How do we talk about it?

April 28, 2018

In my last post I gave six reasons why we need to talk about sex and relationships in church. So how exactly we do this?

In one sense, the answer is as for any other issue – in our Sunday morning teaching, in our small groups, and in our personal discipleship. Let’s think a little more about each of these areas:

Sunday morning One of the guiding principles of St Michael’s and St Barnabas is that we teach the “whole counsel of God”. That means we aim to cover every part of the Bible. When we do that, we will find inevitably that we will cover passages that talk about sex and relationships. We don’t force the issue, but we aim to let the Bible do the talking.

This isn’t always easy, because on a Sunday morning we teach people with a whole range of backgrounds, some known, some unknown. This means our teaching has to be gentle and winsome, and connect with the gospel of repentance and grace. At the same time we always need the conviction that what the Bible says is of the Lord, and pray that the Holy Spirit will bring about real change and transformation in people’s lives as they hear. That is, incidentally, one reason why gathering before the service in prayer is so important. We need to pray that all of us don’t just hear the word, but really listen and act on it.

It may well be of course that as people hear teaching about a subject that deeply affects them they will have all kinds of reactions and questions. Sunday mornings are rarely the appropriate occasion on which to meet such questions.

This is where small groups come in. We need networks of small, safe gatherings where anyone can in confidence ask questions and share their experiences. These don’t happen overnight. We need to work hard at developing bonds of trust and security, and we need to work hard against sins such as gossip and slander which can destroy these bonds so easily.

But when someone is asking questions about sex and relationships, in my experience this shows that the Holy Spirit is touching their lives at the very deepest level. As I said in my last post, the greatest challenge people face to their faith is this whole complicated and messy area of relationships, and it is incredibly hard to face up to the fact, for example, you need to stop sleeping with somebody, or you need to break this or that bad habit. So in our small groups we need to have the real gift of friendship to support and encourage, through listening, through wise words, and above all through prayer.

This is where inevitably personal discipleship will come in. We need wise, godly men and women who can invest time and energy in those who are broken and hurting. This requires immense love, care and patience, and also wisdom to make sure proper safeguarding is in place. And the aim in all of this of course is to see how Jesus can be Lord over every area of our lives, even those that are most private and most difficult to deal with.

So much for the theory – what about the practice? I am at this point reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well recorded in John, chapter 4. It took place on neutral ground in the middle of the day. The woman would no doubt have known from the teaching in the synagogue what was expected of her life. But all the teaching in the world didn’t stop her from having a series of disastrous relationships. The disciples wouldn’t have understood why Jesus would want to speak with her, so they are not on the scene when the meeting takes place.

When Jesus tells her to fetch her husband, the whole sorry story comes out (verses 17-18).  Jesus doesn’t judge her. But He lets her know He knows all about her, just as indeed we need to be always that no matter how private we think our lives are, Jesus knows already everything there is know about us. The woman’s reaction? She goes on a tangent about the right place to worship God. But Jesus lovingly and patiently leads her to the point. What this woman needs is an encounter with Him that will change her at the place where she is most broken and, dare I say it, most sinful.

And the result is, that having recognised Jesus as the Messiah, the woman returns to her village and spreads the good news. For this is the good news we all need to take on board, that in Jesus change and transformation is possible. Yes, we may find it hard to admit our need of change. Yes, we may not know how to change. But there is no area where Jesus cannot work by His Spirit to bring repentance, healing and transformation.

 

 

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Let’s talk about it!

April 21, 2018

As a church we talk about so many different things – faith, sin, heaven, prayer, the weather, Plymouth Argyle… But when was the last time we had a really good discussion about the whole subject of sex?

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The elephant in the room

Well, I realise this whole subject is intensely personal and for many people extremely difficult. I am not exactly that comfortable bringing up the subject. Yet in our discussions last Thursday evening it became very clear that this was an area we simply can’t simply avoid. Somehow we need to find a way to approach the whole topic in a healthy, open and honest fashion, so that Jesus becomes Lord over every part of our lives.

But why mention it at all? Let me give you six reasons for starters:

First of all, the Bible says a lot about sex and relationships.

It starts with the story of Adam and Eve who are joined together in one together in marriage. It goes on to tell how the Fall affected their relationship, and has affected relationships ever since. As the Bible goes on, we hear tales of adultery, incest, rape and prostitution, which are definitely all signs of a fallen world. But the Bible is not wholly negative about sex. The book of Song of Songs is a wonderful erotic poem about human love. Jesus Himself affirms the goodness of marriage, and the Bible ends with the image of the church as the bride of Christ.

Secondly, sex is the issue that is dividing the church at the moment.

There are some, like myself, who remain committed to the teaching of the Bible as the supreme authority in this area. There are others who while respecting what the Bible says would redefine what is and is not permissible for practising Christians. Because the church has so often failed to teach in this area, many folk are simply confused as to what they should or should not believe. Too often debates boil down to one person telling their story, or someone sharing their feelings. That is the not a good basis for any kind of reasoned discussion.

Thirdly, we live in a culture that is obsessed by sex.

I have been watching some episodes of Grey’s Anatomy recently. It is an American drama set in a hospital where the main characters have sex first, and then work out the consequences of their actions. It is very much in step with the times where sexual freedom is seen as good and healthy, and the act of intercourse a bodily function simply to be enjoyed. The motto of our age is “if it feels good, do it”. But as the characters in this drama, and I suspect many people in real life discover, acting on your impulses never brings the fulfilment you are hoping to find. There is still a God-shaped hole which no amount of pleasure can fill.

Fourthly, the digital age is promoting all kinds of unhealthy behaviour.

When I prepare couples for marriage, one thing I always says is that when you make your vows, “forsaking all others” doesn’t just mean avoiding other physical relationships. It also means being very careful what you watch or enjoy on social media and the Internet. The percentage of people who are addicted to online pornography is truly staggering, and the number of children who are exposed to it from an early age is heartbreaking. Virtual reality is very good at promoting fantasies, and the deeper you get into these fantasies, the more harm you are doing to yourself and potentially to others. Yet where is the church clearly and forcefully addressing this issue?

Fifthly, those who come to faith bring all kinds of baggage with them.

We all fall short in the area of relationships. Some are very damaged. Others are trapped in ungodly patterns of behaviour they cannot easily escape from. We need as a church not talk about sin and forgiveness in abstract, cold terms. We need to talk about the saving power of Jesus Christ and the liberation that repentance brings that actually sets people free and enables them to become all that God wants them to be. As a church we have the good news that others need to hear.

Sixthly, without discipleship in this area people will fall away from the faith.

It is sometimes said that the last part of a person to be converted is their wallet, and we often use this slogan when we want to encourage more giving. However the greatest challenge folk find in their faith is when someone new enters their life, who may not share their faith, who seems to offer the happiness they are looking for. It can be so easy as a church to condemn, but how are we training folk to think Biblically about relationships and to remain faithful to Christ? If we are not, then we should not be surprised when some of our number fall away.

So how and where do we start this conversation? I would love to hear your answers. In the meanwhile, I will be putting down some thoughts myself in my next post. Contributions will be welcome!

 


A year of celebration

November 19, 2017

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2018 marks a very special year in the life of St Michael’s. On 29th September 2018 it will be exactly 175 years since the foundation stone of St Michael’s was laid. (In case you are wondering why the plaque says St Michael’s chapel, St Michael’s didn’t become an independent parish church until 1873 – see the history of St Michael’s here)

That St Michael’s has made it to 175 years is in itself remarkable. Destroyed in the war, badly rebuilt afterwards, demolished and rebuilt a few years ago, St Michael’s is remarkable testimony to the persistence of the Christian faith, and even today it still bears witness to the vision of the original founders that it should be a “poor man’s church” for Stoke and Devonport.

So we want to let folk know we are still in business. For a start, we want to connect with the many people who grew up at St Michael’s, were baptised or married here, or sang in the church choir or went to Sunday School. For various reasons most people who used to live in St Michael’s have moved to other parts of Plymouth and beyond, and we would love to invite them back.

Secondly, we want to let folk know that St Michael’s is more just an interesting piece of living history. We want them to know that here is a community of believers in Jesus Christ and invite them to discover the riches of the faith delivered once for all to the saints.

And thirdly, we want to look ahead. Where will the Lord be leading us for the next 175 years? How can we involve children and young people in our anniversary celebrations?

For all these reasons and more, we will be putting on a series of events at St Michael’s during the coming year. We will be publishing a full timetable soon. But in the meanwhile, please pray that 2018 will be an effective year of outreach. Please pray how you might get involved. Please consider who you will invite, if you are regular at St Michael’s and St Barnabas.

And together may we keep alive the original vision of St Michael’s and lay foundations for many years ahead.


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.