Sunday, May 29, 2011

Seeing God at work in the sun

Greetings from Gran Canaria - Las Palmas, to be precise. The contrast with Lanzarote couldn't be more pronounced. Whereas Lanzarote is relatively sparsley populated with uniformly white houses collected in small and medium sized hamlets, Las Palmas is a sprawling city of multi-coloured high rises and bustling streets. Las Palmas is the commercial centre and political capital of the group of islands but I'm not sure how it sustains its population of half a million people.

Today I have been in two contrasting but wonderfully vibrant churches. This morning I was in a suburb in a church that was built about twenty years ago and is at the moment in the throes of creating a basement about the same size as the church containing a lounge, accommodation for both sexes, bathrooms and a kitchen capable of catering for large numbers. They hope to use it for conferences - especially of young people - but more importantly, as a base for social outreach. They are planning a food bank and already have the local Spar lined up to supply some food, clothes distribution and possibly a medical work of some kind as they have family doctors and nurses in the church keen to do something.

This evening I was in a city centre church in Las Palmas, squeezed into a rented hall used by two other churches and a host of other groups. But they took me to their new building, a shop front, round the corner from their hall at the foot of an apartment block. They have just secured the bank loan needed to complete the job and hope to have it done in three months, but this being Spain, a month is a flexible measure of time.

Both churches are not short of faith and energy, vision and a desire to reach out to their immediate neighbourhoods. It is heartening to see God at work in a context that we Brits usually only see as a holiday destination, not a place where locals live. I've been blessed to share a little of the lives of the people who live here all the time.

So tomorrow I'm off to La Palma (not to be confused with Las Palmas), the Westerly-most island, the greenest and most difficult to navigate, to link up with a German/Spanish church planting couple who are working in three centres across the island. Their daughter has been one of my translators at the conference and this morning, and probably the best. The translators have each done a great job for me; I'm grateful to them and to God for the skills and gifts they've put at my and his disposal.

And so to bed...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A good congress

The congress is over., Yesterday went really well with about 20 people responding at the end of the evening session on Luke 10. Tomorrow, I fly to Gran Canaria to preach in two churches, stay overnight nd then on to La Palma to meet the team there, led by a wonderful German/Spanish couple, and then back to Lanzarote on Tuesday evening. Should be fun.

It's been great to meet so many wonderful people over the past couple of days and intriguing that so many are from places other than the Canaries - quite a few from Argentina, some from Chile and Columbia. Indeed many have commented on how transnational the churches are here, often to the extent that there are very few Canary Islanders among them!

I've had a number iof invitations to return, so it might not be my last visit here. Next time, I'll combine with a holiday and bring Linda, however.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Celebrating the God who's with us all the days

Greeings from the Canary Islands. It's been lovely walking in the sunshine, sharing conversation with new friends here on Lanzarote. Now I am pondering what to say to the ministers this evening at their gathering ahead of the conference starting properly tomorrow. I think I'm going to reflect a little on Matthew 28 as tomorrow I am going to focus on Luke 10 in the two sessions I am doing.

There are so many things I could say in the light of today's conversions but I have to stick to something manageable which I can deliver with confidence in about 20 minutes because with translation that will make a forty minute session - plenty long enough in this heat, I think (it's about 25 degrees).

I shall reflect on how Matthew 28 offers us resources for a missional lifestyle, supported by the promise that Jesus is with us 'all the days' - the good ones and the grotty ones, the ones when everything goes well and our minsitries are flying and the ones when everything comes apart and our ministries feel like so much hot air and the majority of them when things are pottering along, and it's all ok but we're not sure what it amounts to.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sharing missional thoughts in the Canaries

Tomorrow I'm off to Lanzarote to speak at the Canary Islands Baptist Mission Conference (it's a tough job but someone really has to do it!). I shall be delivering four sessions - one to ministers, the other three to the conference as a whole.

I'm sure that Roxburgh's thinking will feature heavily in what I share from Luke 10. It will be interesting to see how churches in a very context to mine respond to these ideas.

One of the challenges for us in what Roxburgh says about mission is how we see the people who live next door and across the street as 'neighbours'. It's a challenge because lots of them live in networks rather than neighbourhoods; they mix with the people they know and like from their leisure pursuits or workplaces, from the links that have been made via their children.

Now some of these network links look suspiciously like neighbourly relations. But others aren't because interaction will take place miles from home. The challenge of Roxburgh's thinking is whether we can model the life of faith where we live with those among whom we live. But I think there's another challenge here that has to do with how we can contribute to making the streets we live in into neighbourhoods where people interact with one another, look out for each other, laugh and cry with each other.

Sociologists talk of this in terms of social capital. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone argued that the growing individualism and consumerism of our culture was leading to a decline in social capital. Does the Christian community have a role in reversing this decline? Is this part of being a missional people? I think the answer to this is probably 'yes'. But I am not sure how.

I'll be reflecting on this as I sip sangria watching the sun set over the sea with new friends in the coming week and as I share coffee and glasses of wine with various friends through this coming summer in gardens, cafes and pubs around here. Perhaps, I'll stumble on an insight or two. I'd be interested to know your thoughts...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Joining God in the neighbourhood

Having finished Alan Roxburgh's book, I thought I'd reflect on how I feel his analysis of our situation and Luke's writings is shaping how I think about my task in Bromley.

The first thing to note is that I agree absolutely with the thrust of his argument. 'The road onto which we are being called is counter-intuitive; it calls us to leave behind our bags filled with methods and models of how to make the church work by creating programmes that will attract and catch people. The way of the Spirit involves going on the road as a stranger, needing to receive hospitality from the other. This is a strange inversion of categories and actions - it does not fit with the way of life we have developed as middle-class individualists living in a "make yourself" capitalist culture.' (p130 - that last sentence certainly describes the church I lead!)

He argues for a resolutely neighbourhood-based approach to living our Christian story. He suggests that the way we have done church over the past 100+ years in the west has alienated us from our neighbours. This combined with the rise of the network society that has led to mission theologies putting network and connections ahead of where we live, has led to a chronic level of disconnection between Christians and their neighbours and, tragically, our neighbours and the Christian life.

Roxburgh ruefully asks: 'can we grasp the implications of what we've become when we have to train people how to have conversations with neighbours or set times aside to talk with another human being? What kind of inhuman world have we created for ourselves, and how has the church managed to accept it and develop the marketing skills to manage it? Can we be that far away from the gospel of our Lord that we don't see what we have become?' (p146) Ouch!

I confess to having waxed lyrical in the past about our need to capitalise on our networks, how our neighbours really no longer understand themselves to be neighbourhood people but rather people who live in a world of connections that arise through work, shared interests, etc. I don't doubt that this is true. But I agree with Roxburgh that we have allowed ourselves to be shaped by a world that judges relationships this way rather than fashioned by a gospel that asks us to look for and act as 'a neighbour' (Luke 10:36).

Clearly we need to relate to those we work with, people who often live miles from where we do. But equally clearly, Roxburgh seems to be on to something when he says that the focus of our living should be local. In particular, it means that the focus of what the church does should be local, centred on the places where church people live, shop, find entertainment and education for their children. Instead of inviting people to join our programme in our building, is God saying to us 'see what's going in your street, among your neighbours; look at what I'm doing there and come and join me'?

This, of course, involves big changes in the way we disciple people and the way we organise church. It also raises questions about our role in generating neighbourhood-based social captial in the communities where we live, seeing the church, Christians, as a key means of bringing people together and creating a sense of neighbourhood identity. I'll reflect on that later.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Apocalypse postponed

So the apocalypse is postponed and the after rapture parties are still in full swing across the US. And it's all a good laugh and we can roll our eyes in disbelief and mutter 'only in America'.

Harold Camping should, of course, take the Bible more seriously and see that when Jesus says that about that day or hour no one knows, not even angels or Jesus himself (Mark 13:32), he means that no one knows, not even clever people using dubious maths to find underlying patterns in the text.

Perhaps the lesson from all this is two-fold. First let's learn to listen to and trust what Jesus actually said. And second let's be careful spouting nonsense in his name that brings the gospel into disrepute

Friday, May 20, 2011

Sharing the story with our neighbours

 As promised, here's my church magazine musings on uke 10. I haven't edited it, so you'll have to forgive the one or details that are specific to my situtation. Just read it as contextual theology!

At the church meeting in early May, the leaders gave some details of what they’d talked about at their awayday in March. Part of our focus then was on how the church needed to look for new ways to engage in mission.

We did not return from Southend with a blueprint for the future (churches should always be sceptical of leaders with blueprints!). But we did come back pretty convinced that we needed to look for ways to give opportunities for groups to form that are committed sharing the good news of Jesus with people who don’t and won’t come to church as we currently do it.

Looking at Luke 10 recently on Sunday morning, I suggested that Luke was telling us something profound about our mission. Clearly Luke told this story – a very specific one about a detail of Jesus’ journey south from Galilee to Jerusalem – because it offered an insight for his original audience – mainly small Gentile churches scattered across the Roman empire – into how they should approach mission.

A summary of the story is that mission is simply about living our lives where our neighbours live theirs. Simple though this summary is, it has profound implications for the way we organise ourselves as a church. It seems to me that there are six key things we need to learn from Luke 10:1-11 (a fuller version of this is posted on the church website along with the recording of the sermon on which it’s based).

1) pray: all our living starts in prayer. We are who we are because we pray; we discover our identity in God through praying on our own and with others. Here in verse 2, Jesus tells his followers to see the problem they faced – that the harvest is ready, but there are few workers to bring it in – and to pray. They can do nothing to solve this problem unless they pray. Likewise, we will not discern the way forward as a church unless we pray. All effective mission begins in prayer. But we also need to remember that as we pray, God will almost certainly invite us to be the answer to that prayer.

2) go: Jesus sends us to share story we live by with those who do not know it. People no longer come to church because they simply have no idea what church is for. So Jesus gives his followers two instructions as he sends them to their neighbours. The first is that we need to travel light. For us this means that we shouldn’t see mission as being about programmes and strategies. Jesus invites us to ‘leave all that at door, go empty handed and see what I’m already doing in your neighbourhood.’ It was the way he himself did mission as he tells us in John 5:17.

Secondly, he says that we should accept hospitality from our neighbours. Of course, in our society this is not always easy and often we will create spaces and occasions where we can interact with our neighbours. But the important principle here is that we need to let our neighbours set the agenda for this and not us. We often want to tell people information they are not seeking and answer questions they’re not asking – and hence we don’t connect with them.

3) eat: real connection between people happens at the dinner table: people open up to each other’s stories in the shared conviviality of sharing a meal. In this regard, all meals are a bit like communion.

4) work: why does Jesus tell these missionaries that ‘ a worker is worth is worth their hire?’ (v7b). It’s not to make a case for paid ministry but merely to recognise that in the culture in which Luke is writing, when people stayed with other people, they mucked in with the household tasks.

This suggests something really important about our mission: we will work alongside people who don’t share our view of life in order to create public good. We do this in the workplace with our work colleagues; we also do it in joint projects that seek to address a social need; and we’ll do it in organising events that bring neighbours together round a BBQ or street party or a gardening project that enables the able bodied to help those less able to look after their gardens because of age or infirmity.

5) stay: (v7): mission is not really about doing events, one-offs. Rather, it’s about going and staying, about making relationships over the long haul, sharing the ups and downs of our neighbours’ lives, being there with and for them. In short, mission is about being the Kingdom of God in the streets where we live.

6) share our story: finally mission is about sharing the story of our lives as they have been transformed and shaped by the story of Jesus – but this is the final part of engaging in mission. Mission is not about learning a whole load of techniques – how to answer certain tricky questions, steer the conversation round to the four spiritual laws. Mission is always about relationship: tell me your story, I’ll tell you mine.

Inevitably my story grows from my relationship with Jesus fed by the Word, prayer and fellowship (this is why we gather on Sundays!). And we believe that our story can bring peace and healing to our neighbours, most of whom are not looking for answers to difficult philosophical questions. Most people want to know they’re loved by us and possibly by God; that they are not alone; that their lives can make sense…            

This is why mission is about living our lives where our neighbours live theirs. Doing this could lead to people hearing the story that is making our lives what they are.

Living in the story that shapes our lives

Well, what a week! interviewing for a youth worker, teaching Romans 9-11 at Spurgeon's, reflecting on a spirituality of ageing for church on Sunday and in between all that finishing Roxburgh's excellent book. In fact, I got through the major sections on Luke 10 in time to reflect on this passage as a 'great commission' for the times we live in at church last Sunday morning. I was able to condense those thoughts into my piece for next month's church magazine. I will post that shortly.

First, however, I want to comment on something Roxburgh does a lot which I have found really helpful. He suggests that we seek to dwell in the story we are reading - in this case Luke 10. It seems to me to be a great way of ensuring that we don't rush to judgement on a passage, find what our excitement has told us we will obviously find there. Dwelling is about slowing down, reading the passage carefully, reading it again in a different version, pondering the language.

Roxburgh recommends reading the passage until it starts to live inside us and we in it. It is only then that we begin to hear the Spirit speaking to us in and through the text. This way of reading saves us from using scripture as a kind of marketing manual, getting away from seeing this missional approach that Roxburgh is recommending as just another technique that is going to save the church. It isn't and it won't.

The other key thing to bear in mind as we come to Luke 10 is that this story is told in the context of Luke using the story of Jesus' relationship with his followers to teach us about discipleship. Mission flows out of discipleship. It is not a technique learned by people who want to keep themselves busy in a religious way.

I am writing this on my new laptop, by the way.It's a rather nice Acer Aspire, fast with excellent graphics.

My thoughts on Luke 10 follow shortly.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Exhilarating reading

So I am continuing to read Alan Roxburgh's Missional: Joining God in the Neighbourhood with a smile on my face and sense of anticipation in my spirit. It's not that I agree with everything he says but that he provides a way of thinking about the mission God calls us to that is rich and plausible and rooted in scripture in a way that so much missional thinking isn't.

He argues - as I've already noted - that we need to base our call to mission in texts other than Matthew 28. It's not that Matthew's account of the Great commission should be ditched, just that it should be heard alongside other texts that similarly call Jesus' followers to mission. Roxburgh chooses Luke 10 (the subject of my next post on the book and, coincidentally, the subject of next Sunday morning's sermon) and seeks to place Luke's writing in a plausible historical context to answer the question why he recounts this story of the mission of the 70 at all.

Following Bosch and Green, Roxburgh dates Luke to the second Christian generation, a time when the first wave of apostolic leaders have quit the scene. He also notes that Luke isn't just interested in recounting history; he is writing to help his first audience of small, scattered gentile churches see what God is up to in their world as well as the world of Jesus and the first apostles. Luke chose to tell his story in a way that would resonate with and offer help to his first hearers. He is also right to highlight the sense of disillusion some of these churches would be feeling. Many would have expected the second coming to have happened by now, instead of which, the power of Rome is growing and the claims of Caesar for quasi-religious allegiance ever stronger. With the first generation of eye witnesses now dead and gone, the small gentile communities of Jesus followers were asking questions about what God was really up to. I certainly agree with him on Rome, I'm not sure about expectations of the second coming being so strong in the late first century - but it's a minor quibble.

Roxburgh argues that Luke attempts to address these concerns by compiling a two-volume story that aims to locate his first hearers in a new narrative understanding of God's actions in the world. Luke shows that God took a Jewish renewal movement and grew it into a vehicle for bringing his reign to the whole world. Roxburgh uses this insight - commonly held among scholars - to question our western (he's writing for a North American audience) reliance on the Euro-centric Reformation reading of our faith. This is a vital insight. It comes at a time when New Testament scholars are questioning some of the Reformation's emphases in its reading of Paul and the nature of the gospel; in particular the intense, almost exclusive, focus on justification by faith being the be-all-and-end-all of it.

So Roxburgh retells the narrative of Acts as the story of how God breaks boundaries between peoples so that everyone can share in the good news of Jesus. He points out that this involved the conversion of the earliest Christians as they came face-to-face with the Spirit of God pushing them into mission among people they thought were not included in God's plans. This otherwise excellent chapter contains an uncharacteristic clanger referring to James, the Lord's brother, being killed in Acts 12 when it is James, the brother of John, who is executed by Herod (p111). But that doesn't in any way detract from the force of Roxburgh's argument.

Drawing a parallel between the situation of Luke's first hearers and we who live in a Reformation settlement, Roxbugh articulates the question many church leaders think, even if they don't ask out loud: what's gone wrong? How come when we are faithfully proclaiming the gospel that has come down to us from our European forefathers, is the church declining like there's no tomorrow? Roxburgh's answer is that nothing's gone wrong, the Spirit is breaking out the box in which we have confined him for countless generations and that is both scary and exhilarating.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Passing another milestone

Last week I heard from Lambeth Palace that I had been awarded the Archbishop's Degree of Master of Arts (MA) by Thesis for my dissertation A Church in Every Workshop? The Economic, Physical and Social Location of the Early Pauline Communities. I will be graduating on Monday 6 June at Lambeth Palace at an event hosted by the Archbishop himself (very exciting!)

I am naturally delighted that the 50,000 words I produced was deemed worthy of the award, delighted too that I do not need to make any major revisions to the dissertation ahead of getting bound and lodged in the Lambeth Palace library! It will, however, be interesting to see what my examiners have made of the argument.

In many ways, it is the academic underpinning of the book that came out last month, The World of the Early Church (Lion Hudson), though it takes a slightly more definite line on the presence of wealthier members of Roman society (they were few and far between) and argues that the typical Pauline community - probably the overwhelming majority of the groups he planted around the empire - met in workshops or the living spaces behind or above them.

Rooting mission in the right texts

Alan Roxburgh's challenge to our missional thinking goes deep. As he introduces his reflections on Luke's gospel, he paints a picture of churches in the west in thrall to a reformation settlement that has placed Matthew 28:18-20 in the driving seat as the key missional text. These are the verses people think of when we speak of the 'great commission'; these are the verses that jump-started the western missionary expansion in the late eighteenth century, that continued to fire delegates at the Edinburgh conference in 1910.

But as Roxburgh points out - as many have done before him - this text is also associated with empire (something Matthew would find richly ironic!). The missionary movement associated with this text was one that went to the world with a package of answers framed in western thought forms, geared to answer the questions western culture had been asking and assuming that this package would suit everyone; it was the classic one-size-fits-all approach to Christian mission.

Roxburgh's discussion of all this is compelling and challenging. His remedy is not to ditch to Matthew 28 but to recognise that there are other powerful mission texts within the gospels that need to be heard. He favours letting Luke 10 shape the way we approach the task God has given the followers of Jesus for reasons we'll explore after we've reflected on Roxburgh's overall approach to the setting of Luke-Acts (that's for the next post).

For now, I want to reflect on another comment he makes about how we as church leaders think about missional texts - indeed many biblical passages. He argues that 'Just as Luke does not offer the gentile Christians forms of adjustment, so our crisis of meaning as Christians will not be addressed with one more set of tactics.' This is sentence well worth pausing at and pondering long and hard. There are so many 'tactics' on offer to help churches in the UK turn the corner and step into growth again. Some are good short-term fixes - like Alpha, cafe church, even Messy Church. But the danger of them is that they assume rearranging the furniture on the Titanic will stop us hitting the iceberg.

Rather, 'we need to allow the story of what God is doing in the world to reform us all over again in a different way. Asking questions and developing new "missional" church tactics will not address this.' (p89). I argued this case in Building a Better Body (chapter 7) but not at such depth as Roxburgh does here.