Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

Scars and Hopes 6: Foundations

When something new(ish) comes along, it’s easy to see that as a criticism of the old and the pre-existing. This is especially true in the realm of church life, where people get attached to what they know and feel threatened by change and shocked by the new. Mission-shaped church is especially vulnerable to this: in an enthusiasm to rethink church and discipleship in such a way as to ensure it is directed towards those who don’t know Jesus, it’s easy to criticise or be seen to criticise that which is already happening.

Sometimes that’s because the people bringing the change are bored or frustrated. That’s not the point, though. Mission-shaped church is not church for the bored or angry or frustrated. It’s church for people who won’t be part of church otherwise. It’s church for people who don’t do church. That doesn’t mean that the existing church is suddenly irrelevant. Church as it exists continues to work for many people and as such it has an important, life-giving role. The mission-shaped realisation is one that wants to add and multiply, not replace.

Isaiah prophesied about rebuilding on ancient foundations; to do so needs those foundations. Build without ancient foundations and you’ve got a problem.

Photo from

Doing church in the pub was an addition to church as it was happening already, not a replacement of what the people already knew.

Jesus and the early church preached and healed in synagogues and on the streets; in the ancient places and the virgin territory.

It’s what a wise former Archbishop called mixed economy; not either/or but both/and.

Don’t dismiss what you have; it’s what you’ll build on. Don’t dismiss the ancient; it’s what gives meaning to the new. Don’t choose between old and new. Let each inform and refresh and incarnate the other.

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Scars and Hopes 5: Plan

We all need to plan, never more so than when you’re trying to be obedient to the missionary imperative of the God who tells us to make disciples. That doesn’t happen by accident; it needs you and me to make some plans. Those plans, though, need to be held lightly. It seems that God, for reasons best known to Himself, allows us to make one set of plans under His guidance … and then dump them.

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

A few years ago we realised that the area around our church needed community more than anything else. It’s a busy, vibrant, bustling area with little meaningful personal connection. So we decided we’d eat together every Thursday evening, tell others about and make it available to anyone. We envisaged it as a focus for the church’s life, a building of relationships, as well as a way of getting to know students, workers, commuters and the like. As the weeks passed, it changed into something else; an evening which was primarily enjoyed by the community of people without homes. We hadn’t envisaged that; if we had, the church probably wouldn’t have got it off the ground. To discover the right plan, we had to let go of our plans.

We discovered that we were in good company. Paul had all sorts of plans about where he was going to go on his missionary journey, only to find those plans frustrated and an inescapable tug to Macedonia. It’s all terribly inconsiderate and humbling. God seems to care less for our convenience and vindication as leaders than He does for establishing that He is in control of the missionary and endeavour, and He’s simply invited us along for the ride. It’s not that our plans don’t count; it’s more that they seem to count for rather less, or rather different things to that which we imagine.

So make those plans, but hold them lightly. They’re less, and more, important than we think.





Scars and Hopes 4: Goal

I am not moved by small ideas, targets and visions. Ever since I can remember I’ve been far more intrigued and caught-up by the absurdly big as opposed to the comfortably attainable. Why have a game of table-football when you can have your own World Cup? Why lead a church when you can change the continent?

That can lead to a dangerous type of hubris, of course. We all know people who are always talking about changing the world and what ‘this generation’ (usually people 20 years younger than the one talking) can do. So the key is in being content to not meet the goal.


As the turn of the millennium approached, my wife and I and some others felt that it needed celebrating in a more subversive way than that of which we’d yet heard tell. So we (who were all engaged in some full-time, part-time or voluntary capacity with the London homeless scene) read the Gospels (always a dangerous to thing to do) and decided to hire a big, well-known venue in London as close to Millenium Eve as we could and throw a huge party for as many different homeless people as we could. We set ourselves the goal of 1,000 (it may have been 2,000 … I can’t remember now). We worked a lot with a lot of different people and agencies arranged transport for people from projects all over London; we made sure there was good food and good music; we got a lot of free stuff; we dreamed and hoped and talked and prayed.

By the goal we set ourselves, it was a failure. We didn’t get 1,000 people; we got several hundred (I can’t remember how many).

So what?

Celebrations were had; we danced with people who didn’t look or feel homeless for one evening; there was a lot of laughter and fun; industrial quantities of quite-good-actually food were consumed.

The goal didn’t matter. The kingdom of God was expressed and anticipated, a prophetic challenge was issued to the church and the city, and though it wasn’t a perfect event it was pretty good, all told. I have no idea what other events and ministries it has since inspired, but I’m sure it did provoke more strange ideas.

Mission-shaped living needs big goals, big enough to get you out of bed on cold, grey, relentlessly wet London morning to see if you can get the price of the food reduced by another few £s; but you need also enough grace to remember the goal itself doesn’t matter as long as you’re on the right journey. It’s a goal expansive enough to permit failure and redefine success. Which needs courage, faith and a healthy dollop of prayer.

Hear that?

It’s the applause of heaven as, on your terms, you fail to reach yet another unobtainable goal.

Also in this series:





Scars and hopes 3: Listen

I’m not the sort of person who ‘just asks God’ and readily downloads the answer. That being said, God is a missionary and if we’re doing missionary type of things then we should expect God to have something to say to us about it. Not that life will be an unbroken journey of “God said this” devoid of doubt and colour; but He wouldn’t be much of a leader if He invited us to a journey and only gave us a two-thousand year old map.

I’d had an idea in the back of my mind for a while, which I hadn’t mentioned to others but others were starting to coincidentally mention to me. It was the idea to take church to the pub, which I’ve mentioned before. Aware of the work, stress and money this would involve as well as the fact that to some this would sound at best barmy or at worst offensive, I prayed. I prayed a simple prayer that went along the lines of “God, if there’s something in this, please make it clear. Amen”.  I knew the church needed to be more open and available to the average person, but I wasn’t sure this was the way. I kept the prayer simple … and went to the pub.

Photo from Bev Meldrum Photography

My friend and I were meeting there to discuss an unrelated church issue; pints in hand, we took our seats at a table for two. As we did so I noticed two women at the table next to us. I didn’t know them, but they were engaged in animated conversation. As I made contact with the seat I heard one say to the other “The problem with that church is that it just needs to be more available”. 

That’s me told, then. God’s a missionary. He says we’re missionaries too. If we’re to make church a missionary endeavour, it only makes sense to ask Him what He’s got to say about it and if there’s any guidance He wants to give. My experience suggests that you get more opportunity to use ‘the gifts of the Spirit’ when we’re doing missionary type of things, because that’s exactly where God is and wants us to be. And just because missionaries have to go somewhere, that doesn’t always mean you’ve had to move.

Ears open?

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Scars and hopes 2: Time

photo from Bev Meldrum Photography


It takes time. Lots of it.

The problem with leading a church is that you feel a nagging drip of pressure to get results as soon as possible. We ran church in the pub once a month for two to three years, plus a weekly visit to the pub quiz. Church in the pub was expensive – we were laying on free breakfast; it was also a hassle. Taking a church service that wasn’t a church service off site once a month was, even for a small church like ours, a bit of a production. Sound gear, instruments, children’s activities, Sunday newspapers, jelly, Jenga sets, model pigs and an inflatable Dalek. It was a bit of an effort.

Going to pub quiz once a week was less work – apart from those Tube station questions – but required a willingness to be mocked over the microphone for being ‘the church team’.

So all told it would have been great to be able to point to real progress after 3 months. Or 6. Or a year at a push.

We didn’t. Over 2-3 years we’d made meaningful connections with a roomful of non-Christians, two of whom became regular or semi-regular church goers; it opened opportunities with many others we’d never have seen.

Not exactly explosive church growth, is it?

Problem is, that’s appears to be the default mode of the Spirit when you’re out there in the world, mission-shaped and ready to roll. The slow, gentle, deep work of the Spirit, working to His own timetable and seemingly unconcerned with the pressures on me to show that it was all Worth It.

Which needs patience, courage, and a willingness to look stupid and aimless for a long time in the eyes of the people who pay the bills (that would be those who actually give money to the church). Which leads to many scars and an awful lot of desperate hoping.

Pioneering mission-shaped ministry may be the talk of the era; but it’s not glamorous. It’s not easy. It’s not quick. It’s about co-operating with God’s good work in people which is usually slow and gentle and deep. Which points away from me as the leader and towards the individual, away from results and towards formation, away from transferable quick-fix models towards patient-in-it-for-the-long-haul living.

Also In This Series:

An Introduction

1: Soup

Scars and hopes 1: Soup

The year after I graduated from university I did one of those year-out schemes. It had that peculiarly Christian wrinkle whereby the volunteer pays to work incredibly long hours for a year. It was great, but exhausting. One of the nicer parts of the year was the times I and the rest of the team would get invited to the home of local church families for a meal. It was great because you got treated really nicely and you didn’t have to cook or pay for the ingredients from your already dwindling budget.

This being Britain, about 90% of the time this happened, we were fed that most generically Christian form of hospitality: lasagna. I like lasagna. Home-made lasagna can be amazing. 6 months in, though, and I was desperate to see a roast or a curry or fish or … something other than lasagna (as long as it wasn’t quiche, the staple diet of every church catering function).

We all get bored with predictable food.

I’ve been involved in working with that sector of society we call  homeless for some time now – either full-time, or in part-time as part of my church life. We have a vibrant weekly supper in our church for anyone to come to, followed by worship and chat. Many of those who come are homeless. Some of my favourite people sleep outside.

When I describe such things to people they often say something along the lines of ‘Oh! You run a soup kitchen! Fantastic!

We don’t. We started off serving soup as part of our meal rotation. However we’ve stopped that.

You see, we started to actually talk to the people who came along and we discovered something important. That many of them who did the rounds of local homeless provision were sick of soup. They got it everywhere they went, several times a week.

Image from

A depression-era soup kitchen

Now we didn’t want to be a homeless provision. We wanted to be a community supper; a meal for anyone, including but not limited to those who sleep outside. Anyway, we wanted our guests to enjoy themselves; it’s hard to enjoy yourself if you think ‘this … again?‘.

So we don’t serve soup. We serve hot, hearty meals which are often quite spicy (because many of them like spice). We use fresh ingredients and we serve people at tables.

The difference is fascinating; people don’t talk about it as a homeless provision. We’re a place to eat, chat and maybe worship or pray. People appreciate that we know names and stories; they like that we use fresh ingredients (many soup kitchens run out of churches tend to use just going out of date food because it’s cheaper); they like that we serve at tables, not ask people to line up and have food slopped on their plate like school. We treat people as guests. Because they are guests. And we’re all going to be guests at the wedding feast of the Lamb, so we might as well start now.

So. Lay off the soup. And the lasagna. And the quiche. And listen to what people want.

Also In This Series

An Introduction

Scars and hopes: An Introduction

There’s a movement in the Christian church that’s been increasingly influential over recent years. You could call it many things; the terms you’ve most likely heard are ‘missional’ or ‘mission-shaped’. I’ve been floating around in it for a few years now: to me, what it means is seeking to reshape corporate church life and individual discipleship in such a way as to ensure the thrust of everything is engaged with the missionary direction that we see in the life of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

That’s a start of a definition. I’m not going to go deeper than that here, because many other people already have; and they’ve done it much better than I could. Go out and find them.

What I thought I’d like to do instead is post a few of the lessons and ideas I’ve picked up along the way. Not to say I’ve got it sorted out now; far from it. Just that I thought it would be helpful to put my mistakes out there so you don’t have to make the same ones; and it will help me to process a bit by writing these down.

So there you go. You’ll see a few of those over the next few days. They will be shortish, drawn from mistakes made and representing my hopes for how I and we can do things better in the future.

First up will be something about soup.