November Letter

9 11 2013

November begins with All Saints Day when we remember our ancestors in Christ who have gone before us.  Without them, the exceptional and the ordinary, we would not have a Christian church today.  Celtic saints like Patrick, Columba and Aidan left their homes to travel and bring the love of God to others.  16th century saints risked death to change oppressive religious structures.  18th century saints like John Wesley took on the establishment to bring faith, hope and a better life to ordinary people.  The church of the past encourages and urges us to face the challenges of being the church now and in the future.

Last month I saw a bit of what that future might look like.  My book Creating Community has created interest in the wider Christian world and I was invited to speak at an event in Swansea, South Wales.  The missing generation in many of our churches is the 18-35 age group and the younger members of several Swansea churches have got together to do something about that.  “3” is an experimental event which happens three times a year.  There are three speakers, three discussion slots, three performing artists and it ends with a three course meal.  The big idea is “to engender a creative environment in which to challenge, stimulate and explore what the church of the future might look like.”  It seemed to be working as there were about 75 people there.  Here are a few things I noticed about a church event which is successfully reaching younger people.

* Technology.  There was a professional quality sound system and three screens.  One in three people in the UK now uses an e-reader.  High quality sound and vision in our churches is not a luxury but an essential.  One of the “speakers” was actually a video blog by a teenage girl sharing her experience of experimenting with different forms of prayer.

* Participation.  People didn’t just come to be talked to (though they soaked up what I had to say).  Each talk had space for discussion and response.  One of the screens was to allow people to post instant comments and responses via Twitter.

* Creativity. The main music was from a professional DJ.  He used pre-recorded sound loops of rich atmospheric ambient music, over which he played live.  This provided a setting for spoken meditations on passages of Scripture with words and images on the screens.  At the end you could hear a pin drop.

* Hospitality.  The “church” was set up with tables, chairs and sofas.  There was a café offering tea, coffee and cake all afternoon – very good cake, produced by a local social enterprise project.  There was quality without extravagance in everything as befits a Costa Coffee shop culture.

And although this didn’t call itself church, that’s exactly what it was – there was worship, prayer, Scripture, teaching, togetherness, and in the middle of dinner we broke bread and drank wine to remember Jesus.

Our churches have great riches from the past but to be faithful to the Gospel we also have to discover the riches of the present time and culture.  “3” is doing that.  What can we do?

Best Wishes

Simon





Good gifts all around us

30 09 2013

It’s Harvest time again and it’s good to pause and reflect on the way in which the natural world teems with life.  Even in London’s urban sprawl we can see birds and animals and insects everywhere if we just stop to look.  On top of that, even in times of economic recession we are all of us among the richest people on the planet.  We have fresh water literally on tap, so much food that we throw it away, roofs over our heads, and access to free medical facilities whenever we need them.  No matter how pressured we may sometimes feel, we have every reason to thank God for the privilege of living where we are.

But with privilege also comes responsibility.  An important part of being a Christian is recognising that everything we have is a gift from God and it is to be shared when necessary with those who do not have enough, and offered in support of the mission and ministry of God’s church.

This is something which not enough of us grasp fully.  There is great generosity when there is a specific need or appeal, and the fact that we have been able to reopen St Mary’s and improve the Ascension speaks volumes for our ability to dig deep.

The problem lies in supporting the week by week activities of the church – which I’m delighted to say are expanding.  This year we have seen growth in numbers at both churches and expansion in the types of activities we can offer.  All of this costs money.  Last year our churches, staff and activities cost just short of £110,000 to support.

£63,000 of that came from the giving of church members.  The rest came from letting out our buildings, and other smaller sources of income.  None of our regular income is from grants or subsidies of any kind. £63,000 a year given by church members sounds like a lot of money until you break it down.  It means on average that each member gives only £50 a month or £11 a week.  Break down the average further and it turns out that a third of our members give less than £25 a month (or £6 a week), and another third give no more than £50 a month.  That means half of our total income from giving comes from only a third of our members.

We can do so much better.   The Bible suggests that we should aim to give away around 10% of our income and it doesn’t need a mathematical genius to work out that our income as churches is nowhere close to that when compared to the amount of money most of us have each month.  It’s time to learn that how we use our money is as much a measure of our spirituality as the amount of time we spend in prayer.  Everyone enjoys it when we welcome new people into the church, when we’re able to put on good activities for children and retired people, when we’re able to do things well, rather than in the most bargain basement way.  There’s a huge joy and satisfaction in investing in something worthwhile and seeing it realise its potential.  Many of you speak of how much you value the life of our churches.  It’s time for us to show how much we care by the way we give.  Good gifts are all around us.

It’s time to give something back.

Best wishes

Simon





Prayer – mysteriously essential

9 09 2013

There is something ultimately mysterious about prayer.  The Bible makes huge promises about the benefits and the effectiveness of prayer.  “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 4:6–7).  “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.”  (John 14:14).  On the other hand we all struggle with the contradictions and sometimes sheer pain of unanswered prayer (brilliantly explored in Pete Greig’s semi-autobiographical book God On Mute).

Prayer maybe mysterious but it is also essential.  Somehow it really does make a difference.  As Archbishop William Temple famously put it, “when I pray, coincidences happen, when I don’t pray, they don’t happen.”  He did not say this lightly.  Before becoming Archbishop he was an Oxford academic, and as Archbishop he had to deal with the ethical issues of the war against Nazi Germany and spoke into the social and political debate about how to build the post-war society.

At the heart of prayer is the Lord’s Prayer which asks for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth as in heaven.  Whenever we see poverty, violence, injustice, greed, selfishness and ignorance of God, it is obvious that he is not reigning in Christians is not only to do what we can to change things but also, and even more importantly, to ask God to intervene.  I have never forgotten meeting some Burmese Christians when the military regime there was at its worst.  We asked  what we could do to help.  They asked us to provide for the needs of their refugees in any way we could, to join in any kind of protest on their behalf, but above all – and they stressed that they thought that this was far and away the most important thing – we should pray.

For the third year running we are going to recommence our church programmes after the summer break with 24 hours of unbroken prayer.  By committing ourselves to this chain of prayer we are demonstrating to God that we take seriously the words of Jesus that “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  We are also doing our part in the coming of God’s kingdom by praying for his will to be done in our churches and in our neighbourhood.

At the heart of the mission Jesus gave us is helping and inviting others to connect with God.  Three years ago our Alpha course had almost ground to a standstill.  People outside the church simply weren’t coming.  After the first Prayer 24 weekend in 2011 we saw an increase in newcomers to the course.  The 2012 course which followed the second Prayer 24 brought one new member into the church and since then we have seen many of her family come too.  Coincidence?  Seems to me it has something to do with prayer.

Best wishes

Simon





The Golden Rule

16 04 2013

Disgusting is the only word that describes it.  Scrawling pink spray paint across the War Memorial on Ealing Green carried the illiterate and hateful message: “We didnt foght [sic] 4 gay voting.”  Well here’s some news for the morally degenerate half-wit who wrote that.  Actually, we did.  People died to defend the principle of a society where people are free to decide how they want to live, provided that they do not harm others, and to overthrow a regime which pitilessly exterminated those who did not conform to its image, whether they were Jews, communists, gypsies, or gays.

That principle is profoundly Christian, one of the radical elements of our faith which is deeply challenging for all of us who profess to follow Jesus.  When he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12), he did not make any exceptions.  If we expect others to tolerate us, we must tolerate them.  If we expect others to respect us, we must respect them.  If we expect others to let us live as we choose, we must let them live as they choose.

Christians often struggle with this because at the same time Jesus also told his disciples to be salt and light in the world, showing others how God wants us to live, and calling them to bring their lives into harmony with his will.  When people live in a way which some Christians perceive to be contrary to God’s will, or when society makes changes which appear to be contrary to the teachings of Scripture, many Christians feel an obligation to speak out and to protest loudly.  Of course, in a democracy we have every right to do that.  But is it the best way?

In first place we are meant to be people who bring good news of God’s love and forgiveness.  There is a danger that all that others will hear is what we are against, and quickly conclude that we – and God – are against them.

In the second place there is the radical and challenging behaviour of Jesus.  The teacher of the Sermon on the Mount, some of the most demanding moral teaching ever given, was also the person who was notorious for associating with people who lived the most disreputable lives. He was called the friend of sinners (Luke 7:34) and rather than stridently confronting their lifestyles he told them that if they wanted it, they had a place in God’s kingdom from the moment they met him.

A lot of Christians are upset about Parliament’s decision in favour of equal marriage for gay and lesbian couples and are voicing their opposition.  What would Jesus do?  It’s not as obvious as we might at first think.  Christians debate the Bible’s teaching on sexuality.  What seems to one to be the plain teaching of Scripture is sincerely held by another to be referring to specific practices at the time.  Jesus’ Golden Rule demands that we respect those who disagree with us about how best to live as God requires.  What is clear however, is that the mission of the churches and every individual Christian is to invite others to connect with God by following Jesus.  That’s best done the way Jesus himself did it, by welcoming others unconditionally and without condemnation to come as they are, and journey together with us in pursuit of God’s best for our lives.

Whatever we think about equal marriage, we should rejoice that people in our society are free to make that decision, and reflect that this freedom is actually, amazingly, something God given. Best wishes Simon