Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Church In The Mess

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Pavlova was always one of my favourite deserts. It was a regular Sunday lunch pudding; my mother was a dab hand with meringue-making (which, it turns out, is not a common gift); the crispy-chewy product would then be slathered with cream and fruit of some description: berries, apples, bananas, oranges, kiwi … the list goes on. Simple, but memorable. All the better for it containing fruit, and therefore being healthy. It was something of a shock to discover that it’s not a dish of British origin – I just assumed it was, coming as it did for us after a traditional English Sunday roast. It turned out it was Australian; but my deep-seated desire to beat Australia in sports was nevertheless glad to acknowledge that this was a good desert anyway. Later, however, I discovered that the British had co-opted the pavlova, and put their own twist on it in the form of Eton Mess. Named after that most private of private schools, it’s all the elements of pavlova mashed up into a mess in one small pudding dish. I’m sure someone will try to tell me why it’s radically different; but it’s not. It’s just good old-fashioned English co-option of another culture. The same part of me prefers to it to pavlova as likes to take ice-cream and mash it up into a semi-solid state, all the better to mix with sauce. The mess just seems more tasty to me.

I find mess generally appealing. Not physical mess per se – I’m neither especially messy in my surroundings, nor especially tidy (maybe my family would disagree…). I don’t like dressing smartly; I feel most comfortable in jeans or shorts and a t-shirt. Ties annoy me; I don’t mind my Sunday-morning clerical collar, as long as I can carry it off in some slightly disordered way. I don’t think in a clean, ordered way – this is in part down to my ADD and my learning disabilities. I find it hard to plan a rigorous, logical train of thought. I can make associations between ideas; I then often find that I have to backtrack to enable anyone listening to me (and, often, myself) to see that there is a very good reason for what I said, it just wasn’t immediately obvious. I didn’t inherit my Dad’s mathematical bent in all sorts of ways; in particular, I can get very bored with ‘showing the working’, as teachers always insisted we do. I have to, often, however; in my preaching I’ll let ideas marinate in my head, then write down notes of a structure  – which gives a skeleton to my ideas, and makes it look much more ordered than it ever was in my head at the beginning of the week’s preparation.

The same is true of my leadership. I’m not a great planner; I’m not a systems person. It’s not that I think they’re bad – it’s just very hard for me to get into them. I’ve had much leadership training – most of it emerging from suburban, professional men who often lead suburban churches full of professionals. These programmes tell me the strategies and – yes – programmes that help to ensure healthy and numerically growing churches. I’ve learned much from these; but I’ve also learned it’s hard for me to lead and work that way.

So I lead in a kind of strategic mess. I have a fairly firm idea of the sort of place I want to get to; I’m not too sure of how we’re going to get there. I have a few people alongside me who are better at the structure than I am; they’re the sort of people who can help me see the route on the map that might be most helpful for the general sort of destination that I have in mind. The church I lead is in a messy kind of area. It’s predominantly urban; but there are aspects of suburbia to it also. There’s much poverty, and many on the cusp of poverty; there’s a good number in a quite high-powered jobs too. Then there are students, who are in their own special kind of category. Over the years we’ve been here, many programmes and courses have crossed our minds; few, if any, of them have been the right idea at the right time. We meet together three times a week – twice on a Sunday morning, once on a Thursday evening – much of the rest of time we leave people to do their own thing that God has called and shaped them for, and to ask for help if they need it.

This mess can be unnerving; unnerving for me, even if it feels more natural. The liturgical tradition of which we are a part helps gives some structure and safety, rounding off a few of the rough edges I may leave untended. The church order of Anglicanism can do that too – though we’re an odd church, in ‘association’ with Anglican structures, whilst not fully part of them. Maybe that’s why I can find myself a good fit with this particular church. It can be unnerving for members too; sometimes people will join a church because it offers something different. Our church does – but after some time, the seeming lack of structure, the mess can expose raw edges in us all and we can start to bump up against each other. That’s not always pretty – and sometimes people end up finding a different home. We could do better – and next time, we try to do so.

We also, though, need to be true to who God shapes us to be. When people find a home with us, they express that they like – or have learned to like  – the mess and informality. It seems to allow people a way to be themselves, to change at their own pace, and to discover who God has made them to be, rather than to be a cog in a church machine that seems to exist to keep itself going.

The fact is that too many of us – ministers and lay people alike – are hurt, burned out, worn down by church life. I’m as much to blame as anyone. We don’t seek to be a church for everyone – no one church is going to be home to everybody; but we do seek to be a church that errs on the side of space rather than structure, improvisation rather than planning, mobility rather than staticity. We are church in the mess, for the mess; serving a God whose Spirit hovered over the formless void and who specialises in bringing order of chaos. We may get more wrong than we get right; but in his mercy, God works for good. This may not be what every church is invited to be; but I wonder what would happen, what new things might emerge, if more of us church ministers made our home in the mess; seeking to control less, and see what might come as a result. As society urbanises at faster and faster rates, this mess will become the context of more and more ministry. Maybe there’s a call to freestyle, to improvise a little bit more in the future that’s arriving in our cities. Anyway; for better or worse, this is who we are and under God’s grace, who we seek to be.

 

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Glimpses Of The St Peter’s Story: Eating To Bridge Cape Town’s Divisions

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This is the first in a new series of posts giving non-chronological snapshots of the story of our church’s life.

His name was Peter, but most knew him as Green Eyes. He had been part of our regular Thursday Community Supper for most of the six and a half years that we have been meeting. This supper isn’t an act of food provision, and it’s not a project that aims to serve the marginalised. It exists to provide a space for people to eat good food together, to listen to each other, to get to know each other without the pressure of time or the divisions of one of the world’s most unequal cities getting in the way.

Over time we have found that many of those who attend regularly are poor or marginalised in some way; a good number of them sleep outside. Our policy is that we are not a soup kitchen; we serve food to people at their tables rather than expecting them to queue up. The university professors who attend sit and eat the same food as those with no job, sleeping on the street. Some of us who are more privileged come to cook or wash-up or serve food to tables; some attempt to shepherd the children in a room at the back of the church; some of us just sit and listen and talk. For all of us, the goal is the same – this is about community, about knowing each other. Sometimes, towards the end of the evening, we’ll have a very informal and short expression of the Communion Service around one of the tables.

Peter was well-known locally, and especially well known amongst us. He often came on a Thursday drunk; but we don’t turn away for being under the influence of drugs or drink – unless they’re very disruptive. After all, most among us who come are under the influence of caffeine; prone to greed; frequently found to be binge-watching; slaves to lust; prone to anger. But we don’t stop those people at the door; so to do so to others would seem to be a strange double-standard. It’s not as if the Jesus whom we claim as our model turned people away because of their addictions.

When we got to know Green Eyes, he would tell us why he came to Thursday Supper. “I don’t come for the food. I can get that anywhere.” (This is true – if you are desperate, food of some description can usually be sourced if you know where to look). “I come here for respect.” He understood the essence of what we are about; it’s not about the food.

Some so-called homeless ministries serve food past it’s sell-by date; some have their guests sit and listen to a talk. We don’t. We eat good, fresh food. And we listen. And we talk. And sometimes share Communion. Out of that has grown a partnership with an NGO run by one of our number which assists people into rehab programmes and night-shelters, and has seen success in doing so. Out of that has arisen a series of friendships which nourish us longer than a meal does.

A couple of months ago Green Eyes’ wife appeared at Thursday supper, distraught. He had died from complications associated with TB. He hadn’t had a funeral. So with her, we arranged one in the church. The family’s first language is Afrikaans – so I had little to do or say. Much of it was led by our friend and church member Craig, in Afrikaans. Memories were shared. Craig talked about us seeing and knowing each other across Cape Town’s divisions; and how Jesus saw and knew Zaccheus; and how Jesus sees and knows us, too. It was simple and profound; and I only understood what a few of the words meant.

Now on Saturday mornings a group of Thursday night regulars meet together, whoever wants, to read the Bible together and to talk about it means for them. In doing so, no one is teaching or leading, so much as all are reading together – trying to shed the layers that years of religion and systematization has enforced.

This is our church. Well, a large part of it. There’s also our 2 Sunday services. which look more like Sunday services are often expected to. But really we think of ourselves as having three services – 2 on Sunday, 1 on Thursday – all of which are in a process of evolution which we hope is God-guided. We are trying – sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding – to build with God a church in which power is equalised, division rejected and our common status as image-bearing children of God celebrated. It’s hard and messy, and there’s little in the way of strategy or structure. As one friend put it in his PhD research on the subject, this is mission as improvised jazz as opposed to finally structured song or symphony. We don’t know what this will lead to, but it seems to us and the Holy Spirit to be good.

 

 

Losing Home, And Finding It

Bereavement is a journey for which there are no road maps. Many of us are familiar with the stages of grief that many researchers and therapists talk about – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance; DABDA. Many now accept that this isn’t a linear, one way journey; it’s more of a description of the various places we can pinball back and forth amongst, often with alarming suddenness and speed as we continue to live with the reality of the death of people we love.

My father died on the 9th August this year, leaving me without parents. His death wasn’t unexpected, but the final descent was somewhat abrupt. Even so, I was by and large prepared for his death. Living a hemisphere away from him and facing various challenges of my own that made it difficult to travel, I had reconciled to myself some time ago the possibility – even likelihood – that I may not see him again before he died. The funeral date took some organising; my sister also lives abroad from our birth-town of Edinburgh, so we had to co-ordinate around our various family commitments. Still, arrangements were made, and we eventually made it to our Air BnB a short drive from where we were lived as children.

It was a precious, sweet time – not without busyness and tears, of course; but there was less busyness than others at this stage of life have, thanks to my Dad’s lawyers being professional, personal and efficient (a pleasing combination of traits). There was a lot we didn’t have to do. The funeral came on a cool, crisp later-summer Edinburgh Saturday; the sort of day when the city shows off both its natural and architectural beauty with a kind of proud swagger that’s irresistible to tourist (this was the end of Edinburgh Festival season) and inhabitant alike. It was a lovely, moving, memorable day.

The day after, Sunday, my sister and I returned to the church where the funeral was held – the same one we had been bought up attending, and with which I still have links with. I spoke in the service about our work in Cape Town. We chatted to old friends; in the afternoon I relaxed and watched movies.

On the Monday morning we had an appointment with the lawyers to talk about Dad’s estate. It was straightforward, and there were no nasty surprises. I left my sister to her own devices in order to amble, via shops, to meet a friend for a film and lunch; I felt OK, but something unidentifiable nagged. It was only after I made my way back to the flat from meeting my friend that I realised – via a WhatsApp message from my wife – why I was beginning to struggle in unidentified ways. I was losing my sense of home. I suddenly realised that a place I had always come back to at some point was no longer a one where the familiarity of family, home and roots would exist. I didn’t know when I would be back. I walked slowly, the colours and sounds of the city amplified to remind me that I didn’t know when I’d see them again.

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A couple of days later and I was back in Cape Town, back with my wife and kids, and back into the swing of work and life. But an alarming sense of rootlessness remained. I realised I’d moved around so many times  – I calculated that at the age of 45 I’d moved house 15 times and countries once. My wife had moved rather less – until we moved to Cape Town, she’d never lived outside the M25 circular road that attempts to keep London in its place. I was beginning to question where my home was; not that I was unhappy in either my family life or my working-life (I’m not, to be clear). It was a sense, growing and laden with grief, that I didn’t belong anywhere. I’m reminded, for example, at least once a week, often in as many words, by a local that the reason I do/say/wear something is because I’m a foreigner. My foster children are fluent in languages I barely understand. And so on.

I expressed this on social media, and a friend both affirmed this as a real sense of loss (as my therapist had also done), and recommended a book called Home by Jo Swinney. The author is married to a minister, and has moved homes and countries more than me. If ever there was a book designed for me, in this moment, then this seemed to be it. I bought it and started almost instantaneously.

As I read, much resonated and rang true and appeared to be helpful. But something wasn’t quite hitting home. Something felt like it wasn’t working for me or providing the answers I sought. I didn’t think it was a fault in the book – though obviously there were places where differences in our contexts and experiences meant I couldn’t quite connect with the details of what she was saying. Maybe it was a fault in me? I didn’t think so. I was open to new thinking; it just wasn’t quite landing.

It was only in the last couple of chapters that it clicked. I had thought she was providing a series of different ways we find home – church, family, place … and so on, inviting us to find the one that works for us. I had done her a disservice. She was erecting a home, layer upon layer. It needed its final floor to be a complete home. The final floor, the part that finally made sense of it all, was the need to find home in what we do. That’s complex for a minister – everything can seem so temporary, at the whim of a Bishop or God. I have no plans to move anywhere, but Cape Town still seems foreign and I have always seemed to feel slightly out of place everywhere I go, even before moving countrie. The book helped me see that I needed to add, or emphasise more, activities in my life that are not work (in the sense that it’s what I’m paid to do), but that give me life and joy, and where I’m using what gifts God has placed in me in ways that are fulfilling. Writing – this blog – is that thing for me (in a similar way to how writing is for Jo Swinney as expressed at the end of her book).

I don’t know quite what that means or how it looks in reality. I process thoughts and feelings best by writing; having written, I find I can (if necessary) speak about it. This blog really serves a large part of that purpose for me, allowing me to work out what I think about various things in a way I enjoy; the enjoyment or help it may bring others really is secondary in that sense. But I find that in this new era of my life I need to give myself permission to do this – and that may well mean a few changes over the next while to how I use this platform.

I lost my father, my second parent. Clearly that’s sad, and there’s grief associated with that. But it’s the rootlessness that is leading me to a new, intangible place (not a move of location, but a move of mental roots). It’s often repeated that the world is smaller than it used to be, populations increasingly mobile; immigration may be the big political issue of the day. As that continues, we may find the experience I’m describing here reflected and refracted in many different ways and different contexts. We – especially those of us in the church, who seek to point people to an eternal home – need help to rethink what we mean by home and help those we encounter to do so with us. Jo Swinney’s book may be the first resource to help us do that.

Leadership Lies: Build The Church You Want To Be Part Of

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Assuming you’re not the sort of church leader who only spends a short amount of time at any one church, on the face of it there seems to be much that’s understandable about this. After all, it would be a hard experience to be part of a church for, say, 10 years, and for it not to be the sort of church that you would want for yourself and for any family that you may have. A disconnect in spirituality or theology between the leadership and the church can be a jarring experience that can lead to painful conflict, and to more than a few people (leaders included) leaving a church jaded, cynical, wounded and finding their faith ebbing away. It’s potentially even harder for church members if that disconnect exists in a church located in an area where there are few (if any) others to choose from: if you want to be part of a church community and don’t have a practical choice as to which church that is but find yourself alienated by how the leader is shaping the church, then it can be the sort of experience that asphyxiates faith like a slowly building carbon monoxide leak.

As someone who’s been in full-time paid church leadership for 17 years, I’ve been to several seminars and read more than a few books that tell me that as a leader I need to build a church that is the sort of church I would join if I was living in the area and looking for a church to go to. In addition to the reasons just mentioned, the argument goes that if I’m to encourage members to commit to a church community and invite others to join it, then it would be hypocritical for me to do so if I wouldn’t commit to the church myself in their position. It’s hard to argue with, and to a certain extent I don’t want to. If I had a fundamental disconnect with the dominant theology or practice of a church I was invited to lead, then I would have a choice: put up with it (which would be very difficult to square with my conscience), try to change it, or not do the job. If a church is on a path to death, then clearly something is going to have to change unless all present are in agreement that what’s required is a good death (and there’s no shame in that  – we believe in resurrection, so allowing a church to die so something new can emerge is a noble calling). However the truism that the leader must build the church the leader wants to go to is rarely aimed at theological fundamentals or practices that are at the heart of the church’s life. They’re more stylistic, fringe issues that make the leader feel safe, comfortable and at home. I’ve seen more than a few churches being broken apart as the leader seeks to bend the church he’s (and it’s almost always him) leading to the shape of his will. The result is a church that he and people like him like; and very few others.

At the risk of death by a thousand qualifications, it’s clear that after a few years of one person’s leadership, a church will inevitably reflect aspects of that person’s character, theology, practice and preference. To a certain extent that’s unavoidable and natural. More often, however, this maxim is preached by an alpha male sort of leader; the sort who I once saw spontaneously (I do wonder if that should have been in quotation marks) play wrestling with his leader mate (yes, really) on the stage of a leadership conference attended by thousands as part of an in-joke only about 20 were privy to. Oh how I laughed. I found myself thinking; you wouldn’t have seen women leaders doing that.

There’s the rub. For around 2,000 years church leadership has been mainly male. Inevitably, therefore, material on church leadership has been delivered by (usually white) men; the images and metaphors have been male-centric, appealing to the idea of the alpha male leader, courageously leading a church into an unknown future only he can see. Men telling men in leadership to be the sort of male leader men like to think they should be. Clearly God has done some good through all this – as God always will – but much harm has been done also; it’s way past time for a change. As more women (slowly) are oh so graciously permitted to step into a church leadership, we need paradigms of leadership that redress the balance. It’s also hard to square what we know of Jesus with the image of the courageous alpha male leading towards the future that has been revealed to him; after all, the real Jesus begs to be released from suffering and doesn’t know when He’s returning.

What paradigms are we left with? Well, we should let women develop them. This mustn’t be the leadership manifestation of mansplaining. One metaphor I’ve found illuminating, however, is that of the midwife. I’ve never given birth, nor been present at a birth; but it seems clear to me that the midwife’s role is to assist and create an environment into which the emerging new life can be safely born. In this metaphor the mother giving birth is the Holy Spirit, the church leader is the midwife working with the natural processes of the Spirit, the church is the baby being born. The leader with her knowledge, experience and training must listen carefully, patiently and attentively to the signs from the Spirit and the church emerging, blinking and wailing into life; and of course there are times when she must act decisively and even urgently. There’ll be blood, sweat, tears and screaming in the process of delivery; but it’s not as a result of shaping a church to a leader’s will, but rather a by-product of a new life emerging from the natural rhythms and work of the Spirit. The leader works; oh how she works. But it’s not for her; it’s for the mother.

Like all metaphors, it will break down at some point so mustn’t be pressed or stretched too far. It’s a visual aid, nothing more and nothing less. But we need more of them that are less alpha male, coming from an altogether different place. Those with more knowledge or experience of the process of human birth must correct or add to what I have started here; and we who are men in leadership must allow women in leadership to develop more, newer paradigms of leading a church that allow a new way of being. And we men must be willing to work with those new paradigms ourselves, as for so long we have expected women to work within almost exclusively male paradigms for 2,000 years.

After all, not for nothing does the Bible present the church as the bride of Christ; of course, an exclusively feminine image. It’s almost as if the Spirit planted that in the pages of the Bible, and was waiting for men in leadership to catch-up.

Leadership Lies: Just Preach The Gospel And The Church Will Grow

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This seems to make some kind of sense, right? After all, there’s that parable about seeds and God making the plants grow isn’t there? And if the Gospel’s attractive and true, and if God’s grace is irresistable, then people will respond to it and the church will grow, won’t they? Didn’t Peter preach the Gospel on the first Pentecost and see 3,000 people decide to follow Jesus? Didn’t the early church see people converted ‘daily’? We just have to get back to the pure truth of the Gospel, preach that, and all will be well.

It all sounds very attractive. We church leaders are always looking for a programme, a method, a technique, a sermon series which will guarantee church growth and great stories of changed lives. This sounds admirably simple and free of guile – we can all ‘just preach the Gospel’, can’t we?

The problem is this view ignores reality and the Biblical witness, and is dangerously close to a very particular kind of heresy. You don’t have to read much of the Bible to find that the people who are really being obedient to God and preaching what God wants them to preach don’t always end up with a crowd following them – prophets lying on their side for days a time, people cooking food over excrement; Moses had a crowd following him, but they were wandering around in the desert for 40 years, doomed to die before they got to where they were meant to be going. Jesus had crowds though, didn’t he? Well, yes. Crowds who tried to kill him, and eventually left him more or less alone as he died. Many of the original apostles paid for their missionary and church planting exploits with their lives. The Bible – which the people who so often spout this particular lie are so keen to claim fidelity to – does precious little to guarantee the success of true ‘Gospel’ ministry.

I know many faithful ministers of God, plugging away week by week in difficult situations. They ‘just preach’ the Gospel (and do much else besides); there’s little in the way of growth. Why? All sorts of reasons; we’re in post-Christendom culture now, where the Gospel is not assumed a preference, or they may be in a rural setting where there’s few people who haven’t experienced the ministry to reach and what’s really required is loving presence as much as any words you might come up with. Maybe the soil into which the minister is sowing is not healthy soil – maybe it’s rocky ground, and the parable is quite clear about what happens to the seeds there. That’s not the minister’s fault; it’s got nothing to do with her fidelity to the Gospel or otherwise. Maybe she’s been called to plough hard ground.

Ahh, comes the reply, You’re not preaching the Gospel if you’re not seeing growth. That’s a very circular kind of argument that’s hard to disprove. Until you consider reality, and the teaching of the church. A few years ago at an international evangelical congress, it was agreed that prosperity theology is heretical. Briefly, the prosperity ‘gospel’ says that if you give to God he will make you happy, healthy and rich. This doesn’t stand up to the Biblical witness of taking up your cross, and how much Christians suffer just like everyone else. It piles guilt on the poor, offers false hope and is a perversion of the Gospel. Hence, it’s heresy.

The statement ‘Just preach the Gospel and your church will grow’ is a particular kind of prosperity theology. It says, in essence, if your church isn’t growing, there’s something wrong with either your theology or your presentation of the Gospel. The problem there is that it fails to take account of the fact of how attractive a lie is – the prosperity gospel is dangerous because it’s so attractive. Churches which preach it are very full – and very rich. Can you see how close this is to ‘preach the gospel and the church will grow’? Just get the formula, the presentation, the content right and bingo! Your church will grow. You’re not growing? Well, there must be something wrong with you. It’s a kind of prosperity gospel related to doctrinal purity – God will reward your doctrinal correctness with growth.

You see, nowhere does God reward success or doctrinal purity with growth. When we are given a picture of God welcoming His servants into eternity with him, what are the words He uses? ‘Well done my good and doctrinally correct servant?’. No. It’s ‘my good and faithful servant, enter into the rest I have prepared for you’. Faithfulness speaks of marriage vows – for richer, for poorer, for church growth or shrinkage, in good soil and rocky soil. Faithfully plugging away.

What about fruitfulness though? Doesn’t Jesus promise – and require – that? Well, yes. But He produces it. In all honesty, I can only point to a handful of people who have truly been converted through my 18 years or so of ordained ministry. But I still hear stories – of how people I ministered to have remembered something I preached and that launched them on a lifetime of missionary service; disturbingly, one person in the church I served my curacy in still listens to my sermons from then, all those years later. I remember one young man came to me for advice about getting ordained. I doscouraged him; I told him I thought God was calling him to be an evaneglist and foreign missionary. He took that on board – he’s been serving for years now, in a foreign land, with great effectiveness and fruitfulness.

I haven’t seen significant growth; but it seems there’s been the slow fruit of encouraging the saints and being an instrument of God calling others to ministry through my ministry. Who knows how many will hear the Gospel – and respond  – through them? That seems to me to be the faithfulness and fruitfulness God calls us to.

I’ve seen churches grow for many reasons – to be honest, in Westernised contexts, very few of those are about conversions and ‘Gospel responses’; they’re sociological. People of the same nationality being attracted to a community where there are others like them; a church school being used to crowbar unwilling parents through the church doors; the newish church in the area being more attractive, comfortable, having better music or coffee than the churches these people used to go to. The list goes on – it’s not that God can’t use these things to woo people into His kingdom, of course; I would just prefer a little more honesty about it. Much of what passes for church growth is about something rather different to what we pretend it is. If it was what it is often claimed to be then our nations would be in the midst of revival, so many ‘vibrant and growing’ churches there are. And it doesn’t take much to see that we aren’t in revival.

So let’s abandon this lie that if we ‘just preach the Gospel’ our church will grow. Attractive as it may seem, it’s self-aggrandizing to those with big churches, and piles guilt and self-doubt on the rest of us. Out job as leaders is to be faithful. The rest is up to the one who calls, the one saves and the one who rewards us.

Leadership Lies: Money Follows Vision

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I’m now nearly 17 years into the journey of being paid to lead churches. Over that time I’ve read a lot of books and blogs, listened to a lot of podcasts, and had a lot of conversations about the art of leadership in the context of the local church. Some of those have been helpful, some of them haven’t been; some of those that I thought were helpful at the time turned out not be; some of those that I thought not to be helpful at the time turned out to be rather insightful. I’ve also said and written more than a few things about leadership myself; some of which I still think, some of which I don’t.

Recently I’ve started thinking about some of those things I’ve heard and said myself, and realised that I need to revisit them, take them apart and expose them for what they are. Lies. Well, maybe lies is a bit strong – I don’t think many people actively choose to tell untruths in these matters; but untruths, that like all the best untruths carry an element of the truth in the same way that an inoculation carries an element of the disease it’s designed to protect you against. Hence this series of blogs, of which this is the first. When I say ‘series’, by the way, what I actually mean is more like: ‘One or more posts that I’ll get round to as and when I think of them’. As usual, my writing is more about my own processing of ideas to help me clarify what I actually think – if they help someone else along the way, then so much the better.

So to the first statement with which I wish to raise some issues. Three words: “Money follows vision”. I’ve no idea who first coined it, but it’s prevalent in some circles, and I’ve said it myself. It’s often used when a leader is trying to get a particularly faith-stretching, expensive project approved by the necessary committee. It’s a way of saying – yes, I know we don’t have money for this at the moment, but this a great vision, and God will provide (through His people, of course) because the vision is compelling. The money is duly raised, thus proving that the vision was compelling and from God and therefore God has provided (through His people, and sometimes a bank loan). At core it seems to say: God will provide where the vision is from Him. Hard to quibble with, surely?

No, it’s not. It may carry an element of truth in richer, often suburban areas, where there church members have relatively stable jobs and incomes; but move into poorer areas and the truth is somewhat more complex. For the last eight and a half years I’ve been leading a small-ish church in Cape Town, on the cusp of an urban/suburban divide.  Cape Town, as you may know, is a city of contrasts. It’s often cited as the most economically unequal city in the most unequal country in the world. If you have plenty of money, Cape Town is a wonderful place to live. If you are poor, it’s a living nightmare. My church has people in it who have good, stable jobs; it also has people who live right on the edge of the trapdoor that would send them tumbling into poverty. We have a Thursday night community based around supper, where many of the members sleep outside; for various reasons, the trapdoor opened beneath their feet and they couldn’t cling on to solid ground.

Amongst these groups (those on the edge of poverty, those on the streets, those in informal settlements or townships) I have met many people with powerful, compelling, Godly vision. In a sense, one has to have vision if you live in or on the edge of poverty; avoiding the trapdoor, or surviving once you’ve fallen through, requires nimble thinking and creative action that would shame many leaders and entrepeneurs with more loaded bank accounts. However, money hasn’t followed their vision. It has largely trickled away to the visions of richer, larger churches and projects in safer and more comfortable areas.

If you are trapped in poverty, or in avoiding the trapdoor, your options are closed down. You don’t have the time or the energy to build networks and make connections that might one day yield financial fruit; you’re too busy putting food on the table each day, or making sure there’s enough electricity to keep the lights on in church that Sunday. Whatever great business ideas you may have, whatever creative outreach projects God has laid on your heart, they easily get lost in the daily battle to say alive and just keep a church or a life ticking over.

Here’s a thought. What if the role of the money in the richer churches was to flow towards the vision of those with less? What if, rather than employing another staff member, a church in the safe suburbs walked in relationship with a church in the unsafe inner-city and funded a drug project or a social outreach worker, or whatever God had laid on their hearts?

This is not a new idea; the New Testament seems to suggest it and some churches in different places in the world are doing it. But what if the over-resourced really caught this vision? What if ,instead of planting 50 people into another young adult rich area and claimed explosive kingdom growth instead of actually acknowledging it’s really just sociology, a small handful of people, at the invitation of those in the poorer area, came and walked and worshipped alongside those with less – blessing the church with agenda-free time, abilities and money?

The church I lead was blessed with this around 7 years ago. The people we received were few in number but large in heart and responsiveness to calling. It was – and still is – a hard journey. Some have, for various reasons, found the mess and blurred lines of church amongst the marginalised too much and have needed to return to a context more like what they are used to. This is a calling, a calling that emerges out of agenda-free relationships between leaders, churches and individuals. The question we must face  – especially those of us who lead well-resourced churches – is something like this: ‘Do we give space and time for the calling to be heard? Will we lay down our dream of a church that looks successful for a wider calling of kingdom-shaped fruit to be borne that draws no attention to our own leadership? Will we allow my church’s money to follow a vision in another place? Will we support the social entrepreneurs struggling to survive, the leaders trying to keep the lights on and worried for the house-holds struggling to put food on the table? Will we forego a staff member here to nurture the slow growth of kingdom vision there? Will we die to self, that others may live? Will we respond to the life-giving invitation to take joy in seeing the vision we have flourish amongst those on the margins?’

In the answers to these questions lie the subtle, troubling difference between success and fruitfulness. May those who have ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

 

Why We Can’t All Care The Same Way About The Same Things

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I like brie. Very much. Brie tends to be expensive, so it’s a treat when I have it. But I really do love it, in all its creamy, rich goodness. I don’t expect everyone to like brie. My wife doesn’t, for a start. My foster son calls it ‘white person’s cheese’. If everyone in the world liked brie there’d be a worldwide brie shortage, the price would skyrocket and I’d never be able to have it. That would clearly be A Disaster.

I support Arsenal Football Club (this isn’t a bid for sympathy, by the way), as my mother did and my grandfather before her. Much as I enjoy making friends with other Arsenal supporters, I don’t expect everyone to support Arsenal; in fact, that’s the point. Different people support different clubs, and we exchange jokes; going to a match as a fan of the away team can be a lot of fun (it can also be quite dangerous, which is when, of course, the point has been missed and a line has been crossed).

Scanning social media feeds, or listening to people who are passionate about one thing, can sometimes feel like the whole world is being urged to love brie or support the same team or Bad Things Will Happen. I know this, because I’ve done it myself. I’ve mistaken something I love or something I feel passionate about for something everyone should feel the same about. The reality is that this is not only undesirable, but impossible. We Christians – and especially those of us in leadership positions  – can be especially guilty of this. Guilty is an important word here, because it’s precisely that which we load on people if we’re not wise – and load on ourselves if we take it all too much to heart.

The latest iteration came for me this weekend, in the wake of the Irish referendum on relaxing the country’s strict abortion laws. This isn’t an argument about the rights and wrongs of that referendum per se; it’s more about what we say about it. Many times I saw arguments that went something like this: ‘If you’re not as passionate about refugee children as you are about abortion [or the converse] then you’re a hypocrite’. Now like all the best lies, there’s an element of truth here; American Christian activist Shane Claiborne writes and speaks eloquently about the importance of being ‘pro-life’ (as opposed to anti-abortion) in all our theology and politics, not just one area. There is a risk of hypocrisy, and we must be alive to it for hypocrisy is an often justified criticism of Christians. But the issue that concerns me is the level of passion or commitment that’s expected.

We’ve all been there. You’re deeply affected by a song or a movie, and you gush about it to whoever comes across your path and find yourself slightly offended and lost for words when someone says ‘Well, it’s OK I suppose’; or worse ‘I hate it’; or worse still ‘It’s wrong for a Christian to love that’. I get confused, for example, when I meet people who don’t love the movie Pan’s Labyrinth as much as I do; It profoundly moves me every time, I think it’s basically perfect and God even speaks to me through it. Amazingly, some people find it too violent, boring or too Spanish. It can be rather like that with causes. I, for instance, find myself passionate about homelessness. I want others to be too. At times my passion for the cause can tip over into a guilt trip, manipulation; the expectation that everyone else should not only agree with me but should feel the same.

The reality is that we can’t all feel the same way about everything. I have friends I admire deeply who are passionate about (for example) accessible education for all or care for the environment. They feel about those issues like I do about homelessness. If I felt about those two issues they way I feel about homelessness, whilst maintaining my passion for the latter, I’d quickly combust. Let alone all the other issues that are important – social justice-wise, doctrine-wise, practise-wise and the like.

There are a couple of solutions to this. One is (of course) Jesus. He cares about all this stuff, deeply, to the extent that it should be cared about and more. And he does so without combusting. He holds the fire for it, so to a certain extent we don’t have to. But there’s more; we are made in his image. We (partially) reflect Him; which means we sometimes find ourselves taking on the care for one or more of these issues from Him, because we’re His ‘hands and feet on earth’. It’s what Christians sometimes call a ‘ministry’ or a ‘burden’; but one that’s easy fitting. It’s given to us, with all our imperfections and gifts, because there’s something that fits well with us about it. We get to engage with the church and the world, promoting the issue and inviting others to respond to God’s call on it, inviting the church to act on it and so become more the church we’re meant to be.

Call, invitation is the key here. We’re not to treat people like a race horse, whipping them over the finish line; no, like Jesus we’re to call and invite until people respond as God places it within them to do so. Together we all make up a church, in the language of 1 Corinthians 12, a body. We can’t all be hands; we can’t all be kidneys. We can’t all give the same energy to homelessness or the environment or doctrine or abortion or refugees or …  But between us, we might just get there.

That’s why leading on an issue, or leading a church, can be so hard. You can see where we could be, maybe even what the church could look like; we want so desperately to get there that we’ll do anything to make it happen. But we mustn’t do ‘anything’; we are to act and invite in grace. Now there always moments and seasons, currents of the Spirit that are inexplicable; or emergencies in public life that require us to pitch in, even if we only know it to be right in our head but struggle to do so in our heart. It seems #metoo and #churchtoo, for example, may be an example of just that. We can’t, though, all feel   the same way; we’re finite, limited and fragile; social media, politics, the church all shout urgency about myriad things. It’s the ministry of leadership and corporate wisdom to discern when is a ‘moment’ and when is ‘just’ something important that a number, perhaps even a growing number, are called to. All of us may need to change our thinking or behaviour on something; we may need to confess, repent and change in some way. But the leadership on any given issue is left to a few. We can respond with prayer; with actions big, medium or small; with money; with support and encouragement in other forms.

So let’s be kind to ourselves and one another in our posts, in our sermons, in our words and actions. We are called to walk the way of Jesus; in doing so, each of us finds we walk like Him in a certain way that few seem to share. Following Jesus is always done in a group, never alone; a group where diversity of passions and interests and hopes and experiences is both welcomed and encouraged.