Archive for September, 2011


…in America!

Let me explain…

The last couple of years I haven’t been able to get away from Back to Church Sunday.  It seemed that many in the UK had an idea that the most effective thing we could do to help people engage with Christian faith was to invite them ‘back’ to church and there was much reporting of success rates and numbers.

It was a strategy that caused me much angst and my frustration focussed on several areas:

1. Most people in the UK now have never been to church so how can we invite them back to something they have never experienced?

2. The Baby-Boomers who Roger Standing in Re-emerging Church suggests are the last remaining age group who were brought up going to church and often hold precious memories which they can reconnect with, are as important as any other section of society, but equally remain only one proportion of our population.  The hopes pinned on Back to Church Sunday as a national strategy seemed a little disproportionate to me, especially given point No1.

3. I have issues with the phrase ‘back to church’ and in an age when many in the post-Christendom West are exploring emerging/missional church ideas and unpacking what it means to ‘be’ church I always struggle to invite people ‘to’ church…however I do honestly appreciate that inviting someone ‘to’ church can be the start of that journey (that is my story anyway…see below!).

I was pondering earlier this week how Back To Church Sunday however is likely to be a good strategy for the States because it seems to me that when Americans talk about unchurched people they usually mean people who no longer come to church and with 40% (anecdotally) of Americans still going to church the ‘fringe’ of people who have probably attended at some point in their life must be vast.  In the UK although it is sometimes reported that 80-90% of people still call themselves culturally ‘Christian’, (ie they tick the CofE box when admitted to hospital), church attendance has dropped to a maximum of 6% and it is suspected that quite a few of those 6% have been counted twice!  Therefore when we ask church members to invite someone ‘back’ to church I wonder who exactly we expect them to invite!

As I was pondering this I came across Cathleen Falsani’s recent post on the Sojourners blog which pointed towards a rather excellent video (below) which, guessing by the accents, was made by the Back to Church guys in the States.  I share  her joy at finding a video clip which is really quite inspiring and moving.  It is honest, affectionate, warm and welcoming…if a little cheesy, but hey, it wouldn’t be Christian without a bit of cheese!  And I would have quite liked to have seen a camp guy as well as the body-builders…because the church is for ‘girly men’ too…isn’t it?  Yet it paints a pretty accurate picture of many church communities here in the UK whose welcome, support and depth of community and care we can celebrate.

But that brings me to a further point in my angst:

4. Never mind inviting people BACK to church, why aren’t we inviting people TO church anyway?

1. Lack of confidence in the church

If you are part of a church that you and others do not feel confident inviting people to become part of, then there is a serious break down in possibilities.  I know some do feel confident in doing this and I have seen many who are new in their faith inspire their unchurched friends to try out church – often they have been surprised, moved and have had a life-changing encounter with God.  However if you cannot see this as a possible outcome there is some serious thinking to be done.

2. Over churched

Church culture in the West has become pretty all-consuming.  Once you become a believer your maturity of faith is often measured by your attendance on Sundays, at mid-week meetings and your volunteering for other programmes.  Woe-betide you if you miss a meeting to go to a party or the pub or the football!  Some of us are seriously too busy to have friends outside the church let alone get to the depth of friendship where you can talk about faith and life issues together.

3. Churchless faith

A third reason we are not inviting people to church is that church as it is now is not, and never may be, the place that those beyond the fringe of the church will ever encounter God.  The gap is simply too huge to cross, the culture too alien, the methods and formats too bizarre.  This is where the UK is vastly different from the States and this is why I think Back to Church Sunday is a great idea for friends over the pond, but pretty futile here.  Most people in the States I suspect still know how to behave in church and what is expected of them.  Increasingly people in the UK do not.

And this is why creating new forms of being church is so vital.  And this is why looking out for what God is doing on the margins amongst the people he loves and can meet without the help of the established church anyway, and joining in, is crucial too.  So often we behave like the church is the most important thing – ultimately the church is there to serve the purpose of pointing people towards the God who loves them and wants to know them more.  I’m getting pretty tired of talking about getting people back to church…I’d much rather we start talking about helping people get in touch with Jesus…and then just see what happens…chances are it will look a bit like church!

 

Doris Walford

In memory of Doris Walford who died aged 95 on 4th Sept 2011 

My tribute to Doris Walford at her funeral yesterday:

It is a privilege today to be able to pay my respects to Doris Walford.  I am not related to Doris and indeed I have not seen her since Fred’s funeral, but I am here to honour her today because without her and Fred’s intervention in my life I would simply not be the person I am today.

Doris, Fred and their family used to live in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, 3 doors down from me.  At the age of 6 or 7 they invited me to a Sunday School Anniversary service at their church West Leigh Baptist Church.  I am not sure how many churches still celebrate the founding of their sunday schools, but for this particular church it was essentially an opportunity for what we would now call an all age service or family service.

Having grown up in a family that did not go to church, this was a brand new experience for me and opened up a world which I relished the opportunity to enter.  Doris, Fred, Mick and Stephen faithfully offered me a lift to church each Sunday and made it possible for me to begin a journey towards discovering God.

As I got involved in sunday school and Girls Brigade I became more and more familiar with the Jesus story.  I knew the facts but it wasn’t until I was 13, at a joint youth event that God spoke to me and I understood that God loved me, had made me, and I wasn’t an accident.  On that night I understood clearly for the first time that Jesus’ death was not merely a story but a generous act of a loving God who wanted to make a way for me to know him and live the life he created me to live.  In response to Jesus giving his life to me I chose that night to give my life back in return.  And it was on that night that I also sensed God’s call to become a baptist minister.

It was also at these joint youth events that I met my husband Jim.  Together, from the beginning of our adult years, we have tried to respond to God’s call to the poor and marginalised, many of whom are found in Britain’s inner-cities, and from working with the Christian organisation Oasis we went on to work with several inner-city baptist churches in Birmingham and London.  Along the way I eventually fulfilled God’s call and trained for baptist ministry at Spurgeon’s College as did Jim also.  14 years ago we began the adventure of pioneering the work of Urban Expression, an urban mission agency that has inspired almost 100 people to move into some of our most deprived neighbourhoods across 6 cities in the UK and is developing in other countries too and encouraged and released them to create forms of Christian community that make sense to those unlikely to set foot inside a regular church.

Because Fred and Doris invited me to church (without a CRB check I hasten to add!) I have had a gracious faith which has grounded me and shaped me; a love from an eternal father when I have doubted love from elsewhere; through the church I have had a second family who have supported and journeyed with me through my adventures; from my teenage years in the youth group I am privileged to have a solid and faithful group of friends; because of the joint youth work we shared I have a husband who shares my faith and calling whom I am utterly privileged to have and together we have two great children who we were both privileged to baptise together last October.  I am privileged to serve the Christian community in this country and elsewhere seeking to inspire others to take risks and stretch out to those beyond the regular reach of the church because Fred and Doris took the risk and reached out to me.  I know that without them my life would be so completely different and I know that there are so many others whose lives could be changed for the better if we followed in their footsteps and took similar risks.

When I was baptised at the age of 14, Doris and Fred gave me a Bible.  I still have this well used, falling apart, sticker-clad, highlighted, bookmark-filled BIble – evidence of a teenage-hood blessed with encouragements to engage with this life-changing book.  In the front Doris wrote a reference to Colossians 3v1-4 which, at the celebration of 95 years of faithful witness, seems highly appropriate:

‘Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is you life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.’

I am privileged to be one small part of the large legacy left behind by Fred and Doris.   As I talked with her sons yesterday I could see the huge impact they are also having on the lives of others as they seek to serve their communities and as I met Doris and Fred’s grandchildren I am convinced there is much more to be revealed of this legacy in the years to come.


Conspiring

A couple of years ago some us involved in organisations that try in small ways to commit themselves to serving the inner-cities and the most disadvantaged in our country decided to start meeting together.  We decided that our organisations were not in competition with one another but were involved in the same task and as such it would be good to get to know each other better, share experience and droplets of wisdom and support each other in a field of ministry which often feels on the margins of mainstream church life here in the UK.

However as practitioners and activists, many of whom are juggling several jobs in order to fund this urban passion, we were also keen to ensure that our time together was productive and not only self-serving.  We talked around many ideas but the difficulty we faced was that there seemed between us so little resources of time, energy or money for us to initiate anything too complicated.

On more than one occasion, at the end of another lunchtime of banter, micky-taking, story-telling, envisioning, listening, caring and prayer, we commented that there was enough good stuff talked about around the table that if only we could bottle it we might have something that would encourage others involved in urban ministry too.  And thus we came up with the idea of recording podcasts of our conversations and making them available to all.

Yesterday the first two podcasts went live and you can find them here at iTunes.

To be honest I cannot remember now exactly what we said!  Although I know we all nearly fell of our chairs when Andy Turner of the Church Urban Fund stepped up to the mark and stopped us all procrastinating by taking on the role of presenter.  If the podcast could have recorded our faces in those first few moments you would have been in for a treat!  Radio 5 Live is waiting for you Andy!!

I hope some choose to listen in and of those I hope some find it encouraging and helpful to be a fly on the wall listening into our first tentative conversations.  We are not ‘experts’ and we know there are many who have heaps more experience than us.  We are not perfect and are acutely aware of our weaknesses, vulnerabilities and failings, so much so that most of us felt somewhat uncomfortable putting ourselves ‘out there’ in fear of being put on a pedestal.   We hope people will feel able to engage with these on the facebook page or through other means and that they may do so in the same spirit in which we offer these humble and honest musings.