First post of the year... Let's just say that 2013 has got off to a frenetic start. Anyway, as is my custom, here's my piece from the church magazine that will be hitting the chairs on Sunday. Although it is focused on Bromley, I think it applies more widely.
We were sitting downstairs in Costa on a cold Tuesday morning, warming our hands on Americanos: a retired catholic layman, a Pentecostal woman who works for the council, an Anglican priest and me. We’d met to pray for the night shelter and having done that we were chatting.
Ann said something along the lines of Bromley being unlike anywhere she’d lived in that the churches were so up for working together. We all raised our eyebrows. Others asked why and we fell into a conversation about cooperation and being able to put aside the issues that divide us and focus on what we can do together.
It reminded me of a conversation I’d had right at the start of my ministry. It was with my director of training at what was then called London Bible College. Nick Mercer, a Baptist minister who has since become an Anglican priest and now serves as a Bishop’s chaplain in central London, remarked that it was interesting that I was going to Peckham because it was ‘the networking capital of the Christian world’ by which he meant churches and Christian leaders worked well together.
Following Ann’s comment in Costa’s basement, I fell to thinking about what it is that leads to some places being better than others in this matter of Christians working together. I’m not sure I’ve arrived at any great insights but I think what we have in Bromley is worth celebrating – as we did recently at the joint service at the start of the week of prayer for Christian unity. But more than that, I think it might be worth asking what God is saying to us at Bromley Baptist Church about how we see the future shape of our mission here.
We highlighted five ministries at the joint service at the start of the week of prayer for Christian unity – night shelter, Foodbank, JusB, street pastors and the chaplaincy – that were started by individuals who wanted to see the local churches mobilised in response to a specific need. Each of these – of which Foodbank is the most recent – work because Christians from across the churches come together and work to achieve specific goals in our community.
What is remarkable about these projects is that Christians from a whole range of traditions and denominations are able to come together and focus on the task in hand without feeling the need to agree a theological agenda beforehand. In many ways that agenda has already been given to us clearly in scripture; in Titus 3:14, for example: ‘let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive.’ Paul has already outlined in Titus 2:11-16 that the goal of our being brought to faith in Christ is that we become a people who are zealous for good works. Doing demonstrates that our faith has a distinctive contribution to make to our neighbourhood.
What many of us have found as we have worked together with people from other churches is that what we have in common is so much more important than what might divide us. Now I don’t want to downplay doctrinal difference and emphasis. I am a Baptist, after all, by conviction, not by accident; I have chosen this form of churchmanship after prayer and study and in response to what I know to be the leading of God.
But I can work with Christians who do not share my convictions because we recognise that Jesus calls us to action on behalf of others. For too long Christians have lived in silos, doing their own thing in their own way and the losers have been our neighbours in need whose needs have gone unmet.
As Paul reminds us, those needs are urgent, whereas dotting doctrinal ‘i’s’ and crossing theological ‘t’s’ isn’t. What has been brilliant about churches together is that we have been able to create opportunities for those needs to be met in ways that have enabled countless Christians from all our churches to lead productive, fruitful and fulfilling lives.
So, I wonder what this says to us about the decisions we need to be making this year about the future direction of our own church. One obvious thing is that we need to redouble our efforts to support those projects that are already up and running and are showing God’s love to our neighbours in practical and tangible ways. But can we go further?
Are there ministries that would be better done across churches rather than within individual communities? Can we offer programmes for our young people, our senior citizens and others that span more than one church? This would be a way of pooling resources at a time when they are tight for every church; it could also be a way of responding more creatively and imaginatively to the needs of these groups both within and beyond our churches.
It seems that there is an open door for effective and cooperative mission ion our town. Let’s all be praying about how we can most usefully walk through that door and make our contribution to seeing God’s love shared with our neighbours and his Kingdom take ever more intriguing shape in our midst.
You are absolutely right. I think that Christians quite often work better together than worship together. And that working together is, in turn, very beneficial to what is sometimes called "the Ecumenical Project".
Here in Ipswich the churches are also doing several things that you are doing in Bromley (Night Shelter, Town Pastors but not Food Bank as yet). We are in the process of setting up a Charitable Trust which will be able to facilitate all interchurch social action - it will be a "shadow" organisation that offers some co-ordination and support and provides a legal framework to simplfy such activities.
Christian leaders do meet regularly for prayer and fellowship but it does tend to be Evangelicals rather than the wider Church. Certainly we found that the old "Churches Together" model didn't work for us (too "institutional", and seen by some as "liberal"); however the new relational model of "Heart4Ipswich" poses its own challenges.
As a general rule, I think that interchurch stuff works best when leaders trust each other (with the downside that it can all collapse when some folk move on). There is also something about the actual community having a certain coherence and fairly clear boundaries: small towns seem to do best. You have done well in Bromley but perhaps it is more socially-cohesive than some parts of Greater London.
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