Another church is possible

I suppose I carry a bit of a perpetual sadness about ‘church’. Not my church in particular, but in general. I think that if I was starting with a clean sheet, I’d probably suggest doing something different altogether. A huge part of that feeling comes from when I open the pages of the New Testament, and find that what we see there rarely seems to resonate with what we’ve ended up with. It is Francis Chan who has recently written a lot about what would you really start doing if you based your gatherings on glimpses of gatherings in the NT.

I’ve been reading Corinthians a lot recently. 1 Corinthians 11 – 15 contains Paul writing to offer teaching and correction to the church there, and what he suggests, in my view, sounds good! Yet, I think of the set up of large churches (by UK standards) like the one I lead, and realise that what he describes there is almost impossible due to the spaces we squeeze ourselves into and the format we’ve inhereted from generations of Christendom Christianity. There are just too many of us together on a Sunday morning to function anything like what Paul was talking about. Take a look at 1 Cor 14: 26 – 33 for a moment:

26 What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up. 27 If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. 28 If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.

29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. 30 And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. 31 For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. 32 The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. 33 For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.

Now, leaving aside the focus on the particular gifts mentioned, what you see here is a very multi-faceted, multi-voiced congregation with a plurality of leadership and ministries in operation. There is the strong mix of order (which is the point of the passage) and freedom in the Spirit. I read this and don’t imagine a room of 200 people, and I certainly don’t see them sitting in rows – I imagine they’re in a space where they can see each other, in a circle, perhaps – probably a space in a larger home, from what we know.

Another thing I don’t think I see very much is the maturity in churches for this to work. Frank Viola makes this point in several of his books. He basically proposes that your average church is ill-equipped and hugely inexperienced in any other form of Christian gathering to make this sort of thing a reality. He does, however, set out a journey in one of his books to help a group of people navigate such a reality.

The closest I got to this was the experimentation we began in Aberdeen, where we were seeking, in many ways, to ‘start fresh’ with a tiny team in an urban priority area where your natural ‘come to church and listen to the preach’ was just not going to work at all. We focussed all our meetings around food and on 100% participation from everyone gathered! It was highly missional as we invited people who weren’t yet Christian even to speak and ask questions of any particular passage we were looking at together. We encouraged the believers to come to the gathering with something to share or contribute. Don’t get me wrong, it was like babysteps church…and it was slow work building up confidence, partly because this wasn’t a community where education levels were high, it was a non-book culture, and so things were very different. Having said all that, it was enough for me to seal the conviction that another church was possible.

Ironically, after that experiement, I’ve since found myself in much more formal settings, but because I had that tantalising taste of something different, I guess I’ve never been able to re-settle fully into the old regime. Truth be told, I have a longing that one day I’ll escape the old structures! Equally, I’m interested to hear of people who want to imagine a different path, convinced that there is indeed another way.

I think my strongest conviction is that our current models of church are detrimental to discipleship. They’re counter-productive in that they encourage passivity. Now, I enjoy giving a (hopefully) good preach, but I’m under no illusions as to the limits of that approach to disciple people, or indeed to create a fullness in the life of the gathered church. There is a place for preaching and teaching, but surely not at the cost of interaction, full body ministry, active operation of the gifts of the Spirit, Spirit-led order, and real life-on-life engagement?

Thing is, so many of us are stuck in our inherited models, and for the want of a bit of boldness, miss out on deep treasure to be found in Christian community. I’m just ‘thinking out loud’ here…I’m also reflecting on ministry over the years, and even my own setting now, asking the questions about what will release the church to be the church for our 21st century context. I’m also at the stage in my life where, if I don’t have the courage to invite others to explore the alternatives, I’l only ever be a person who perpetuates the status quo. No…I think the time has come to be brave for the sake of the gospel and the glory of God. I’m thankful to be part of a church who, at least in part, are open to new possibilities.

A more radical discipleship?

An honest reflection is that the picture of discipleship that I was taught and trained in growing up as a Salvationist was considerably more radical than anything I’ve found in practical experience outside that movement. I’m not saying everyone was 100% in line with this teaching, that this always remained a priority, or that I was always meeting the mark, but it was consitently out there (at least in my settings) It was radical in several ways:

  1. Giving up my life – I was in no doubt as to who my life belonged to, and I was invited to submit my life to the purposes of God at every turn. That environment taught me to consider his purposes over and above any decision I might make, and that my life decisions should reflect his heart. I was regularly reminded that I was dead to myself and wholly given over to Christ. This shaped so many life-choices in so many significant ways. For example, when considering marriage, close to the first questions was ‘is this someone equally committed to the cause of Christ and the salvation of the world’ and our marriage vows reflected it! How many other marriage vows include a dedication to ‘salvation warfare’?! You were aware of the limits on people’s time, but there was an understanding that we were working under the same premise of seeking to be available to Christ. Someone of us even operated under the premise of being willing to ‘preach, pray or die at a moments notice’! Crazy, huh?
  2. Are you called…? – there was a huge emphasis on the question as to whether you were called to be a Salvation Army officer (minister). Not everyone was, of course, but everyone had at least considered it! The SA has a radical history of taking people, training them up, and sending them out to do stuff, especially younger people like myself I suppose, who learned to ‘cut his teeth’ in ministry from the age of 20, but long before that from the age of 15. Even friends who wouldn’t end up in full-time ministry in the church were at least given regular opportunities to preach, lead ministries, lead worship, speak, sing….etc etc. Of course, other callings are available – but giving up your life to officership in particular was a strong option.
  3. Expressive multi-voiced worship – always space to pray, testify, shout an ‘amen’ or a ‘hallelujah’, but more than that, a sense that we were all involved. Another huge part of this was the culture of response – preaching was ‘preaching for a verdict’ – that is, I was invited to make a response to whatever was preached and live it out, and express that through a culture of receiving prayer from others as part of the worship setting at ‘the Mercy Seat’ – a dedicated place of prayer and response. We were ready to respond to what God was saying.
  4. ‘Means of Grace’ – the building blocks of discipleship, such as prayer, reading the bible, worship, reading, etc were non-negotiables. If these weren’t happening, my Commanding Officer (minister) would probably want to explore why and help me get going with it.
  5. Sacrifical Lifestyle – not quite a vow of poverty, but a strong commitment to invest in the mission of God with all I had through careful consideration of my resources, even as a ‘poor teenager’. I was invited to have a sacrificial perspective on personal possessions (houses, cars, goods and gadgets etc) in order to release as much finance for the ‘salvation war’ as possible. Annually, there was a serious period of ‘self-denial’, the finance of which was given to mission. As a Salvation Army officer, one part of our ‘ordination vows’ were‘to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends’. The Treasurer in one place once challenged me on my financial giving as a teen, but when I showed her the receipts for the tins of soup I’d been buying to prepare for local homeless people, she let me off.
  6. Holy Living – not much wriggle room on sin. More than that, the belief that the Holy Spirit is powerful enough to keep us pure, either preventatively or retrospectively. This wasn’t an unrealistic ‘Christian perfection’, but a gritty down-to-earth awareness that a reliance on the Spirit would do more than save us from temptation, but break powerful patterns of sin, addiction and strongholds. This did lead to a teetering on the brink of legalism in some departments, but on the whole, it was about much more than that, rightly understood.
  7. There’s a war on – I learned that the Kingdom of God was to advance, and that this would take some fighting both in terms of people finding Jesus and in terms of injustice locally, nationally and international. And this was not about ‘playing soliders’, we were to arm up and go to war with love, grace, mercy and hope. Prayer was the foundation of the warfare, but that was always accompanied with action on many fronts. This had a huge impact on our attitude to service and engagement in mission. There were so many great opportunities for very practical mission and engagement locally – street evangelism, open air worship, prayer walks, homeless work, detached youth/children’s work – you name it! It make everything I’ve done since feel very safe and tame! In many ways, it feels like we’re operating on ‘peace time’ principles, when, in fact, there is ground to be taken.
  8. Activism – the Army ‘system’ was geared towards getting things done. The layering of committee wasn’t there, the relative autonomy of Salvation Army officers as leaders, and the mission framework for ministry gave considerable freedom and worked well if used rightly. The pace of other church systems in comparison is woefully slow.
  9. Internationalism – we were very much aware of, and felt connected with, the world-wide work of the movement and many of us had direct or indirect opportunity to get involved. I very much enjoyed interaction with Salvationist brothers and sisters around the world, and especially opportunity to visit the Army in Russia, Romania, Belgium and Italy and find friends in every corner of the world with whom you already shared so much even although you’d never met before.

Those are just the few things that spring to mind. As I said, it’s not that this was fully expressed everywhere or, indeed, expressed healthily. However, when people ask me if I miss The Salvation Army, these are some of the things I do miss which I’ve yet to find replicated to any similar degree.

I guess I’m reflecting on these things that were the ‘staples’ in my early discipleship diet as I continue toreflect on what the discipleship invitation looks like today in my current context and church sub-culture. I guess I’m exploring the question of what, really, is the base-line for our life of discipleship…and, to be honest, have we all just gone a bit soft? Jury is out!

Discipleship Conundrum

I spent a good bit of my academic work on my MA arguing that one of the most profitable tools that Early Celtic (or other brand) Monasticism gave the church was the idea of the ‘Rule of Life’ or the ‘Monastic Rule’. Without going into all the detail, I was making the case that, left to our own devices and without some sort of framework, our life of discipleship is formless and somewhat ineffectual.

Now, I came to this conclusion many years before I did the MA. I lived many years with The Salvation Army’s ‘Articles of War’ as my Rule of Life. This document set down discipleship commitments of how, together, we were invited to express our discipleship commitment in a very public, counter-cultural and quite radical (even controversial) ways. On moving on from The Army, I very quickly felt that I wanted to associate with another community which had some sort of framework for discipleship, and so I developed a connection with the Northumbria Community.

The benefit of defining our understanding of discipleship is NOT to beat ourselves up about it, although there is a place for discipline and self-reflection. Rather, some sort of framework helps lift our commitment to the life of discipleship off the ground.

I’ve consistently found the the bar of discipleship in the UK is set extremely low. Extremely low. Many Christians aren’t regularly engaging in reading the bible, let alone studying it; people’s prayer life runs in fits and starts (more fits than starts); people don’t generally engage in spirtual reading outside the bible; people rarely integrate mission into their lives, let alone see their whole lives as being on mission; commitment to gathering with other believers is quite low key…I guess there are other things I could write, but perhaps you recognise what I’ve written so far and could identify more in your own setting.

If you raise this in the context of community, people would resist the expectation that discipleship has actual substance, on the grounds that it sounds like legalism. Therefore, the idea is ‘I’ll decide myself what I deem acceptable as a life of discipleship’. Calling people to what sounds like a fairly basic discipleship commitment is often, to my mind, a thousand miles short of the real deal, but even then there can be resistance. It really befuddles me!

My honest confession is that this makes me weep. It is such a rare thing to sit with someone and hear something of substance in their spiritual life and spiritual disciplines. The church has colluded with this culture by drawing back on stating what the life of discipleship looks like. Pastors raising this issue sound like whinging old spoilt-sport moan-bags. Yet, when people’s lives move into some sort of crisis that is often a result of non-existant discipleship practices to sustain life through its challenges, somehow the pastor (or whoever) is to pick up the pieces. It’s almost as if churches hire people like me to be disciples for them.

How can the church break through this discipleship conundrum? I guess this is where the concept of a ‘Rule of Life’ comes in. Can a collection of common, shared, discipleship commitments help spur us on to increasing engagement, in season and out of season? There seems to be that there is only so far that prayer for revival/renewal will go. Every ‘revival’ in history has been preceded by a commitment to prayer, scripture and a search for the presence of God. Discipleship at the lowest common denominator is no discipleship at all.

How can I invite you to engage? How can I pray that you might respond? How can I help kick-start your discipleship base camp? How can I help you undig old enthusiasms and passions now dormant?

We have to begin somewhere and sometime. Why not here and now?

Community of the Resurrection

It is the lull that is Easter Bank Holiday Monday. Relaxing in many ways, but in others I feel I’m stoking something of a fire in my heart. I think I’ve learned over the years that as soon as you reveal the fire you’re stoking, there will be a hundred who will attend with a blanket to smother it out. The result us that many people live lives of quiet desperation, convinced that their lives are too small to dent the norm.

But, it is Easter Monday! We’ve just spent the weekend reflecting and celebrating the amazing life, death and resurretion of Jesus, the Christ, into whose community we are now grafted through the Spirit. We’re a new people, a new race, a new Kingdom…a Community of the Resurrection!

‘The Resurrection changes everything!’, I declared in my Easter Sunday sermon, but so many of us are stuck in our normalities. Please note that I am not saying anything againts ‘everyday life’ – our working, eating, sleeping, lives – the beautiful rhythm of the every day. I am talking about how our life in Christ illuminates the everyday and charges it with the hope of the Kingdom. As resurrection people, we tend to the presence of God around us and in us, and flowing through us. We become, in the midst of ‘normal life’, the fragrance of the gospel.

Our life in Christ radically orients us towards hope, towards worship, prayer, community, mission, service, and to welcome the incoming of God’s Kindom among us.

Great ideas theologically, but what does it mean practically? I think thats where we become unstuck…the gap between our theology and our praxis. This is where I think patterns from monasticism help us. As I studied Celtic Monasticism for my MA, I was able to articulate again and again the value of community shaped discipleship in an invidualistic world; a contemplative spirituality in an instant world; a commitment to build a new society in the ruins of the old.

And so for me, again, this last Easter Sunday, I renewed my new monastic vows as a Companion of the Northumbria Community. These vows invite me to say YES to AVAILABILITY (to God and others) and VULNERABILITY (before God and in the world) and dare to belive that another future is possible.

The one abiding question I have, which I’d like to live out much more than write a PhD on, is ‘how are communities of the resurrection formed and sustained in the 21st century?’ Monasticism throughout history has always called out for an authentic expression of discipleship in contrast to the contemporary world. Something, at least, needs to do that again lest we perpetuate the very British churchgoing culture which often fails to take Christ’s radical call into consideration.

What does it mean to be a Community of the Resurrection today?

Sit it out

Do you ever get days when you feel like the heavens are like brass and there’s no One up there? You get to praying, reluctantly…you get to God’s word, reluctantly, and all along you just feel closed off?

No? Well, as I often say when preaching, ‘maybe it’s just me!’

Today was just one of those days. Actually, maybe it has been one of those weeks. I’m ‘turning up’ before God and feeling a dullness in my heart and mind, somewhat disconnected and knowing that it’s going to be a struggle.

Two immediate choices: a) I give up and wait til I ‘feel like it’ because, quite frankly, I’ve got other stuff to do and just bluff it for the week, or, b) I notice that my diary is unusually clear for most of the day and get the indication that this is an invitation not to escape, but to ‘sit it out.’

How easy is it just to become content not to hear from God? Not to hear his voice or sense his presence? We often just don’t know what it is to persevere in prayer, and to seek Him with every ounce of passion we have. Sometimes we get so used to ‘hearing nothing’ that we assume that is how it is.

I’m tired of that. I can’t do what I do without Him. I’ve nothing to offer without Him. Nothing. Spiritually impoverished without Christ.

Today I sat and waited. And waited. I knelt. I paced. And struggled. And laboured. And gave in to Him…and he came. The sweetness of His presence decends and stays a while, dusting off whatever blockage there was ever there.

‘Jesus paid it all’, I sing.

And then I can stand, knowing still that I’m nothing without him, still in my poverty, but covered with Christ and his riches. My heart settles into it’s rightful place and I’m thankful to Him.

I want to encourage you to persevere. To sit it out. To learn how to discern his voice and his presence. Not just theoretically, but practically. It was Smith Wigglesworth who encouraged people to kneel, draw a circle around themselves, and not to arise until God had revived everything within that circle.

Let’s not let laziness, carelessness, sinfulness or waywardness lead us to a casual acquaintance with the living God. Get after Him. That’s where the transformation is worked out and where your salvation takes shape in ‘fear and trembling’ that you might become ‘stars shining in a dark world’.

You know what you have to do.

Draw Aside

Make time to come aside and be in God’s presence.

Get to the place where you can get far enough away from the noise, even if just for a few moments, and listen to Him. He will speak by his Word and by the Spirit. Don’t neglect to pick up the Bible and wait for the Spirit to shine light on it. Don’t come just in order to understand the text, but to listen to it.

Learn how to hear and to obey. Learn how to take a leap of faith on the smallest inkling of God’s voice. In time his voice will become more pronounced. In times when you’re not sure, just check with Him and he’ll respond.

If you don’t know how to learn, ask someone who may be able to be a guide.

Listen for the ways God might want to reorient your life. Listen for what he’d want you to lay aside or pick up. Listen for when he says ‘hey, everything is ok right now – settle into it and be faithfully content.’

And then respond. Speak to him like you’d chat to the one nearest to you. He loves to hear your voice more than we love to hear his.

And maybe, draw aside with others. Find and join hands with others who, similarly, want to hear God. Patiently wait together, encourage one another, reassure yourselves this is the place to be. Don’t let culture, fear or pride get in the way. Come seeking, together. You’re not in it alone, and even if you don’t feel you need anyone, other people need you.

Don’t wait for permission to do this, don’t wait for the right time, don’t put it off. There will never be time, because the time has to be made and carved out but without it, it just won’t be the same.

From the heart,

Suffering Shamrocks!

Oh yeah, that’s right….I forgot that I have a MA in Mission (Celtic Spirituality and Mission)! The weird thing is that having spent 4 years exploring some of the ideas of ‘new Celtic monasticism’ on an academic level, there was that small hint of having needed to take a bit of a breather from all the associated ideas. In exploring stuff academically, you get into academic critical mode – you have to stand outside the mainstream flow of it in order to assess, write, reflect and all that jazz. There was a sense of having to take a few steps back to look more objectively. Anyone who has done anything academic in that way will perhaps testify that, after such intense reading, writing and reflecting, you sometimes feel like never discussing it again!!

But, in fact, new Celtic monasticism is very close to my heart, not only as a Companion of the Northumbria Community, but as a Christian seeking to find new and creative ways to engage in a post-Christendom society with an ever ancient message. My dissertation was all about how new Celtic Monasticism offers a missional model to the 21st Centurty church in forming new disciples, new ecclesial communities, and hubs for wholistic mission in our contemporary society.

‘Celtic’ for me is not about nice rhythmic prayers, bodhrans, shamrocks, nature connection or any other of the ‘romanticised Celtic revival’ out there. It is much more about a gritty discipleship, imagining alternative ways to live in an increasingly consumerist world, and about relocating Christian life and witness to the ‘roads and lanes’ of our communities. Oh, and prayer, spiritual warfare and the evangelisation of the nations.

Today, during my day off, I was just listening to God, reflecting on the call and heart he has given to me, and just desiring again that He would graciously do something in our day that would strip away the cosy comfort of contemporary Christianity and renew the church through an unflinching commitment to the teaching of Jesus fleshed out in the reality of the post-Christian world we’re in. Not a shamrock in sight.