Vicaring about

July 23, 2017

 

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No this isn’t an expression that really means something else. It’s a phrase I picked up from a vicar I was shadowing when I was at college (nearly 20 years ago!). It simply means going around being a presence, and seeing where the Lord leads you.

Yesterday it was the Stoke Traders and Residents Fair. It wasn’t the right event for open proclamation of the gospel, but it was wonderful just to be able to sit and talk with whoever came past. It made me realise how even after 15 years how many people do not know who I am. It also made me aware that for some people the church has made a real impact. One young lady talked warmly about the pancake party this year and hearing the Christmas carols, another about getting married at the church well over 40 years ago. And as is often the way with things, my time ended with a significant and long overdue pastoral conversation that might well lead to further contact.

But having all these conversations made me realise how much more effectively we need to engage with the local community. Stoke is facing some significant issues. The library is closing permanently in September and the Post Office at least temporarily on 19 August. For many people this will spell the loss of a real presence in the community. How are we as a church called to respond?

That’s a question I believe we all need to pray about as we plan our mission and outreach for the next few months.


Claiming Christ’s victory

April 27, 2017
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The sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:18)

What do you think of when you hear the words “spiritual warfare?”

I guess some of us are quite uncomfortable with the term. We don’t like to entertain the idea that there may be unseen forces ranged against us, and we don’t want to have a faith which contains any idea of a spiritual battle. Yet it doesn’t take too much imagination to see that there really are dark forces in the word; we can just look at the news headlines, for example, or even what sadly sometimes goes on in our own city. The apostle Paul reminds us our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Yet, as in most areas of our Christian faith, we need to have a right balance. There are some believers who see dark forces behind every misfortune, every suffering, every wrong decision.  The danger here is that in seeing spiritual warfare in each and every turn we focus too much on the opposition rather on the person and presence of the Lord Jesus Christ.

So when it is right to identify spiritual warfare at work? My answer would be when we see a series of events that appear to hinder the purposes of God and the growth of His kingdom.

A specific example: we had tremendous Easter celebrations this year and the church was packed on Easter Sunday. The following week a whole load of people found at the last minute that circumstances prevented them from getting to church. This week two of our small groups have had to cancel due to unforeseen events. Surely the timing is not coincidental. The tactics of the evil one are always the same: to try and disrupt, discourage and disturb.

That’s why I found this verse, from Colossians 2:15, so helpful when we gathered for Evening Prayer yesterday. Talking of the finished work of Jesus Christ, Paul writes:

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Isn’t interesting that Paul talks about spiritual forces as powers and authorities? The forces of evil would like us to believe they have power (or the right to rule) and authority. They would like to us to believe they are in control. But on the cross Jesus defeated them once and for all. His very public death was a very public defeat of their ultimate power.

So at Evening Prayer we claimed this verse and simply prayed that the victory which Jesus won at the cross would become real for us. Can I ask you join in this prayer?

  • That nothing would prevent people from joining us for worship each Sunday and hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.
  • That as we prepare for Thy Kingdom Come we would be united in prayer and so disarm whatever powers and authorities pretend to hold sway in our area.
  • That as we make plans for the growth and mission of the church we would be guided only by the Holy Spirit to make His Kingdom come.

Because engaging in spiritual warfare is not an optional extra when it comes to the Christian faith. Let’s then focus on Christ’s victory so that we can see His kingdom come and His will done in Devonport and Stoke as in heaven.

 


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.


A year in review

December 31, 2016

First of all, a Happy New Year to everyone who reads this blog, and to the whole church family!

There is no doubt this last year has been a very special year, and we want to thank the Lord for the many wonderful ways he has been at work.

The year started with the Lord giving the church a very specific promise that he was doing a new thing. So it was on January 3rd I began to wonder if now was time for the two congregations to merge … on March 6th the two churches began to worship together at St Michael’s, and the fact we now have one larger congregation meeting under one roof has led to real growth – in new relationships being formed, in new ministries being started, in newcomers being welcomed into the church.

For example, this year we have seen our children’s work relaunched. Our small groups have grown in number and it has been exciting to see folk offering to take on leadership roles. A depression support group has started, and numerous other events have taken place, culminating in the Light Festival on 21st December, where it was a real joy to see the church so full of visitors and children.

We have also seen our links with the wider church grow and deepen. Our visitors from Thika really encouraged us in our faith, and we were challenged by the testimony of Pastor Paul from India. We also renewed our links with the parish church in Bovey Tracey, and our ongoing fellowship with other churches in Stoke and Devonport continues to develop.

It was a great privilege during 2016 to lead another Christianity Explored course and I always find the discussions we have on these courses strengthen and renew my own faith. This course led on to a confirmation service where six people of all ages made a public commitment, a very special moment indeed.

I would like to say this was all part of some great plan I had worked out … but really I have been surprised and thrilled by the way the Lord has kept good his word (and stopped me from thinking I was in control!). I find myself increasingly waiting and wondering what the Lord will do in 2017.

There are challenges … we will have to decide what is going to happen to the St Barnabas church building. On March 6th we wondered just how we could afford to keep it going, but since that date it has been used more than ever. It has become clear there are many independent churches and ministries who are looking for a home, and it has been good to host, among others, Rediscover Church and to share fellowship with them.

Many of the ministries set up in this year will need to grow and establish themselves in the coming year. The harvest field in Devonport is plentiful but the workers are indeed few. As we seek to build on the past year, we also need to review and renew our Mission Action Plan drawn up in 2012, building on the work done at our Away Day in November.

One very specific outreach will take place in the run up to Pentecost 2017 on June 4th. As last year the Archbishops of York and Canterbury want the churches to hold prayer events in the ten days from Ascension to Pentecost. Whatever form our event takes, we learnt from the same event this year that we will have most impact when we go out onto the streets and door to door. So look out for further information and do share your ideas with me!

To sum up: this year has been a busy year of growth, but I hope only the start of a greater work as the Lord builds His kingdom in His place. Thank you to all who have made such a contribution and let’s seek together His plans and purposes for 2017.

May the Lord bless you all.


What do we need to keep?

October 29, 2016

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Recently Lynda and myself have been sorting through the archives. We have found so much stuff! Old photographs, school reports, diaries etc. And it’s been a real dilemma knowing what to keep. We haven’t room to keep everything. But we want to keep some memory of the past. I am sure when we go through what’s left we will wonder why we kept some things and threw away others.

Churches, I believe, face a similar kind of issue. There are some churches which cling very rigidly to the past, where any change is seen as a threat and a challenge. There are others which simply get rid of any tradition and try to reinvent themselves from scratch. I’ve always tried to get a balance between the two extremes, but I suspect there is never a completely right and wrong answer to the question of what to keep and what to let go of, along the way.

On a practical level, I never cease to be amazed at just how much stuff a church can accumulate in a very short space of time. If we ever have to clear St Barnabas, then I think we will be surprised just how many things we have gathered over the past 13 years. Again, knowing what to keep and what to let go will involve some difficult decisions.

Are there any Biblical principles to help us? In the Old Testament the people of Israel were given detailed instructions about the furnishings they should make for the tabernacle which they carried about with them before they entered the promised land. When the temple was built, equally detailed instructions were given about how this was to be equipped, as a reminder that God had chosen to make his dwelling right there among His people.

The problem with the Israelites was that too often these furnishings became an end in themselves. So, for example, they carried the ark into battle as if it were just another national god (1 Samuel 4). The bronze snake Moses made for the Israelites’ healing became an idol worshipped in its own right (2 Kings 18:4). Why was this? Because they neglected the most precious thing of all they were supposed to carry around with them – the word of the Lord. By the time of King Josiah the book of the Law had been completely forgotten, and was only discovered when workmen were busy renovating the temple (2 Kings 22).

In New Testament times the church did not have any physical buildings. But the first believers, aware of the history of Israel, were conscious the one thing they needed to do was to pass on the word of the Lord faithfully from one generation to the next. So the apostle Paul was careful to pass on the essentials of the gospel as he had himself received it to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3). His concern for his “son” in the faith, Timothy, was that he would guard the deposit of the teaching entrusted to him and pass it on to reliable witnesses (2 Timothy 1:14, 2:2).

No doubt as churches became established, the question of physical buildings and their furnishings became a live topic. But it seems to me that as we go forward, it is so important we remember the priority of passing on the word of God. Churches as institutions are very good at investing resources to preserve the fabric of their buildings. But they are only of importance in as far as they tell the story of the faith passed on from one generation to the next. And if there is no passing on of the faith, the church simply becomes a museum and a tourist attraction.

We need to remember this particularly at this time when nationally the Church of England is under pressure to alter the faith delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3), as issues of human sexuality are being debated at the highest level. I love the history and the sense of mystery found in our churches, but the reason why our churches have lasted from generation to generation is that they have heeded the teaching passed on by Jesus to Paul to Timothy to reliable witnesses and ultimately to us.

I still haven’t solved the issue of what to keep and not to keep. That remains a tough one to answer. I rather like the picture of me aged 5, though!


Remember, remember 5th November!

October 15, 2016

I don’t usually come away from Diocesan Synod feeling particularly inspired, although we nearly always do some form of useful and important business. But today was rather different. We had the testimony of three very different church projects around the diocese, each in their own way telling a tale of growth and community outreach.

The vicar of Salcombe talked about how his mission community had recently launched a new monastic community for the 21st century, using a redundant vicarage as its base, with three young people working and praying in the local area.

From deep in rural North Devon came news of Saturday church, a specific  outreach to children in a church which 9 years ago had no children. The lady who shared the story pulled no punches about some of the struggles along the way, including opposition from those within the church who resisted the changes. But now there is a viable and established work in the village hall, which is also drawing in the elderly and the adults.

Then the vicar of St Mary’s Magdalene, right in the heart of Torquay, talked about the Living Rooms project started in 2011 to offer hospitality to the many in the town who are living on the edges of society, suffering from addiction, homelessness etc. Through this work 31 people have been baptised and the church has more than doubled in size.

All the speakers stressed the importance of prayer, and made it clear that their work was not necessarily a model for others to follow.

But as they spoke, I could not help being reminded of something that’s been on my heart for some time. What is God’s vision for our work here at St Michael’s and St Barnabas?

That’s why over the coming few weeks I am going to encourage every church member to come to our Church Away Day at Marjons on Saturday 5th November where Barry Dugmore, the Diocesan Mission Enabler, will be helping us to see the big picture of what God wants to do in and through us as a church.

Please be there – and let’s be eager and ready to do serious business with the Lord as we listen to what He says.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
(1 Peter 2:9)


Taking Stock

July 10, 2016

There is an old, old hymn which tells us to Count your many blessings, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

At the turn of the year the Lord spoke to the church through the words of Isaiah 43:19 – See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

What has happened since then? In no particular order:

  • Three people have completed the latest Christianity Explored course and are moving on to the new Grow course, in preparation for confirmation
  • The Thursday evening group is reaching a point where it is looking at splitting
  • Several people have expression interest in confirmation and renewal of baptism vows.
  • Children’s work has restarted at St Michael’s.
  • “Forward Step” depression support group is launching at St Michael’s on July 12th at 11.00am
  • The new “Women Around the Table” group is launching as a monthly discussion group at the vicarage, the last Sunday of every month at 4pm.

Alongside these developments, the two congregations have now merged on a Sunday morning. Last Tuesday evening the two PCCs agreed to begin the formal merger process so that the parish of St Michael’s, Devonport and the parish of St Barnabas, Devonport become the united parish of St Michael’s and St Barnabas, Devonport. This decision will lead to the creation of one new legal entity out of the previous two parishes.

This seems the logical next step which not only expresses our unity in Christ but also frees up resources for mission and ministry. It was however certainly not what I was expecting at the start of the year! To me, it’s a reminder that when the Lord decides to act, He very much does so in His timing according to His purposes.

So what lies in store for the next six months? In my next blog, I will outline some of the key events which are coming up. But growth isn’t something we can just plan and prepare for, as if the Lord will simply turn up and fit into our agenda. We need to be ready for the change that He wants, and sometimes it can be hard to let go of our own own priorities and our own plans, and allow Him to take full control. (At least, that’s true for me!)

At a time of change like this, then, it is just so important that we remain united as the body of Christ, praying for and listening to one another, focused on Jesus and offering ourselves entirely in His service. What is happening here is the Lord’s work, not the vicar’s, not the PCC’s. It is only by together discerning how He is speaking to us through His word and through the Holy Spirit that we will know how to further His plans to build His kingdom in this place.

That’s why several of us have found these verses from Romans 12:1-2 to be so appropriate as we have prayed for our church recently:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God – this is your spiritual act of worship.  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.