champion

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I was at a Church Meeting last night (and was immensely blessed by the experience). As a frequent ‘outside observer’ of Church Meetings I have a few ‘hunches’ (not caused by uncomfortable seating):

The way a room is set out may have a correlation with the mood of the meeting. If those leading the meeting are sat behind tables at the front it may suggest that there is likely to be confrontation. If everyone is in rows facing the front it may inhibit discussion. If the room is set out with people in a circle (or a version of a circle depending on numbers and space) it might encourage people to listen to one another more because they are facing each other.

Church Meetings that describe themselves as ‘Church Business Meetings’ have a different atmosphere to those that don’t. If it’s a formal business-style meeting then the approach (with proposers and seconders and lots of voting) may lend itself to more business-style topics. I have not done any research on this but my hunch is that those that are described as ‘Church Business Meetings’ may lead with things like finance and the running of the church rather than what church is really there for. And those meetings can feel more like democratic meetings where strident majority views carry the day rather than discernment meetings where we listen to the small uncertain voice as well as the loud.

Another hunch is that where a Church Meeting is explicitly a discernment process, seeking to listen for what God is saying to the church through one another, the focus of the meeting is likely to be more about mission and serving the community. Those meetings are often characterised by the number of times the meeting prays together about issues and different ways of listening to the gathered community other than just be plenary discussion. And everyone’s comments are listened to and respected because they could be the one God is speaking through.

Last night’s meeting included an epiphany for me. Quite often in the meeting there was a request for people to ‘pray about this’. That’s brilliant. That’s how churches should operate. And we did pray during the meeting. However I wonder how many of those ‘pray about this’ issues remained with people at the end of the meeting, and how many still remember them this morning?

I was given the opportunity at the end of the meeting to feed back to the church what I had experienced (this is something I often do – with permisssion – as a visitor). I remarked on how often we had been encouraged to ‘pray about this’ and wondered whether it might be worth having someone in the meeting designated to record the points for prayer. At the end of the meeting they could remind the meeting about these things (things to thank God for as well as requests) so that the meeting could do what it had been asked to do, and then perhaps those prayer items could be circulated to the church membership for them to continue to be in prayer about them. Of the cuff I suggested that they could perhaps be the ‘Prayer Champion’ and I am not convinced about the name, but I am warming up to the concept.

If you’re in a church that holds meetings, what are they like?

Be blessed, be a blessing

to vote or de-vote?

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This week I voted. It did not take long. It was not difficult. It was an election for my local Police and Crime Commissioner. The ‘campaign’ has been very low key around here – no leaflets, no phone calls, no posters. I had to look up the candidates for myself in order to make a decision about where to put my ‘x’. If I hadn’t had a polling card I would not have known there was an election at all.

It was tempting to think that my vote won’t make a difference: why should I put myself out by walking around the corner to the local school that was hosting the polling station – it’s only one vote, after all. That thought did cross my mind this morning, but then I dismissed it. Not just because if we all thought like that then nobody would get elected, or even the thought that there are countries where the people are denied that privilege, and when they are given it they vote enthusiastically. There was a bit more thought than that. I have written to my MP several times recently: about the clearing of part of the ‘Jungle’ in Calais, about the way that our Government could do more to help those fleeing persecution, and most recently about the ‘Dubs amendment’ to the Immigration Bill. But if I don’t participate in the democratic process as fully as possible (with whatever flaws I might think it has) then it’s much more difficult for me to voice my opinion with as much integrity as I would like. If my voice is to mean anything then I feel that I should vote.

Of course democracy is not really mentioned in the Bible. Nobody voted for Moses or Joshua, or the Judges, or the absolute monarchs of the Old Testament. In the New Testament nobody voted for Caesar, or any of the Herods, or even Pilate, Felix, Festus or King Agrippa. And the appointment of the early church leaders seemed to have more to do with whether they had known Jesus and the length of a straw (or whatever ‘casting lots’ meant) than democracy.

I believe that democracy has no place in the church (even though it’s the best (or least worst) political process). Don’t get too hot under the collar just yet, please read on because, as we all confess as good Baptists, I believe that if we vote in a Deacons’ or Church Meeting we are not voting democratically (although it looks similar) we are seeking to express what we are collectively discerning to be God’s will. Deacons’ and Church Meetings, at their best, are places where we can disagree agreeably, discuss graciously and then seek to discern wisely what God is saying to us.

In the book of Acts there are two contrasting approaches to discerning God’s will. The first is from the mouth of Gamaliel in the Sanhedrin when they were working out what to do with Peter and the Apostles who had been arrested (Acts 5):

34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: ‘Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail.39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.’

I have often heard Gamaliel’s wisdom commended as a good example of how to deal with a tricky situation. But to me it seems like a cop-out. He did not commit himself to discerning God’s will, he hedged his bets: he uses ‘if’ twice in the last two verses. (As an aside I note that the Sanhedrin had the apostles flogged before they released them, just to make a point and the Apostles rejoiced because they had been considered worthy of suffering for the Gospel).

Then there’s Acts 15 – the Council of Jerusalem – where the Christians tried to work out how Jewish God wanted you to be to follow Jesus. People of opposing views shared their opinions and then they discerned together (we don’t know how) and decided:

22 Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, men who were leaders among the believers. 23 With them they sent the following letter:

The apostles and elders, your brothers,

To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia:

Greetings.

24 We have heard that some went out from us without our authorisation and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said. 25 So we all agreed to choose some men and send them to you with our dear friends Barnabas and Paul – 26 men who have risked their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. 27 Therefore we are sending Judas and Silas to confirm by word of mouth what we are writing. 28 It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: 29 You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.

I love the phrase “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” as that, to me, seems to capture the essence of how a Deacons’ or Church Meeting should come to a conclusion. Whether or not votes are cast in order to help us discern, at the end we should all affirm “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” and then work to put that into action – even if it’s not our own personal preference – because we believe we have collectively listened to God through each other and heard what he wants. And that’s where Gamaliel’s words, with a slight alteration, make more sense: “But because it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Be blessed, be a blessing.