note - I see on Maggi Dawn's blog ( that some Anglicans are getting nervous about their church leaders or employees blogging. As she says, blogs are a good place to float ideas and have conversations. They also give interesting insights into the character and interests of the blogger. I agree. They are not places where anything gets decided. I'm not sure I've said anything here that I haven't said to people in other contexts face-to-face. Since when has conversation been a bad idea?!

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Campaigning irony

Stuart Blythe in a quite brilliant post over at word at the barricades ( look for the entry called 'perplexed'), has put his finger on why I have misgivings about the current campaign by some Christians against the sexual orientation regulations. And it has to do with my reading of acts 3 - i love it when things look joined up!

Stuart suggests that it is somewhat weird for Christians to be campaigning for the right not to serve people. Read that sentence again if you haven't picked up the irony. We're called to serve everyone, just as God does, so why should we be looking for exemptions on the basis of our disapproval of certain people's lifestyles?

Remember that Luke's first readers would almost certainly have assumed that the man at the gate of the temple (Acts 3:1-10) was morally deficient as well as disabled. They would have seen his disability as evidence that his lifestyle did not measure up to their high standards, that he did not have a good character.

Peter and John did not look for a reason not to serve him. Rather, despite knowing precious little about him - except that he couldn't walk - Peter swept the man up into the story of God's saving activity in the world.

Shouldn't it be our joy to serve all people of all kinds in the hope that through our service they catch a glimpse of the God who causes his sun to shine on all?

Friday, January 05, 2007

Belonging and standing on our two feet

We're kicking off a new series in Acts next week. Called Shoved by the Spirit, we're looking at how the early followers of Jesus made it up as they went along - made up how to do church, how to do mission, how to live for Jesus in the world in the power of the Spirit.

Of course they were inspired by the Spirit and, of course, they had the teaching of Jesus still ringing in their ears. But all the same, they were doing what no one had done before - creating a community of people based on their common love of Jesus.

I've been reading the first great story in Acts - the healing of the lame man. I've been getting to grips with an article by mikeal C Parsons from the Journal of Biblical Literature (it's on line at the Society of Biblical Literature website if you want to read it - it's in volume 124 number 2, 2005. The whole issue is downloadable for free)

Parsons shows how Luke plays with our ideas of disability and inclusion. In the ancient world it was assumed that disabled and disfigured people showed in their outward appearance a moral disfigurement or weakness. All the philosophers thought this - even Plato and Aristotle. It was an idea that hung around for a long time. In C J Sansom's wonderful Shardlake novels, his hero - Matthew Shardlake - is a hunchback and frequent reference is made to the fact that many in Tudor England assumed he was in some way cursed or not to be trusted.

It interests me - this story has long been one of my favourites - because what Peter does is so instinctive. You get no sense of him and John chatting over the implications of reaching out to this man. Peter just does it - he picks him up, heals him in Jesus' name and welcomes him into his company. Parsons reminds us that the lame man does not speak at all; he is the recipient of mercy and inclusion.

So what does this story say about belonging and mission? Lots. I guess key among them is that Luke is telling us that through Jesus a new community is being created where everyone, regardless of their background and moral or physical state, is welcome.

As Parsons says: 'The lame man moves from inactivity to walking, from paralysis to praise. He also moves from sitting to clinging (Acts 3:11) to standing unassisted, alongside Peter and John. Thus he shares in the 'boldness' of the apostles (4:13)...Even though he does not speak, the lame man's boldness is seen in his 'body language' as he boldly takes his stand in solidarity with the persecuted apostles.'

To the crowd gathered as a result of the miracle, was the formerly lame man part of the community Peter and John led? They'd certainly have seen it that way. He belonged to the followers of the way of Jesus. Yet Luke tells us nothing about his faith other than he praised God for his healing.

I have long used this story to talk about social ministries that I've been involved in over the past 15 years or so. Everyone is welcome to taste the benefits of the Kingdom of God - the early Christians were living equal opportunities long before anyone else had thought of it! Can we live up to their example?

The story for me puts the issue of belonging (and membership and all that stuff) firmly into the context of mission. Who belongs? Anybody who wants to - indeed considering Peter and John's action, anyone that we reach out to and pull into our community!

More thoughts along soon.

Table talk

Thanks to Wulf for his comments. Stuart's blog can be found at and is well worth checking out.

As to how we're organising our Sunday gathering, the aim is to have lunch and have people talking as they eat in small-ish groups. There'll be some feedback there and then with groups invited to tell everyone else where their conversation's going. We'll also be inviting groups to make notes, draw pictures, etc which we'll gather up at the end so we can produce a record of the conversations to provide stimulus for further conversations.

There will also be a more formal section of the meeting as there are items of business that have to be done - though we're hoping these will be done in the same convivial spirit as the round table chat.

As with all experiments, we're not sure what'll happen. But i'm very excited at the prospect of doing something new that is potentially much more inclusive.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

New year, continuing conversations

Happy new year everyone.

Had a great break in Devon - stormy, windy, hail(!) but great company and it was good to be away from the desk and computer.

The pre-Christmas conversations about membership and community have resumed. We are planning to have a series of gatherings to talk about the issue between now and Easter, giving members and friends of the church the chance to express their views and share their insights.

I've been interested to read on Stuart Blythe's blog some thoughts about baptism as this is surfacing as a key issue to consider as we think about membership. Some reckon that baptism is a non-negotiable - by which they mean the immersion of believers - while others think we need to treat other traditions seriously.

I must confess that I am increasingly undecided on tbe issue. I used to be strongly of the view that immersion was essential and baptism was the door through which everyone had to go in order to be a full member of the church.

Questions include - what does the New Testament mean by baptism? what was the practice of the early church? what did our baptist forbears do? what does baptism as a ritual mean to people in today's world? I'm not sure what the answers are to any of these questions - but intend to think about it over the next few weeks.

This Sunday we're having our first lunch time church family meeting at which non-members will be welcome. We're having a conversation over the lunch tables about what belonging means to us which will include the children as well as their parents. I'm looking forward to it.