Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas thoughts and greetings

It's Christmas Eve - one of my favourite days of the year. This year being a Sunday, it'll also be a busy one. We have two services and this afternoon will be serving mince pies, mulled (non-alcoholic) wine, tea and coffee to shoppers wending their way home, inviting them to pause and worship with us.

This evening I'm reflecting on Joseph - the 'redundant groom' in John Bell's wonderful phrase. I'm looking at what the Christmas story might say to ordinary, decent blokes.

I'd intended to focus on Jo already but my train of thought was sent off in a more focussed direction by Timothy Garton Ash's column in the Guardian last Thursday where he reports going to Christmas services, finding them moving but not believing a word of it. More than that, he finds the story and the person behind it has nothing to say to his life or to the world in which he lives it.

I'll reflect on that this evening. It's worth reading - everything by Garton Ash is.

I'll also be referring to Bill Mallonee's Christmas album. Bill, former front man of the Vigilantes of Love, has penned some beautiful songs over the years; he is the most thoughtful and searching of Christian singer songwriters. Check Yonder Shines the Infant Light out - a snip at £5.50 to download - and especially listen to the beautiful Every Father Knows, a meditation on the power of the Christmas story to reach the lost wherever they are. You'll find it at - you won't be sorry.

I'll return to membership, community and mission in the New Year. In the mean time have a great Christmas everyone. I hope you all meet Jesus in the midst of the celebrations and that you know his presence with you throughout 2007.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dark Fire and Happy Feet

I finished C J Sansom's Dark Fire last night. It's his second Matthew Shardlake mystery set in 1540 around the time of the fall of Thomas Cromwell.

It's not only a rivetting thriller, gloriously well written, but it's also based on a sound reading of the events surrounding the demise of the King's right hand man in reform. He has some interesting things to say about faith on the way through as well - which I'll leave you to find out for yourselves.

The family went to see Happy Feet last night - the eco cartoon about a dancing penguin. It's great fun! There are one or two plot gaps but the animation and characterisation are terrific and we all left the cinema wanting to adopt a penguin (it'll pass!)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Elusive community

Liz, Wulf and Anthony raise the key issue of community. There's been a lot of talk recently around elusive terms such as 'welcome' (what is it? how do we do it well?), 'hospitality' (how and where do we offer it? does the church receive hospitality from those outside it?), 'belonging' (what creates a sense of belonging somewhere?) and 'community' (how do you know when you're part of one?)

I'd love to see more of that research that Anthony talks about. Certainly the Gone but Not Forgotten study published in the late 1990s identified relationships (or lack of them) as a reason why people disengaged from church. A key finding was that in 92% of cases when someone stopped going to a particular church, no one visited them to find out why. Isn't that incredible?

Yet that seems to have been Liz's friend's experience - and I've no doubt we could all recount similar stories.

There are two responses to this, however. One is to set up a structure of pastoral care with everyone on a list, everyone being checked on if they are missing. It's efficient. it probably makes sure that if people do miss a Sunday or two, someone finds out why. But is it enough?

I think it's a big jump from 'a pastoral care structure' to 'a mutually supportive community' and that the former can prevent the latter from being created. I think some churches put a structure in place and invest all their energy in making it work, only to discover that they've no energy left for making relationships, getting to know people, building community. In these churches, we don't have relationships, we have dealings or transactions with other people, much as we do in a bank or supermarket.

I was at the barbers this morning having my pre-Christmas tidy-up. I conversed at a superficial level with the girl with the scissors - just enough to be polite (after all, it's hard to be that close to another human being and say nothing!) - but I do not think for all the banter that goes on, that my barbers is a 'community'; the chat is a by-product of getting a job done.

Church sometimes feels like that. We get the job done - everyone knows where everyone is. But we are not a community - no one really knows how anyone else feels.

It's an interesting exercise to ask members what others do for a living, how many children they have, whether they are married, have they always lived in the area, how long have they been a Christian. The answers tell you a lot about community - whether your church is one.

This is a particular problem for larger churches, I think. I'm pretty sure we don't have relational space for more than 30-50 people. In a large church we're on nodding acquaintance with a much larger number than that, but do we have any kind of relationship with 30-50 of them? And where are those relationships formed? I don't believe they can be formed in our current Sunday services and probably not over coffee afterwards - though that helps.

Perhaps we need to invest in community-building activities - meals, days out, coffee mornings, social events, small group activities.

Of course, there might be people from my church reading this wondering what planet I'm from(!) who could tell me that they are in community relationships with a good group of people, a community that they find fun and supportive - and challenging.

Go on, amaze me!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Needful provocation

I've been finishing the light revisions to Why bother with church? this afternoon. And apart from being pleasantly surprised at how much I still agree with(!), the thing that struck me was that the model of creative and critical participation in church life depends on the church being of sufficient size to be able to cope with multiple things going on.

So I recognize Stuart's point about smaller churches being disempowered by the models on offer here. And I'm not sure what to do about it either.

I agree 100% with Stuart about creating gatherings that are 'places of challenge and commitment to one another and Christ.' In fact that is a key motive in exploring change. At the moment I think we settle for a middle of the road mush where everyone feels comfortable and any challenge comes through cosy and predictable channels. I'm not just talking about my church; I think this is true up and down the land and possibly accounts for the lacklustre quality of British Christianity.

I think it's probably pretty difficult creating gatherings that scratch where people itch and lead them into a place where their values and lifestyles can be challenged and unsettled. But that's what I want to do, I think.

So, as we unpacked the theme of grace using the movie Chocolat, one of the things we were doing was asking whether we are people of grace and whether our church was a place where people found grace. What we hoped was that the film would provoke attenders to think and feel differently about themselves and their church than they would have done had we just talked about being all things to all people from 1 Corinthians 9 and suggested we need to be a welcoming community.

Some in the congregation warmed to the approach, others didn't. Those who did were clearly challenged and unsettled - even as they enjoyed the evening. Those who don't get films probably left with mixed feelings but majored on disappointment with the way the evening turned out.

The advantage of offering a variety of ways of accessing the same theme through a single day is that people who get a buzz out of talking about the spiritual messages in movies will come to one gathering, while those more comfortable with a more traditional linear approach consisting of singing and sermons will attend a different one. Both groups, hopefully, would be comforted and built up in their faith and challenged to live a more Christ-like life.

And those who were interested in exploring the spiritual life and who came to either gathering - though probably the film evening would suit them better - will be helped to think and feel about life, the world and God in a different and distinctly Christian way. And hopefully they too would find themselves provoked and unsettled.

I guess what I'm arguing for is a set of different entry points to hearing and experiencing the challenge of Jesus' word. But everyone attending whichever gathering ought to experience needful provocation of the kind that might lead to change through the grace of Christ.

I shall respond to the parallel, related and equally important issue of community and how the creation of community - and people feeling a sense of belonging to it - is essential to them being in a place where they are open to the challenge of discipleship.

But that's for another post....

Monday, December 18, 2006

Fault lines revisited

Great comments on the previous post. Keep them coming...

Yes, it's more work but this can be shared - as Liz said. The teaching component can be done by the same team that currently do two services on a Sunday. For example, the morning 'teaching' could well consist of the same sermon being delivered by the same person albeit in different styles. Doing the same sermon twice is not twice the work.

The work can also be shared by drafting more people into being involved in the services -reading, praying, announcing songs, etc.

Stuart's point about pandering to consumerism is one I wrestle with. It's related to the question 'what is church for?' which I toy with in Why Bother with Church? I think church ought to be a place where people meet God, learn about him and are equipped to live a life that reflects his character. It can happen anywhere - in homes, cafes, pubs and special buildings we call 'churches'. It can involve singing and funky powerpoints and sermons and set-piece liturgies. But it doesn't have to.

My focus is on mission. I want to create opportunities for people to engage with the Christian faith in a way they find acceptable and challenging. I want people to meet and follow Jesus. Church is a place where that can happen. I guess the target for this mission is primarily those who have accessed church but do so no longer - or are in danger of not doing so. So it's young people and young adults who find church increasingly disconnected from the rest of their lives and middle aged people who've done church one way for a lifetime and now find it curiously dissatisfying and unengaging (I think I put myself in this camp - but don't tell my leaders!!!)

So, in one sense my proposal is consumerist in that I am hoping to create opportunities for people engage with church in a way that suits their tastes and sensibilities. But isn't all mission consumerist in that way?

Exposing the fault lines

Last night we finished a three week advent series using film as a way into exploring certain big advent words - Signs helped us look at losing and finding faith; Chocolat gave us the opportunity of examining rejecting and finding grace; and The Shawshank Redemption of giving and receiving hope.

It was an interesting series to prepare for - Jonathan and I team-preached the theme and we tried to allow the films to move the argument on. Many people found the approach stimulating with a good number saying that if we do it again, they will bring friends who are exploring faith for themselves.

The series has exposed the fault lines in the church, however, with many older, more traditional members reacting very negatively to the whole approach.

This clearly gives us some questions to ask in the new year. At the top of the list is 'can you meet everyone needs in one service format?' The obvious answer is 'no' (the question really is a no-brainer!) but it's amazing how many churches - including ours - continue to believe the Holy Grail of one-size-fits-all service formats are just within reach. I think this brief series has told me (again) that it's not.

More than that, I think I've learned that everyone is very intolerant of styles they don't like. We all know that the young vote with their feet, going to meetings, services, events that capture their imagination and look as if they'll scratch where they itch rather more than what's on offer at their home church this week.

Indeed, some of our own young people were at an event across town that featured a band and visiting roadshow. I hope it was good.

What I've seen over the past three weeks is that older, more mature Christian people are equally intolerant and picky about what service format they'll put up with. Some have boycotted the advent series saying they don't like movies, that they come to church to hear the bible read and preached on in a traditional way (well, in a way that's been traditional since Victorian times).

One size does not fit all. And churches that try to stick to this model will wither and die. The reason is simple. If we allow what we do to be determined by those who want the traditional menu - albeit tinkered with at the edges - those wanting more radical change will look elsewhere or more likely stop coming to church altogether, reasoning that the Christian faith offers nothing to help them navigate their way through the world they live in from Monday to Friday.

Eventually, those who champion the traditional model, will die and the church will be empty.

So, it seems to me that we need to revisit conversations we had a year or so ago about having a variety of styles of Sunday service, meeting the needs or suiting the tastes (take your pick which) of those who attend.

Our proposal then was that we have four services on a Sunday morning with fewer people attending each - thus enabling greater interaction between attenders. Each service would have a different feel and focus - though the teaching programme would be common across the day. So those who want a classic style service can have one; likewise those who want a swinging from the chandeliers celebration. There'll be opportunity for a quieter, more reflective service and for a more exploratory, liquid worship style.

Inevitably everyone will have to give a little. For example, timings will change, so people will have come to church at a different time on a Sunday. We'll have to think about the needs of families and which service (or services) has Sunday school provision. But hopefully, everyone would gain more than they would have to give up.

Of course, even this amount of change is only a half-way house to a much more flexible, smaller more federal church structure that I think most churches will have to move towards in the coming generation. But it's a start.

Watch this space as the debate kicks off again next year. Pray for us. And join in the discussion.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Why is Christmas so busy...?

Christmas is coming and the work is piling up. It doesn't seem to matter how carefully I plan my Christmas preparations, I always seem to run out of time.

This year I want to explore what Christmas says to and about families. What's the significance of the fact that God entrusted his Son to human parents - a teenage(?) mum and a carpenter dad - and what does that tell us about God's commitment to families in today's world?

There's been a lot of talk about families recently - notably the huge Ian Duncan-Smith report that's just come out defending the traditional conservative view that marriage is the best basis for family life and that government should invest in marriage - through tax incentives - and bolster families through various forms of help.

It's always wonderful to see the conversion of politicians late in the day - and usually long after they have any chance of actually doing anything through holding public office (enter Al Gore as the primary witness here)!

I'm not sure IDS has all the answers but 300,000 words worth of analysis and policy ideas ought to be taken very seriously. Clearly something is wrong with the way families are nurtured and supported in Britain today.

I think Christmas is an opportunity to ask what God thinks about families and what resources he makes available for them.

I am also reworking Why Bother with Church for Authentic Media with a view to it being republished next March in time for Spring Harvest. As I've worked my way through the chapters, I've been pleasantly surprised at how well it's stood the test of time - many of its arguments still seem fresh and the issues it addresses are still all too pertinent.

If I was starting the book from scratch, I wouldn't write it the way it's written, but I think one more reprint is worthwhile. I'm pondering turning my reflections on Philippians and McWorld into a book at some stage. I've tested the thinking out over the past three years at various church conferences and might well preach on it at home late next year.

Still loving the new Iona album, The Circling Hour and Beirut's Gulag Orkestar - an album of rare beauty and creativity.

Friday, December 08, 2006


I'm enjoying discovering a new writer. He's C J Sansom, author of three crime novels set in the reign of Henry VIII and featuring a lawyer/sleuth called Matthew Shardlake. I've finished Dissolution and am half way through Dark Fire. I can't wait for sovereign to come out in paperback.

These are terrific books. Sansom captures the sense of time and place wonderfully and weaves entirely believable and gripping thriller plots around real events. At £7 a pop, they're a good stocking filler.

I'm also enjoying the new Iona album - usual blend of celtic folk and prog rock with mesmerising vocals from Joanne Hogg. There's a particularly good track - factory of magnificient souls - with lyrics by the peerless Steve Stockman. His words and Dave Bainbridge's guitar were born for each other

And I've been enjoying Chocolat - as we're doing an advent evening service on it - and the Straight Story (which I wish I was doing an advent evening service on!). The latter is a David Lynch film about septuagenarian who crosses Iowa on a lawnmower to be reconciled with his brother who's had a stroke. Seriously, it's a blinder. One of the loveliest, funniest, quirkyist and most satisfying films I've seen, full of insights into what it means to be human and part of a family.

I'm enjoying thinking about membership and what it means to belong. Perhaps we should all watch the Straight story and ponder that says about community and the nature of the church. It would be unusual to view David Lynch as a theologian!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tear it down ... and build it up

I agree with Wulf that tearing down is a lot easier than building up - though it is the essential prerequisite for building anything.

But tinkering at the edges leaves us with more anomalies and exceptions. So tear the whole thing down - what do we lose?

I think we lose a rigid 'them and us' mentality.

I think we lose a 'first' and 'second' class attender mentality

I think we lose the distinction between joining the Body of Christ through Baptism and joining the church because an unrepresentative minority of members voted you in on a wet Wednesday evening.

I think we lose the impenetrable wall between member and non-member that can only be navigated around by a member helping the non-member to appropriate 'our way of doing things'.

I'm not convinced any of these things are worth keeping anymore.

What we gain is the opportunity to replace our current pattern with something simpler and more flexible.

Early Baptists were people of covenants. They covenanted together to be church in a particular place and at a particular time. Can't we get back to doing that?

I know of one Baptist church that has an annual covenant service at which everyone covenanting together to be in relationship and serve the community in the mission of the church is counted as a member for the following year.

I like the sound of that. This is a model of membership that captures Mike Thomas' principles: it's based on relationships, it recognises that the choice of whether to be a member for the coming year rests solely with the individual - will they commit themselves to fellowship and working with this group of Christians in the church's mission? If yes, then welcome aboard.

It also makes the BUGB body count simple - how many covenanted together to be church? Everyone who signed the covenant. That's how many members we have this year.

There is the issue of how you join the church in June - but I'd have thought it happens by the same principle: give the person the covenant, ask if this is what they're looking for; if they say 'yes' invite them to the next members meeting and give them a mop and bucket and welcome them aboard...

I'm sure it's shot full of flaws and needs a thousand caveats entered, but.... like democracy, it's the worst way of organising a church - except all the other ways.

Yet more membership thoughts

For those of you still thinking about membership issues, there's a great piece in the Baptist Times (30 November issue) by Michael Thomas. How rare it is that 'great' and 'baptist times' appear in the same sentence.

But I recommend you get hold of it. I don't know whether it's available on line.

Mike's argument is that the current way we do things is broke and we need a radical overhaul. I don't know how many will go the whole way with him - I think I do. But I'm certain that his first principle is one that we must seek embody in our membership practices.

It is simply this: 'membership is not something for us to initiate, but to recognise'. In other words - if I read him aright - people come to our churches, join in, make relationships, find support and look for ways of serving alongside us and we recognise them as members.

Mike's key point about the New Testament emphasis being on relationships and not structures is absolutely spot on. 'Where people are relating to each other as brothers and sisters, there is membership,' he says.

And I say amen to that.