the effect of irritation

old phone 2I’d had enough. I couldn’t cope with it any more. I snapped.

And with vouchers saved judiciously over several years I bought a new set of phone handsets for our home landline. The reason was that I was fed up with the regular bombardment of unsolicited phone calls — recorded and live – trying to get me to sign up for house insulation (it’s well insulated), new windows (our house is rented), claim for payment protection insurance refunds (I have never had PPI) and all manner of other annoying scams. I have never, and will never, signed up for anything where I have been cold-called but these people don’t seem to realise that.

So I bought new handsets. They are special phones that intercept all calls and filter out any that are unwanted. This means that when someone calls for the first time (unless I have been able to add them to the ‘welcome’ list) they will hear a message asking them to identify themselves. We then get called by the system and hear the caller’s name. At that point we can choose to allow the call once, always, never, or send it to the answering machine.

If you call our house (other than to sell us stuff) I am sorry that you will get a message to start with – but it should only be the once. After the system knows that we want you to call us you will be able to call us as you usually do without interception or delay. It is the effect of irritation.

I think it’s brilliant that phones can now do this, and with a certain amount of glee check the system regularly to see how many nuisance calls have been intercepted.

I also think it’s awful that such phones are necessary. We are bombarded by unsolicited attempts to sell us stuff and sign us up for stuff that comes through the letterbox, knocks at our door, harasses us through our phone line, sends unsavoury emails, lobs unwanted text messages, stops us in the street and who knows what they will come up with next.

The suspicious part of me wonders whether all of the unsolicited phone calls are actually sent by companies that came up with a way of blocking phone calls and wanted to create a market for them. But that couldn’t be true. Could it? You see what this has done to us – we are suspicious and cautious about approaches by strangers. When I am stopped in the street I always try to be polite but start by saying that I never give out my details or sign up for anything in the street. That deters some, but the more persistent keep going and say that they don’t want anything from me… only to ask me a little later for some way of contacting me to get me to sign up later.

I do like approaching the people who are trying to gain support for charities that we already support. It gives me a sense of satisfaction to be able to tell them that we already support the worthy cause they are promoting. I got a high five from the last one!

The purpose of this bloggage is twofold. The first fold is to encourage you to persist, say your name when prompted, and wait for us to answer if you try to contact us and get the interception machine. Don’t be put off.

The second fold is to ask us to consider our approach when Christians are sharing our faith. Does it come across as an attempt to sign someone up for our cause, to get them to sign on the dotted line, to make a snap decision based on a ‘chance’ encounter? If so, perhaps we should not be surprised if people don’t want to listen – it’s the effect of irritation.

We need to reconsider, reimagine and restore our approach: instead of selling Jesus to people we should take every opportunity to offer people grace, acceptance, dignity, peace, prayer and so much more that our culture leeches out of them. We have good news to give away not bad news to sell. It might simply look like a hug, a listening ear, a free cup of tea, a Foodbank parcel, an affirmation of value, or any number of grace-rich encounters… [insert your own examples here]

It all sounds suspiciously like us being free samples of Jesus (see previous bloggages!).

Be blessed, be a blessing

welcome cards

We have some new welcome cards that have been designed for our church by a wonderfully creative and talented young lady (thank you Sara). When you look at them at first they look like this:

welcome card 2

When you open up the ‘lcome’ flap it looks like this:

welcome card 3

I think they are really clever, look bright and inviting and I hope they will encourage visitors and newcomers to record their visit so we can keep in touch.

But they will be useless unless we have visitors and newcomers. We have been blessed by a regular trickle of people who have come to our church to try us out: some of whom who have found a new spiritual home with us. We have been thrilled by those who have come to faith in Jesus at our church and have become a part of our fellowship. It was a joy last week to meet a lady who had come because she had found us through our website, and another man who had come because he had walked past the premises during the week.

That’s wonderful, exciting, brilliant.

But we also have a responsibility to our friends, colleagues and families to invite them too. If what we have experienced of Jesus is good news for us it is surely good news for them as well. If we don’t invite people we can’t be surprised when they don’t come!

Let me insert a couple of important caveats here:

I do not believe that having more people in church services is the purpose of church. Our purpose is to be followers of Jesus and to make him known to others. Making him known doesn’t have to be on Sundays (and in fact is most effective as we are free samples of Jesus wherever he places us in the rest of the week). But one of the ways in which we are fed and equipped to do that is through worship services so it is good for us to gather together.

I also do not believe that a church should grow at the expense of other churches. I would hate to think that we were growing in attendance because people were leaving other churches to come to us. Of course it is right that God moves people to attend other churches from time to time – that’s natural and healthy as we grow in our relationship with Jesus. But that’s not what I am talking about. I am against the approach that I have seen elsewhere (not in Colchester) where Christians are actively encouraging people to leave their own church to attend their church.

Last Sunday evening we had a wonderful service where people from our church shared about their favourite song or hymn – why it was important to them – and then we sang those hymns ‘Songs of Praise’ style. It was wonderful not only because of the singing but because of the honesty and depth with which people spoke of their faith. That’s attractive. When people can see that Jesus makes a positive difference in people’s lives they will want to come and find out for themselves.

I really hope we run out of these cards soon – not because people take them away because they are so attractive – but because they will have been used for their purpose and that may be a sign that we are being decent (if not good) free samples of Jesus as individual Christians and as a church.

Be blessed, be a blessing

who do you want to see?

Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600
Photo by permission from http://www.sxc.hu/profile/bigevil600

Responses to yesterday (if you don’t know it, it may help you to read yesterday’s bloggage before you carry on) were a bit interesting. After telling our church that I have been called to a new role there was a stunned silence. I could see on people’s faces that they were a bit surprised / shocked / upset / stunned [delete as appropriate].

I told the church at the end of the service, just before we sang ‘To God be the glory’, which gave us all a chance to refocus on him.

Afterwards, once they had recovered, the wonderful people at our church were very warm, encouraging, kind and uplifting. I had hoped that they wouldn’t string the bunting out straight away (‘Hooray he’s going’) or wear black armbands (‘It’s terrible news’) and bless them, they blessed me so much.

Later in the day the news was announced by the EBA and I then posted it on here. Subsequently I have had lots of very kind messages on Facebook, emails and text messages. They are very encouraging and blessed me no end, especially as I was so down about telling the church. Thank you all.

But the thing that blessed me most was when, after the service, someone came up to me and (while briefly mentioning my news) wanted to say that God had spoken to me through the sermon. That meant more to me than anything kind or thoughtful that anyone has said to me or written to me about the move. Don’t get me wrong, don’t get in a huff if you sent me a message or said something kind, but I was blessed because for that person the most important thing in the service was not me, but Jesus and what he had said to him.

“YES!” That’s my prayer each time I stand in a pulpit and it was so encouraging that it had happened yesterday in the midst of everything else.

I remember a small Baptist chapel in rural Devon that I visited before I trained at Bible college. I was cutting my preaching teeth (and the congregations probably bore the teethmarks afterwards) and trying to discern whether God was calling me to be a Minister. As I entered the pulpit (and you had to climb up into it) there was a small piece of paper sellotaped to the lectern top. On it were these words:

“Sir, we would see Jesus.”

It was a message from the congregation to the preacher. I am not sure if they changed it when a lady preacher came. But it has lodged in my memory and is my prayer for all who are sitting in congregations when I stand up to preach – look at Jesus.

I rejoice that this happened yesterday.

But it can happen to us each day if we are living sermons (or free samples of Jesus).

Or, flipping the context around, when you go to church is it to meet your friends, hear the preacher or to see Jesus?

Be blessed, be a blessing.

what does a free sample of Jesus look like?

Hair Pieces  77
Free samples of hair pieces. NO COMMENTS PLEASE!

Regular bloggists among you will know that I often refer to Christians (and churches) as ‘free samples of Jesus’. It was pointed out to me today that I have never really said exactly what I mean by that, so this bloggage is an attempt to rectify that…

In essence what I mean is that as God’s Spirit works in us he changes us. It’s often subtle, sometimes dramatic, but the changes make us a little bit more like Jesus. We become a bit more loving, slightly more inclusive, a smidgeon more gracious… and a bit less intolerant, slightly less religious, a smidgeon less irritable. There are a lot more ways in which we are changed. The Bible shows us a contrast between old us and renewed us:

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

That’s from Galatians 5. Part of being free samples of Jesus is that aspects of our life that used to be in the first list are diminishing and those that are in the second list are increasing as God’s Spirit acts in our life. I often think that the second list is a good summary of the character of Jesus, so if those things are being enhanced in us we are becoming better free samples of him to those around us. It happens in us as we ‘keep in step’ with God’s Spirit. Following Jesus is not just an idea, a concept, or a philosophy – it is a way of life. It has implications for every area of our life.

What it actually looks like will be different for each of us, and the same for all of us. It will be different because we all have different experiences, meet people in different places, and have to respond and react to different circumstances. But it will be the same because we are asking God’s Spirit to help us to emulate Jesus in those experiences, with those people and in response to those circumstances.

A free sample of Jesus might respond to someone who cuts them up in their car by smiling and offering a quick ‘bless you’ prayer rather than gesticulating and complaining.

A free sample of Jesus might receive angry criticism with gentle grace and pray for the person who is so angry.

A free sample of Jesus might offer to work extra unpaid hours at work sometimes in response to the boss reducing the length of their lunch break to increase productivity.

A free sample of Jesus might cook a meal for someone else without wanting or expecting anything in return.

A free sample of Jesus might well not only be nice to those who are nice to them, but will seek to bless everyone – perhaps especially those who are cruel to them.

A while back there was a flurry of activity selling wristbands with WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) on them, and I have wondered if all I am doing is re-packaging that. Perhaps, but you may be able to discern in the examples above that I have tried to take Jesus’ teaching and examples from his life and apply them to 21st Century living. To be a good free sample of Jesus means that we have to know what he is like in order to emulate him. If you want to be like him, starting finding out about him…

Be blessed, be a blessing

re-branded?

Live Coals
Branding can be painful!

There’s an interesting article on the BBC News website about brands that have crossed over to become household names for the item we use: think ‘hoover’, ‘jacuzzi’, even ‘escalator’, ‘google’ and ‘yo yo’! The suggestion is that while the transition of a brand name to becoming a generic name suggests success it actually can sound the death knell for a company because at that point the brand has lost its distinctiveness.

Most of us don’t ‘vacuum-clean’ a room (some of us don’t hoover either but that’s a different issue). We don’t use the ‘moving staircase’ in a shop or on the Underground. And because of that the brand name no longer means just that product: in our thinking it includes any similar product, including those from a different manufacturer.

It got me thinking: has ‘Christian’ had the same experience? It used to mean ‘follower of Jesus Christ’ but now seems to have crossed over to mean ‘Christened as a baby’, ‘knows where the local Anglican Church is’, ‘nice person’, ‘has a residual awareness of church’ or even ‘not a member of another faith’. I have suggested on this blog before that the word ‘Christian’ has been devalued and the article from the Beeb made me think further on that.

I think a similar thing has happened to the word ‘church’ (at this point you can imagine me climbing upon one of my hobby horses!). It used to be the collective noun for Christians – the name of a gathered community of believers – but has now been reduced to describing buildings or as a sloppy shorthand for ‘Church of England’*.

So what’s to be done about it? We could abandon the words – allowing them to float like verbal flotsam and jetsam in the Linguistic Sea. We’d have to come up with some alternatives but they can seem a bit clumsy: ‘Jesusite’ (oops, Jesuit!); Christfollower; born-again Christian (but that’s now a loaded term and anyway we only have a record of Jesus saying that to one person), ‘free sample of Jesus (sounds familiar)…

Or we can reclaim them but reasserting our distinctiveness. Surely those brands are not lost. Surely if those brands were so good, so significant, so much better than the rest people would want them first. So how does that look for ‘Christian’ and ‘Church’? It starts with us being filled with God’s Spirit and then letting him flow out through us so we can be the best free samples of Jesus possible.

Be blessed, be a blessing

*I listened to an interview on Radio 5 Live this morning where ‘the Church’ was used 10 times in the matter of a few sentences instead of ‘the Church of England’. It irks me because it suggests / assumes that there are no other churches in this country… [deep breath, and r e l a x]

MOTs and Posters – find a link if you can!

20140327_121204
Go on car, you can do it!

This morning I dropped my car off at a garage for its annual MOT test. I don’t think that there is anything major wrong with it, but I always leave it with a sense of apprehension in case there is something terminal or expensive hidden under the bodywork.

 

As I was walking home I noticed posters in peoples’ homes and cars supporting different political parties in the imminent elections (local and European). I wondered why people do that. Is it simply to declare their allegiance? Is it in the hope that if enough people do it for one party the resulting peer pressure will encourage others to vote the same way, or perhaps deter people who would support another candidate from bothering to vote because they don’t think they will make a difference? Are they hoping that the sight of a poster in a car in front of me will persuade me to vote that way? (And if so, why haven’t I heard more about the ‘Baby on Board’ party?)

It got me reflecting a little bit on how people perceive churches. Not the people, but the buildings. (Yes I know the church is the people, but we confusingly use the same word for our premises). Ours is currently clad in scaffolding as we have a new roof fitted. But it almost looks as if the building is being demolished. We have now put up a banner across the scaffolding that says ‘Welcome to Colchester Baptist Church’ to convey the message that we are still very much open for business. But ancient buildings (especially if in a state of disrepair) can convey a message.

And then there are the posters outside. I think that we churches may have cornered the market in cheese, for example: “CH–CH – what’s missing? UR”. But is it better that we have something outside the premises than nothing? It is certainly possible that God will use a poster to speak to someone, but I have not heard of it yet.

Do you advertise your weekly events? We have a list of the weekly activities in one of our notice boards at the front, which is changed weekly. We have also recently put a QR code* on it so that people can get linked directly to our website if the so choose.

And that then brings me to the virtual street front. Websites can attract or deter people. If they are visually unattractive or contain out of date information it conveys a different message to the well-designed and up to date website. I think our church’s website is rather good (have a look at it at www.colchesterbaptistchurch.org.uk). I know that we often have people come to our church because they found us on the internet. It does help that our website usually comes up first when you search for ‘Colchester church’ because two of the three parts of our name are in that search. If we slipped down the list I would be tempted to suggest that we change our name to ‘AAA Colchester Baptist Church’!

However, believe it or not, (and regular bloggists will believe it) I wasn’t going to write about how churches visually represent themselves. I was going to write a bloggage about the importance of regular maintenance for your car in order to keep it in good condition so it will sail through the MOT test. It is when a car is neglected that problems are more likely to get worse because they are not recognised and dealt with early. It is when a car is driven relentlessly and we don’t check the oil levels or other fluids that damage can occur to the engine.

And of course the same is true of our faith. If we take God for granted, if we neglect to feed on the Bible, if we don’t spend time in prayer, if we are not spending time being nourished in worship, if we are not taking care of our ‘soul’ we should not be surprised if God feels distant and our faith feels dry.

And that (tadaaa!) brings me to draw together the disparate threads of this bloggage and appear to be coherent. Because while the premises (physical and virtual) do speak about the church, it is of course the state of the church (ie the people) that will make most impact on those around us. Back to us being good free samples of Jesus I suppose.

Best not wait for an MOT to find out how we’re doing…

Be blessed, be a blessing.

*QR codes are those strange squares with a mixture of black and white blocks in them. They are a different sort of bar code – each one unique.

troubled by halloween

Halloween troubles me. Not because of the ghosts, ghouls, witches and pumpkins. Nor because I fear that it is a gateway to hell. Not even because it encourages extortion (‘trick or treat?’). What troubles me is that I am not sure of the best way to respond as a Christian.

  • Some churches go all out to condemn it and proclaim it as the work of the devil.
  • Some churches put their fingers in their ears and close their eyes and wait for it to go away.
  • Some churches put on alternative Halloween events and invite children from the surrounding area to join them for a ‘light’ party or similar, but tell them that they can’t wear scary costumes (which makes them stand out a bit).
  • Some churches embrace it as an opportunity for fun.

And I don’t know what to do. All these positions are flawed in my humble opinion. Let me say at the outset I am not downplaying the existence of evil in the world. It’s real and it can cause serious damage. You only have to open a newspaper or watch the news on the TV to be convinced that there is evil out there.

But does it really inhabit the costumes and make-up and pumpkins and sweet-collecting? The response to Halloween from some Christians resembles the response to Harry Potter: it will open the door to the occult. But (and I may be naive here) I did not sense evil there. Indeed the values that were at the heart of those books would be ones that Christians ought to embrace – loyalty, love and standing up against evil and oppression.

Maybe I am being naive here too, but if there is the possibility of evil influence in Halloween isn’t it possible that God can use it, redeem it, transform it? If it awakens some people to the existence of evil in the world doesn’t it also awaken them to the likelihood that there is also a God who loves us? Surely to believe in the possibility of God you also have believe in the possibility of evil?

Does our response sometimes do more to reinforce the prevailing stereotype of churches than to illuminate people about the dangers of evil? At the moment I think a lot of people who don’t go to church think that church is for killjoys who are against what most people in our society have accepted. Being against Halloween could be another example of that.

I do warm to the ‘alternative’ approach. It’s more positive. But should we be consistent and also have alternatives to other major events like the celebration of a New Year (because it focuses on time not the creator of time), Valentine’s Day (because it is not about God’s love), and events like the annual cheese rolling in Gloucestershire (because it might have roots in pagan rituals)? How far do we go? I suspect I do the ‘alternative’ thing because instead of giving sweets to trick or treaters I perform a magic trick for them as a treat…

[cries of “burn him, he’s a witch, he does magic!”]

But if I embrace it fully am I unwittingly endorsing something that could be harmful? Am I supporting an event that frightens some vulnerable people (either the concept itself that is not understood or through the fear of answering doors at night)? Am I being naive?

What’s the best way of being a free sample of Jesus at this time of year?

How about instead of getting too upset about Halloween, Christians emphasise November 1 as ‘All Saints Day’ instead? How about we hold our ‘light parties’ then and we emphasise how followers of Jesus have tried to be good free samples of him through history and today? How about instead of getting our theological knickers in a twist about Halloween we put our energies into showing God’s positive alternative. Let’s redeem the event from its origins – the Eve of All Hallow’s Day. 

Be blessed, be a blessing.