Welcome to Church

The Church of England has recently published a guide to the “Top Ten Facts About Christenings“. It is a starter for ten for people making enquiries about their local church and “getting little Timmy ‘done'”.It seems to have picked the same scab that The Weddings Project picked for a lot of vicars….. it educates people about their rights (something vicars don’t like to admit people have) and their responsibilities (something many vicars insist people should be born with pre installed like iOS6).

I am not a cradle Anglican. I may have mentioned this once or twice. I wasn’t even a churchgoer. I grew up with the belief that The Church TM didn’t have anything to do with ‘people like me’. In all honesty, the church treated me like a pariah when I was a teenager with a Helloween patch on the back of my denim jacket – I managed to attend for 5 weeks. When I arrived at university this is what I told Ruth: The church does not want people like me in it. The David Mitchell portrayal of the Evil Vicar isn’t just a cultural stereotype, it is often the real lived experience of a first time enquirer.

“Hello, are you the vicar? I am just ringing to ask about booking a venue…..”

There are two responses to this phone call:

a) [a brusk] It isn’t as simple as that! You are not simply booking a venue…
b) Congratulations. That’s great. Let’s have a chat about how we can help you celebrate the gift of a new child/celebrate the love you have for each other as you come together in holy matrimony…

I have sat in a room and watched both of these happen. I know which one I picked up as good practice.

The Church TM is a daunting experience for those of us you refer to as ‘unbelievers’. Walking through that door for the first time is a real challenge. If your first instinct is to trip someone up on their way in for the first time you will probably never see them again and neither will anyone else.

There is a massive theological issue at stake here. Jesus is the incarnate God who had a table ministry. He welcomed everyone in. Regardless of their religious literacy. Regardless of their knowledge of canon law or the parish system. Regardless of whether they had the language to ask for a service rather than a booking.

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“I didn’t realise we could get married in church vicar”. Happy to help.
“Can we have Timmy done?” Why don’t you meet me and the church wardens on Sunday and we’ll help you along the way?
“Will I be able to bring my son with me, he’s got Asperger’s so he may not be the most well behaved.” That’s fine, everyone is welcome here. If we can cope with a noisy vicar like me I’m sure we can cope with a little noise. After all, some famous guy said ‘let the little children come to me’.

Hey Vicar: Who Are You Writing That For?

blogThis morning I blogged about how The Church ™ so often fail to engage with people in the age bracket 20-40.  Statistically The Church ™ is not good with people in this age group.  A small group of us met to discuss how we could connect people to the ongoing story of God without worrying particularly about The Church ™ side of things.  For lots of people it can feel like engaging with The Church ™ is a bit like jumping on a moving train whereas there is often an openness to “faith”.

Whilst we were discussing how to do this through online content I had an epiphany that starts at a bit of a tangent.  I have been designing the new website for our church, Holy Nativity.  When stuck in the car for 5 hours Ruth and I were discussing content for it.  The essential information began to come together but we kept dreaming up epic descriptions and justifications to add to each page.  A description of “morning prayer” began a conversation about “why we pray, what we pray, how we pray”….

“Why are we putting this on the website?  It feels more like we’re putting it up to justify ourselves to other Christians in the area rather than for people who are just discovering us for the first time.  We seem to be saying that we are ‘sound’”.

You have been to websites dear reader.  How many times do you find opening phrases like “we are a bible believing church…” or other long phrases in christianese and jargon?  Perhaps the front page has giant lettering of Revd Kirk’s bold statement: “Our ongoing mission to make disciples of Christ where no one has made disciples of Christ before”.  Things that are purely designed to show how ‘sound’ we are to the other Christians.  We probably don’t even realise we are doing it.  And it doesn’t matter which particular flavour of “sound” we are – just so long as other Christians know it!  “We are a forward in mission shaped, biblically based, congregation of the Father’s heart”.

As I recounted this to our small gathering I searched the annals of my mind for content I’ve encountered that is purely for engaging people outside of The Church ™ with God’s story.  Surely there must be some good straightforward online content for people of no faith background that invites us and our modern context to engage with Jesus life and this strange thing we call ‘faith’.

I couldn’t think of anything.  When we engage, we tend to engage with each other.  Christian Leaders blogging for other Christian leaders.  Pontificating for the approval of our peers.  Vicars blogging for other vicars to show how good we are at being vicars.  Heck, I’m doing it right now. 

You dear reader, YES YOU!:  if you have got this far you are a Christian leader of some shape or form or you are very strange indeed.  I mean, why would anyone else read this content?  It’s a vicar talking about vicaring.

When I reflect on what I have written, I have written stuff for other Christians.  I talk about engaging with people outside of the church but what I write is in essence an instruction manual or theological reflection for other leaders.  OK, probably 90%.

But it is not all doom and gloom!!  Whilst this epiphany took place during our meeting, we did look at how we can buck the trend and create meaningful encounters for people online.  In the next few weeks I will ask you for your help to bring the story of God to life in the modern world.

What is “The Gospel”?

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There is an inherent inner tension that consumes many followers of the way. So many feel the conviction in their beliefs about Jesus but are unsure of how to articulate them to a quizzical world. Surely there must be an easy way to justify our deeply held beliefs? It must be possible to reduce the Christian faith into a suitably strong concentrated form that we can keep in the cupboard like stock cubes. Everyone is looking for something beefy that they can easily unwrap when they need it.

Here Tom Wright subtly reframes the questions people are keen to ask.

Instead of the formulaic reductionism that people seek, Wright frames “the gospel” in the context of something much bigger; the whole story. He sets the life of the Christian within the ongoing narrative of God’s interaction with humanity focussing on the person of Jesus Christ. Can you live with the unending quest for that illusive superficial “cure all”? The easily unwrapped gospel flavouring? Or would you rather focus on something much deeper and richer?

The Big Night Out

Last year we took the yoof to The Big Night Out.  If you have got a small youth group at your church it is a fantastic opportunity for them to see that they are part of something bigger.  The event starts off with the rides and then in the evening there are a few bands.

If you go, I’ll be the one trying to convince the Bishop to go on The Ultimate.  See you there!!

Tell, Show, Be.

This looks like a great campaign from the Methodist Church.  The Christian life is often built into some ‘mystic art’ that only qualified people are capable of doing.  The Tell, Show, Be campaign seeks to shatter the mystique and encourage the whole body of christ to get on with being followers of the way.

Love and Judgement

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I spotted this on a door I just passed.

The Fifth Gospel

Yesterday I was asked to give a talk about the time I spent in Uganda. Five years ago I spent a month on placement at Kampala cathedral. It was the first time Dr Ruth and I had really travelled together and we didn’t know what to expect.  I bought a new camera and took a notebook.  I’m glad I did as preparing for this talk made me dig it out and rediscover some of my memories of our big adventure.

On the page after I had written the profound statement “[expletive deleted] a rat just came into my room”, there was this:

There is a vicar staying at the hostel whilst he is studying. He just said something that made me think.

“People come to church not because of what they have heard but because of what they have seen.

People think there are four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. If they read them they probably won’t do it in-depth but they may read them and think that is it. They forget about the fifth gospel, their lives”

9 years ago I went to a baptism service to see an 83 year old lady take the plunge. She had decide to make the leap of faith and start following. Before she was baptised she stood up and gave her testimony.  She told us exactly how she had come to believe in Jesus and why she wanted to follow him.

She explained that she had started coming to church after a conversation she had with her landlord a few months earlier.  He was the caretaker at the church and also owned the small flat that she lived in. Her landlord had come around to visit to check that she was alright.  The weather had been atrocious for a couple of weeks with heavy snow all over the North East.  She explained to him that everything was alright but she had locked herself out of the flat a couple of days ago. She had left her little terraced flat and the latch was on as the door closed behind her.  She was stuck in the deep snow until her husband returned.

She explained that the young kid next door had arrived home and asked if she was OK.  They had never spoken to each other before but he wondered if she would like to come inside to the warmth and wait. In the conversation it transpired that the landlord knew the young kid because they both went to the same church.

The thing is, I had no idea who was being baptised that day.  I was flabbergasted.  From my perspective, I knew the other side of the story.

In my third year at university I was sauntering through the thick falling snow back to the little flat I shared with Dr Ruth after a hard day’s slog through a Johannine literature lecture.  There was an old woman standing in the snow next to a flat door.  When I asked her if she was OK she said yes but she wondered if she could just stand inside my door.  Of course I said yes.  In fact, I struggled to convince her that it wasn’t too much trouble for her to sit on the sofa and watch my TV.   I actually had to pretend that I wanted a cup of tea so that she would have a hot drink. I wandered back around to her flat next door a couple of times to see if her husband was back. When he was she left.

No blinding lights. No miraculous healing. No talking about “religion”. Just a cup of tea with no strings attached.

What does it mean for me to become that fifth gospel?

A Dead Church?

It isn’t often that I stick my head up and make comment on something like the synod of The Church of England but here goes. There was a report that prompted Dr Ruth and I to talk for a couple of hours this afternoon about the nature of God, The Church ™ and our place within it.

“The Church of England will cease to exist in 20 years as the current generation of elderly worshippers dies, Anglican leaders warned yesterday.”

This is a truism. For my beloved Church of England to continue witnessing into the future there needs to be a recognition of the changing world in which we minister. In the rhetoric that has been reported there have been some unfortunate soundbytes such as the need for a “recruitment drive”. There has also been the use of business model type language to describe the impending fall or rise of the good old CofE. This type of discussion has prompted me to a key theological question:

What is the role that The Church of England is called to within the missio dei?

To see our primary motivation to mission as merely “perpetuating The Church of England” as a goal in itself then we have missed the point. God is on a mission and invites us to be involved with it. We need to reexamine the true nature of our call as a church to go into the world as followers of the way. Along the way we need to keep pointing to our destination and call others to join us on the road. If we believe we need a “recruitment drive” then we may as well pack up the shop and go home now. We need to empower people to live out their baptism call corporately as the body of Christ.

How can i try to paint a picture of the problem as i see it? Lets imagine that The Church of England is transported to a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. When Luke landed on Degoba he met with a little muppet called Yoda. Yoda did not turn to Luke and say “welcome to Degoba, you’ll love it here. Pull up a rock by the swamp, please stay”. Why would he stay in a place that is completely alien to him? Where is the desert he knows knows so well from his homeworld? And once he has crash landed here he meets someone who is completely alien to him. Yoda doesn’t speak the same kind of language as him, the lifestyle is completely alien to him. Luke almost walks away and fails to recognise that Yoda’s advancing years have given him an ancient wisdom. Ironically, Yoda tries to dismiss Luke for being too impetuous, youthful and “not the right kind of person to be one of us”.

When Yoda was talked around by Obi Wan he did not point to all of these differences and the settings around him. What he did was point towards something much more significant than himself or the place where he found himself. He pointed to something much more profound and something much deeper than Luke could imagine. He prepared Luke for the journey that he was on and eventually sent him off to fulfil that journey.

How can we as a church get beyond trying to recruit people to man the jumble sale and become more like Yoda?

Or as @emptybelly tweeted a couple of days ago:

If the 21st century church took Jesus as seriously as the 1st century church, this world would again be turned upside down for God’s kingdom

So Meek and Mild They Executed Him

Christmas is a big moment for the Church.  This is the time of year in which people are more likely to visit us than at any other.  This is the point where people come to see what the church have to offer to their communities and the world around them.  We have some wonderful news to share, God’s heart was breaking so much that he was born as a baby boy and placed in the hay the animals were eating.  He was born into a world of pain, war, hunger and poverty to show us how it could be different.  He was born into a world to show us how to love and care for each other and to tell us to look after the least in society.  Mary understood this before he was born as she sang:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
   he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
   but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
   but has sent the rich away empty.

Every year I agonise about the music we use at Christmas.  To pick something that people know well enough to sing.  Something that speaks of the incarnation that can be played with integrity in a band is a difficult task.  People often talk about popular “secular” music not speaking of the “true meaning” of Christmas.  For example, if we were to sing this Chris de Burgh song as we try to tell the world God’s story, I’m sure the extra terrestrials would confuse the issues.

Over the past month I have attended many carol services and I have come to the conclusion that I have been mistaken in the role the church are to play at Christmas.  Whilst I thought we were trying to give account of God’s incarnation, all around me people are singing “O Little Town of Royal David’s City”.  We are happy to perpetuate the Victorian ideals and social engineering of past centuries.  I need to know my place within the created order and must not step outside of my defined social background.  Children must be seen and not heard.  “Christian children all must be, mild, obedient, good as he”.  Unfortunately this myth does our children no favours as it places unrealistic expectations upon them.  It also facilitates those who want to complain about young families in church because “in my day…”  Unfortunately this also portrays Jesus in an unrealistic manner.  A baby who was born on a silent night without crying who lived a life so meek and mild that they nailed him to a cross.

It was recently pointed out to me that “people outside the church don’t take the Christmas story seriously, they treat it like a fairy tale”.  I disagree.  The people inside the church don’t take the Christmas story seriously, they treat it like a fairy tale.  Is it any wonder that the people who hear us singing “I love Thee, Lord Jesus! Look down from the sky” and “when like stars His children crowned all in white shall wait around” spend the rest of the year saying “pie in the sky when you die”.  Who can blame them?  They are just repeating our story as we have recounted it.

Next year I think I may include A Spaceman Came Travelling in the repertoire.  It is easier to try and explain aliens than to try and recant your previous explanation of the afterlife.  It is certainly more believable.

Christian Advertising

Emergent Kiwi has written an interesting blog post on Christian Advertising that you should check out.  He has been reading a book on advertising and quotes two executives:

Bram Williams, once head of Saatchi and Saatchi’s wrote: “Better to make the activity of being Christian attractive than try to come up with a ‘hit spin on Jesus’.”

Carolyn Miller has a similar spin: “If I had to make Jesus relevant, I would apply his teachings to modern life. What I wouldn’t do is try and make Jesus trendy – no one wants to see rapping Jesus.”

Do I really need to add anything else to this?