Sunday, April 29, 2007

Conference report (take 1)

Our church conference went really well yesterday. Pretty well everyone who signed up to come, turned up and one or two extras showed up as well. There was a good, constructive and cooperative spirit about our conversations.

Over the morning we talked about the changing face of our town and rather the static profile of the church. We looked at who lived in our immediate neighbourhood and how they compared to the average attender of church. We also looked at what God says about us - using the opening and closing of Romans as our launch pad. Around two short presentations, we had lots of small group work and just before lunch we spent a good chunk in plenary session feeding back conclusions and questions.

After lunch, we did workshops on belonging, discipleship and leadership where the ministry team floated a key new idea about each area and groups chewed them over. We rounded the day off with an exploration of emerging church and a suggestion about how inherited church and emerging church here could constructively and creatively dialogue together.

Most people went home with a smile on their faces.

I went home to prepare a sermon for this morning which, on the back of yesterday, went really well!

Friday, April 27, 2007

who in God's name are we?

John makes a couple of astute observations (as ever) in his comment on yesterday's post.

Yes, we're all bored with church - bored with the structures, the pussy-footing around people's sensibilities, the gathering to sing dull and pretty anodyne songs and especially the apparent lack of connection between people.

The trouble is, church is the way most Christians find any sense of who they are in God. John's second comment is true up to a point. Some Christians do look to me and the rest of ministry team for their take on God. Others look at what we're doing with a mixture of horror and contempt - but that just keeps us humble!

I think one of one of my main hopes for our conference tomorrow is that it helps generate a sense of identity for us a church that isn't based on having been around for a generation or more. If we have any identity as Christians - something we're exploring tomorrow sociologically and theologically - it's derived from our relationship with God.

I'll be sharing a few thoughts from the opening and closing of Romans that look at our identity in terms of being a holy people, called by God, adopted as his children and created family in his Spirit. But we remain tribal, people who have different tastes, interests, social places and cultural and educational backgrounds.

Paul wrote Romans to a very tribal church, made up of Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free people, a few rich and a lot of poor, folk who'd been Christians a long time, others who were recent converts, some who'd been Rome forever, others who'd just arrived or returned following the lifting the expulsion order Claudius issued in the late 40s.

So the letter has a lot to say to us. and the first thing is 'let's be honest about who we are, guys, so we can make an effort to get along and get to know each other - after all, we are brothers and sisters in Jesus.'

So as we ask the question tomorrow - who in God's name are we? - I'm looking forward to a spirited discussion and the drawing of some conclusions we can take into the future.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Leading from below

I don't know if others are having this trouble or whether it's a London thing or is unique to us, but we're having real difficulty recruiting and retaining 'leaders'.

I think a major part of the problem is that people aren't sure what's required of them when they are asked to consider it. There's an assumption by an older generation that everyone knows what's involved and an assumption by younger people that it's going to be dull and anyway they haven't got the time even to consider it.

The time thing is an issue - people have less of it because they work longer hours, commute further and have other things they need to attend to (cooking, eating, spending time with family, friends, work colleagues, keeping fit, getting entertained - all of which are important).

So, what to do? Answers on a postcard, please...

The idea I'm mulling over at the moment is turning the way we do leadership on its head (and perhaps bringing it more into line with the New Testament). Instead of looking for people who are not too busy in church and getting them to stand for general leadership roles (the diaconate) and then find them a specialism once they've got used to meeting every month with a bunch of strangers, let's look around the church and see where people are already exercising leadership.

There are lots of them in various areas of the church's life - home groups, kids work of all kinds, building maintenance, technical support on Sundays. There's a small army of people doing jobs and taking initiative in order to do those efficiently. Some of them are even organising small groups to get those jobs done. Now, if that's not leadership, then I'm not sure what is.

I know we want something terribly spiritual - to do with praying and discerning the voice of God and spending hours talking about deep and exalted things. Well, that can be somewhat over-rated. I assume that people doing any role in the church are praying, seeking to discover how God wants them to do it and learning with others about God and how to serve better in this particular role.

Sometimes I wonder if wanting to do something 'spiritual' is actually a cover for not wanting to do anything difficult that might involve relationships and hard work in partnership with others. I don't want to sound unduly cynical (why change the habit of a lifetime I hear you say...?!) but I wonder if we've made leadership harder than it needs to be just so we look desperately important. I wonder if it doesn't just make us look desperate.

So, I'm suggesting to the good folk of our church on Saturday that we do leadership from below. We look at where people are already exercising leadership, recognize what they're doing, get along side them to see if we can resource them in any way to do what they're doing better and then help them recruit others to work with them in a team - a group of experienced people and folk being discipled into a particular role.

I look forward to people's response.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Getting to grips with leadership

John asks in what way Kate was prophetic on Sunday evening. Quite simply she spoke directly into people's lives and addressed a couple of issues we're facing as a church with God's Word. That's as good a definition of prophetic as I know.

Meanwhile, getting ready for the conference, I've been lining up sandwiches for 180 - a great task to have!

I've also been reflecting on leadership - especially in the light of 1 Corinthians 3. More thoughts later but for now I'm pondering what leadership is about in the light of the three pictures of the church Paul uses in the chapter.

As God's field or garden or (better) agricultural enterprise, leaders are about creating the environment in which things can grow; as God's building project, leaders are about arranging materials for people to build with; and as God's temple, leaders are about keeping the community focused and holy.

I've just read a very good paper by Tom wright on the atonement. It's signposted from his web page ( Called 'The Cross and the Caricatures', it engages with some recent discussion on the issue of penal substitution and draws some very sensible conclusions. The best of them is that many evangelicals fail to read the very Bible on which they claim to base their doctrines. As ever with Wright it's trenchantly written, tightly argued and by and large pretty convincing.

It hasn't helped me get ready for the conference, however.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Speaking to our hearts

We had a fantastic day yesterday rounded off by a visit of Kate Coleman, the current BUGB president, who was electrifying and prophetic.

This coming Saturday is our church conference at which we're aiming to conclude our conversations about belonging, discipleship and leadership and set the broad parameters of the course the church will be taking over the next couple of years.

Kate's visit was the perfect opener to our gathering. Boldly calling us to step up to another level, she showed us our lives through the life of Moses and spoke prophetically into our individual situations and our life together as God's people.

The day had kicked off with Gareth Wilde from BMS World Mission focusing on the need for courage to cross barriers in mission. Talking about his recent experiences in Lebanon, he showed how Christians of courage are engaged in reconstruction following the war, offering the love of God to people of all faiths and none.

It promises to be a busy week. I'll keep you posted...

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Preach it Bono

There's a great youTube clip over on Sean Winter's blog ( featuring Bono's acceptance speech at the NAACP awards ceremony earlier this year.

It's vintage Bono.

'True religion will not let us fall asleep in the comfort of our freedom,' he says. 'Love your neighbour is not a piece of advice, it's a command. That means in the global village we're going to have to love a whole lot more people - that's what that means.'

Earlier, he'd described Martin Luther King as 'a man who refused to hate because he knew love would do a better job.'

Once he hits his stride, he says: 'the poor are where God lives...God is with the poor and he is with us if we are with them. This is not a burden, it's an adventure.' The words have a liturgical as well as rhetorical rhythm. And I love that last sentence. Our lives with God in mission among the poor, in sharing what we have, in pooling resources and energy, insights and hard labour is an adventure not a burden.

Check it out - it's great.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Prayer's strange ways

I'm now focusing on our church conference - in ten days time - and Prism - the alternative stream of the Baptist Assembly in Brighton over the May Bank Holiday Weekend that I am co-ordinating with others.

In fact, I've had a good day lining people up to be involved in various of the evening celebrations at Prism - as well as raising last minute queries about the layout of the venue.

Mostly today, though, I've been catching up with an old friend and talking about prayer. She's doing a project for the 24/7 prayer boiler room in Guildford and asked me about any really great times of prayer I could remember, times when I saw God move in a particular way. I mentioned one or two things and then told her a story that I nearly included in Building A Better Body, but couldn't find the words for at the time.

It concerns the time back in the mid-90s when Britain was swept by the so-called Toronto Blessing. Our church wanted some of whatever God was doing. So we had a week of meetings in the early autumn - it must have been September or October 1993 or 94. Each evening we met to pray and see what happened. We sang, looked at the Bible and waited on God. Some people fell over; others brought words of prophecy and insight; all of us felt God come close at various times through the week.

I'm not sure what we were expecting, but I don't think it happened (if that makes sense). But we ended the week feeling it had been worthwhile.

A couple of weeks later, a young woman, Ellie, expecting her first child, died and the church was rocked to its core. I tell this story in Building A Body. In many ways this story marks my time at that church and has shaped my ministry since more than I probably realise.

Looking back on those events, I see God working in that week of prayer to prepare us for the wave of grief that broke over us later that autumn. I don't think I'd have coped if we hadn't had those moments of closeness with God; I don't think the church would have come together in the wake of the tragedy but for our week of praying.

I wish I'd put the story in the book because in many ways it illustrates one of the things that church is about - being there for one another in the presence of our awesome, mysterious God.

Seminar at Spring Harvest

Spring Harvest went really well - including my seminar on the church. A good group turned up despite the sunshine and we talked a lot about why people struggle with church and how we can help them find a place.

In the course of the seminar we drew up an ecclesial minimum - a brief list of things a group has to have to be church. Here's what we came up with - see what you think:

The presence of Jesus
teaching and learning
sacraments - especially communion
catholicity - that is relationships with other groups of Christians (I think this one came up because it had been the aspect of the church that was the theme of the previous day!)
Able to face tough times as well as good ones

Worship did not appear because I ruled it out before I set them compiling their lists in small groups. I suggested that the early Christians didn't meet to worship because that was a 24/7 activity along the lines of Romans 12:1. My full argument about this is in chapter 2 of Building A Better Body.

What I was really impressed by was that no one suggested that any of these activities had to happen in a special building or involve large numbers of people.

That gives me hope for the future of the church.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Off to the seaside

Off to Spring Harvest in the morning for five days on the pastoral team.

The weather forecast for Skegness is sunny and warm - a first for us up there! So we're looking forward to a good week with a great team.

back blogging next week....

Sunday, April 08, 2007

meeting Jesus

On the road to Emmaus this morning - a good place to be. We were definitely joined by Jesus who came to walk with us and share in our conversation as he did on that first Easter afternoon.

I was struck again by how gentle and unassuming Jesus was. I'd have bounced up behind Cleopas and his companion (almost certainly, I reckon, Mary his wife) and said 'ta! da! it's me!!' but Jesus didn't. He quietly joined them and listened in to their conversation.

Have you noticed the glorious irony in Luke 24:24 where they tell Jesus that though people have heard stories, no one has seen him alive!

I love the way Jesus handles this. He listens, allowing Cleopas and Mary to tell him how they feel and what they think the events of the past months and especially the past few days might mean. He doesn't leap in to correct but gives them space to tell him what they think is going on.

I wonder how we often we do this with people we're chatting to about faith. We evangelicals are so quick to get to the answers, we ride roughshod over the questions. People might 'get the gospel', but often they don't hear it because the people telling them obviously don't care enough about to listen to their concerns and struggles before leaping in with a spiritual band aid.

Jesus did.

When he'd heard, he shared his view of events. We know that his interpretation is the accurate one - but Cleopas and Mary would have had to weigh it up. Yes, some of it would have felt familiar; Jesus had indeed talked about death and resurrection - but they didn't really get what he was on about (we are all slow learners - patience is the key fruit evangelists need to manifest!).

Clearly, they wanted to hear more because they urged him to stay with them. It was at the meal table - so often in Luke the place of revelation - that Jesus completes his showing them the truth of what he's been sharing by showing them that it is Jesus - alive and eating - who is offering the explanations. Then he vanishes, leaving them to work out the implications and enormity of what's just happened.

That's why I love this story.

But I love it too because we're often on the Emmaus road, feeling unsure, battered, baffled by life, searching for the scraps of our hopes in the debris of our sins and failures. And Jesus joins us gently offering a listening ear and sharp observations about life, the world and everything. And our hearts begin to burn and we want him to stay. As he speaks, we know it's him - not just a vague presence, but the risen saviour and lord, come to our aid, come to show us his hands and side, come to point the way to the renewal of all things and invite us to be his partners in the adventure.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Good Friday thoughts

Here's a thought prompted by Jars of Clay Liquid, the Vigilantes of Love When you're blinded by the Light and 2 Corinthians 5:21...

No one noticed that first Good Friday – except a handful of angry priests, a rent-a-mob crowd and a few baffled soldiers on crucifixion detail. It was just an ordinary day in the Roman Empire, not written up in the annals of the Caesars and histories of the elites – no one pays attention to obscure corners and unimportant people.

Likewise, today so many are oblivious to its significance – the grace of God slips in under the radar; God reconciling the world to himself and no one notices; Jesus who knew no sin, quietly and resolutely becoming sin for us and the world so that we might have a shot at righteousness – and the world carries on shopping and gardening and planning BBQs if the weather holds

But for us who are paying attention, he invites us to come and see, to gaze in wonder at these events, to bring our fears, pretence and sorrows and find them melting away in his embrace.

This is the one thing, the one thing that I know – he didn’t die for nothing; he died for me and you; he died to put things right; to reverse the unravelling of creation caused by human sin and rebellion; he died for the small sins – our greed, bitterness and unkind words; he died for the big sins – the slave trade, the holocaust, the world system that means someone dies of poverty every three seconds.

Somehow – in a way only God can fathom and organise – in that obscure corner of the Roman empire, a man on a stick was God putting things right; Jesus became sin – with all its ugly consequences – so that we might become like Jesus – the righteousness of God and part of his wave for putting things right breaking across the world.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Easter thoughts

I love Easter; it gives us an opportunity to be creative in ways normal weekends don't. So over the next four days we're having a tanebrae, a reflective Good Friday gathering and two services on Sunday, one of which promises to be very different from anything we've done in previous years (though Jonathan is piloting that one...)

Thinking of fresh angles, looking for film clips and music helps one to appreciate the core Easter message in a new way.

Tomorrow at our lunch time service I'm reflecting on how much the gospels show us Jesus praying in the run up to his arrest and what a contrast that is with the disciples, especially Peter. Jesus is calm and focused, Peter is all over the place. Jesus is able to embrace the unfolding reality and achieve God's purpose in it; Peter is overwhelmed by events, taken by surprise and unable to get his act together. And it's all down to prayer. Simple and hugely difficult at the same time.

I've found some really good stuff in the Jonny Baker Doug Gay collection Alternative Worship and am using a great Vigilantes of Love Song - When you're blinded by the Light - as part of Good Friday's reflection. Having lamented how pear-shaped his love-life has gone, Bill Mallonee sings 'Lord, show to me your face/Lord, show to me your skin/Lord show to me the places/ where the nails went in/gonna crawl in there with all my fears/introduce them to my pretends/ introduce 'em to my sorrows/who've become the best of friends.' Wonderful.

I'm using Jars of Clay's Liquid as the call to worship and a Steve Stockman poem - so there's plenty to help people think about the cross from a variety of fresh angles. Let's hope they do.

I couldn't find a way of including anything from the new Arcade Fire album, however - maybe next year.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Introducing Roxburgh

Stuart's comment about Alan Roxburgh made me think an introduction is in order for those of you who haven't come across him.

Roxburgh is a Canadian Baptist and, I think, one of the key missional church thinkers working today. Author of a number of books - one of which, Crossing the Bridge, is available free, gratis and for nothing at the following website: and is well worth getting into.

The Misisonary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality (Trinity Press International 1997) is essential reading for understanding our calling as ministers who offer missional leadership. The book at just 70 pages is fabulously over-priced and yet curiously worth every penny.

The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition (ACI Publishing 2005) is a perceptive and engaging discussion of the nature of the changes we face in culture and church and how leaders could be responding to them. It's available only from the missional website Allelon, where you'll also find a ton of his essays and articles by a range of other stimulating thinkers. You'll find it all at

He's also written - with colleague Fred Romanuk - The Missional Leader: Equipping your church to reach a changing world (Jossey-Bass, 2006 in the Leadership Network series) which I am working my way through at the moment.

There's lots to like about Roxburgh. He's widely and well-read - in particular, he analyses the changing nature of the world we inhabit through business books and sociology texts and not just theologians. He's as likely to cite Beck, Castells, Giddens and Handy as he is Gunton, Hauerwas and Willimon.

But I guess the reason I have warmed to him afresh over recent weeks is his emphasis that those who want the church to change completely and those who created the churches we're mostly all part of need to talk to each other. The church of the future will be an evolution from the church of the present because the church in all times needs to embody core and key Kingdom values.

And he also stresses the need for leaders to look at where God is at work in and on the edge of our congregations so that we might get behind what God's already doing. Often leaders spend their time trying to refocus the congregation, move folk away from what they're doing to things we want them to do. Roxburgh urges us to look and listen and recognise and support what's already happening. Our role becomes one of creating the environment for mission to happen rather than coming up with detailed blueprints for that mission.

Finally, he has an unnerving singularity of vision - something he shares with Michael Frost in his new book Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Hendrickson/Strand 2006). He argues that the conversation about how we get from the old world to the new world is over because whether we like it or not we are living in that new world. Our task is to map its shape and work out how to be church in it. At the same, however, he stresses that the place we find we find ourselves in is not our final destination. this is why the metaphor of liminality recurs in his writings. We are truly people living between times, not just theologically, but also sociologically.

Do check him out.