Saturday, April 30, 2005

let's hear it for...

I've been in the garden most of the day. Boy, do I ache....

On the CD player at the moment, the wonderful Kaiser chiefs' Employment - bright breezy, blur-like brit-pop. Not a bad tune in sight, lots of great hooks and some nice lines.

It's replaced the Eels new masterpiece, a double album with not a duff track in sight. Blinking Lights and Other Revelations, Mark Everett's mature reflection on life and loss, is curiously uplifting. If you're not familiar with Eels, they've been around 6 or 7 years and have produced a string of very listenable albums. E - as Mark Everett is known - is a Gen X popster of some skill. Following the first album, he was hit by the detah of his mother and sister and has written quite a lot about that experience. This latest album is probably the final word. Well worth checking out.

Following last week's cafe church triumph, it's back to regular church tomorrow evening. I've found preparing for it difficult. I keep thinking of things we could do cafe-style with the theme...

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Cafe church revisited

The verdicts on our cafe church on Sunday night are universally positive.

People have spoken of the inclusive atmosphere, the valuing of all contributions, the stimulating nature of the input, the mixture of serious discussion and humour.

So it's down to me to enter the caveats, I guess (though I'm sure others are on their way!).

Firstly, it took a lot of work. If you're ging to do anything like this, set aside three or four working days and get people to help. A small group generating ideas with individuals going off to work ideas up into timed contributions is the best way of doing this. Also be aware of the sheer physical effort of reconfiguring the seating and putting it all back again afterwards.

Secondly, we prepared far too much material for Sunday evening. And it was difficult to edit as we went along. Consequently, I think we overran by at least 20 minutes - though one group who were still talking half an hour after it finished, said they thought it was too short!

So, I think the small group needs to generate ideas, get some of them worked up a bit and then edit out the ones that aren't absolutely top-notch.

I also thought we needed to leave more space to let things sink in. For example, we had a good piece of drama, excellently performed, but weren't able to leave space around it for people to ponder its impact.

Thirdly, I felt that it was a bit static. people sat for the best part of two hours (though no one complained aboutb that). I would like to get people moving at the next one. My thought is that we'll have three areas of operation, with everyone all together for some of the time and dispersed around the zones at other times.

Those are small caveats really. I thought the evening went really well. My major headache is that we've no room for growth in our space. we had 130-ish in our worship area and it was full! Apart from knocking the building down and building a bigger one (not an option), what can I do to fit more people in?

Monday, April 25, 2005

Cafe Church

We held our first cafe-style evening service yesterday. So I'm knackered...

First impressions are that it went really well. There are lessons to reflect on (which I will do later in the week). A good number turned up - well, we ran out of chairs and tables and people had to go upstairs. Lots of people sent text messages - too many for us to answer all their comments and questions. There was a great atmosphere and everyone - whatever age group they came from - said they really enjoyed it. In fact one group - who didn't leave church until 8:40pm - said they thought it should have gone on longer!

We tackled the issue of poverty - why Christians should be in vanguard of the make poverty history campaign.

Next time we're looking at suffering - why a God of love allows it. We'll tackle it differently. I think we'll have to adopt a more liquid approach and get people moving throughout the church building.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Liquid worship

Michael Moynagh and Tim Lomax have written a very interesting Grove booklet on Liquid Worship. Taking their cue from Pete Ward's book of the same title, the authors outline strong theological and practical reasons for adopting a more liquid approach to our gatherings.

By liquid they mean that worship services are created around a series of zones that participants visit in an order of their choosing. The group might come together for some activities - such as communion or coffee - but by and large each individual chooses their way through the zones and how long they stay in each zone.

'Liquid worship...has the potential to create an entirely new framework for worship,' they say. 'By giving individuals choice, it moves away from top-down worship. Worship is no longer 'done to' the individual, with worshippers standing, sitting , kneeling as they are told. Worshippers have to decide actively what route to follow through the zones.'

But liquid worship is not entirely 'democratic'. The leaders of the service establish the zones. 'A dialogue can occur between personal choice and best practice in worship.'

The authors suggest that increased participation by worshippers offers greater opportunity for transformation of both individuals and communities.

I'm reading this because we're about to embark on a series of cafe-style services - one a month between now and July. We're aiming to tackle tough issues - Make Poverty History is our first topic - through a mixture of drama, music, video and discussion. We will set the agenda by introducing the topic but the 'worshippers' will determine how we tackle the topic through their questions and comments.

In a real sense the body of the congregation will determine what is said from the front. So this is a liquid approach to a service where we are all stay together in a single zone. I know where I want to end up but I'm not sure where we'll go along the way or what we'll discover.

One of our challenges - shared with every church in the UK, I suspect - is put succinctly by Moynagh and Lomax: 'the challenge is no longer to create community among people who enjoy doing the same things together at the same time, as in traditional worship, but to build community among individuals who are very different.' These differences are not just about age but taste and expectation, life experience and preferred learning style.

I also think thay are about attention span. Some people can concentrate for long periods - hence the sermon. Others can't - hence the glazed look that comes over the front row five minutes into a twenty minute talk! Liquid worship works with different length attention spans in a way that, hopefully, enables them to engage throughout our whole time together.

We're hoping cafe-style church will help us bring people together while recognising that people learn in different ways and are looking for different things out of our gatherings. I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Displacement activities

I think blogging is a displacement activity. I've got tons to do, but here I am...

I do feel that it's a good displacement activity, however. Over the next few minutes the jumble of thoughts in my brain about a number of sessions I have to plan for at church will begin to get ordered. Blogging enables us to think through our fingers, see words taking shape on the screen which in turn helps our thoughts to take shape.

I'm pondering Micah 6:8 - one of the OT's catchier verses - and yet its very familiarity makes it difficult to bring into focus. Doing justice, loving mercy/kindness, walking humbly with God - of course, any Christian will want to do that. Next...

The context is that God's people are having a moan that God's ignoring them. Rather more importantly, God is suggesting that they have abandoned him and he wants to give his case against them an airing in front of reliable and venerable witnesses - so he chooses the mountains as a jury and outlines his case: his people disregard him despite the fact that he is the one responsible for their life as a free nation. He rescued them from slavery in Egypt. He led them safely through the wilderness. He protected them from bullies. He generously gave them a good land. Now they disregard him.

Having heard the case against them, God's people ask what they can do (verse 6). They suggest the usual ritual activities taken to extremes in a bid to show that they want their relationship with God to be right. The prosecution - in the form of the prophet - tells them that they know what to do (verse 8).

What emerges here is really a debate about worship. The people think ritual is what matters; providing they get the ritual right, they'll be ok. So we'll sing the right hymns or new songs; we'll follow the Prayer Book or Common worship; we'll have a beautifully constructed hymn-prayer sandwich or a gloriously Spirit-fuelled free-flowing time of singing and silences.

The prophet says worship is about relationship and the lifestyle that flows from it.

Ritual can be contained to an hour here and there. We can give the ritual our fullest attention, wear our nicest clothes, bring treasured possessions as gifts. But for the rest of the time, we live how we want to. Relationship is not something we turn on and off. It is a 24/7 thing. More than that, it changes us. We'll want to be like the God who invites us into this relationship. If God rescues, leads, protects and generously gives, then we'll want to be like that. This is what doing justice and loving kindness will look like.

This means worship is a choice about shopping and politics. Our world is full of people who need rescuing - from debt, extreme poverty, hunger, illness; protecting - from tyranny, the effects of poverty, injustice, unfair trade, the shifting forces of nature; leading into a better future; and being given a shot at life in all its fullness.

So walking humbly with our God means we might become people who do such rescuing, protecting, leading and giving.

That's the simple bit. The tougher bit is what will my life be like if I live this way? And more importantly, what will the world be like if all God's people live this way?

The Vigilantes of Love

For some time I've had a mini-album called Free for Good by the Vigilantes of Love. VoL were led by songwriter Bill Mallonee. If you haven't heard them, check them out. Mallonee writes sharp, beautiful songs from a wistful Christian persepctive, songs that chart pain and love, faith and hope with great originality.

Check out for downloads and lyrics, news and bio

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

God in surprising places

Yesterday I met some friends up from Devon for a 24 hour gallery tour. We went to see the Anthony Caro exhibition at Tate Britain.

I have to say that I knew very little about Caro - apparently Britain's greatest living sculptor - and the first 9 rooms were pretty uninspiring. They did not prepare us for room 10 which contains a single work called The Last Judgment.

This sombre, striking, awesome piece of work was made between 1995 and 1999 and confronts the viewer with a set of pieces asking questions about ultimate values, the worth of human life. It picks up news from our warring world and probes our culpability for the state of life of earth.

It is a secular piece - there is a gate of heaven, even Jacob's ladder, but interestingly no God. And yet standing in front of these pieces I was acutely aware of the brooding of the divine presence, the weeping of our God of justice for his broken world. Art often does that.

Sadly the retrospective ends on 17 April and the piece usually lives in Germany - so you haven't got long to get to the Tate to see it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Mentors and friends

I've just been listening to Thought for the Day on Radio 4. Alan Billings was talking about a good death, a reflection born of seeing Pope John Paul slip away over the past week. I didn't hear much of what he said because I was taken back to when I was 15 and Alan was the curate of my local Anglican church.

He is one of the reasons I'm a Christian. He was young, dynamic, a labour counsellor, a man of radical vision and inclusive tendencies. He invited me to join a group running the youth club that I'd started going to and through that to consider getting confirmed. Confirmation, of course, would require me thinking about what the Christian faith was all about. I duly did so, got baptised and confirmed and joined the free church across the road because they had better girls and, I think, a surer, more certain take on the faith.

Alan left and disappeared from view for a decade. He resurfaced in the 80s as a member of the commission that produced Faith in the City - a report that had a major bearing on my call to ministry. And more recently he has begun to do Thought for the Day. He's director of the centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University.

As I remembered him, I thought of others who'd been influential in my development as a Christian: David Sheppard - with whom I worked on the Churches' Enquiry into Unemployment and the Future of Work - Audrey Anderson - a wonderful woman who made me tea, opened her home and listened to my struggles - David Lomax - my old RE teacher - and lots of others.

All kinds of people influence and mentor us as we grow in our faith - some consciously, some completely oblivious to the influence they're having.

All this underlines how vital relationships within our churches are. Getting the teaching sorted is important, but we learn far more through good friendships. It was Jesus' model, after all. He called 12 people to be his friends. Clearly within that group there were some who were closer friends than others - notably Peter, James and John formed a circle of three very close friends, sharing some of Jesus' most private moments (the transfiguration, his agony in the garden, etc).

Mentors are vital. We grow in our faith as we listen to them, share with them, watch them walk the Christian walk. Our churches need to be places where such mentors can be found - not through formal structures but through the creation of spaces where such relationships can blossom.

I'm so grateful for Alan Billings, though I doubt he remembers who I am.

Friday, April 01, 2005

When God blows your mind

I'm back from Spring Harvest. We had an amazing time. God was doing so much in people's lives, it was a joy to be involved.

Linda and I covered the Evolution celebration in the evenings. It's for 18-25s, though there were a good few a bit younger and a lot older than that. Andy Flanagan led the worship - he was really excellent (check out his album Son for some of the most affecting worship music written in the past couple of years).

We've come back full of ideas about how we can bring a different way of doing things to our evening services. This links to stuff I was blogging recently about how we do teaching. This coming Sunday we're kicking off a series on tough issues interspersed with a look at Philippians. This week I'm going to do a workshop-style thing on how we make moral and ethical decisions.

What I found interesting about Evolution is that the teaching style was both directive - lots of things being said from the front - and discovery-focused - work in groups, reflective times by individuals encouraged to paint a picture, write a postcard home, bang a drum, etc.

The directive teaching was pretty black and white. There was very little 'this the way we see it, what do you think?' but the discovery stuff was committed to giving young people the space and resources to find out for themselves a shape or pattern of Christian spirituality that fits and works for them.

This seemed to me to be striking a right balance. There is a need for us to talk about what the Christian faith is all about. The problem with our sermons is that we often try to say too much - we want to communicate everything all at once - and we don't say it very well. People don't connect with sermons because there aren't handles for people to get hold of. It seems to me that what we did at Evolution (I use 'we' for a reason that will become evident in a moment) was provide good teaching and handles to help people appropriate and apply it themselves.

There was a third strand to this - and it's where we came in - that was praying with individuals about what they'd heard and what they were seeking to do with it. It seems to me that learning ought to happen in the context of prayer. As we wrestle with meaning and application, we ought to do so in the context of prayer.

Lots of lives were changed this week because there was directive teaching, discovery time and prayer in groups or with a member of the ministry team. It was wonderful to be part of it.