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.
I’ve been to the Isle of Lewis this week. Not physically (although that would be nice!), but in my mind’s eye and heart’s longing. I have read many things on the Lewis Revivals (and the several Scottish revivals) and they are so interesting because they are still tangible. What I mean by that is that I’ve met people who’ve experienced them and lived through them.
What is important to note about that season of revival where hundreds were powerfully arrested by the presence of God, is that there was so much happening to create the atmosphere and freedom for the Spirit to break in.
Firstly, there was prayer. The prayers of the octogenarian’s, Peggy and Christine Smith, and the spiritual authority those women had due to the nights of prayer on their knees pleading for their community was amazing and, quite frankly, humbling. When reading the reports and articles of the revival, there is a kind of prayer that emerges that is more than your average ‘please bless us’ prayer. Partly due to the translation of the words from Gaelic, the prayers of the people sound strong and direct, but this is not the only reason. There was a strong sense for those people that there are promises in God’s word that he makes to his people and are part of the covenant he has with us. More than once, the prayers are simply people calling God out on his promises. That may seem presumptious to us, but it is not a million miles away from the pleading you see in the psalms or out of the mouths of the prophets.
Secondly, there was the foundation of the bible. And this, dear friends, is where we have to say that we may not ever be in the same league as our Lewis friends for a similar move of God. The Western Isles, although at the time they were dry, church attendance was low, and morality had hit the bottom of the pit, there was still a strong Bible culture. Most families would still, in the 40s and 50s, have times of ‘family worship’ where the bible was read in the homes, where prayers were said, and church-going was a cultural norm. What, in a sense, was happening was a revival that was birthed on some good prepared soil. All the Spirit had to do was illuminate Jesus and there was a powerful response.
Thirdly, there was supernatural power unleashed upon a people pleading for purity. Let me explain that – the people of God were repentant and desirous of God to pour out his Spirit and revive his people. That’s the first step. The second step is where God comes in in a major way! You have to understand that the cultural context of these revivals was almost primitive, and in a very staid and restrictive church culture. The amazing thing however, is that when God does appear all over the place, there is no doubt that he is causing it: people in trances; people moved to weeping on the streets, arrested by the presence of God in their workplaces; houses shaking; people praying all night; in on church, people were ‘zapped’ by God in their pews and remained unconscious for hours either slumped or with their hands in the air where they sat; there were heavenly lights, visions, voices, revelations of Jesus; there was supernatrual conviction of sin; amazing reports of powerful psalm-singing that seemed like the angels were joining in; and, finally, conversions – of everyone of all sorts of walks of life. Something only God could do – it certainly wasn’t worked up hype and it wasn’t organised or advertised…the ministers working at the time were being constantly amazed by congregations just appearing at all times of the day and night desperate for God.
Why do I say all this? Well, on one hand, if there is to be more revival in our life time, I do suspect it may be more difficult and may look different. It also strikes me that revival is rarely sustained over a long period of time, and so it is not the silver bullet to the challenges of our context. We also don’t have some of the foundational ‘conditions’ that are common to many 18th, 19th and 20th Century revivals in the sense of peoples predisposition to church, the bible or to God.
I mention this topic at all because I am entirely convinced that God does, however, move in response to his people’s prayers. I don’t understand how, why or whatever, but there appears to be that generosity whereby God incorprates the prayers of his people into his will. As I say, I’m leaving how he does it up to him, but I continually feel that burden to be praying that God would move among us in whatever way he chooses.
As a church, we need to ‘attend to God’s presence’, which is a phrase that has come to me several times in prayer over a sustained people. I sense that God invites us to do this. I suspect that when we do, as gathered people of God, we begin to sense his heart, his will, his purposes and how we would live them out.
Rightly or wrongly, people look to ‘leadership’ for direction and strategy. And, there are always things that one can suggest or experiment with. My strong hunch, however, is that any significant work that isn’t birthed from the place of intimacy with God is doomed to fail. My stronger hunch is that it’s not so much that people in the community need to hear of our plans and activities, but that they encounter God in the context of generous Christian community and the power of the gospel.
There is a deeper waiting on him that I feel we must learn. Pragmatic evangelicals are not always good at this – we want it done a week past Wednesday. But there is a real power in aligning ourselves with God through that process of prayer and being in his presence. Out of the secret places comes strength, heart and desire to seek God’s Kingdom in all it’s powerful manifestations. God help us.
I had the privilege of being at the New Wine regional leaders conference this week, which was, in many ways, such a joy and an encouragement. I had gone simply to soak up whatever there was to soak up, and that’s what I did. Admittedly, I did have to resolve to put away some left over cynicism from a previous era of being more significantly involved (and hurt in) the evangelical charismatic circles I frequented back in some of my Salvation Army days. It didn’t take me too long to back seat some of that cynicism, recognising I was now in a fresh place and differnet context myself.
I do have to say, for all my own faith and spirituality has broadened somewhat over the years, that environment was very much familiar and home simply because, from the beginning of my Christian life, God often moved in powerful and sometimes unexplainable ways, and that was my common experience even although I hadn’t been taught to expect stuff. I hadn’t been to ‘that session’ on Alpha where the expectations were raised!
No one told me to weep buckets of repentance at my conversion. No one told me that I should expect to hear other-worldly sounds and experience the Holy Spirit like surges of electricity later that evening in my room when I pleaded with God to make himself real to me. No one mentioned the ‘trance-like’ prayer experences. And, to be perfectly honest, I had never been taught about speaking/praying/singing in tongues before I discovered that I had been doing it. No one taught me what words of knowledge were, but I was getting them and speaking to people about them, and there was certainly no one teaching me about the challenge of receiving prophetic words and the cost that can come in the sharing of them!
It was through The Salvation Army Roots Conference, the closest thing the Army had to a charismatic renewal movement, that I began to understand what God had been doing in my life up to that point that had othewise seemd to be just been a little bit freaky and ‘side-show-Bob’. At the Salvation Army training college, I became one of the weirdos seeking to introduce charismatic spirituality (totally rooted in SA history) to my fellow students via a renegade home group. All very exciting! A strong charismatic theme followed my through many years of ministry until, well….the cost of being a bit of a lone ranger in all that became part of the reason I became more than a bit disheartened.
Whatever was going on, the slip into my ‘dark night of the soul’ had begun. Still a full-blown card-carrying evangelical charismatic on the outside, inwardly I started to feel a silence which felt like the end of all that I had known to be vital. Prayer, let alone prayer for revival and operating in the gifts of the Spirit, became a secondary thing and, through the fog of poor mental health over many years, sometimes non-existant. The desert of those couple of years was a very painful time. God seemed to shut up the heavens and I was left with an empty silence. I did, however, learn to meet God in the silences through contemplative disciplines, before gently realising that, in many ways, the contemplative and charismatic paths are so very closely aligned in the pursuit of a holy, otherly God.
Our spirituality and experience moves on with the years. The biggest tradgedy, I feel, is when we let go entirely of one season of what God has done without integrating the learning and experience in with the next season. I say that simply because I did it a little, and because, actually, in the face of it, it’s very easy to become discouraged. It is very easy just to move on because that’s the path of least resistance! I’ve just been in so many places where I’ve felt the pressure to be a closet charismatic. Thankfully, I think things are changing in the church as a whole. It is much more common-place to see/hear charismatic influences at play in even the most unexpected places.
I very much long for a church wholly open to the fullness of God moving in and through his people in a joyful and obedient abandonment to all he wants to do in and through us. I find myself needing to simply reflect on, and reintegrate many faded passions into life and ministry in these days. I suspect that it will be quite necessary to meet the contemporary challenges of mission in society in this ‘spiritual-not-religious’ age.
I’ve been watching a few videos on youtube recently. They were not particuarly connected to each other, were from different theological and denominational backgrounds, and were talking generally about the mission context in the contemporary UK setting.
There has been a common thread that surprisingly, and sometimes even shockingly, come through. Commentators have brought up the middle-class satisfaction that pervades the majority of predominantly white evangelical churches. This is nothing new, I shouldn’t have been surprised as it’s an old story, but one which is becoming increasingly prominent, especially in our current climate. I’ll also say that some commentators didn’t spare their wrath much (I’m talking about you, Mez McConnell…you reminded me very much of the prophet Amos!).
The thrust of the emerging argument among these clips was that churches are settled, over-content so long as it goes their way, largely ignorant of the social conditions of those outside their economic equals in the community, less confident in the urgency of the gospel, and reticent to put anything they have at risk for anything, not least the gospel. Plenty of generalisations there, granted, but not without some truth if we’re bold enough to think about it. Needless to say, it was quite a striking theme. The question really is, has the evangelical church sold its soul to comfort?
Last week I attended the Christians Against Poverty (CAP) regional conference in London, given my own church’s recent decision to engaged in partnership with a debt centre in our area. There, it was wonderful to hear the testimony of pastors, CAP workers, and from debt-free clients about the impact of that ministry on peoples lives, and specifically the challenges the pastors have faced trying to re-shape their churches to be effective containers for messy lives of everyday people experiencing challenging life circumstances.
Both at the conference, and in hearing this theme arise from the videos, my mind rushes back to a thousand scenes in hundreds of lives where I’ve known ministry amongst ‘the last, the lost and the least’. And, to be honest, my finger doesn’t point anywhere else, although if I looked I could probably find some directions. Part of my own ministry covenant before God is to “to care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, love the unlovable, and befriend those who have no friends.” But even for me, that has been largely relegated to the ‘safe distance’ of chairing the foodbank committee!
How, friends, will we escape from our safe ivory towers? It strikes me that we will have little success in following the transformative way of Jesus if we are locked and shackled by our own sense of self-preservation. It is very easy to do. And it isn’t always easy to get out or speak out.
To this very day, almost 20 years later, I remember the fierce backlash I received when I asked what the tens of thousands of pounds spent on many brass instruments, and the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on posh cars in the car park of a church in one of the poorest set of postcodes in Glasgow possibly had to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ! I was young, brash and bold back then! ‘You haven’t been very sensitive to the context of the meeting’ one critic said. ‘I beg to differ’, I said, ‘have you ever spent more than half an hour walking the streets of this community?’ Well, I don’t think I got invited back into the pulpit! Gee….it was exciting back then! And maybe it was easier to say when I was poor myself and barely scaping by.
But as I’ve said, I’ve become the very same hypocrite. My personal investment and connection with those on the margins has rapidly decreased, my affluence has risen and my comfort has risen with it. I need not look at the speck in anyone’s eye when the log is in mine. Lent seems like a very good time to reassess one’s priorities when it comes to our relationship with those whom Jesus invested most of his time. Hmm!
I remember not so long ago spending a day with another pastor in London whose work had caught my eye. He caught my eye because it seemed to me that he had been on a very similar journey in terms of how he understood ministry and mission, but who was also a good few steps beyond where I have got to so far. He was actually doing the things that I was still working out. I met him just the once, and decided that I wasn’t going to seek to meet with him again. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get to know him or even learn just a little more, but I had a strong sense to walk away from the temptation to seek to replicate him rather than continue on my own process. In many ways, he was a different character to me, but it was quite scary how much we spoke the same language.
There is also a tension in leadership between serving the community you are in and fulfilling the wider vision for your own leadership. I’ve often been in places where the full scope of one’s own vision has to be lessened or even sacrificed for context. That’s right and good in some ways. On the other hand, it is important to remember that much of the journey God takes us on as leaders is very much for a purpose, so when a church calls you and God sends you, he’s sending you with all the thinking, convictions, passions and skills that he’s grown in you so far.
So there is then the discernment process that goes something like, ‘God, what is it of what you’ve been teaching me that you want to bring to the forefront in this context?’ Sometimes just identifying the question is a great place to start. This is a question I’m living with at the moment at the start of a new phase of ministry at HBC, both for me and for the church. God is the match-maker.
I’ve got something of an opportunity coming up this week to share some of what that might be with the wider church, and that is an exciting opportunity. To identify the links that God is making between your passions and skills, and the church’s passions and aspirations is often a joy. Working them out, however, takes patience and time.
Like many leaders, I’ve known the strong mix of joys and frustrations in ministry working these questions out. I am increasingly convinced, however, that you must live your questions. How can I be ‘this’ in such a way as it helps the church be ‘that’? How can I live true to ‘this’ in order to impact ‘that’? I think you get the drift.
One thing is certain, in this exciting but terrifying stage of existence for the church as a whole in the 21st century, courage must be the need of the day. The ever widening gap between the culture of the church and the culture of society, for good or ill, demands new ways of thinking, doing and being. In truth, I think its fair to say that none of us in ministry really knows anything very solid!! We’re in a scenario fairly unlike we’ve every been before. Sometimes shifting our understanding from being preservers of the status quo to pioneers of new possibilities is the most honest thing we can say, and the thing which creates permission to try, permission to fail in the hope that God will help us, together, unwrap a different tomorrow.