Believing and Belonging

October 9, 2017

 

Unity

So this street evangelist comes up to me in Exeter city centre:

“Which church do you belong to?”  I ask.

“I don’t belong to any particular church.”

“You have to belong to a church to be a Christian.”

“Not necessarily.”

“Then you obviously read a different version of the Bible to mine.”

Street evangelist walks off at this point. (Memo to any passing evangelist – please don’t try to convert me. You might regret it.)

We live in an age which doesn’t  value belonging. Membership of most established organisations is in decline (although interestingly the most recent data from the Church of England suggests our downward trend is being addressed). And for too long many people have believed it is possible to be a Christian without belonging to a church.

Even a basic reading of the New Testament shows this is not the case. When Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost, it wasn’t simply that folk repented, believed and were filled with the Holy Spirit. They were baptised and added to the fellowship of believers (Acts 2:37-47). Indeed nowhere in the New Testament will you find a believer who isn’t also a member of a church. Paul makes it clear that everyone who believes has been baptised by the Spirit into the one body of the church ( 1 Cor 12:13).

The message of the Bible is that we are saved by faith in order to become part of the people of God. It is a logical impossibility to say, “I am a Christian but I don’t go to church.”If we are in Christ, then we are part of His family, and to deny this basic fact is to misunderstand the very essence of our faith.

But the more I think about this, I see an effective sense of belonging involves responsibilities both on the part of the church and the individual believer. For a start, the church needs to a place of welcome and acceptance, particularly to the outcast and the stranger. Then there needs to be effective and ongoing pastoral care. There needs to be a safe environment in which to grow in the faith and to deepen relationships with other church members. Sadly too often the church has failed in one or more of these areas. Newcomers have been cold-shouldered. No-one has noticed when Mrs Bloggs stopped attending. Gossip has poisoned the atmosphere and secrets are openly shared. I hope St Barnacles has not fallen short in any way like this, but I recognise there is always more that we can do to become the church Christ intends us to be.

At the same time, it is not enough for Mrs Bloggs to come to faith and then attend church once in a blue moon. Again, the New Testament makes it clear that the same Spirit which makes us part of Christ’s body, the church, also gives each one of us gifts and ministries. They may be public, up front gifts. They may be quiet background gifts. The type of gift doesn’t matter. The point is, by not being there, Mrs Bloggs doesn’t simply miss out on the teaching and the fellowship. It means the whole church is affected, because Mrs Bloggs isn’t there using the gifts that the Lord Jesus has given her.

And maybe here we are touching the reason why this whole issue of belonging is so difficult. It is the culture of the day that before committing to anything we ask, “What’s in it for me?” The reason why we belong to church, however, is not necessarily to get something out of it for ourselves (although I do believe the Lord wants to bless us!). There will be occasions when the service leaves us cold. We will find there are difficult people sitting next to us. We may find we do not agree on certain key issues. Yet the church is never about any one of us. It is the place where the Lord Jesus calls imperfect sinful people together with all their faults and failings to love, serve and obey Him.

When you understand that, you realise that belonging to a church is not an optional extra, but a privilege. We have been called into the service of the King who has laid down His life for us. Shouldn’t that make us all the more eager to come together and learn what this King wants of our lives? After all, there are many, many believers across the world who are denied this privilege and would do anything to belong to a church.

How would it be if the Holy Spirit so moved us that none of us wanted to miss out, if at all possible, on the possibility of meeting together in Jesus’ name? At least folk on the streets of Exeter and Plymouth would end up with a rather better understanding of what the Christian faith is really all about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Reflecting on Thy Kingdom Come

June 5, 2017

Thy kingdom come logo

So Thy Kingdom Come has finished (although please don’t forget to collect outstanding prayer boxes!). What have we learnt from these past ten days? Here are some initial reflections:

  • There is a great spiritual hunger out there. While some days we only had one or two conversations, each conversation was significant, and we have seen the power of prayer.
  • There is also a lot of spiritual confusion. The name “Thy Kingdom Come” led some to assume we were Jehovah’s Witnesses. We cannot assume people can recognise the genuine article any more, or understand what Christians believe.
  • Every church member has grown through stepping out in faith. Some of us were nervous or uncertain as to what was going to happen, but with every God-encounter, our faith has been strengthened and renewed.
  • We have also grown closer to one another and discovered each other’s gifts and ministries in a new way.
  • Our eyes have also been opened once again to the depth of need in the area on every level. We have been reminded once again that The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few (Luke 10:2).
  • The ten days, however, only permitted us to go and plant a few seeds. If TKC is to have a long-term benefit, we need to pray and plan for follow-up in the weeks and months ahead. There are particular areas in our parish we need to revisit, and it would be good to make prayer-walking a regular feature of our churches’ lives.
  • The prayer meeting on the Thursday evening became an awesome encounter with God, probably because we didn’t follow our original plan! How would it be if similar numbers could meet regularly, say, once a month, over a meal and then move into a time of worship? That was how the early church operates – it seems a good model to follow.
  • The practical clear up at St Barnabas provided fellowship with other Christians and again was a great time of working together. Thank you to everyone for all their hard work!

Altogether, there has been so much to give thanks for, and so much more to consider. I am convinced that TKC is meant to be only the start. Our verse for the year comes from Philippians 1:6: … being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. So what Lord is your work? And what is the next stage you have in store for us? Let’s carry on in prayer together seeking answer to those questions, not only for our sake but for the many in Devonport and in Stoke yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.


How do I prayer walk?

May 25, 2017

Thy kingdom come logo

There’s an episode in 2 Kings chapter 6 which has always struck me. Elijah and his servant are trapped in the city of Dothan. The Aramean armies have come to arrest the prophet and no doubt kill him. Understandably Elijah’s servant is alarmed by the prospect of so many soldiers about to pay a house visit. But what Elijah says next is truly remarkable:

“Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.
(2 Kings 6:16-17).

We are constantly surrounded by unseen spiritual forces, and indeed we are told in Ephesians 6 that our struggle is not against flesh and blood but against the powers of this dark world. Sometimes in the face of so much opposition it can seem all too hard to reach out with the good news and be confident of the Lord’s victory. But in Jesus we are already on the winning side, and through prayer walking we are aiming to see the people and the places we serve from the Lord’s perspective.

We may not see hills full of horses and chariots of fire (although wouldn’t it be great if we did?), but we will see a place with new eyes. Some detail about a house or a sticker or car will catch our eye and lead us to pray in a particular way. Or we may sense that the Holy Spirit is leading us to pray for a specific location in a certain way. Or we may find that the Lord leads us to an encounter with a person who just “happens” to be walking towards us as we are praying.

Prayer walking is about going out in twos and threes, in obedience to the Lord’s command (Luke 10:1), seeking His vision for our local area. It involves sometimes walking in silence, trying to listen to what he is saying. It should certainly involve moments when we reflect on Scriptures that the Lord brings to mind. It is not so much about the words we use as the attitude of our heart as we constantly ask the Lord, “What does it mean for your kingdom to come and your will be done right here at this time?”

If you have never tried prayer walking, join with me. Meet at St Michael from 9am tomorrow. And as we go out, let’s claim the promise that those who are with the Lord are more than those against us, as we pray in the powerful name of Jesus.

 


How do I pray for Thy Kingdom Come?

May 18, 2017

Thy kingdom come logo

As I said in my last post, we need folk who will cover every activity of Thy Kingdom Come in Prayer. So how do we do this? Here are some practical suggestions:

First of all, begin with thanks. Whatever happens, God reigns over Stoke and Devonport. The Psalmist tells us (Psalm 24:1) that the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. That includes our streets, our homes, our shops, our local businesses. God is in control because every square inch of every place belongs to Him. It is just that many people have not recognised this fact.

Thank God also for the amazing privilege of prayer. Jesus tells us in John 14:14: You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. This God who reigns over all is not distant, not impersonal. He is longing and waiting to hear our prayers. How do we know this? Because Jesus died for us and so opened up for us once for all a new and living in the presence of God. Yet how often do we fail to thank God for the wonderful gift of prayer!

And also thank God for the gift of His Holy Spirit. Jesus goes on in John 14 to make this promise in verse 23: If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. The God of heaven and earth comes and dwells in the hearts of all who love Him and seek to do His will. So we are not left to work out how to serve Him in our own strength, or to do our best with our own resources. We have the Holy Spirit living within us to guide, comfort and sustain us hour by hour, minute by minute.

So as you reflect on who God is – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – it becomes natural, then, to turn thanks into prayer.

Pray that in all our events men and women, young and old, will come to realise that God is control and that Jesus is Lord. When the risen Lord Jesus appeared to Thomas in the Upper Room (John 20:26-28), Thomas could only cry out My Lord and my God. Ask that the Lord would be gracious and reveal Himself to many at this time.

Pray that as we ask people if there is anything they would like us to bring to the Lord, hearts would be opened to the wonder of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The blind man whom Jesus healed said “Lord, I believe” and he worshipped Him (John 9:38). Pray that people would understand and rejoice in the power of prayer offered in Jesus’ name.

Pray also for the Holy Spirit to guide, comfort and sustain all who are involved in each day’s activities. Use the timetable for TKC as a practical guide. Think about those who are engaged in conversations, or who are setting up, or who are running an activity. We do not know what situations we will encounter. We will face spiritual opposition. The enemy may try to discourage or disappoint us. Pray that each and every person will be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power (Eph 6:10).

And as you pray, use the Lord’s prayer to close as we all seek God’s kingdom come and His will to be done in Stoke and Devonport as it is in heaven. Amen!!

 

 


Why Thy Kingdom Come?

May 16, 2017

Thy kingdom come logo

I hope by now you will have seen the publicity on the main page about Thy Kingdom Come and if you are a church member, I also hope that you have signed up or are about to sign up for the events that are about to take place.

But why are we doing this event in the first place? Is it because the Archbishops have asked us to hold an event? Is it because we want to raise the profile of the church?

No, the simple answer is that we are surrounded by many, many people who need prayer. Living on our streets, going to our schools, working in our shops and in our care homes, there are folk with deep, deep spiritual needs. They may not be aware that prayer is what they need, but they are looking for some kind of guidance and help. However they will not necessarily come into our church buildings. We discovered last year that our most successful TKC events took place outside the church, and we must not expect that simply by opening the church we will draw people in (although by God’s grace some will come).

So behind all the events is one simple idea, based on the example of Jesus Himself. Jesus didn’t build a church and wait for folk to drop in. He went out and touched the lives of those He met. He also taught His disciples to follow Him, and as becomes clear in the gospels, following Jesus means doing the things Jesus Himself did.

That’s why during TKC we are going out in the name of Jesus. We may be rather nervous offering prayer to people we have never met, but if we are going out intent on obeying Jesus, then we can be sure that Jesus will have already prepared the encounter. We may be unsure of what to say, but Jesus is already at work by His Holy Spirit and will give us the words. I myself used to be very nervous about praying with new people in new situations, but only twice in eighteen years of ministry has anyone ever refused the opportunity to be prayed for.

And even if you yourself are not in position to come out and join us in prayer walking or at the prayer stations, there are still plenty of ways you can get involved. Can you spare some time at 9am or 3pm during the day to join us to pray at St Michael’s or St Barnabas? What about the coffee morning on Saturday 27th May or the evening prayer party on Thursday 1st June at St Michael’s, for example?

Even if you can’t get involved in any of these events, there is still a vital part you can play – because behind all the activities we need an army of folk who are simply praying for those who are going out, and covering every activity of this event in prayer. The most effective witness of the church, as I said on Sunday, is when everyone is united and has a shared vision. TKC isn’t about one small group at St Michael’s and St Barnabas doing mission on behalf of the church. It’s about the whole church of Christ declaring that Christ is Lord and sharing His love through compassionate, sensitive prayer, whether directly on the frontline or indirectly back at home.

So what part are you going to play in TKC?

There’s a story in the Bible, in Exodus 17: Joshua is down in the valley fighting the Amalekites. At this time Moses is leading God’s people, and you might have thought he was involved in the battle. But no, he is far away from the scene of the action. Why? Let’s read on to verses 10-13:

So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on one side, one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

For TKC to be truly effective, we need some engaged directly in the spiritual battle, and others who are providing unseen but vital prayer support. So please, make sure you know what is going on, and cover every event in prayer, whether or not you are going to be involved. Because the needs of those around us are great, and all of us are called to follow Jesus, to the glory of His name.

 

 

 

 

 


Let us go outside the camp

April 9, 2017

No doubt by now you will have seen the photos of our Palm Sunday procession, and it always fascinates me to see how people react to a bunch of Christians walking up a street praying and singing. Some put up their hoods and walk past as quickly as possible; some put out their cigarettes and disappear back inside the pub; a few join in; while I am sure that at a distance not a few mutter unfavourable comments about these strange religious types.

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And I guess for some of us the idea of taking part in a procession seems perhaps rather odd or embarrassing. After all, if you are a shy British introvert like me, the last thing you want to do is to make a public spectacle of yourself. Witnessing in the open air takes you way outside your comfort zone, and you may well be wondering why on earth you are taking part.

But that is precisely the point of the Palm Sunday procession. As we enter Holy Week, we are remembering our Lord who exposed Himself not only to the praise of the crowds, but also the ridicule of the teachers, who just a few days later was openly humiliated by jeering crowds as He carried His cross to Calvary. Our procession is a sign that we are willing to identify with this Jesus and follow in His footsteps, a recognition that we are not called to a comfortable faith, but a willing, obedient faith, whatever the cost.

The writer to the Hebrews had it spot on when he wrote:

And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. (Heb 13:12-14)

After all, if we as a church were a merely human institution striving to raise our profile, then we would be doing something far more user-friendly to attract more members. But our goal is to build the kingdom of God, as we look forward to the city that is yet to come. That is why we take up our cross; that why we process, and why we keep on witnessing, no matter what others may think of us.

So next year will you join our Palm Sunday procession?

And in this Holy Week what will you do to identify with Jesus, who for our sake was humiliated, stripped and nailed to a cross?


How big is your church?

January 26, 2017

How would you answer that question?

Over the past few days I have networked with a wide variety of people. Once I have introduced myself and explained where St Michael’s is, I can almost guarantee that at some point in the conversation this question will come up. It’s a useful conversation starter, and it helps people to understand what our church is like. But nonetheless I find it a difficult question to answer, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, St Michael’s and St Barnabas is not my church, it is God’s. That sounds very pious, but there is a hard-edged reality to this point. In my experience most tensions and disputes in churches break out because someone comes to see the local church as their church. So when the church changes for any reason, even if that change is of the Lord, that is when people tend to feel insecure and threatened, and relationships come under strain. After all, we all find change hard, and that is why it is so important to constantly make sure the church is going in the direction Lord intends, following only His agenda and His priorities.

Beyond that, it’s also interesting I am always asked how big my church is, not how small. Now the question may be perfectly innocent, but I recognise in myself the tendency to measure the church by the world’s standards. Size is seen as good, a big church is often valued more than a small church. And in case you think I am exaggerating, when was the last time you went to a conference where the speaker was introduced as the minister of a small, struggling congregation!?

And even if I could give a finite answer to the question, the church, because it is constantly changing, is always fluctuating in numbers. So often when I give a definite answer, I find only about half the people turn up the next week! I think God has a sense of humour and likes to keep me humble. It can be all too easy to boast of numbers and statistics, but God’s interest is people in all their infinite complexity, whose lives are so often so difficult to measure.

Nonetheless… each year I  meet with the churchwardens because we are required to fill in the annual Statistics for Mission where we try and quantify what is happening at St Michael’s and St Barnabas. So here is the information we have recorded, to attempt to give some kind of answer to the question.

There are 75 people on the electoral rolls of both parishes.

Over the past ten months, since the merger, we have had an average (median) attendance of 51 adults and 6 children.

We have about 60 regular worshippers who come at least once a month, and plenty more who attend more infrequently. Of these, we have 2 children, 30 aged 18-69 and 28 aged 70 and over (Apologies for those placed in the wrong category!)

How has the merger impacted on the congregation? Our average attendance has gone back up to the levels of 2013. The difference is that since then the number of people who are able to actively participate in various activities have grown.

How does this compare with other churches? According to the Church of England Statistics for Mission for 2015 published in October 2016:

The median church had 37 people attending worship in an average week in October, the majority being adults, with 29 on a usual Sunday. It had 56 people at Easter, 90 at Christmas, and a worshipping community of 45. It carried out 4 baptisms, 2 marriages, and 5 funerals in 2015.

We are slightly above the median in most areas, except for Christmas attendance and weddings. But there is no room for complacency – 60 regular worshippers is well short of even 1% of the parish population. So what of the future? Our aim must surely be to increase the number of children who regularly worship with us and raise up a new generation of believers. And we must do so constantly remembering it is the Lord’s church not ours, and trusting Him alone.

So to finish, a verse from Philippians 1:6 which is fast becoming my verse for this year:

…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.