Autumn is upon us and we enter the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness, – which is romantic for cold and damp! It is also the season of the Harvest Festival.
Despite being an urbanised society we still like to decorate our churches once a year as if we lived in a victorian country village. However I have noticed over the years our harvest giving has changed. Long gone are the giant marrows and 6ft long leeks, now we want long life milk and packets of rice and pasta that can be used by the local food bank. So what does a Harvest Celebration have to say about God and about us today.
In our world of 24 hour supermarkets, with shelves bursting with countless prepackaged forms of wheat, barley and their gluten free equivalents, with multiple forms of Makuna honey and chilli infused olive oil, it can be easy to take food for granted. Harvest time is a great opportunity for us to recall and celebrate together the origins of these good gifts. To express our gratitude for the land and the people who produce them and thank God from whom they all spring.
However the work of Food Banks and Food Pantries remind us of a different world of ‘food’ in our country at the moment. We see families in food crisis and a hidden world of hunger in a ‘land of plenty’.
Every day there are people who experience the wilderness (of food poverty) and of slavery (to circumstances beyond their control) is both real and raw. Yet in the midst of the frustrations of the current situation these is still opportunity to recognise and appreciate afresh our dependence on God’s provision. Whether it is the gifts of food from business or individuals or time and prayer from our community we see a wonderful expression of God’s care for those experiencing hard times.
It can be tempting to view charity donations as a one-way transaction from donor to recipient, but the reality is much more complex. In one sense it reflects our utterly dependent status before God, both as giver and receiver. At Harvest time we remember that the ability to grow, transport, process and purchase even the very food itself is ultimately a gift from Him. Consequently we can learn a lot from the Foodbank clients about heartfelt gratitude and praise.
In true harvest thanksgiving God warns against trying to draw distinctions between circumstantial and self-inflicted poverty. Instead he invites us to remember the true source of our (fragile) wealth and our (transitory) ability to produce it – Himself.
Moreover, in celebration, we are encouraged to give thanks for the ultimate gift they foreshadow: the rich, undeserved, unearned, extravagant grace offers to us all through Christ.
The words of Deuteronomy remind us that God’s gifts of Harvest are ultimately not about food but about wholeness and total wellbeing.
For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.
Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. Deuteronomy 8:7-10
The land of plenty he provides is a confirmation of His unswerving faithfulness to His people. The Land of plenty provides community, security, and home. It looks forward to time when He will ultimately dwell amongst us.
Usually at this time of year I am wishing everyone a ‘Happy Methodist New Year!’. This year I feel like saying ‘Welcome to a brave new world?’
The first of September always sees a change in Methodism with ministers starting their new appointment’s across the connexion. In our circuit we will be welcoming Rev Nick Jones as our titular Superintendent Minister and the Rev Novette Hedley as our District Chair.
However there will be a major difference this year and for the following year in that Rev Nick will not be resident in the circuit.
This will mean that the way the circuit operates will be very different. Already our church stewards will have noticed this as they wrestle with the increased number of Local Arrangements each church is given on the current plan. No doubt other issues will arise as we live in this new reality and we will deal with them as they arise.
I think part of the problem is that Methodism has changed very little over the last forty or so years so when faced with necessary change of our current situation we seem unable to cope. So what do we do?
As Methodists we often look to our founder John Wesley. John was born into a high tory church family he was given a traditional theological education at Lincoln College, Oxford. And entered the Church of England as rather priggish and vain young curate. He then met the real world and struggled to cope. However with the influence of the Moravian Brethren and his friend and evangelist Rev George Whitfield he began to change and continued to change even after his conversion experience at the Aldersgate Meeting House.
John Wesley described himself when he wrote in his journal in the spring of 1739 in response to George Whitfield’s field-preaching:
I was “so tenacious of every point relating to decency and order that I should have thought the saving of souls almost a sin if it had not been done in a church.” (Journal & Diaries,18:612)
John Wesley’s remarks remind me of present-day mainline Protestants, particularly some Methodists. Have we become similarly preoccupied with decency and order over and against God’s ministry of salvation? Rather than a tenacious maintenance of decency and order—where are we called to practice holy tenacity participating in God’s redemption?
Holy Tenacity is the kind of inquiry, embrace, and sharing of the gospel we find in the church of the New Testament, particularly Acts of the Apostles, Paul-meets-Lydia kind of way. (Acts 16:11-15.) Holy tenacity embodies God’s redeeming love for all by reflecting the light and holiness of God’s love in authentic sacred relationships that offer glimpses of the joy and justice of God’s reign. Jesus sets the ultimate example of holy tenacity particularly in his teaching that embodies Scripture’s salvation narrative.
For me, Holy Tenacity describes God’s work in us to courageously and persistently respond to the Holy Spirit’s compelling us to share God’s relentless love in Jesus Christ in spite of expectations of appropriate Christian, or “churchy,” behaviour.
One aspect of holy tenacity is seeing God at work in our world and in us wherever we are. We need to see God at work in or lives and community. No matter how sad, angry, guilty, or grumpy, we are feeling we need to speak about God’s work of love in our lives and in the world.
Implicit in John Wesley’s words about tenacity and ministry is a central question about how to love well. We are called by the God, in both Old and New Testaments, to love all of His/Her creation, those with and without power. We are called to love the unloved and the unlovable, even Judas.
Through stories, poetry, and parables we learn about God’s relationship with humanity and creation. I must admit I shudder when the Bible is described as a rule book, or a reference manual. The Bible is the narrative of God’s salvation for all creation. This does not mean there are not difficulties, challenges, and difficult expectations as we read this divinely inspired but very human composition. The Bible is ultimately about God’s unrelenting love and inexhaustible pursuit of you and me.
Churches, no matter how small or large, practice holy tenacity when they embody God’s love. This can include random acts of kindness. Paying for someone’s shopping at the supermarket. Giving a bottle of water to someone in need. Not charging for coffee at a church coffee morning. These are pleasantly welcome gestures. However, it is the truly countercultural Christianity of repentance and forgiveness that really changes the world.
This counter cultural church is seen even before the birth of Jesus in Mary’s Magnificat. In the context of Jesus Christ’s nativity, we discovered how practicing holy tenacity extends into a world turned upside down by God’s grace. Reading the Magnificat we discovered how to lament the persistent oppression of systemic poverty and exploitation and challenge the exploitative power of the rich. It is in our mutual listening to the Gospel and tenaciously loving one another that we find ourselves working together with the Holy Spirit to release victims and victimisers from the oppressive systems of today’s culture and the dead weight of our history. We then participate in God’s redemption and the changing of the world.
Whether in or beyond church buildings, God’s Holy Spirit is moving in and among us inspiring holy tenacity and challenging us to love well. To what tenacious holiness are we and our church being called to this Methodist year?
How do you get through a maze? Well there are two ways, either you form a strategy and work your way out or you jump out.
Yes I know the second option sounds ridiculous but bear with me.
As the Sutton Park Circuit we are facing a difficult few years ahed, we could be said to be in a maze with many options but also numerous dead ends. So what do we do? The simple answer is to produce a plan but there is another way.
Rather than planing our way through the maze of challenges we think our way through?
In His book Strategic Thinking, Thomas Bandy writes; “The essence of strategic thinking is to shoot an arrow straight into the heart of the community. It is about simultaneous church growth and community development. That arrow is a straight line from the Heart Beat of the faith community—toward the Heart Burst of the surrounding community, guided by the Heart Song of God’s unique love.”
Strategic thinking sheds the deadweight of unproductive plans, avoids the pitfalls of imposed agendas, and overcomes the roadblocks of cost and stress.
The Heart Beat of the church is the core values and beliefs of the church community, the faithful, discipleship between church members and God. The Heart Burst of the church is the urgent desire to reach the often diverse community around us. The Heart Song of the church is our experience of God and awareness of His calling on our lives.
The focus of strategic thinking is on vision and people, rather than programs and finances. So long as the church is guided by the vision, stays within boundaries that the vision sets, then they do not need endless meetings to asses whether the plan is succeeding . The church only needs to come together to address problems they can- not seem to resolve themselves, recommendation to terminate irrelevant programmes, and to brainstorm big ideas to grow the church and bless the community.
Strategic thinking connects church identity and vision with congregational creativity . It begins with trust and ends with action. Along the way, it strives to understand our community, discern God’s will for the future of both church and community, and evaluate progress so far.
Too often we hear church leaders complain about what they call the “Tyranny of the Urgent.” They say that they are unable to find the time or energy to set priorities, consider new ideas, or pray for renewed vision—because they are too busy attending meetings, sustaining struggling programs, managing conflict, and running the institution. This is not the tyranny of the urgent but the tyranny of the trivial. Strategic thinking is the art of discerning the difference between the really urgent and the truly trivial, and the courage to do the first and delegate the second.
When churches are driven by urgency rather than by triviality, the church grows and the community is loved. When churches are driven by triviality the church declines and the community is ignored. This means that many members understand “faithfulness” backward, they believe we are called to be faithful to the past model of church and mission when we are really called to be faithful to the God of the future. The problem is that faithfulness to the God of the future is much harder than a faithfulness to the past.
The essence of strategic planning is to build and sustain the institutional church. But the essence of strategic thinking is to build and expand the kingdom of God. The former concentrates on activities, property, and money. The latter concentrates on leadership, priorities, discipleship, and working with others.
Strategic thinking requires the reframing of the questions we ask of our selves.
Who is in Charge?
How much do we trust God?
What do we compromise?
How passionate are we about the vision?
What do the members want?
What does God want?
What is the plan?
What are the priorities?
What tasks should we do?
What are the boundaries of our mission?
Will we preserve harmony?
Will we grow?
Will we attract new members?
Will we change our world?
Will we survive?
Will we succeed?
Strategic thinking is really about critical momentum, not critical mass. Small congregations can have great momentum into their community where larger ones can often become lethargic and mistake numerical success as missional success.
The way of strategic thinking is remarkably humble. It is humble before the public: listening first and speaking last; observing before acting. It is humble before God: praying first and acting later; slaying rather than preserving sacred cows.
The Sutton Park circuit has to some degree embarked upon a the path of Strategic Thinking with its ‘Living and Growing God’s Kingdom’ Vision and the development of Mission Centres and Hub Church model. Sadly the Covid epidemic and Lockdowns has derailed this somewhat, but with determination I believe we can get back on track and use the challenges we are facing as a spur to engage in more strategic thinking for the future.
What kind of book reader are you? Do you start at page one and read to the end or are you tempted to skip to the last page to see ‘who done it’?!
I would argue that if you are the latter then you are a good christian; let me explain further.
I start with another question – What is Christian about the church?
The reason I ask this is that faced with the malaise that afflicts many of our congregations and churches, we have turned uncritically to secular business and leadership literature desperately searching for quick fixes and a one-size-fits-all technique. As a result, we have found ourselves swirling in intra-Christian polemics: some leaders loudly commending the latest books on effective leadership, with others equally loudly claiming that Christians are called to be faithful and prophetic rather than selling out to popular notions of success.
The polemics are tearing us apart rather than building up the Body. Adopting an either-or position will not equip our churches to act as incubators of transformative life and cultivators of thriving communities.
So is there something distinctively Christian about the Church?
Yes: The end.
Don’t stop reading!, this isn’t the conclusion of my reflection. Rather, it is ‘the end’, the goal, the purpose, the telos that shapes the church and makes it most distinctively Christian. Our end is to cultivate thriving communities that bear witness to the inbreaking reign of God that Jesus announces and embodies in all that we do and are. This should shape the way we think about our lives, and our churches.
In one sense, it is so obvious that it scarcely needs mentioning. The answer brings to mind the old story of a preacher inquiring during a children’s address, “What is grey, has a bushy tail and gathers acorns every autumn?” The children are silent for a few moments, then one child responds, “I’m sure the right answer is Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me.”
Of course the right answer to the question, “What’s Christian about the church?”, is Jesus. Centring our lives in Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, enables us to locate our lives and our church in this comprehensive story of God.
For a long time I took for granted the “why” questions about purpose: Why does the church exist, or need to exist? I was given a jolt in an ecumenical meeting when someone said “The church is here to convert Muslims”! It was a bad diagnosis of our culture, I thought. But even worse, we cannot advance the church’s mission in the world by identifying our purpose by what we are not.
Too often as a church, we can name our activities, but we struggle tell our own story of shaping communities of faithful (if flawed) discipleship. We struggle to speak of a community engaging in the great stream of God’s story in time and space. (God’s story beyond time and space it not ours to tell.)
Many churches have learned from secular business culture to “take the long view”, but we Christians are called to develop an even longer view, a view that must incorporate the best thinking in business, psychology, history and other fields but situate it in our story as followers of Christ. The end in Christian perspective is not simply the termination of things, but rather the fulfilment of all for which we have hoped, yearned, prayed and worked.
The end is what orients our thinking about how we can honour the past as we search for the most faithful and imaginative way forward: to be a people who bear witness to the Holy Spirit who, by conforming us to Christ, is “making all things new.” The end helps us discern and clarify what needs to be preserved and what needs to be jettisoned for us to be faithful. The end enables us to be a people of traditioned innovation, envisioning the future by honouring the church’s past rather than merely ceaseless change.
Claiming the end as the heart of our story is critical for the church. For it returns us to basic questions all organizations, for-profit or otherwise, must ask. Why must we exist? What do we do that no one else can do as well? What would be lost if we disappeared?
In a time of economic tumult and unceasing reports on the decline of the mainline churches, we are prone to constrain our perspective by focusing on short-term questions of survival, that is understandable. However, especially in times of tumult, that we most need is to return to our fundamental commitments and focus on the end, a fulfilment of all that is and has been. After all, it might give us a new beginning.
DISCLAIMER – I’m not nor have I ever been a theologian!
In my last post I spoke of how we need to to think of the church as vibrant institution and that would perhaps need us to think of how we speak theologically about vibrant institutions.
Sadly in many churches Theology has become something of a dirty word, somehow the opposite of mission. However theology just means words about God. Revd. Dr. John Taylor (of late and blessed memory) once said that there could be a theology about anything, even lampposts. It just required that asking of two simple questions – ‘What has God to do with lampposts and what have lampposts to do with God.’ You can replace lampposts with any thing else you wish.
So what would the theology of the church as a vibrant institution begin to look like?
Three great themes that underpin all theology are creation, reconciliation and redemption.
CREATION One of the marks of the church as a vibrant institution is that through the centuries Christians founded institutions based on love of neighbour. The unprecedented and still unmatched moral triumphs — its care of widows and orphans, its almshouses, hospitals, foundling houses, schools, shelters, relief organisations, soup kitchens, medical missions, charitable aid societies and so on. Pagan Greeks had only houses to help wounded soldiers recover and get them back to the front. Christians opened houses to heal the poor out of obedience to their Lord.
The Didascalia, a third-century Christian document, made bishops, the church’s key leaders, responsible for educating orphans, aiding widows and purchasing food and firewood for the poor. The church of Rome in 251 had some 1,500 poor people on its rolls, whom it cared for with food, oil, wine and clothing. And such efforts were before the lifting of state-sanctioned persecution against the church. Once official harassment of Christians gave way to imperial largesse, churches became the first institutionalized public welfare organizations in Western history.
And lest anyone think this history self-serving, look to the witness of Christianity’s most bitter ancient enemy. The emperor Julian sought to reinstate imperial worship of the ancient gods and to stem the rising tide of the church in the empire. His primary means? Encouragement of pagan altruism. Julian declared it a “disgrace that these impious Galileans care not only for their own poor, but for ours as well.”
Christians won people because they cared for the poor materially and they did this through institutions. Pagans lost people because they did not. These institutions showed, and embodied, the Christian claim that God is not on the side of the strong, but is personally fleshed in one crucified Jew. His resurrected light transfigures all with eyes to see now, not one heart at a time (as today’s evangelicals would likely put it), but one almshouse, hospital, soup kitchen and food pantry at a time.
The church is a vibrant institution when it recognises we are all part of God’s creation and therefore we care for all of God’s creation.
RECONCILIATION Churches as a vibrant institutions can offer enormous good to countless people, to be sure, but they also carry inherent risk. Institutions can become bureaucracies and deaden the energy that led to the institution’s founding in the first place. Churches are not only witness to God’s good creation, but as themselves are in constant need of Christ’s reconciling work. They’re in need of saving if they are to save others.
In the fourth century St. Jerome praised a Roman aristocrat named Fabiola, whose money founded the first hospital in the West and whose personal zeal had her washing wounds and dispensing food herself. In the Christian East, another aristocratic woman named Olympias supported churches, convents, beggars, prisoners and exiles. In between institutional crevices themselves, as women in a highly patriarchal society, Fabiola and Olympias nevertheless helped create new vibrant institutions.
This founding impulse is not limited to the ancient church. For example, the Methodist revival succeeded not only because John Wesley preached to poor coal miners. It succeeded because it institutionalized charity to those most crushed by the Industrial Revolution. Wesley described the Strangers’ Friend Society in London as “instituted wholly for the relief not of our society, but for poor, sick, friendless strangers.” Later the civil rights movement in the U.S. was no momentary spasm of do-gooder sentimentality. It was a highly considered and planned effort in the black church to “turn Southerners’ notions of hospitality inside out.”
Yet there is a danger in this institutionalization of hospitality. Christians are called to offer welcome to the needy stranger. Yet once institutions are founded to regularize this offering and make visible where the needy can go for care, that care can become bureaucratic, professionalized, distant from the heart of Christian love for the other. For example, ancient Christians founded hospitals to normalize care for the needy. Yet the efficiency these brought also, ironically, removed the needy from the community and locked them away. In one way this irony should not surprise us. God has no one other than sinners through whom to offer care to his beloved poor. Further, institutions founded as havens for the vulnerable can easily become places where the vulnerable can, outrageously, become trapped and preyed upon.
We need to recognise our churches as vibrant institutions need to be constantly reconciled to God as we offer the path of reconciliation to others.
REDEMPTION The work of making all things holy, traditionally attributed to the Holy Spirit in the Triune life, can be seen in vibrant institutions founded by missionaries all over the world. We call these institutions holiness-making because this function is largely unplanned, as wild and unhindered as the Spirit’s work always is. The Western missionaries who founded hospitals, universities and almshouses in, say, Africa, had no idea those institutions would train and equip a generation of African intellectuals who would not only demand that Westerners (like missionaries) leave their country. It would also produce missionaries who would be sent by African countries to newly de-Christianized Western places and to places European missionaries never hoped to reach. Institutions as living things can move in directions their founders never intended. In doing so they can fulfill God’s purposes, which are so much higher than ours as to induce not just surprise but wonder.
The emergence of indigenous faith is the lynchpin of Churches becoming or rebecoming vibrant institutions. Ambassador Gertrude Ibengwe Mongella of Tanzania, in an address to Boston University said, “I must thank the American missionaries who came and started the girls’ school in which I was educated. Without the work of the Maryknoll Sisters, young African girls like me would have no opportunities to get an education, to become a teacher, or to attend a university. But why are the Americans not focusing on founding schools and hospitals like they used to? Where are the missionaries of today?” Nelson Mandela could have given the same speech, having been educated in his village by Methodists.
Where indeed are these vibrant institutions? The Spirit blows where God wills. The Spirit blew countless preachers and teachers of the gospel across the sea in the modern missionary movement, and thousands more may come from the East and the South back to us in the spiritually moribund West. It seems to be what God is doing at the moment and the greatest hope for the future of the church. Who knew God would act this way? Yet as people produced by Spirit-inspired institutions, we should get used to being surprised. Who is a Christian without being baptized? Who a student without a school? Who a professional without training? And where do these come from without human institutions?
Creation, Reconciliation, Redemption. All three can help us see that institutions, created good, fallen and being reconciled, and pointing the way to God’s future redemption are integral to a flourishing life in this world. All three are important for our churches to be the vibrant institutions that God intends the churches to be.
In my last post I spoke of how we seem to be hardwired into criticising the institutions we rely on in civil society and I included the church in this. Yet we cannot escape institutions, and nor should we continue to try. We need the institutions within which we already live to serve as the backgrounds of our minds and our lives, giving shape and form to who we are. In his book “On Thinking Institutionally,” political scientist Hugh Heclo argues that institutions enable us to be “mindful in certain ways, exercising a particular form of attentiveness to meaning in the world.” Vibrant institutions are crucial to sustaining meaning and purpose in our lives and in the world. As a Christian I would also want to say that vibrant churches are also necessary to sustain meaning and purpose in our spiritual lives and in the Kingdom that we inhabit.
For our churches to become vibrant institutions rather than bureaucracies we need to change the conversation we have about the church. However the headlines about corruption, clergy sexual abuse, financial misconduct, give us “performance-based” reasons for wariness. Some churches are, indeed, bureaucracies of the worst sort; some institutional leaders have been careerist bureaucrats who have betrayed the public trust and damaged our common life as a church.
Even more damaging, though, is what Heclo calls our “culture-based” distrust of institutions. Our romanticized search for “personal meaning” places institutions in the way of our quests. We become increasingly bitter when we learn that institutions are so powerful we cannot escape them.
One would think Christianity offers a way beyond the impasse. Christian wisdom illustrates our need for the church institution to shape and form us, as well as recognising the vulnerability of churches and their leaders to corruption. The reality and persistence of sin, understood as self-deception, ought to make us wary of the romantic quest for “personal meaning” through individualistic personal fulfilment. And our persistent capacity for sin reveals our need for the church to teach and train us, through faithful practices and holy friendships, to unlearn sin and learn holiness.
Unfortunately, many Christians have drunk too deeply from the well of romantic individualism. In todays world sin has not disappeared and we have suddenly become virtuous. Rather, we Christians have lost our own vocabulary and become seduced into thinking we can discover our best selves through introspection and self-help manuals. We have pretended that authentic Christianity can occur solely between an individual and God, or, for evangelicals, an individual and Jesus.
Some Christians who want to overcome individualism turn to modern expressions of monastic communities as an alternative. Yet even these communities and their practices cannot exist for long without institutions, so those romantic quests are caught in the same impasse.
Too many modern christians suffer from a neglect of “institutional thinking,” or appreciating from within just how and why the church is crucial to a flourishing faith and thriving communities. Institutional thinking requires an interpretive standpoint of affirmation and trust rather than thinking “about” the church as an observer or critic. Institutional thinking still requires critical attention to the failures of the church, but with “respect” of the institution of the church.
Christian institutional leaders, model the practice of thinking institutionally when we focus attention on the larger purposes our churches serve other than just existing. We advance this practice when we love enemies in our leadership and when we engage in discernment that keeps us aware of our own, as well as our churches, capacity for sin as well as redemption.
We need a richer Christian account of vibrant churches that is mindful of personal as well as institutional sin and redemption. As Christians we should have a clear sense of the end for which we live and move and have our being. We are well-equipped to narrate the vices and virtues that are intrinsic to thinking institutionally.
In this time of cultural turmoil, when economic challenges are troubling to even the strongest churches, we cannot afford any longer to be cynical about or hate institutions. It is time to develop a robust Christian theological imagination for, and understanding of, them. Indeed, we need to learn, by God, to love the institutions we need.
In the world we live in today institutions are as easy to dislike as they are difficult to get rid of. In the western world we seem to have an ingrained suspicions of the institutions we need and use. The government, NHS, schools even the church all can provoke a level of suspicion that ‘they’, the institution are out to get ‘us’! Yet some of us seem, wonder of wonders, to see the good they have wrought and are called to lead them — from the hospitals where we were born to the schools where we were educated to the churches where we worship. How do we reconcile the good institutions do (even the ones we lead) with the bad of which they inarguably are capable (even the ones we lead)?
We often are called to pray for the institutions that affect our daily lives. We pray for schools and colleges at the beginning of a new academic year. We have been praying fervently for our hospitals over the last two years. Occasionally we pray for our Parliament, although I have yet to see a thunderbolt strike the Palace of Westminster!
Of course we pray for our churches, both at a local and a national level. However when we pray for our churches there are three possible paths we can take.
One path prays, “God save our church.” For this group, institutions are so important to human life generally that their collapse is unthinkable. We may find in this group leaders and financial supporters of our churches, particularly those under duress.
The strength of this position is that it acknowledges that the health of a society depends, to great degree, on the health of all its institutions. Just as it is extremely hard to have a functioning economy, let alone a healthy one, without healthy banks, so for our congregations to function as a missional community we need healthy churches and denominations.
In their eagerness to help society, those who back this position might overlook instances when it is necessary to overhaul existing institutions. Such overhauls can be painful, especially in the interim between the eclipse of one form of church and the birth of the next. Christians need only to think of the difficulty in the transition from a temple of stone to the temple of Jesus’ body. And perhaps more damagingly, adherents to this prayer can forget institutions should not exist only for their own sake, but for the sake of those they serve.
The second path prays, “God save us from institutions.” This group sees only malice. Its backers would read the current financial difficulties, for example, as evidence that banks, markets and corporations have only their own interests at heart, and that these come at the expense of all other interests. This group also may feel harmed by the church, leading them to conclude that institutional religion is essentially bad.
Those who take this line would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr’s observation: human beings tend to be good as individuals but bad in groups. We know churches that have scarred some people and have systematically oppressed others.
The position’s weakness is that it overlooks the fact that human life depends on institutions. The goods of human life — education, faith, health care, art, music — are social. The Church is defined by its congregation as much as its’s traditions or structures. There is an individual aspects to the church, but no one can pursue mission to its fullest without other people — trained people, dependent on knowledge passed down for centuries, enabled by gifts (monetary and otherwise) given by strangers and friends. Without people, a vision, a mission, money and perhaps buildings, the mission of the church tends to dissipate like water through open fingers.
The third way of prayer incorporates the strengths of the first two and avoids their weaknesses. It calls for the church to be a flourishing institution for the sake of the whole of human life in communion. The prayer is, “God save us through your church.” This prayer recognizes the deep pit of human need from which we all approach God: it is we who need saving, but not from institutions like the church.
God has no blessing for us mortals that is not institutionally mediated. God saves through Israel, ever-wrestling with God’s chosen people just as God wrestled with their father Jacob by the Jabbok. And God saves through the church: a people called out from the world to be joined in baptism to God and nurtured through Eucharist. One may judge others’ “organised” religions from the safety and isolation of one’s easy chair or the rigour of one’s study (the key word here: “one”). But Christianity joins us in Christ to one another in and through the church to a concern for the thriving of all of God’s creation.
This position will also recognise that while institutions are indispensable to God’s work, they are never frozen, unchanging, in their current form. Institutions are essential, but not static. The church may take many different forms, as dramatically different as Israel’s magnificent temple and Jesus’ vulnerable flesh, but it still is a necessary vibrant institution for God’s mission to be fulfilled here on earth.
A time before there was South Parade Church? You couldn’t imagine it but there are some people, who are now in their 90’s, who remember a patch of land where bulrushes grew which is now the site of South Parade.
But South Parade has always had been here. Hasn’t it? It only has been here, as it turns out, since the early 1930s, when some of the older members and others watched its construction. People had to figure out the location as well as the design, not to mention several years of painstaking construction. Because of a wide variety of people’s vision and care, we now have a space that looms across the landscape, a sanctuary for worship and music, a visible symbol of the Methodist commitment to the importance of Christian ministry. All the churches in our circuit could tell a similar story of vision, planning and construction.
Modern Christians too often celebrate community without attending to the critically important roles that vibrant institutions play in enabling a community’s practices to flourish. Too often we take vibrant institutions for granted, forgetting they are crucial for creating spaces that shape and pattern human life and address fundamental human needs and yearnings. Because we have ignored the crucial difference that vibrant institutions make in our lives and in the ecology of our wider social existence, we too often have allowed vibrant institutions to become lifeless bureaucracies. We have watched once-glorious church spaces deteriorate and become shells of the vitality they once represented. Christian life suffers as a result.
By contrast, vibrant spaces, and more broadly vibrant houses of worship, continually make room for Christian wisdom to be nurtured over the course of time. We tend to underestimate how institutional spaces “speak” to people. Over the years, I have heard story after story about vocations discovered and renewed, relationships developed and reconciled, spiritual life developed and deepened, all occasioned by particular Christian worship spaces.
But not only the space. It is also the way of life those churches nurture. At their best, churches communicate and nurture vibrancy as bearers of tradition, laboratories for learning and incubators of leadership. Christian institutions give form and structure to our convictions, enabling us to cultivate thriving communities to be signs, foretastes and instruments of the reign of God. Seen in this light, faithful Christian living depends significantly on our ability not only to think about churches but also to think appreciatively from within them, to cultivate the practice of thinking institutionally rather than bureaucratically.
Vibrant churches are bearers of tradition. These traditions are found in the architecture, in the rhythms of daily schedules, in the formal and informal norms of the people who work and pray there, in the ways positions are described, in the ways decisions are made. This is most obviously evident in monastic communities that have lasted for decades and even centuries, but it is no less true of such institutions as theological colleges, congregations, L’Arche communities or hospices.
Vibrant churches nurture ‘traditioned innovation’* as a way of thinking and acting and make central the practice of ongoing learning. This includes honouring the gifts of our personal and collective pasts as well as repenting of sin, both personally and institutionally. Traditioned innovation focuses on the future to which the Holy Spirit is calling us, reminding us simultaneously that we need to be a learning organization if that future is to be faithful. Rather than pitting romanticized community over against sterile bureaucracy, or traditionalism over against newness, vibrant churches are spaces for learning traditioned innovation that bears witness to the Holy Spirit who is conforming us to Christ. Vibrant churches create spaces in which people unlearn sin and learn faithfulness as a way of life.
Vibrant churches nurture the gifts of leadership. Their dynamic internal cultures attend to the diversity of people’s gifts, nurturing people in their variety to develop the virtues, skills and perspectives that make transformative leadership possible. Not all participants in an organisation will have the gifts for transformative leadership, but all participants play indispensable roles in the overall vibrancy of an institution’s leadership. That is nurturing leadership makes each of the various parts of the church stronger and makes the sum of those parts even greater. By contrast, bureaucracies, not to mention toxic organizations, can take even the best leadership capacities and turn them into mediocre mush or sinful sludge.
Vibrant churches are not always born in vibrant times. South Parade emerged from the ground amid a national financial crisis. It began its ministry at a time when the world order crumbled into a world war. That story serves as a reminder that a crucial way of thinking institutionally is taking the risk to found new institutions that meet our deepest human needs; for worship, education, shelter, hunger, beauty, joy, community. As with South Parade, we ought to be willing to found them even in less than ideal circumstances, or especially in challenging circumstances. For it is when we recognise that churches are crucial spaces for nurturing faithful and joy-filled living that we will be even more likely to take the risks of founding fresh expressions of church and for caring for them in practices and commitments that enable their continual birth and rebirth over time.
God’s blessing in this Lenten season, Alan.
*A way of thinking and being that holds the past and future in tension, not in opposition, is crucial to the growth and vitality of churches.
As a student a group of us attended Spring Harvest as Student Helpers We all shared a chalet and we catered for our evening meal together. We took it in turn to offer a blessing for the meal, it was Helen’s turn to say grace, “God, help us know when we have eaten enough and stop.” Those words stunned us. We had all been up early to help set up venues. A can of pop and biscuit grabbed running from one task to another through the day. We were starving, why could she be so cruel? There are some prayers which simply should not be prayed! We know to avoid prayers for those things we have no intention of changing.
Hunger, for instance, is one of the subjects about which we’ve learned to be careful. If you pray too seriously for hungry people you’ll end up skipping meals and giving your money away.
That’s why most of us are careful not to pray too seriously for the homeless. It’s awkward to pray for people who have no home when we have empty bedrooms.
We avoid praying about things that we don’t want to change. It’s frightening to pray about our careers. Does the law student with good career prospects in international tax law want to pray about whether God would like for her to be a social worker? Does the successful businessperson want to ask God if a lower paying job might make more of a contribution to the world?
We’re especially careful about praying for people we don’t like. Think of the person whose presence bothers you the most, who gets on your nerves and probably always will. When Jesus said “Pray for your enemies,” he was inviting us to the kind of prayer that will lead us to say something kind that we don’t want to say.
Most of the time we are afraid to pray about what we could be or what we could do because we prefer the life of comfort we have chosen rather than a life of prayer which allows God to choose for us. We are afraid to pray not because our prayers will be unanswered but because the will!
We’ve learned to pray, “God, make me a better person, but not so much better that I have to change the way I live.” Prayer is hard because we don’t want to start doing what God invites us to do or stop doing what we are used to doing.
King David went a long time without really praying. One afternoon a look turned into lust, and David didn’t pray about it. The lust turned into manipulation, and David acted in ways that he never would have considered if he had the courage to pray. David was able to keep from admitting what he had done or what he needed to do for a long time. He didn’t pray, because he didn’t want to face the harsh realities.
After being confronted by Nathan the Prophet David began to pray again. His words are recorded in Psalm 51. This is an honest psalm of a man struggling to pray honestly to God. The amazing thing about this psalm is that for all of its agony, there’s also a sense of relief. What David ignored for so long is finally brought out into the open. It couldn’t have been any easier for David to tell the truth about himself than it is for any of us. There is no painless way to stop protecting our easy lives and be honest to God.
Psalm 51 is the psalm set for Ash Wednesday when we begin our Lenten Pilgrimage. Lent should be time of self examination, of honest prayer not just a few weeks to give up some trifling luxury and pretend we are doing the will of God
People who pray passionately don’t have easy lives, but they have abundant lives. God has dreams for us that we’ve been afraid to imagine.
What would happen if we made a searching, fearless inventory of how much more we could be if we asked God for the courage to change and take chances?
During the Christmas season many churches will have a wayside poster proclaiming ‘Jesus – The reason for the season’. Despite having some theological reservations about the statement I will concur that Christmas is a season and a season with purpose.
The birth of Jesus is, no doubt, the most joyous and celebrated of all holidays in our culture. Families get together, gifts are exchanged, and a good time is usually had by all. Even people who know or believe little about Jesus celebrate together. However most people think of Christmas as a singular event and when it is over, it is over until the same time next year.
Although the birth of Jesus was a momentous event, it was not a singular event. Jesus’ coming has deep roots in the religious and cultural tradition of the Jewish people; and the fact that God – Emmanuel came in the form of Jesus has had a profound effect on human life that show no sign of abating even after two thousand years.
The season that we call Christmas began thousands of years before the birth of Jesus. The Messiah had been expected for a long time. Ever since the Jewish people got into so much trouble that they realised their condition was beyond human help, they had been expecting divine intervention into human affairs in the form of a messiah. Their expectation of a coming messiah was intense but also intangible. Mothers prayed that their unborn would be a male child, and that he would be the Messiah. The expectation of the coming was not casual, like expecting a white Christmas, it was heart rending and visceral.
When times were good the expectation was less intense. Like most of us they did not feel the need for divine assistance when they were getting on quite well by themselves. The intensity of expectation was in direct proportion to the degree of national and personal difficulty they were experiencing at any given time. But, the expectation was always there, albeit at times in the background. When times were tough, they expected the imminent arrival of divine help. Like present-day Christians, when in trouble, the first words out of their mouths were: “Dear God, where are you?” It became increasingly obvious to them, as it does to us, that God’s timetable does not necessarily correspond with our timetable.
Crises came and went and no messiah. False messiahs came and went. In every age there are religious charlatans who exploit for their own selfish purposes the simple faith of the naive and desperate. There is always a following. People who live in the zone of desperation will grasp at any straw of hope and help.
There were many widely divergent concepts of what the Messiah would be like when he came. For the most part their hopes and dreams tended toward a political and religious “strong man,” a warrior-like messiah who would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore Israel to the power and splendour of the reign of David. They never dreamed that the Messiah would come when and as he did. Only Isaiah came close with his “suffering servant” who would be a light to all nations, and this was a fragmented glimpse that had little ideological support by the Jewish people (Isaiah 53). The Messiah is on his way! The time is drawing near that the hope of the ages will be fulfilled, but in a most unexpected manner.
Of course we would not have mistaken the truth of the Messiah, but how many people today yearn for a revived ‘messianic’ church which is full, wealthy and powerful.
The epicentre of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. Even those who know nothing but the solitary fact of his birth can be blessed by the event, but blessing and insight await those who know how it all came to pass. No one puts it all together in such a fetching story as Luke. Luke takes the loose ends of strange and obscure events occurring in the lives of the most unlikely people and leads us unerringly to Bethlehem, a stable, and the manger in which the newborn Messiah was laid by a wide-eyed teenage mother as a puzzled, but faithful, Joseph looked on.
Again Luke’s nativity began before the birth in Bethlehem. It is Luke, with his scientific mind, who tells us that in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (which she had kept secret), an angel appeared to a teenage girl named Mary and informed her that she would bear a son without benefit of an earthly father, who was to be called “Jesus.” The angel informed Mary of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, her kin. So, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary came to visit. When Mary greeted Elizabeth the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These two women share a secret that the world has waited long to know. As they revel in what they have come to know, Mary speaks a song of praise that has more to do with her unborn son than herself. It is Mary’s song. We call it “The Magnificat,” from its Latin name.
The song thanks and praises God for including her in this unfolding divine drama. As Mary sings of the power of God, we can read what she says to be the power to be exercised by her unborn son. It portends a revolution and a reversal of present reality. This is the most comprehensive statement of liberation theology in the Bible:
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55)
We look around the world today and realise that Mary’s prophecy is still to come to pass. Like our Jewish ancestors who looked for the coming messiah we hope and yearn for this new messianic world.