Monday, 19 August 2013

So what is a missional church?

The pioneer movement in the Church of England has been accused of being too critical of traditional church-going, especially that churches are not really concerned about the church’s mission. Traditional churches have protested that they can be missional too, and that many of them are.

So what does it mean to be ‘missional’ – that new word that has crept into Christian vocabulary? Is it just about meeting in schools or pubs, being less traditional, more modern, less formal, more friendly, less organ, more guitar, less robes, more technology?

I’d like to suggest it’s none of those things, in themselves. Instead, it’s about being less of a club and more of a journey.

C.S. Lewis wrote that God is the easiest person in the world to please, but the hardest person in the world to satisfy. I like that. Whenever we do a really good or kind thing – even giving a glass of water to a stranger or vulnerable person, as Jesus once remarked – God takes pleasure in it. But God also has great aspirations for us. He will never be satisfied until we are everything we can be, doing every good thing we could possibly do, being fully the people we were created to be. He would fail us if he became satisfied with less. So we can easily please God, but he will always invite us, even challenge us, to be more than we are now. (It’s a great model for parenting, by the way, but that’s another matter.)

Perhaps a missional church just reflects this characteristic of God. It should be the easiest group in the world to join. But once you’re part of it, it should constantly encourage and challenge you to become more than you are already, always changing, always moving on. So it should be easy to join and hard to hang in there as the journey gets tougher. Jesus himself lost disciples when the ministry and the message got harder, and we should expect to as well. But it’s uncomfortable for churches to be like this.

Some churches make themselves easy to join – come as you are, do what you like, even believe what you like – we’re just happy you are coming at all. But they have made themselves so accommodating, they never really help people forward in their spiritual journey.

Other churches are serious about the spiritual journey, and disciplines of life that can draw us closer to God – church attendance, personal prayer and bible study, and such. But they are tough to join because as a beginner you feel out of it, you hardly understand the language and what people are talking about, and sometimes you feel like an alien.

Sadly, some churches are both hard to join and don’t really help you forward on the journey. They are more like clubs where initially you need to learn a shed-load of stuff in order to belong – service books, liturgical colours, tunes you’ve never heard in your life. But once you have got into it and become like the others, no-one suggests that there is anything more to it.

No matter how traditional or ‘modern’ or ‘fresh expression’ our particular church is, our calling is to be missional – instrumental in God’s mission in the world. Perhaps we can achieve this by fostering an ‘easy join but on the journey’ culture. We need to lower the bar for entry, and raise the bar for discipleship. A missional church should be easy to join, but hard to feel satisfied in.

Monday, 1 July 2013

How do we foster discipleship these days?

I was asked recently, by the mission shaped ministry folk, for my top five tips on encouraging discipleship (for course revision in the msm course). Maybe they have wider usefulness, not least in relation to preparing adults for baptism and/or confirmation? I have couched them in advice to new Christians looking for a good discipleship process:

1. Discipleship is caught more than taught. In this regard, the recent emphasis on discipleship ‘courses’ is unhelpful. It has made it seem like a thing you can learn to do, rather than a person you can begin to become. Don’t just read the books; watch the people. Try to understand why they do what they do. Then find your own way of following Christ, with them as examples and inspiration.

2. Discipleship is an attitude of heart, more than a state of mind. There are many useful things to learn, patterns of spirituality that can help, and so on. But essentially, progress in discipleship is about a honing of the heart, like a deepening of a relationship. You don’t build up; you dig down. For that reason, it’s messy and uncomfortable.

3. Discipleship (learning more about following Christ) is the way a whole Christian community is. It’s not that established Christians have arrived and you can go through an entry experience to become like them. All Christians are learning, and we will be all our lives, so you might as well get used to it because being part of a Christian community is by its very definition an ongoing learning experience. Don’t make the opposite assumption from looking at some inherited patterns of church life; that is a historical blip. Christians are people who are always keen to learn how to follow God more faithfully, and so are always learning – from God and from each other. If you meet ones that aren’t, don’t trust them.

4. Discipleship is a shared task between established disciples and new disciples. Like missionaries, established disciples know a fair bit about how God relates to people like themselves, but we are on a steep learning curve about how He is going to relate to particular groups within unchurched 21st century British culture. Developing discipleship is a shared task that those of us who are established Christians are going to find as challenging as those who are new.

5. In discipleship, the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know. That’s why those of us who have been at this longest may well come over as the least certain about things, because we know enough to know how much there is that we don’t know. Or rather, we become more and more sure of less and less – our perceptions of key truths deepens and we come to the point where we would die for them; but many other issues take on lesser importance.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Why the CofE should be allowed to break up

As 2013 starts I am uncomfortably aware that my retirement date beckons in 18 months time. It concentrates my mind – even more – on why the liberating and life-giving message of Jesus and the empowering experience of being (re)connected to our Creator continues to have so little resonance with ordinary people in our culture. And why so many people continue to identify as ‘Christian’ in some sense or another (still a majority of British adults, despite the recent census figures which partly reflect changing demographics and partly atheist campaigning), and yet identification with the Church (enough to turn up at church at least once a month) remains pitifully low.

People often say it is because the church is so divided, and that we must pursue Christian unity as the key to a missional breakthrough. I just don’t see it. I’m convinced that the Church will be divided until the end of time (Christian unity irretrievably broken down), and the only thing that matters from now on is whether we can express our divisions in missionally-significant ways. The problem with our present divisions/denominations is that they are about theology or worship-style or patterns of leadership/ministry – not about how best to work out the mission of God in the world. Paul and Barnabas had to go their separate ways, but it didn’t matter because they both just got on and spread the gospel in their different styles. Paul wasn’t doomed to missional failure because of this fall-out. It was the same with the missions of Paul and Peter. The problem with our present denominations is that they are stuck in the issues of the past, issues that are no longer missionally significant. The recent Church of England debacle over women bishops shows that this (my) denomination is dysfunctionally diverse in terms of its mission. Christian people need to regroup themselves around particular visions of mission – none of which will be perfect, but at least the diverse emerging entities will be about how we sense ourselves called to enact Christ’s mission in today’s world.  

I believe in the established church in this country, but what we have at the moment is too tied up with its own problems to fulfil this particular mission. We are frightened to let the Church of England break up, but in the long run it would be the best thing. We need a narrower Church of England with a shared missional vision in relation to a broad spectrum of people in this country. That probably means liberal Catholic through to liberal evangelical, and shedding the Anglo-Catholic and conservative evangelical wings (they also have a mission, in partnership with others, reaching the kinds of people that ‘establishment’ will never reach, but their style doesn’t sit comfortably with being established church). Our biggest problem is that within the Church of England we are deeply fractured, and this is disabling us from working together to enact our particular calling better. Such a narrowing of the Church of England would open up new partnerships in the mission of being the established church, not least with the Methodists as previous talks over unity with them have been dogged by the present ‘wings’ of the Church of England.

If we did this great ‘regathering’ around visions for mission, we might end up with less ‘denominations’ than we have at present – i.e. more unified! In the recent debates, Christian unity was held as a gun to the head; we must stop falling for this one.

Of course, the renewal of the Christian mission is not all about structures. We need to recapture the spirit of the gospel in our shared life as believers. But there will be structures (and we have got them), and they can either facilitate things or get in the way. Our dysfunctional based-on-the-past structures are getting in the way, including the calling to be the established church (and that structure even at its best has its weaknesses as well as its opportunities). Simply getting people within the present structures to focus more deeply on Jesus is not enough; the structures they are in keep pulling them away. The call/appeal of these long-standing structures is just too strong. We need the structures to break down and be re-formed in meaningful missional ways. It’s time to live more dangerously. And I hope the new Archbishop of Canterbury is up for it.

Monday, 8 October 2012

The New Church-going

What counts as regular churchgoing? In my childhood it meant twice on Sundays and attendance at the mid-week prayer meeting. If you got down to just once on Sundays, people viewed you differently but it was OK. If you weren’t there at all, for no particular reason, they were concerned; some even prayed for you. Then came along the changing cultures of the 20th century, and liturgical reform. The large churches created extra services each Sunday, each with a different style. But in the countryside, to keep everyone happy (and coming), we got into different services each Sunday of a month. Said BCP Mattins one week, CW eucharist with hymns the next, BCP holy communion the third, ‘family service’ the fourth (even if no children come…). Generally these services were also at different times, so the clergy could circulate around several villages to do the ‘honours’ at the holy table. And without particularly meaning to, we ourselves redefined regular churchgoing. It now means coming once a month rather than once a week. More often is good, but once a month is OK. In this diocese we even officially count our ‘participant’ numbers (for the purposes of Common Fund) as monthly attenders.

Like many places, churches in Devon are experimenting with Messy Church. For many, it’s a massive step forward in terms of adapting to the emerging culture around us today, especially younger adults with kids. It’s a lot of work, but if people throw themselves into it, it seems to work. Perhaps this is the new face of regular church attendance. Informal. With craft work. And food. For kids, but with parents involved. Low-key Christian message. Fun. And (like the ‘family services’ they often replace) monthly. Actually, no-one can maintain Messy Church type events on a weekly basis. But there is no pressure to either.

And there’s the really big difference between the new churchgoing and traditional churchgoing. It’s not so much in what you do, or what you sing and don’t sing, or where you meet or when – big enough though those differences are. It’s the frequency. People in the countryside want traditional church for Christmas, Easter, Remembrance, Harvest, baptisms, weddings, funerals – and they don’t want or need it modernised or changed much to turn up. And some are OK about whatever-suits-you monthly attendance. But the key missional question is: how do we begin to form any substantial Christian community or commitment amongst (say) younger adults, on a diet of 3-4 major festivals a year, occasional rites of passage, and monthly fun events?

I have been working on creating a range of other things people could start coming to, also on a monthly basis. Monthly mid-week evenings on the ‘virtues’ that lie in the heart of God, with a little contemporary worship, an inspiring talk (with visuals), and some time for prayer, even prayer ministry. And monthly mid-week evenings on how Christian faith is relevant to the issues people talk about in the pub on Friday evenings when putting the world to rights, held café style with plenty of opportunity for discussion and questions – even held in a commercial café setting. Maybe people will find their ‘level’ within several layers of monthly events they can gradually grow into. Maybe it will work (very slow going so far…).

But maybe it’s not about attendance – at least, not at present. We may mourn the loss of ‘weekly public worship’ and the discipleship opportunities it provided. But perhaps the greater loss was less obvious, more hidden. Perhaps attendance loss was merely the reflection of another loss – faith practice in the home. Actually as a child I don’t remember much of it – grace before meals was about it. But previous generations had read the bible around the meal table, said prayers with children before bed, and other things besides. The father was the spiritual head of the household – just as Jewish fathers have always been. Perhaps this is where we need to start again?

So I am starting with a display of children’s bibles and DVDs, so monthly-attendance parents can see some of the amazing resources we have today to read and watch with their children, to give them the story of the Bible in their own homes. I want to add books of child-friendly prayers, as the next step. Maybe genuine discipleship can be developed rather well by a pattern of religious festivals, rites of passage, monthly events that suit you, and faith practice in the home. It’s more of an OT pattern, before the advent of synagogues; so it has provenance...

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Why fasting is the new feasting

It started with a BBC ‘Horizon’ programme in August on ways to avoid late-middle-age spread affecting your health and life expectancy, and in particular how ‘fasting’ can help. The city with the fattest people in America runs a slimming programme based on eat-what-you-like every other day, and almost nothing every other day – with dramatic results. Other ‘fasting’ regimes are on the increase, and (crucially) have shown that it isn’t just about losing the fat. It seems that when the body stops burning ‘intake’ and starting burning stored fat instead, it also stops creating new cells and focuses on repairing existing ones. Apparently one of the problems of modern Western food affluence is that our constant intake prevents the body going into ‘repair mode’ – a bit like running your car constantly without ever putting it into the garage for a service. Thus perhaps the greater incidence of cancers because damaged cells have gone un-fixed. The TV reporter, trying to resolve his own weight and health issues, opted for a programme where you ‘fast’ (no more than 500 calories) twice a week. Ah! Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, strict Jews in Jesus’ day. Some wisdom there we have since forgotten (although clearly the concomitant self-righteousness that Jesus criticised is not to be emulated…).
That is how one Sunday in late August I came to be fasting (perhaps for me it will only be once a week…). It felt odd because of course Sunday is a feast day in Christian thinking. In fact even Sundays in Lent are feast days (too many days in Lent otherwise – count them if you don’t believe me). So feast days trump fast days, because feasting is the language of celebration and well-being – in a world where hunger was never far from anyone’s door, and experienced often enough to remind people. And of course, often enough to repair all those damaged cells. But in a world of constant plenty, of continuous calories, perhaps there is a place for celebration by fasting – low calorie days which punctuate the relentless feast and allow our whole selves – mind, spirit and body – to take the opportunity to withdraw and repair.
They say that one consistent feature of fresh expressions of church today is that we do (good) food. There is a lot to be said for this as an expression of Christian hospitality and generosity. But in an age of abundance and all the health problems that go with it, perhaps there should also be space for some kind of ‘happy fasting’, knowing we are giving our bodies’ God-given mechanisms a chance, and rejoicing that Christ sets us free from the constant pressure to eat.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Reaching Boomers

I am trying to get my head around this new emphasis on 'reaching Boomers'. It is being hailed as the great opportunity, as this generation starts to reach the age of retirement. I can see it is a big group of people, so it is a mission field. But they have been there for a long time. And all that time they have been clear about their attitude to Christian faith. They are the 'hinge' generation that most took the decision to sideline Christian faith / the Church within the social structures of society. Instead they embraced various forms of humanism, and eastern forms of spirituality insofar as these lent themselves to a highly individualised sense of who we are. For them to embrace Christian faith at this point in their lives involves coming to terms with the fact that the thing they have systematically demolished throughout their lives is the very thing that is the centre of truth and the answer to our society's ills. This is a tough choice. What is it that is likely to make them warm to Christian faith, at this point in their lives? They do not typically suffer from guilt that needs forgiveness (psychology has explained that as a kind of neurosis), or suffer from shame that needs acceptance and affirmation (generally Boomers have a strong sense of their own worth, and see Christianity as a threat to this). So why would they? They are the golden generation that holds a lot of the wealth of this country in their houses, bank accounts and pension pots, but who will continue to fight for their rights as pensioners to underpin their lifestyle. I can see why commercial markets are interested in this generation. I can see how the Church would benefit from a large influx of this generation into its pews. But I don't see any indication that it is happening, or likely to happen, through any forms of 'attractional church'. The Christian faith presents some serious challenges to this generation, in terms of what they have allowed our society to become. They are the business and banking leadership that has got us to where we are today. They feel they 'know' about Christianity and they feel they 'know' they don't want it. Is retirement really going to put them into a place of crisis, that might make them think again about their priorities and values, and perhaps rewrite their view of life?