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.

 

 

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

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Photo by Binyamin Mellish on Pexels.com

 

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.

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.

Huh?

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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:

Introduction

Soup

Time

Listen

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?

Also in this series:

Introduction

Soup

Time

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

Lost Church by Alan Billings

For better or worse, in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer, I am a Christian called to worship in and minister in the Anglican church. I was bought up in one, I have worshipped in several, and have committed myself before God and people to ordained ministry in that context. I am also someone whose own tradition within that context is as charismatic evangelical. I am committed to the theology and practice of that; I value other traditions greatly, but that is mine. That doesn’t mean that I sign up to everything which some people associate with that label – I interpret my tradition in the may that fits and works and makes sense for me. But it is the label which fits most naturally – if imperfectly. I am also deeply committed and passionate about a movement within Anglicanism and other denominations known as Fresh Expressions (more of that later). I see none of these things as in conflict with one another. Which is not the impression I was left with after reading Lost Church by Alan Billings.

It’s an accesible and clearly constructed book calling Anglican churches and their clergy to reconsider ministry to those who may not be fully professing Christians, but have a vague sense of belonging to the established Church of England. They may not ‘believe’ as many would understand that concept, but they have a sense of attachment, loyalty and belonging to a type of religious expression which they understand the Church Of England as providing.

In essence, that’s Billings’ call. There’s a lot that’s helpful here. He speaks as an experienced parish priest and trainer of clergy, so this is coming from a position of first hand experience. His variety of ministry contexts and  engagement with research leaves him well placed to analyse societal trends. There’s much that’s helpful and challenging for me and for people like me – I need to own the fact, as he does suggest, that evangelical Anglicans can put as many barriers as we think we are taking down for people. It’s just that we’re keeping out, sometimes, a different sort of person. There’s also a tendency amongst some in our tradition to cut ourselves off from our historical moorings and fellowship within the broader church. All of that is true, and the book was a helpful reminder and corrective to me  – even now, serving a long way from England, but still an Anglican. Societal trends in South Africa are likely to follow a similar path to that seen over recent times in the UK, so these are apposite warnings.

I had problems with the book, though. First is that I was struck by what felt to me a certain meanness of spirit. I own some of these criticisms of the traditions of which I am a part; but some of the language and tone felt at times snide and at others unfair. As a former priest in Sheffield he criticises, for instance, the high profile St Thomas’ Crookes church in that city. In the late 1980s/early 90s the church experimented with an usunaual form of worship which came out of nightclub culture. This met with initial success, before a very public moral failure, the fall of the leader and accusations (almost certainly justified) of cult-like behaviour. Billings criticises St Thomas’ for sitting outside normal Anglican structures – without mentioning the reality of the the church having been a joint Anglican and Baptist project since 1982. So of course it was going to sit outside normal structures; that’s not to excuse the failures or mistakes, but he’d have done well to point out that it wasn’t fully Anglican because that would have been to deny the essence of what that church was meant to be.  He suggests that ‘perhaps’ lessons have been learned at St Thomas’ and in similar contexts – the reality is that if you read books to emerge from St Thomas, listen to the leaders and speak to people in the Fresh Expressions movement, then they manifestly have. In the case of St Thomas’, the church has continued to grow and move into innovative, exciting models of leadership, mission and discipleship – without a hint of moral failure. That tragic series of mistakes has been learned from, but will remain fallen Churches are led for sinners by sinners so failures will still occur, but you can’t move far in these circles without hearing these lessons rehearsed.

There is the problem. For all his no doubt deep experience and valuable, committed ministry Alan Billings seems to spend time lobbing criticisms at something he doesn’t show he’s engaged with. Evangelicals do not all try to argue people through reason into a propositional set of ideas, as he suggests. Many evangelical churches are profoundly, deeply, prophetically tolerant and welcoming; not all are cold and unfriendly. Some are not, of course. Some are, though. Fresh Expressions is not ‘about meeting in any sort of building other than a church, as if a church building could only be of interest to the already committed‘; it’s about creating a ‘mixed economy’ church (to use former Archbishop Rowan Williams’ phrase in his support of the movement) which uses BOTH traditional and new models of church. It takes inspiration from the vows all priests ordained in England take ‘to proclaim the gospel afresh in this generation’; it’s rooted in Anglicanism and committed to ecumenism – so naturally it will contain elements that are not Anglican so much as reflective of other approaches. Many within the movement – as the aformentioned sinners we all are – will come across as arrogant or dismissive or loaners. Many, though, are humble, Godly people who love the church and their fellow ministers. Which is why they want to see the church grow, and even more invited into the variety of her beauty.

Lost Church blessed, challenged, encouraged, saddened and angered me. I liked it. It has an urgent message. Many who love the church should read it; I fear though that a lack of thought and understanding in places will lead to offence and regression rather than the forward movement Allan Billings clearly longs to see in the church he loves.

I rated this book 3/5 on goodreads.com