Author Archives: supersutton

Methodism Today: Resurrected and Resurrecting

Daily Reflections on the Resurrection | North Thompson Ecumenical Shared  Ministry

Forget the pandemic for a moment and set aside you anxiety about gas bills. In five to ten years these struggles will no longer demand our attention, but this reality will:

  • Less people than ever in our society will be a part of a church.
  • Less young people than ever in our nation’s history will be a part of a congregation, enter a church building, or open a Bible.
  • Christians, if current trends continue, will be a minority population in our society by 2070.

We do not get to choose the time in which we live, but we do get to choose how we live in our time. If the Church is to be reimagined in this era, we must realise that a vision of the church precedes a vision for the church. Rather than consider the form or structure of a denomination, we are wise to recall the function of the church. We can begin by considering some of the hallmarks of the first disciples who followed risen Jesus Christ.  

The first disciples placed their trust in the power of the resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the crescendo of proclamation in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Paul. The first Christians understood that if Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected to new life, he really was the Messiah, Saviour, and Lord. They followed His way with this level of conviction in the resurrection.

Their actions were consistent with the kingdom of God Jesus said was breaking into the world. The experience of the resurrection changed them. Their ministry and behaviour was always in keeping with the kingdom of God present in their lives individually and as the church. 

The disciples whole life was first and foremost a spiritual life. Their life in Christ was not limited to one day of the week or a set of activities that made them feel good in the rest of their lives. The Holy Spirit led them to honour God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Their love of neighbour and self flowed out of their ongoing experience of God’s guidance from the time they awoke to the moment they entrusted God with their nightly rest.

The disciples had a deep concern for those who did not know Jesus. Throw them in jail because they talked about Jesus, and they converted the guard. Tell them if they talk about Jesus again bad things will happen, and they said “…we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:20) Evangelism, the ability to talk to others about Jesus, was not a program or spiritual gift. It was what they did because Jesus had changed their lives and they knew He could change others’ lives as well.

The first Christians healed the sick, made sure people had food, lived in communities where everyone had enough, and attended to those on the margin. They did what they sometimes did not want to do. This included outreach to the Gentile population, after the Holy Spirit told them that God now called such people “clean,” a rather significant and historic revision to Judaic law and tradition. Whether through acts of compassion or calls for justice, the early church offered God’s love, compassion, and power to those who were lonely, suffering, or in need. They loved people, even the ones who threw rocks at them.  

As Christianity declines in the United Kingdom, other theologies and ideologies will fill the void. The Methodists in the UK will become more like the Methodist Church on the continent of Africa, where Christians are distinct because they are in the religious minority. Being distinct is the opportunity before us. We already live in a time when the wisdom of Christ stands in remarkable contrast to the foolishness of the flawed ways our cultures tell people they will find security and happiness. The teaching of Christ and the foundational beliefs of our church make more sense now than ever because of the failure of leaders in society to offer people much other than division, dissension, and fear. A resurrected Methodist Church must offer people a unique, Christ-ordered way of life that is resurrecting to those its hopes to reach and an alternative community within the larger society, just as John Wesley envisioned.

Those first disciples discovered that resurrection was a new state of existence. It was not about working harder to be a little less dead, it was a complete new life. For our church to have new life, we will have to rethink how we form people in the Christian life. Accountable discipleship, once a hallmark of Methodism, must emerge afresh in this time. The more spiritual encouragement and functional accountability people experience, the more progress they make in their sanctification. Our task is to help people live distinctively Christian lives that are attractive to others because of the integrity and love they demonstrate. Prior to Constantine, the early church did this slowly. They were not interested in quick, emotional conversions. People had to commit to the completion of the catechesis. They learned and lived the way of Christ before they were made members of the church. 

There is no structural change that will bring the Methodist Church greater vitality. We can only find it as we seek the power of God and resurrect the function of church, live the resurrection way deeply, and offer Christ and his love and wisdom to the world. 

Grace and peace,

Alan.

Methodism Today: Dot-to-Dot.

World's largest connect-the-dots puzzle

As a child my maternal grandmother would join us for Sunday lunch and tea. I always looked forward to these times because she was my ‘Nana’ but also because she would bring a bar of Fry’s Chocolate Cream to share and a puzzle comic for me to do.

I particularly liked doing the dot-to-dot puzzles, where, if you connected them in the right order, the seemingly random dots on the page would reveal a picture of a car or ship or something.

In many ways the life and mission of the church is like a dot-to-dot puzzle. These ‘dots’ are the unchanging aspects of a churches life and work, like personal invitations to gatherings, breaking bread with a neighbour, singing praise to God, reading his word, offering the life of the world in prayer and offering a captivating message. For many years we have joined this dots together in a particular way to reveal a picture we call Church.

But what if you could join the dots of the puzzle together in a different way to reveal a different picture? If we connect these dots in the “right” order, we just might have an exciting, life-giving movement on our hands. 

Many churches are now quite familiar with a both/and reality, especially with worship. Churches stream worship online while also having people in the pews. On any given Sunday you will find an offering plate but many church members now give online. (Some churches even have contactless card readers to accept donations!) The both/and world is becoming quite familiar, but often overlooked is the responsibility to recognise that both/and is not just about church logistics. Living into this tension elicits a pastoral response. Many are feeling left behind with the quickly changing technological landscape, and with this dramatic change there is grief, those who were on the ‘offertory rota’ no longer have a role to fulfil.

We must hold in tension both the grief and excitement of this new augmented landscape. Many for the first time feel like the church is listening to them. Creating discord servers, developing space in the metaverse, and investing in digital currencies as a means through which the church is serving a new generation, but it shouldn’t be at the expense of those currently in our communities. It’s not about the technology, but it is about the connection (or lack thereof) technologies affords.  As of yet there isn’t an app on the market that can heal a hurting soul who feels forgotten. We must connect the dots between what technology can do and how technology makes us feel. 

In the church there is often a resistance to change and those who resist change will speak about ‘change for changes sake’. I must admit I agree that change for changes sake is not always the best way forward. If change comes it must be adaptive change, joining the dots in a different way to produce a better not just a new picture.

Twenty or so years ago there was a church that had experienced their “golden” years: substantial growth, effective mission, expansion, and influential community leadership. The minister who led during this time of abundance eventually came to the end of their time in the circuit and was stationed elsewhere, and with his successor came great strife. The following years offered division, antagonism, and depending on who you ask, great trauma. Since this shake-up, the congregation seemed to find some reason or another to ask the minister to start packing every four to five years. Why? With each new appointment the next minister was being asked, explicitly or quietly in the hallways in between meetings, to recapture the past. The incoming minister’s vision was never enough. It never could be because repeating the past is impossible. It is not an altogether bad thing to desire the best practices of a fruitful time. Connect-the-dots puzzles are a tried and true children’s exercise, but if you’re hoping to find a connect-the-dots book within walking distance from your home at a corner news shop your walk will probably end in disappointment.  

Congregations tempted to reclaim past mission and vision are in a particularly difficult context today. As I mentioned in my previous article, we are all running the third great Covid marathon; “Nostalgic Scarcity,” the desire to reclaim the past through already limited resources. Nostalgic Scarcity might be an unfamiliar phrase, but “let’s get ‘back to,’” and “This is how we used to do it,” I’m sure will resonate in many churches with a slight traumatic tremor.

Churches who want to ‘get back to’ are stifling this new environment to explore the realities of mission and church today, both physically and digitally. Some members will even go to the extent of removing the dots to prevent a new pattern being formed, the “if you do this I will resign from the church” brigade. Enshrining the past is not a bad thing, but it is the job of museums, not the calling of churches. 

Adaptive change will be waiting for us at the Covid marathon finish line, and with adaptive change there is always a cost. The cost is often loss. Several church members of that church left when the new ministers failed to invest in creating a “get back to” environment; however it seems that the congregation has never been healthier. The worshiping congregation is certainly slimmer, but also more nimble, more missionally engaged, and frankly happy. We must connect the dots between what will bring us into a more fruitful future with the recognition that not everything/one will join us on that journey. 

The good news is that the church is not being called to be innovative, witty or clever. We simply need to be where the people are. We need to connect the dots between the excitement of innovation with the sorrow of grief. We need to connect the dots between the fruitfulness of moving into the future with the loss from adaptive change. We need to connect the dots between innovative technology and the people the technology should serve. When we reconnect the dots of our churches life we will see the shape of a cross. It may have been hard to see at first in the midst of exhaustion and rapid change, but it is our faith that it is there. So, how are you being called to reconnect the dots of your churches life?

Grace and peace to you, Alan.

Methodism Today: Where Worlds Collide

Two planets colliding: one short, but beautiful simulation

Like many around the world I watched with interest the final moments of the NASA Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) program, when on 26th September the DART rocket was intentionally crashed into Dimorphos, the minor planet-moon of the asteroid Didymos. This was a test to see if humanity could change the direction of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) thereby defending earth against an asteroid collision. If you want to know why ask a dinosaur!

Interesting you may say but what has this to do with church life? Well, personally speaking, at times mission feels trying to knock an asteroid on a permeant orbit in a different direction.

Post Covid we are emerging into a very different world where the church is being pushed in many different directions. In good Methodist style there three areas I want to consider and these can be further divided into three different directions.

Firstly we are the fulcrum of three ‘ages’. The industrial age, the information age and the augmented age.

Many church members are part of the industrial age. Industrial age members see church as bricks and mortar, worship is about attendance. Information is physical in the Newsletter and the pew-sheet.

There are fewer members in the information age but they feel as much apart of their church as industrial age members. Church is about community, worship is streaming and information comes through social media or e.mail. They may attend church occasionally but are happy to participate online, they opt out of receiving a physical church newsletter.

The smallest group, perhaps because they are the newest are those of the Augmented age. Although we do not know they are the smallest group because they aren’t counted in the same way as other groups. They have avatars, usernames, and gamer tags. These people put down their phones down because wearable technology is becoming its own force. They don’t register their attendance at all. They don’t have to because Augmented Age locations have geofences and register their presence automatically. Where as the citizens in the Information Age go to the internet. For the citizens of the Augmented Age, the internet comes to them.

The challenge for the church is all three ages coexist so how do we mission to them. If you only count those in church on a Sunday morning as attending you fail to register those who follow on social media. If you don’t produce a physical magazine many will feel forgotten. If this wasn’t difficult to navigate we have to remember that we are still living with a global pandemic.

Tackling a pandemic has been described as a marathon and not a sprint. In fact we are running three marathons.

The first Marathon was the one of traumatic innovation. Suddenly every where shuts down we all have to wear masks as of yet there is no treatment no vaccine. Even the church (building) is closed. There is great trauma in this first covid marathon, life is like building a house whilst trying to live in it.

We asked questions of the church we have never had to considered. What does it mean to be “present” with one another while being physically separated? How far does the Spirit stretch when blessing communion elements? Is online worship viable? The good news is that this first marathon has come to a relative conclusion for many. Not for all. There still exists great trauma and sadness from what Covid stole. Friends and family who exist now only in our memory and the eternal heart of God. Missed birthdays and other family and community milestones. This marathon has lasting effects, but on the whole, this race has been run.

As our churches began to reopen we faced a second marathon, that of spiritual exhaustion.

Daily life has never been more exhausting in our lifetime, especially for families with school-aged children. This exhaustion has again led to people asking important questions. People began to seriously consider if they are in the right occupation, location, relationship, and faith community. In-person worship attendance is returning much more slowly than many imagined because it’s taking longer to recover from the week’s activities. It also is revealing that worship for many people was an additional “activity” rather than a lived rhythmic reality of everyday life.

As we reflect on the new reality of church life, post-Covid we are just now beginning to see a third (and final?) covid marathon beginning. That of nostalgic scarcity.

As we think about the future life and direction of the church many people will be scared that there isn’t ‘enough’ of church to risk with speculative programs and missions. And what capital we have in church we want to invest in getting back what we once had. I can’t blame people for wanting to reclaim what it felt like before all the craziness, but there are some aspects of Church life that won’t make it out of Covid. So, let us celebrate and morn and move on.

It would be one thing if these were consecutive races, but they aren’t. Many churches are running all three at the same time, and we wonder why our tempers are short and there is a great resignation happening across the board. 

Now if you have managed to stay with me so far, well done. I don’t want to end on focussing on our challenges without offering a way forward.

Moving forward, either getting a degree, developing a new hobby, or even working through grief, was more or less defined by a paradigm or pathway. First do this, then when that is completed, do that. It was systematic, planned, and expected. The trouble is that Covid has gummed up the works and we find things have ground to a halt.

So if there is no systematic pathway forward for the church we must look for other ways. Another way is to develop a new eco-system for the church to exist in.

Youtube worship and Zoom Bible Study. All seems to be moving in the right direction again…until there seems to be little reason only to study remotely, or there seems to be little reason exclusively to ever go to the church again. The ecosystem begins to break down. The waste within the system becomes unpalatable, and the seamless give and take necessary for a thriving ecosystem only produces bitterness and frustration. So we are forced to re-examine Jesus call of the first disciples and abide.

To abide with each other and with Jesus. We neither try to maintain a pathway or fine-tune an ecosystem. Moving forward becomes compassionately personal. Pathways and ecosystems have work or production at its centre, but Jesus’ “abide” model of moving forward is a people first movement. It gives rise to a decentralised church and autonomous organisations where church members can just be. Where thy are not defined by levels of attendance or roles fulfilled or tasks completed. To abide is to understand that we are not perfect and we are all a work-in-progress. 

What is the point of all my rambling? The nine areas of church life I have briefly discussed need to come together, not like planets crashing it each other, which often happens in the life of the church but like the intersecting circles of a Venn Diagram At its elusive centre is an industrial, informational, and augmented space of traumatic improvisation, spiritual exhaustion, and nostalgic scarcity, moving us from the familiar pathways into an ecosystem that is begging for us to simply abide with one another.  So, take a deep breath, give yourself a break, and know that you are not alone.

God bless,

Alan.

All Good Gifts Around Us

Harvest Festival – Origins, facts and customs » Lockie Envelopes

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.

Grace and peace to you in this Harvest season,

Alan.

Keep on Growing.

21,843 Plant Growing Through Crack Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free  Images - iStock

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

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. 

Love Well

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?

Grace and peace

Alan.

This Way Out

Hedge maze - Wikipedia

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.

Strategic PlanningStrategic Thinking
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.

Grace and peace,

Alan.

Endings and Beginnings.

the end is nigh | The End is Nigh sandwich board near the en… | Flickr

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.

Grace and peace, Alan.

Lent 4: Not more theology!

Theologian? You Guys Are Always Fun Drawing by Charles Barsotti

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.

God bless your Lenten journey, Alan

Lent 3: Who needs the church? – We do!

2,329 Church Service Illustrations & Clip Art - iStock

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.

God bless your Lenten journey. Alan.

Lent2: God save(s through) the Church!

Building the Church - Part One - Ralph Howe Ministries

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.

God’s blessing through this Lenten season, Alan.