Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Where the sun shines its light

So the Sun has switched allegiance. Is anyone surprised? Does anyone really care? Do newspapers really decide what we think or how we vote? If so, then we truly get the leaders we deserve.

It is part of a larger pattern within the Murdoch empire, of course. James Murdoch's speech at the Edinburgh TV festival shows that the Sun's owners continue to think media is safe only in the hands of unaccountable billionaires.

It's enough to make you even more grateful for the riot of views, opinions and facts in the blogosphere.

I guess if nothing else the Sun's move confirms that the general election campaign has started!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Recovering the incarnation

The section of Hirch's searching book that I've been reading this week feeds directly into conversations we've begun having at church. We know the attractional model no longer works - our falling Sunday attendance and lack of people at special evangelistic events proves that. The question is 'what do we replace it with'?

Hirsch's answer is that we need to recapture the core Christian doctrines of the incarnation and the mission of God. He argues that the attractional model tends to negate these two insights because it 'demands that in order to hear the gospel, people come to us, on our turf, and in our cultural zone. In effect, they must become one of us if they want to follow Christ.'

This is, of course, the opposite of incarnation: God comes to us - the word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood (as the Message memorably puts it). It means that we, who have been sent as Jesus was sent, must go to where people are rather than expect them to come to us.

This is the method Jesus modelled in his ministry and called his first disciples to follow when he sent them out - Matthew 10:5-16. They were to accept hospitality rather than offer it. It was Paul's practice too - finding people he could establish a workshop with, accepting invitations to be based in people's homes (see Acts 14-18).

Hirsch stresses that church grows out of mission and not vice versa. And mission grows out of a proper grasp of who Jesus is (ie our Christology). So he produces a simple diagram that says Christology determines missiology which in turn determines ecclesiology. It's a good simple principle that ought to underpin everything we do as gatherings of Jesus followers.

It follows, therefore, that mission needs to take place in third places, those spaces that are not our homes or workplaces, but rather where we socialise and have fun. This would mean more gatherings in pubs, cafes, clubs, arts centres, community halls, etc.

So, we'll see how St Arbucks goes this Sunday. But we'll also be exploring how our allotment group can become a missional community with shovels and coffee. And what else...? The possibilities are limited only by our imaginations.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Feeling refreshed

Had a fun time being refreshed by the Baptist Union this week. Good bible studies from Steve Finamore, an excellent lecture on prayer and art by Richard Kidd and the joy of catching up with friends from all over the place.

There was a refreshing absence of competitive churchmanship - the my-congregation's bigger than yours nonsense - and a lot of sharing of ideas over good ale. So it was 48 hours enjoyably spent.

The sun shone most of the time as well which meant I was able to enjoy the lake at Swanwick - walking round it rather than swimming in it, of course - as well as a little of the Derbyshire countryside.

The trouble with three day conferences, of course, is that they only leave two days to do a week's work. But lots of others are involved in delivering this coming Sunday's programme, so the pressures slightly less than usual. Still, back to church Sunday and the return of St Arbucks mean that it'll be a fairly busy one.

I've just watched the conclusion of the BBC's excellent three-parter on the collapse of Lehman Brothers and its aftermath. Called The Love of Money you can catch it all on iPlayer and if you haven't seen it, I recommend you do. It's well-made and delivers a clear analysis of what went on in those fateful days.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Coming to a Starbucks near you

This coming Sunday, we are kicking off our cafe church programme for the autumn.

St Arbuck's Sundays run at Starbuck's in the Market Square in Bromley from 3:30 to 5:30 on the fourth Sunday of the month. Come along for a skinny chai latte and breakfast panini or tea and granola bar or some other combo of beverage and snack.

Our theme is celebrity and who's worth following or not. There'll be a quiz, provocative testimony and a chance to think about who we want calling the shots in our lives.

Come along. Bring a friend.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Taking control of my environment

Having a bit of a sort out today and came across my Bell Jar albums. I've not listened to them for a while, so I gave them a spin. Good stuff. It sent me to their website to see if anything new was happening and came across a four-track ep, a taster of a new album due next year, and it's truly fab. Check it out here (click the listen in the bottom right of the picture).

Tidying is always a displacement activity for me. My study needed it as I was beginning to run out of surfaces to dump things on! But I need to be reading and writing and can't focus so tidying is a good distraction. And you can always comfort yourself by pointing to all the lost treasures you unearth in the process.

Ah well, enough of this. Back to work accompanied by Prefab Sprout - more unearthed treasures I've not spun for a while... gorgeous.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Pinball wizard

Sometimes I feel like the ball in a pinball machine. I'm sure we all do - whatever our job or calling.

An email sends us in one direction, a phone call in another, a friend sharing a grief over a drink in a fresh direction.

Each of these comes while we are already moving between booked commitments, the diary driving our movement through the day, the week - a meeting here, a time of preparation or writing there.

And each comes with its own urgency, demanding attention at the cost of everything else.

And God says 'stop'. In the midst of the rush and tear, the perpetual movement, his voice urges us to 'be still and know that I am God'.

But how can a pinball be still?

As I walked to get the papers this morning, having read the latest crop of emails, some words of T S Eliot came into my mind. They capture the feeling and possibly a way of staying sane, being still in the midst of movement:

'At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor
neither from towards; at the still point, there the dance
but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
where the past and future are gathered. Neither movement
from nor towards,
neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still
there would be no dance, and there is only the dance...'
[Burnt Norton from Four Quartets].

It is the dance that's all, of course; not jigging alone beneath the mirrorball but flowing gracefully through events with our partner in whose arms we are still, unrushed, quiet, at rest...

'By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving,' says Eliot.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Good conversation, music and reading

Just back from a lovely day in Didcot planning next year's Baptist Assembly. It's shaping up to be a good one, so look out for publicity arriving through the autumn (if you are baptistically inclined, of course).

In the car on the way there and back I was listening to the new albums from Imogen Heap and Athlete - both of which are really cool. The final track of the Athlete album, Rubik Cube, is one of the best songs they've written. I also listened to the Radiohead albums that have just been re-issued in bumper editions - Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief - and found them to be more satisfying and tuneful than I remember - Pyramid Song from Amnesiac still sends chills down my spine when the drums come in half-way through.

I'm preaching away from home on Sunday morning - at Welwyn Garden City - on Building a Better Body. I'm doing the introduction to an autumn series loosely based on my book (which is a little surreal - certainly a first for me!). I'm going to reflect on what the church is for from a missional perspective using Philippians 2:12-18.

Still finding Hirsch's book richly stimulating. He's got some very good things to say about consumerism as a threat to discipleship. He argues - convincingly to my mind - that it is more of a threat to genuine Christianity in the West than either Islam or the New Age movement.

He talks about discipling believers being the key to creating missional communities in a section where he comes close to echoing Michael Gorman's theosis argument in his Inhabiting the Cruciform God. I need to read it again, however, before I reflect on it.

Time for a glass of sauvignon blanc, I think...

Monday, September 07, 2009

Barefoot in the church

At the end of yesterday morning's service a mate sidled up to me and suggested that I was in my element. We'd just had a lively all-age baptismal service - with three people getting baptised - led by our worship band (with me on guitar). I was standing at the end of the service in bare feet chatting to people when my mate made the comment.

And I thought 'yeah; you're right; this is as good as it gets.'

I would, of course, enter a couple of caveats to that response. Baptismal services are always a high point - what can be better than people who've found faith in Jesus telling the church and their families that they have taken the most significant step a human being can take?

And while a number of people said to me how much they enjoyed the service, I know that some (probably quite a few) didn't and that their voices will reach my ears via the usual channels through this week.

But one thing I did feel at the end of yesterday morning is that we can do things differently even at our morning service without the ceiling falling in. And that has to be good.

The question of what it means in relation to the conversation over Hirsch's book is for another post later in the day.

Friday, September 04, 2009

We're just not that attractive

Thanks to John for that interesting stat from Graham Cray (comments to consuming our way to discipleship): only 6% of the population are likely to be attracted to church events such as Back to Church Sunday (something our church is taking part in).

Hirsch's point is, I think, very telling. And it's reinforced by Cray's comment. In short, what we do in church isn't very attractive, so it isn't going to attract many people. I have to say that most of what the church does wouldn't attract me!

Hirsch argues that churches inhabit only one narrow section of our highly fragmented society. Using a cultural difference scale popular with missionaries, he shows that most of our neighbours are not 'culturally proximate' to us and that we therefore have to cross cultures - just as those going overseas as missionaries - in order to share the gospel.

This means that the attractional model no longer works. We cannot just put on an event and expect people to come. We have to go to them, on to their turf and communicate in their language. That's a tall order for most of our congregations who've grown up in a world where they set the terms of engagement in evangelism. That world is gone.

The great thing is, as Hirsch points out, our world is not that dissimilar to the one the church was born into and so the New Testament is a helpful guide to help us ask the right questions about how we can be missional church in our context.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Shaking up the faithful

One of the points Hirsch makes early on is that the urge for community can lead us to seek safety above discipleship. 'Too much concern with safety and security, combined with comfort and convenience, has lulled us out of our true calling and purpose.' (p25)

As my anonymous friend (good to see you back, by the way) points out 'perhaps discipleship is about being selfless' - absolutely right. Discipleship is the polar opposite of consumerism because it is always seeking the welfare and benefit of others rather than ourselves.

Such a calling requires people who are constantly asking questions. If Hirsch is right that 'the most vigorous forms of community are those that come together in the context of a shared ordeal or those that define themselves as a group with a mission that lies beyond themselves - thus initiating a risky journey' (p25), then our gatherings should be awash with questions about what we're doing, why and how we'll do it.

The church's mantra should focus less on answers (the usual focus of teaching programmes that fill our people's heads with information) and more on questions (what is the shape of discipleship in the context we actually live in? How do we live for others in that context?)

So I agree with anonymous that 'Christian teaching might not be all it's cracked up to be' in this sense: if a teaching programme is just about filling people's heads with information that has precious little effect on how we live when we're not in church, then it's not going to make disciples and is really a complete waste of evryone's time.

And it's not what Jesus did. As Hirsch points out: Jesus 'spoke in confusing riddles (parables) that evoked spiritual search in the hearers. Nowhere does he give three-point devotional sermons that cover all the bases. His audience had to do the hard work of filling in the blanks. In other words, they were not left passive but were activated in their spirits.' (p44)

Now that would shake things up a bit.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Consuming our way to disicpleship?

Started reading Alan Hirsch The Forgotten ways: Reactivating the Missional Church. He's the co-author (with Michael Frost) of the Shaping of Things to Come. As expected it's good stuff so far.

Following my previous post, Hirsch says this about church, based on a couple of diagrams of the way churches are laid out, 'we plainly cannot consume our way into discipleship.' (p45)

I think that's pretty prescient. He's arguing that our basic mode of operating in church is consumerist. And this applies to traditional, seeker-friendly or off the wall experimental gatherings. Each is seeking to meet a need in an audience member.

'They come to "get fed". But is this a faithful image of the church? Is the church really meant to be a "feeding trough"for otherwise capable middle-class people who are getting their careers on track? And to be honest, it is very easy for ministers to cater right into this: the prevailing understanding of leadership is that of the pastor-teacher. people gifted in this way love to
teach and care for people, and the congregation in turn loves to outsource learning and to be cared for.' (p43).

His argument - that I'm really forward to seeing him unpack - is that churches have to get smaller (and more numerous) so that everyone participates rather than comes along for the ride; and they have to get a whole lot more serious about relationships: 'a church is formed not by people just hanging out together, but by ones bound together in a distinctive bond. There is a certain obligation to one another formed around a covenant.' (p40). Such a covenant community is serious about worship, discipleship and mission.

I guess where this fits with the previous post is in the area of how our gathering help to make disciples. Part of the church's weakness in the UK is that we're not very good at making disciples. We have attenders, friends, even members; but how many disciples do we have and how do we measure growth in their discipleship?

I think my disquiet about our teaching programmes is that I'm not convinced that the learning outcome is discipleship - and anything less than that is a waste of everyone's time, isn't it?

Getting on the hamster wheel

Confession time. I've found it really hard getting back on the hamster wheel.

Autumn is coming and I need a teaching programme for the church. I've tried this and that, one permutation of topics with another of exposition - you know the kind of thing... And always at the back of my mind has been the nagging question 'why?'

I've blogged before about how the church is good at teaching programmes but not very good at learning outcomes (as you can see from the fact that I'm bloigging about this again!) I have been constantly thinking as I've wrestled with dates and deadlines, subjects and scriptures 'what's the point of all this?'

Our church has a reputation as a good teaching church. but is anyone learning anything? Isn't the autumn just one more turn round the hamster wheel where we move from week to week tackling a new meaty subject before we've had the chance to digest last week's meal?

And what difference does it make? are our people better equipped to make sensible judgements about relationships, decisions about what to spend their money on? Are they kinder, gentler, more gracious and out-going people at work? Do they embody the values of Jesus in their daily lives and conversation?

So I was having a chat yesterday with one of our young adults, an intelligent, thoughtful committed guy, who was telling me - in effect - that he was all sermoned out. What he'd really like is a chance to reflect on what we're learning, interact with others learning the same things, pray through issues we're facing at home and work.

Of course, we get a chance to do this in home groups. But the trouble is that church on Sundays just gives a whole load more stuff to process and really nowhere to go and process it.

So, as I've said before, we're going to try to be even more interactive at our Later Service on Sundays, more responsive to where people are at with the material we've already engaged with, more alert to the issues people have faced in the previous week and how what we're learning might help them face them more faithfully.

In short we're going to try to turn our hamster wheel into a hamster ball - something that actually goes somewhere rather than just round and round in circles.