Monday, November 30, 2009

Starting the Advent adventure of discovery

As it's Advent, the start of the Church's year, I've decided to modify the look of my blog. I haven't done it for ages. I thought this template was the prettiest.

Advent is a lovely season, a time of reflection as we await the coming of Jesus. Of course, it's a season that's been cheapened by the clamour to spend and over-consume. But it's possible to be aware of the presence of God even in the thick of the high street mob chasing pre-Christmas bargains.

He's there in the echo of the carol drifting from a shop, the wide-eyed wonder of a child pointing at the lights in the windows, the care taken to buy a loved one that one perfect gift.

This year we've joined the Advent Conspiracy, a movement that originates in the US that invites us to think about the meaning of Christmas and make how we spend, give and celebrate a function of our worship.

We kicked it off in church yesterday and I think it went down pretty well. Lots of people agreed but were left asking practical questions about how this might alter how we celebrate Christmas to bring it more into line with the values of Jesus. hopefully, we'll tease out some answers to those question in the coming couple of weeks.

I shall be using Maggi Dawn's Beginnings and Endings as my advent readings this year.

And over the next week, i shall be compiling my festive top ten of essential listening from this year's output of CDs. It's shaping up nicely.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The core fact of our faith

Some good responses to the last post - check out the comments. I agree with a lot of what's there.

I guess I'd say one of the facts that convinces me to take the message of Jesus seriously is this one: the existence across the Roman empire by the end of the first century of small communities of people who believed that Jesus was exclusively the way to experience God.

This is a hard, uncontested fact that demands an explanation for the following reasons

There were lots of cults and religions, philosophies and ways of understanding life in the Roman world. By and large, it was a tolerant culture. providing you bowed the head to the cult of the emperor two or three times a year, you could believe pretty much whatever you liked. And the social expectation was that you'd honour the local gods, the deities of whatever trade you pursued and anything else you chose to.

The amazing thing was that the followers of Jesus were prepared to drop every other faith and worship Jesus exclusively. Only the Jews were similar - but they were a special case because for the most part they were an ethnic group and therefore born that way. The gentile followers of Jesus chose to believe what they did.

And the reason why these early followers of Jesus were prepared to drop all other allegiances - sometimes at great cost to themselves - was because they believed that not only had Jesus lived and died but he had also risen from the dead. More than that, he was alive now and able to bring each believer an experience of God the like of which they'd never had before.

And these people were prepared to die for what they believed - and by the early decades of the second century, this was a relatively common occurrence.

How did a tiny, rural Jewish pressure group, whose leader was executed by the Romans for subverting the state, gain a gentile following in many major cities across the empire? How did it persuade sophisticated gentile people in Corinth and Ephesus, Antioch and even Rome itself, that it held the key to the meaning of life, a key worth surrendering one's life to hang onto?

Because of the resurrection. On the first Easter, the tomb where Jesus had been laid was empty; his disciples saw him, ate with him, listened to him and realised that he was the incarnation of God.

That's the only plausible explanation for the presence of the church in the second quarter of the first century - barely a generation after Jesus' death. And if the resurrection happened, then everything the New Testament says about Jesus is true and worth trusting one's life to.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Justifying mission - as if that's possible!

My anonymous conversation partner asks a range of salient questions about why the church should have a high street presence that go way beyond the mechanics, so I thought they deserved a response of their own.

I guess my starting point is that Jesus is the person who gives my life meaning, purpose depth and a sense of direction. And that Jesus urges me to share what I've found with other people.

Now I know that the church as we've inherited it is not a great vehicle for commending the message of Jesus to a sceptical world - hence my desire (expressed lots of times through this blog) to find other models of community and outreach. In this I am part of a big conversation with lots of other followers of Jesus.

So, when I say that the aim of being on the high street is to engage people in dialogue about Jesus with a view to introducing them to his way of living, I do not envisage many of them turning up at my church (or any other for that matter). Rather I envisage new styles of gathering growing out of those encounters, meeting there, in people's homes, in pubs, clubs or restaurants, being small and always involving the consuming of food and drink - much as Jesus did, in fact.

I agree that Christians have a chequered history. But I would suggest a visit to Sri Lanka and conversations with Christians who've been burned out of their homes and seen their land and churches stolen from under their noses by Buddhist monks before succumbing to the myth that Buddhism never did anyone any harm!

I am not going to give a point-by-point defence of the church, however, because everyone can tell stories of bad encounters, of people being badly treated and casually written off by church-goers in ways that are inexcusable. And it's happened in my church despite my best endeavours to prevent it and I'm deeply saddened by it.

But I would say that none of this - painful though it's been to me and I've no doubt to others - stops me from believing that Jesus remains the most important person who's ever lived, the only absolutely true and faithful representation of God on earth and the one whose message can and does genuinely bring life, hope and joy to millions of people around the world.

I believe the gospel to be the key to unlocking the good life of justice and equality that the world is crying out for and so I want that message to have a clear high street presence where it can shine in the neon darkness. I believe it to be a message of substance that needs to be sounded out amidst the clamour of the consumerist god which is leading our culture well and truly up the garden path to disillusionment, debt and despair.

As to whether the Christian message is sustainable over the long haul, I'd say 'yes'. It's sustained me for 35 years and a colleague I was talking to for 50 years this coming Sunday. And I could line up a room full of other witnesses who'd say the same. But, of course, it's not a question that can be answered at the start of walking with Jesus because he invites us to come and see if it's true. It's an adventure of faith we take with him and in company with others who support and pray with and for us.

It's that that I want to see on our high streets so people at least get a chance to see Jesus clearly and decide for themselves whether he might be offering the rich life they're hankering for.

Sorry if this sounds like a sermon - I am a preacher, after all...!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Connecting to create social capital

I guess the danger of suggesting a high street presence is that I lay myself open to a whole load of good retail analogies - the church is like Woolies in a lot of people's eyes; we cannot compete with big chain book sellers, etc... I think all those are legitimate points. I agree the church is a very tired brand indeed with no commercial future whatsoever.

So, I want to suggest two things about my thinking briefly that might round out what I said in my previous post and point to the thinking that underlies it.

The first is that I want to be a missional presence on the high street. My interest is in making Jesus known to people who don't know him. Those people are less and less likely to darken the doors of our church buildings. And having helped people encounter Jesus to see what kind of groups emerge that help people to be followers of Jesus. I do not think the inherited model of church has much of a future, so new ways of bringing disicples together are urgently needed.

The second is that I am also interested in generating social capital. In the midst of our retail wastelands there is precious little connection being made between people. I believe the church has a key role to play here - meaning 'church' as a community of people coming together because of Jesus rather than an institution that lays on services (precisely what Alan Hirsch talks about in his book The Forgotten Ways).

There is lots of analysis about the reasons for the sense of angst in our society. Both Brown and Cameron have recently laid out their stalls for making our neighbourhoods better places for everyone who lives in them. They don't really add up. Endless think tanks report on broken Britain or versions of it which create vast amounts of column inches in the papers but do little for the growing numbers of lonely and disconnected people in our neighbourhoods.

I genuinely think the gospel has something essential to contribute to the creation of social capital. I saw it in the 15 years I lived and worked in Peckham; I've seen it elsewhere. The kind of community that coalesces around the gospel generates social capital, helps neighbours connect with one another (whether they connect with Jesus or not).

So my idea for a high street presence is about more than retailing. It's about creating spaces where people can hang out, make friends, connect with other human beings, begin to work through issues, etc.

In many ways this is what church buildings did in previous generations but will no longer do precisely because decreasing amounts of people have confidence in the institution of the church to deliver anything they are looking for. What we need to discover are ways of earthing the gospel - which I still believe is the key to helping people get their lives together and satisfy the deep longings of the human heart - in fresh ways that don't carry all the old baggage.

This is a work in progress, so please comment and move the conversation on...

Saturday, November 21, 2009

So, what kind of High Street presence?

Well, my post on booksellers has gone Stateside (you can see where here) - which is a first for me! More than that, it's provoked the 'explain what you have in mind' question. So, here's a very unrefined first stab to get the conversation going...

It seems to me that if there are lots of people on our high streets - and judging by my shopping trip today, there are, despite the recession - then we need to create spaces where we can engage with them without taking them off those high streets and into an alien space, seemingly miles away.

So we need a retail space that is open, inviting, familiar and welcoming. I think the space needs to do coffee and snacks. The food needs to be fair trade, creatively done and competitively priced. We're not talking local church cake stall here.

We need a good range of Christian and other literature, including magazines - and space for people to browse, sit and read. Think Borders.

I'd like to see a gallery space downstairs with art being exhibited by local artists. I spoke to a guy last night while I was Street Pastoring who said there was a chronic shortage of space for artists to exhibit in across South London.

There needs to be free wi-fi and a number of spare laptops for those without machines to use. Wi-fi access could be granted to anyone who buys a beverage or food.

I'd also like to see a group of people on hand to assist those who come in to ensure they get what they need. The Apple Shops are good at this. People in different coloured tee shirts making sure that visitors have product explained to them, etc. One of the things that could be offered is a book ordering and advice service with a guarantee that we'll get anything in print within a week - unless it has to come from overseas - and we'll not restrict ourselves to Christian stock.

And then we need groups to be using the space, people exploring the Christian faith in various ways that are open and accessible to anyone who comes in. Perhaps an artist explaining her work, groups talking through local issues or world news, an alpha or Essence course, Christianity Explored - whatever local churches wanted to organise. The idea is that such groups would happen in space that lots of people who don't go to church would feel more comfortable in.

And we'd need regular cafe church-style happenings, lasting thirty minutes or so which anyone in the store at the time was invited to join in with.

Someone made a comment about Wesley Owen stores not being the most riveting places on the High Street. point taken. This space needs to be quirky, interesting, creative, well-designed and genuinely welcoming to all-comers. This might mean very carefully vetting which local church members you allow in!!

Anyway, this is off-the-top of my head, based on a wish and some experience of places like the Departure Cafe in Limehouse and a cafe I went to once went to in Deptford that had good food and an art space for a while.

It would require a deal of investment from people willing to see it as mission rather than a pure profit generator. And it would need a pool of committed, competent and trained volunteers from local churches, as well as people with experience in retailing and hospitality to come on board.

It's a tall order to do it well. But God's mission is worth stretching for, isn't it?

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nostalgia isn't the source of missional thinking

I'm preparing a sermon for Sunday on living in the now which is the final shout in our What's God got to do with it series. I want to reflect on a couple of things - our anniversary-besotted culture (so prevalent that Radio 4 aired a documentary on the subject a couple of weeks ago) and the church's tendency to indulge in nostalgia, the desire that things return to how they once were, which tends to stifle mission.

Even this morning , the Today programme is lauding the fact that Yes Minister will be thirty years old during next year's election and is about to be remade for Ukranian TV, an excuse to play vintage moments and interview Tony Jay, the writer. It is still seen as seminal political TV in a way that The Thick of It isn't (but give Iannucci's show thirty years and we'll come over all nostalgic about it).

Nostalgia prevents us from living in the present and facing its challenges. This is not to say that we can't learn from the past. The past has a huge amount to teach us and we need to study it to learn those lessons. But nostalgia is about wishing we were still in the past, thinking that the present is not as good as the past and refusing to take it as seriously as our history.

Nostalgia prevents genuinely new thinking being heard and adopted. I got a whiff of this in the debate about the future of Christian book selling over on the UK Christian booksellers blog (here). It's not that there aren't good ideas being expressed, but that one or two posters are saying there's nothing to be done because we're not in the situation we used to be in when people read books and had money to spend on them in Christian bookshops.

One comment talks about the church being strapped for cash, unable to meet its pensions and buildings maintenance bills because of falling numbers. Well, let's shut up shop now, then. Surely falling numbers is a spur to our thinking about what we're doing and why it's not attracting people in the way it used to.

The trouble is that we wistfully look back to the days when people came to our churches; nostalgia tells us the attractional model of mission works. But it doesn't. We are not attractive, very few people come out of the blue or because a friend invites them. So we have to find other ways of engaging people with the gospel.

Given that large numbers of our neighbours spend a lot of their leisure in the High Street, is there not a case for thinking how we might be present on the High Street, engaging them in conversation and creative ways of sharing the good news about Jesus?

If we don't get creative, we'll find it harder and harder to meet the pensions and maintenance bills. But much more important (cause, after all, the church can live without high-cost buildings) if we don't get creative lots of people will not have the opportunity to hear and engage with the good news about Jesus - and none of us want that, do we?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

missional thinking about the high street

Last night I finished Donald Miller's Blue Like Jazz. I really enjoyed it. It's a ramshackle, witty and well-written set of reflections on Christian spirituality. I recommend it.

I wouldn't have read it had by daughter, then working in our local Wesley Owen, not recommended it to me and ordered me a copy. I wonder how many of us are grateful to our local Christian bookshop for discovering new authors and encountering books that have had a shaping effect on our Christian lives.

Well, the news from Wesley Owen and its parent company is not good. The recession and other things are making life for them really difficult. Now, we've probably all contributed to this - we shop at Amazon, we don't read as many books as previous generations did (perhaps the publishers are partly to blame for this by not publishing what people want to read!).

But I wonder if this present trouble is an opportunity for fresh mission thinking and creative partnership between churches and the high street. After all, our neighbours are regularly on the high street and rarely in our buildings. The high street offers something they want. Analysts argue that shopping is a leisure activity and a source of 'spiritual' fulfilment in the absence of traditional organised religion. Missional thinkers have been rightly identifying consumerism as a rival god over recent years which makes the high street the place where we should be - as Paul was in amongst the idols of Athens - living and modelling a different form of spirituality to our neighbours.

And where better to do this than in a retail space that offers coffee, conversation, Internet access, books for browsing and buying, people to pray, space for groups to gather on a regular basis. The Christian bookshop could become a vital missional space with a bit of imagination on the part of church leaders and Christian retailers.

So are we up for this or will we all be lamenting the passing of the Christian presence on the high street the next time we gather at a conference to talk about how to do mission?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Getting into the Advent Conspiracy

Planning for Advent this year, I came across the Advent Conspiracy. I'm probably late to the party here but just in case of you haven't come across this initiative, it's really worth checking out.

The brain-child of three American pastors (who says nothing good comes from across the pond?), Rick McKinley, Chris Seay and Greg Holder, the Advent Conspiracy aims to help Christians reclaim Christmas from consumerism.

Check out it's website here where you can download the neat trailer they've filmed for it plus a whole host of other resources. The book from Zondervan takes a bit of hunting down because not many have allocated to the UK market.

we'll be launching into in two week's time, using Christian Aid as the vehicle for our giving to those in need.

Rick McKinley, by the way, is the pastor of the church - Imago Dei - that Donald Miller is a member of. Miller is author of a number of books, one of which Blue Like Jazz, I'm just finishing. It's really good.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Revelation's pastoral punch

The thing about Revelation 18 is that it is a withering attack on Roman economic power. Twinned with the wonderful satire of chapter 17, it makes for a powerful assault on imperial pretension. But it is placed where it is in John's Apocalypse, it seems to me, for maximum pastoral impact.

After all, the Apocalypse is a pastoral letter (among other things). And it struck me last night that John, having unwrapped the revelation he's received from the throne room in heaven, in the throes of spelling out the call of the followers of the Lamb to be the means through which the nations of the world are called to repentance, places this coruscating attack on Rome just before the denouement we're eagerly awaiting - namely the return of the Lamb and the restoration of creation.

And why place it there? For maximum pastoral impact, of course.

Having urged his hearers to loyalty in the seven brief message to each receiving church in chapters 2 and 3, he now asks them - the question is implied in how they respond to the lament over the fall of Rome - how would they feel if the empire was swept away?

Just how much are they plugged into the imperial way of life, how fat are they getting on its rich-pickings? How caught up in its buying and selling are they? Will they weep with the monarchs, merchants and mariners as they watch the city fall or will they rejoice with heaven that the enemy of the Lamb and persecutor of his people has had its come-uppance?

Couldn't help wondering what John would have made of the credit crunch, the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank and the market melt-down that followed... Of course, that was just a blip, a hiccough compared to what he describes in Revelation 18, but...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Clearing the decks

Well, I've had a great to getting to grips with Revelation 18 in the context of 15-19. It's not what I'm meant to be writing this week but the decks are now cleared to write world of the first Christians stuff tomorrow - yippee!!

It'll be interesting to see what people make of tonight's helping of the Apocalypse. We're focusing on John's critique of the economic power of Rome in chapter 18. And it's very relevant to the times we live in. Not for the usual escapist reasons but because John asks searching questions of where the loyalties of those who claim to follow the Lamb really lie.

I have really enjoyed getting this occasional series on the Apocalypse. I am going to see whether there's a book in the debris once it's all been delivered. I'm not sure I have anything original to say but I think a mid-level overview that brings the insights of Bauckham, Koester, Da Silva et al to the ordinary Christians who've suffered from a diet of Lindsay, LaHaye and the like for too long might find a market.

I've also discovered that I bought ten CDs this year that came out this year! So i shall be compiling my festive top ten over the next couple of weeks (I know you can hardly contain your excitement!)

Monday, November 09, 2009

the best laid plans...

Well, it's been a good day - and I haven't yet done any thing that I was planning to do this morning! Clearing the decks takes so long....

I'd forgotten that it's the next installment of the Apocalypse this Wednesday, so I need to do some preparation for that. it's been a blast doing it - though I'm not sure what it's added to sum of human happiness and well-being.

So, I've recast my week to take account of it.

I've been reflecting on what James says about making plans in 4:13-5:6 - in preparation for next Sunday afternoon and evening - and it's brought a wry smile to my face. Not that I was planning to make any money today as a result of my planning but, you know what they say, 'if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans'. I wonder if that's a sentiment James would have endorsed...

Remembrance in a busy week

So, a new week. Life's been pretty full-on over the past few days. This is partly because we took a week off. Now, the principle that works here is that when you take time off all that happens to your work schedule is that the first three days of a week away get crammed into the two days prior to departure, while the final four have to be squeezed in to your first two day's back. Consequently, you end up feeling knackered and in need of a holiday...

So, with Remembrance Sunday and the next installment of James to prepare plus meetings relating to the youth charity I'm a trustee of, my three days back in the hot seat last week were pretty full-on.

I find Remembrance Sunday tricky. For some in the church there are personal memories of distant conflicts - especially the second world war and national service in the 1950s - for others there is a sense of wanting to honour a history that we've only really accessed in school. But for one family in my congregation yesterday, the day was especially significant as their son was deploying to Afghanistan that very morning.

A couple of people spent the summer researching the names that appear on our two war memorials in church and yesterday Janice reported on who these men were. It was fascinating but more than that, it put our remembrance in a very real context: here were men who were our brothers in Christ - Sunday school teachers, bookstall managers, players in our church football team - who'd been lost at the age of our older young people (late teens into twenties).

It made our two minutes silence profoundly moving.

This week, I am mostly writing. I want to get a chapter of my Lion book dispatched to my very patient editor and polish off a draft chapter of my MA. Even as I type these words, I think that sounds ridiculously ambitious... We'll see, I guess!

To keep me company, I have the Fever Ray album, Editors and Moby - all pretty wonderful - which reminds me that I will soon be compiling my festive top ten... Now, I need some coffee, I think.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The edited highlights

Just back from a great week in North Devon.

The highlights included discovering some really top notch restaurants in Ilfracombe. The pick of the bunch was 6 St James, a bistro offering superb food in a wonderful relaxed setting. But we didn't have a duff meal anywhere we ate.

We also saw Up - no Lucy, it wasn't on offer in 3D in Ilfracombe - which was great. The depiction of the hero's life with his wife, told from meeting to her death in about 8-10 minutes, was profoundly moving and brilliantly done. And it's a great yarn, well characterised and told.

We got lots of fresh air - in particular walking the headland above Woolacombe Bay - and yesterday, despite the rain, we toured some lovely seaside towns including Appledore and Instow.

Now, it's back to the grindstone - yippee!!!