Saturday, 17 January 2015

Do You Know Who You Are?

Have you noticed that some people go through this life with a clear idea of who they are and what they are about? Others go through life not knowing who they are, just going from one day to the next, one situation to the next, frequently surprised by the demands life places on them.

When I was a young man I signed up to a government scheme designed to train people in various trades and skills that might give them permanent employment. Five days a week, for six months, I went to a large industrial unit that had been divided into ‘sections,’ each section dedicated to a different skill. There was carpentry, stone-masonry and bricklaying, vehicle maintenance, and more. Even some of the staff in the offices were brushing up on their skills.

It was a useful place to work if you had any practical problems. After a weekend of Destroy-It-Yourself, these different sections would get their visits from people seeking advice and guidance on whatever project they had in hand. Both trainees and instructors might, at some point, wander into an adjacent section with a question, a cry for help. They would seek out the instructor and, if that person wasn’t there, the most senior trainee, who was bound to have some ideas.

I worked in the painting and decorating section. One day two instructors walked in and asked to see our instructor. He was away from the section so they asked for the senior trainee. I had seen this happen many times but I was not prepared for what happened next; everyone pointed at me! The two men walked over and explained their dilemma. A wall had been demolished making two rooms into one, an arch had been constructed and they wanted to know how to wallpaper around the arch.

As they spoke I gathered my thoughts. I took them over to a chalk-board and explained, with diagrams, that there were two ways of doing it, depending on the aesthetics, and they had to choose. I had done it! I had instructed instructors. It must have worked out since they didn’t come back and complain. But, until they came over and spoke to me, I didn’t know I was the senior trainee on the floor. If the subject had come up in conversation I might well have realised, and said, ‘I suppose that’s me.’ But I had failed to realise the full implication of what I was until I was faced with the challenge of being what I was.

We can be like that in our Christian lives. You attend church, listen with interest to sermons, participate in small group discussions, and settle into a Christian routine. You don’t know it, but you are becoming increasingly competent in Christian ways. One day someone suggests you might want to take on a responsibility at church, perhaps teaching, or a leadership role. ‘Who, me!’ You are stunned that someone should think of you in that way. You don’t know who you are and face the challenge of stepping up, or stepping back.

Or someone in work, or at the school gates, begins a conversation about religion, asks serious and thoughtful questions. People know that you go to church and all eyes turn on you, as though you might have something to say. You know you should be able to say something sensible, even wise, and you are faced with the choice; step up, or step back.

Where are you in the course of your Christian life? Maybe you have just started the course and right now you are not that senior trainee. God has so much to show you, to teach you, and perhaps you will be able to step up sooner than you think. Maybe you are along some way on your course, you are enjoying the journey, not thinking too far ahead. Maybe, like me, you are at a place where it is no longer theory but you haven’t realised it. It might be a formal invitation to lead. It could be a less experienced Christian looking for a spiritual friend. It could be an opportunity to share your faith, listen with sympathy and counsel with wisdom.

Others are looking to you now, so what will you do?

Do you know who you are?

Monday, 12 January 2015

Everyone Wants to be a Reformer

There is far too much individualism in the church today and not enough loyalty to the body, with all its faults and failings. I sigh when I hear yet another conversation peppered with, 'the trouble with the church.' The trouble with that statement is that you are talking about yourself when you say it. It is ironic that people will insist that the church is 'the people, not the building,' but then stand apart, as though they are not part of that people, and say, 'the trouble with the church.'

I have lost count of the individuals I know who appear to be waiting for the church to catch up with them. These are often the ones who go off on a tangent, start a church in the bottom of a skip, or up a tree, or some such place, and then land on a town or city and, without so much as a nod to what is already there, upset the established community with their 'anointing.' Then, sadly, they don't go where the need is greatest but where the takings are richest.

Everyone, it seems, wants to be a Reformer, with the church, in their minds, bent to their particular way of looking at things as they start again, again, again. Like Petrocelli's house (that dates me) their church is all foundation and no superstructure, all fundamentals, no discipleship and growing. I have friends who have come out of cults and who look back with regret at what they were caught up in, yet look forward with reproach at the church that doesn't quite fit with the model of church in their imagination. But its the only place they will find that church, in their imagination.

The church is a saved people, not a correct people. We are not always right, we are right with God because of Christ.

Have you been hurt? Felt rejected? Join the club, we all of us who have been around long enough know about the 'happenings' in church and have felt that way too. I have been defamed, lied to and lied about, misunderstood, looked on with suspicion, and even driven out of one church whose members still treat me with contempt because of the lies of a leader. I have punched the wall, screamed at the sky, and reproved the offenders in my time. But one thing I find, the church is God's plan.

It includes some right clowns, numptys, and downright mischief-makers, but it is God's plan. Even among those who seem like they pretty much have it together, there are blind spots, prejudices, compromises, phobias, fears, and failures. There are 'heart Christians' and 'head Christians,' those who insist on one form of church organisation over another, and those who seem beyond organising, those who steam ahead without a thought for the effect they have, and those who are so timid they would never grow if they weren't discipled and led..

Leaders are the best and the worst of us all. They are due double honour the Bible tells us, and they do sterling work that goes mostly unnoticed and unappreciated. They are also clay vessels, like the rest of us. From their position of leadership, they can hide their failings behind pulpits, agendas, and programmes. They can make enormous sacrifices for the good of the church, and they can demand unreasonable loyalty when what they need is love and friendship in their frailty. They disappoint us mostly because we expected too much of them in the first place.

I am reminded of two things about the church. Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, and Paul, for all the trouble 'the church' gave him, wrote of her with affection and pride. At a time when every religious story seems negative, and every negative story, turns people against Christians, we should be proud of the church, fiercely defending her, being honest about her faults but vocal about her virtues. She is the people I meet every Sunday morning, the eyes I look into as they look back at me searching for assurance and hope, the encouragers and those seeking encouragement, the sacrificial servants of the saints, the quiet workers, house group leaders, Sunday Club teachers, evangelists and door-knockers, welcomers, deacons, elders, preachers, teachers, friends and helpers who care so much they make a difference.

If we stopped looking at the church as an institution, which is not what I mean when I used the word established, and started looking at it as one church with many facets, and those made up of flawed, broken, sinners, then we will learn to exercise more patience, have more ambition for her. In all that, there still must be guardianship and correction, challenges to error, and restoration to truth, but it is family business and leaving the family helps no one.

My point (see previous post Not Another Church) stands, in that the church is established in an area and those coming in should have the Christian decency to talk to those 'established' churches, while those 'established' churches should do all they can to encourage any legitimate initiative to to further the work of the kingdom. There is a good model to follow in Acts 15.

I was asked recently what lessons I had learned from leadership.

I have learned that just because I think something is a good idea doesn't mean God thinks it is. Some problems could be solved simply by realising that one thing.

I have learned that God speaks through the leadership to the church and through the church to the leadership. We are in this together and when we walk away (and I have had my moments) we simply disqualify ourselves from that process and end up justifying our non-involvement by insisting that God speaks through neither because the world and his wife are apostate; but he speaks through me and my mates at the bottom of this skip where we are starting again without all the fuss of accountability.

I have learned that local church is the hope of our families, friends, neighbours, community, city and world. Here is where God speaks to us and through us to everyone else.

I have learned that its hard to let go of my own cherished ideas, to serve a bigger cause by putting unity above the flavour I prefer. But no one said it would be easy, on the contrary, we have been sufficiently warned. Christianity is not for wimps that's for sure. What was said is that it would be worth it.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Not Another Church!

MegaphoneThey were standing on the street corner handing out leaflets, and ‘preaching’ to passers-by. Their dark suits, white shirts, and conservative ties made them easily identifiable. I went over to speak to them. Declining the offer of a tract, I assured them that I was already a Christian and had just come over to say hello. I told them the name of my church and they told me they were with a local Brethren congregation.

“Have you been involved in some of the city-wide inter-church initiatives?” I asked, already knowing the answer I was likely to get. They hadn’t heard of it and looked puzzled at the idea that there should be any initiative beyond that of their own church.

A friend had a similar experience in the city. Seeing someone handing out Christian literature he, like me, went over for a chat. The man had come to the city from a Brethren congregation in the south of England.

“Are you working alongside the Brethren churches in the city?” my friend asked.

“Are there Brethren churches here?” was the response. In other words, these two groups, both from the same denomination and tradition, apparently knew nothing of each other’s existence. You might say this is typical of these particular believers and there is, indeed, an unhealthy exclusivity about Brethren churches. But this failure to acknowledge other churches is not, by any means, confined to them.

One of the questions that come up in conversation with my Christian friends is, why do groups come into our city to establish churches where we already have so many? Why don’t they go to areas outside the city that desperately need churches? And why do these incomers target the areas of our city that are already well served by established and, it may be said, well-heeled congregations? Why don’t they go to the areas where the need is greatest?

It might be argued that there is something symbiotic about the whole business.Go where the success is and you will be more likely to succeed. It certainly can cause bad feeling, leading to charges of ‘sheep-stealing’ as a new congregation benefits in part from the disaffection felt by some in an established church. It also encourages church-hopping, where those who find the long-term challenges of being part of a Christian community too much, and the attraction of a new start irresistible.

So why do ‘incomers’ take it for granted that the place to be is where everybody else is already established? Is it simply laziness? Is there a conscious attempt to begin by plundering the congregations of other churches? I think it is more basic and more troubling still. There is an attitude prevalent across Evangelical and Charismatic churches that says God is moving in our day, but he is only moving in and through us, through me and mine.

There has been, in my almost thirty years as a Christian, a catchphrase trotted out every time any innovation is introduced and challenged in the church, from guitars in Sunday services, to exercising the more spectacular spiritual gifts, to claims of prophetic anointing; ‘God is doing a new thing.’ It has become a trope in some circles, even a test of orthodoxy. In light of it almost anything may be instituted as from God, and Christians dare not question the new thing God is doing at pain of being regarded as dead in their tradition.

It is this attitude, this high-handed approach, I suggest, that motivates the churches that seek to establish themselves where there is ample Christian activity. Its not that they don’t see other churches, nor that they don’t appreciate the need outside and in other parts of the city. Its that they perceive a need where churches are already established because they judge these churches as somehow falling short, of not being the answer the new church is just bound to be because, in them, God is doing a new thing.

With this attitude they fall back on that other old saw, ‘We must get back to first century church!’ It is a model of church that is more real in their imagination than ever it was in this world, but its what they are determined to achieve anyway. It as though they have never read the New Testament and never seen the problems prevalent even in the first century. I am reminded of the saying that ‘the good old days,’ when they were happening, were known as ‘these trying times.’

Having decided that the rich, actually well-served, area of the city is in need of saving from itself, they view it as virgin territory, a mission field. They convince themselves that everyone there should be pleased that this group of pioneer Christians should choose to turn up here, pitch their tent among us and bless us with the message they bring, and with the innovations they insist are better than our bad habits and dead traditions.

There is a naivety about the whole business, certainly, but we must not be sentimental about it. It is damaging to the body of Christ, a threat to the unity in the Spirit that Paul calls for, and it creates and perpetuates bad feeling between churches. Because, make no mistake, if this ‘new thing’ survives, becomes established, especially if it moves from community centres to a permanent building,from a mission-minded group to a mature Christian congregation, others will come after them and despise them as much as they once despised others, seeing in the now established church dead tradition. They will, one day, find themselves asking the questions addressed here and perhaps fail to see the irony.

Paul writes to the troubled Corinthian church, “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.” (1 Cor.11:19)

Factions are regrettable, deplorable, but they do serve to test us and distinguish those who are faithful to God’s purposes. This is not, however, an endorsement of factions in the church. In his letter to the Philippian church Paul writes of the view mature Christians should take of things, going on to say, “And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.” (Philippians 3:15-16)

The writer to the Hebrews cautions us against laying foundations where they are already laid (Hebrews 6:1) and Paul writes:

‘It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else’s foundation. Rather it is written, “Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.”’ (Ro.15:20-21)

There is a troubling trend in the 21st century church that sees Christians despise anything and everything that is ‘established’ and go off to follow their own Christian way. ‘You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian’ they insist. But you do! Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian, but to ‘be a Christian’ you have to be part of the wider Christian community, be churched, part of a growing group of believers. This individualism is singularly unbiblical, spiritually unhealthy, largely uncalled for, but all-too-often encouraged by churches that set themselves up over and against established churches in the name of innovation, novelty, and some ‘new thing’ they imagine they alone have got hold of.

If you are coming to our city you are most welcome, but don’t seek to establish what is already here. Rather, put your weight behind what is already established. If you do see a need then have the courteously to meet and share your vision with other church leaders in the city. Maybe you can work together with them, benefit from their experience, gain strength from their support. Best of all, go where the need is greatest, where the Word of God is not well established. There is a mission field outside our large conurbations, as well as in the poorer areas within them. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem.