[This is an extract of a letter that was recently found down the back of a sofa and which I have ‘translated’. Its authenticity has yet to be established.]
To the Christians in Confusia
Gravy and peas to you all. [The exact translation of this sentence is unclear].
I’m writing to you because it has come to my attention that there’s a lot of misunderstanding among you about some things I’ve written to other churches and some of the things Jesus said. So let’s ignore what I said about churches being a temple of the Holy Spirit or the Body of Christ. And ignore what Jesus said about being salt and light. Those have clearly not resonated with you. Here’s a new metaphor for you.
You are the fortress of God. You should pull up the drawbridge and prepare for a siege. Get ready to lob lots of steaming [the precise translation of the next word is uncertain] from behind your high walls at the people who come into range. Expect some retaliation from them but don’t worry: that should just confirm to you that you’re doing church right.
Occasionally you should organise raiding parties to go out into the surrounding area and see who you can capture. Once you’ve dragged them back inside the walls of your castle make sure you indoctrinate them well.
When going on raids put on your armour, sit on high horses and denounce anyone you meet from up on your high horses. Don’t forget to disinfect thoroughly at the end of the raid and measure your success by the amount of negative feedback you generated: the more the better.
It’s a good idea to create your own language so that people outside won’t understand you. If they don’t know what you’re saying you can’t be blamed if they misunderstand you.
Even though some of you may have to live or work outside the walls of the fortress on no account should those people try to engage with the people around them on their own. Safety in numbers! Don’t let anyone know you belong to the fortress.
If some of the more misguided of you feel that you really ought to be engaged with the wider community then focus your efforts on being nice people rather than actually talking to them about how much God loves them and who Jesus is. Polish your Spiritual armour (see the letter I wrote to the Ephesians for more about that) and work on the basis that people will want to join the fortress because of how shiny you are. Keep the sword of the Spirit well-hidden when outside.
In conclusion, my dear Confusions, keep your defences up and your heads down. That way you won’t be bothered too much by the people around you.
Outside the church is a wall. It separates the church from the street. It’s a low wall, just the right height for sitting on. It’s a convenient wall. Passers-by will sit on the wall in order to make a phone call, to eat an ice cream (in the summer) and to wait for someone. And the nearby traders use it as somewhere to sit when they take a cigarette break.
The Minister of the church doesn’t approve of smoking. It’s unhealthy. The smoke is unpleasant for those around. It’s not the right image the church wants to project to the community. And even though there is a rubbish bin nearby, the traders tend to flick their cigarette butts into the flowerbeds behind the wall, which irritates the Minister.
One day the Minister was passing by the wall and saw one of the traders sitting on the wall, smoking, as usual. The trader finished her cigarette, stubbed it out on the wall and flicked the butt into the flowerbed…
The Minister was incensed: didn’t they have any respect?
“Excuse me,” said the Minister as the trader made her way back to her shop, “Is our wall comfortable?”
The trader sensed possible sarcasm and wasn’t sure what to say. The Minister took her silence as an admission of guilt.
“I noticed that you were sitting on our church wall while you smoked your cigarette and then flicked the cigarette butt into our flowerbed,” the Minister continued. “We don’t approve of smoking – it’s unhealthy and the smoke is off-putting so in future please don’t sit on our wall, smoking, and please don’t flick your cigarette butts into our garden.”
The trader mumbled an apology and went back to her shop. The Minister went into the church feeling pleased at having made a point, and ordered a ‘no smoking’ sign to be attached to the wall. It wasn’t long before no traders sat on the wall, no cigarette butts were flicked into the flowerbeds and the Minister felt vindicated.
The Minister was incensed: didn’t they have any respect?
“Excuse me,” said the Minister as the trader made her way back to her shop, “Is our wall comfortable?”
The trader sensed possible sarcasm and wasn’t sure what to say. The Minister continued: “It’s just that I have noticed that you sit on our wall a lot and I was hoping it was comfortable.”
The trader grinned. “It’s a wall innit?” she said. “I aint expectin’ cushions!”
It wasn’t long before the Minister started joining the traders on the wall for a chat from time to time. The Minister still didn’t like the smoke, and cigarette butts were still flicked into the flowerbeds but the traders felt welcome.
Questions to inspire you:
This parable is based on real events – one of the scenarios happened.
What are the ‘walls’ and ‘cigarettes’ for you and your church?
How could you respond in missional ways?
What might we need to lay aside in order to take the opportunities that God might be giving us?
What small changes in attitude could make a big difference to the people you meet?
Declan was a busy ant, as were all his friends. He spent his day scampering around the countryside looking for food to forage for the rest of the ant colony.
One day Declan crawled across a picnic table and came across a jam sandwich. A child had dropped it on the ground and although the child had been quite willing to eat it, earth and all, their mother had told them to leave it and left it on the table top. Declan was drawn to the sticky, sweet jam and thought to himself how the sandwich would feed the whole colony for days.
He rushed back to the nest and told the foreman, who sounded the alarm. The message went out to all of the foraging ants, who all came back to the nest. The foreman told them that Declan had found a jam sandwich and the rest of the ants cheered.
Declan felt very proud as he led the ants in a long line back along his route and up onto the picnic table top to the sandwich. When they got there the rest of the ants swarmed over it excitedly.
Then one of the ants said what most of them were thinking: “It’s a big sandwich, isn’t it?”
“I can carry fifty times my own body weight,” said another, “but I could never lift that on my own.” Lots of the stronger ants agreed with him.
“How would we fit it down the hole into the nest?” another asked. Some of the practical ants had been wondering that themselves.
“It’s very sticky jam,” objected another. “I don’t want to get covered in jam.”
The mood changed from excitement to despondency. It had been a lovely idea. Slowly but surely the ants decided that it was too difficult a task to carry the sandwich back to the nest and went back to what they had been doing beforehand.
The foreman looked at Declan. “Sorry, Dec,” he said, “It is a brilliant sandwich, but it was too much for us to manage.”
Sadly Declan agreed with him and left the sandwich. But he couldn’t help, wondering what might have been possible if they had thought about working together.
Churches seem to have the innate ability to make things complicated, don’t we. Putting aside all of the complexities of Church Meetings, Leadership Meetings, ordinations, inductions, church accounts and finances, child protection policies, insurance, choice of music in services, sitting in our favourite seats, charity law, constitutions, and so much more that goes into running a church, I want to think about what our mission is.
In my simple mind churches exist to be free samples of Jesus to the world around us. That, to me, is part of what Paul meant when he described the church as the ‘body of Christ’ – if people want to know what Jesus is like they should look at the church.
So, at the risk of making things too simple, I want to suggest a couple of simple things that Jesus said which may help us to do that, empowered and inspired by his Spirit in us.
First of all, and I have mentioned this before on this blog, Jesus asked a brilliant question that I think should be on our lips all the time: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) That is an empowering question, it is a service-based question, it is a gracious question. I cringe when I walk past Christians (usually self-appointed) haranguing passers-by on the street by preaching loudly at them and telling them what they are doing wrong. By way of contrast I love the approach exemplified by Chris Duffett and others which are high on grace: offering water, free hugs, a listening ear and seeking to serve and bless rather than condemn.
Secondly, and I was reminded of this as I read my Bible this morning, we seem to have made ‘evangelism’ very difficult. We seem to feel that we need new techniques, courses, training, ideas, specialists and messages. We shy away from the idea because it is scary, makes us vulnerable, we don’t want to appear pushy or religious zealots, we lack confidence and we don’t want to say the wrong thing. So we say nothing. If we want to make ourselves feel better we fall back on the words attributed to St Francis of Assissi: “At all times and in all ways preach the gospel: if absolutely necessary use words” and we decide that if we are nice enough and good enough and timid enough people will ask us about our faith and then we will be able to take them to our Minister who will tell them what they need to know. When a man who had been freed from mental and emotional and spiritual torment by Jesus asked to go with him Jesus told him: “Return home and tell how much God has done for you.”
It’s that simple. You don’t have to tell people your life story. Just tell them how much God has done for you. If you aren’t sure about that why not make a list? Don’t just include how you became a Christian (or realised you were): include moments of encounter with him (those Spiritual highs); when he was with you in the lows; prayers that he has answered; times when you have felt him speaking to you (through the Bible, other people, circumstances…); how different you are today from how you used to be; the sense of belonging to His family; your sense of assurance about the future… I am not going to write your list for you, but when you get started you may find it difficult to stop for a while.
Then you will have lots of possible things you can tell people.
And if you pray for opportunities to do that you will be amazed at how many suddenly present themselves (I think they were there before but you weren’t looking for them!). And do pray for particular people too. Let’s make a start.
The Eastern Baptist Association, whom I now serve as a Regional Minister, is putting together a series of thoughts that we will send out in order to help us to think through how we can engage with mission and evangelism. Each month churches will receive a parable to introduce a theme and there will also be some questions to consider. We hope that churches will share these materials within their leadership team and church perhaps in a meeting, homegroup, service or in some other way and hope to receive feedback from them afterwards that will help shape our strategic thinking about mission. What follows is our first parable, which was released into the wild last week, followed by some questions:
The land was dry and arid. It rarely rained. Because of this the desert had no vegetation and there was no shelter from the burning heat of the sun. But in the midst of the desert was an oasis, a well was fed by a spring that bubbled up from the ground. A small community had settled at the oasis and some weary travellers found refreshment and rest there. But there were other travellers who did not know about the oasis and perished in the midst of the desert.
The villagers who lived at the oasis were troubled by this. Each day they would send out search parties looking for travellers and pointing them towards the oasis where they would find water and shelter. They put up signs pointing people towards the oasis and warning travellers about the dangers of travelling in the desert.
Then one day a wise woman suggested that instead of going out to the desert to find travellers they could take water in big containers out into the desert. They loaded up the camels and took the water with them. By this means they were able to help more travellers.
Then the wise woman had an even better idea. She suggested that they should dig deep holes in the desert and fill them with water from the well. That way travellers would find water even when the villagers were not in that area.
One day a traveller found his way to the oasis. Grateful for the cool, refreshing water, he started talking with the villagers and commended them for their hard work to save the lives of travellers. But, he wondered, what if they dug irrigation channels from the oasis out into the desert? Could the desert itself be transformed?
Take some time to think about and perhaps discuss this parable with others -consider how we share the water of life.
This month we are considering Places which is the first of five areas that our mission strategy is focusing on. Questions to consider. Think about the community that your church is in and consider ways that you are or that you could engage and be a blessing within it.
Ask people within your church family (possibly in homegroups?) to share about places they are each day and pray for them in some way (you could create a list for prayer).
Sometimes churches feel ineffective in mission when actually the members are present in many places in the world which puts them in the ideal position to engage in effective Mission.
If you have any thoughts or reflections on the parable I would love to hear them.
Foreign travel sounds exotic, exciting, and adventurous. If you have ever flown on a commercial airline you will know that once you arrive at the airport expectations of ‘exotic, exciting and adventurous’ are replaced with ‘queueing, waiting and boredom.’
First of all you arrive and find where you have to go to check in to confirm your place on the flight and send your bags into the mystical baggage handling system in the hope that they will travel with you and that you will be reunited at the end of the journey. You queue. Eventually you reach the front of the queue. You hand over your passport and ticket, confirm that you packed the bags yourself and that nobody has tampered with them, wave goodbye to your suitcase, remember to pick up your passport and boarding pass, and head off to the security gate.
You arrive at the security gate where they will examine your belongings with an x ray machine and check that you are not carrying anything you shouldn’t be. But first, you queue.
And after a long time queueing you reach the front of the line. You put your hand luggage in a plastic tray, take off your belt (hoping that your trousers will stay up) and put that in the tray, make sure you have no coins in your pockets, put your watch in the tray too, put your jacket in the tray, and wave goodbye to your belongings as they go off to be examined while you take a deep breath and step through the magic door that may or may not beep as you go through.
(At this point I want to make a personal detour. I have battery implanted in me and some wires that go into my head in order to stop chronic migraine. I have a special card that I carry for airport security (and other metal detecting places) that explains what is in me in the expectation that it will make the magic gate beep. It has never done so, which disappoints me. I want to be special and wave my card at the security person. But I am normal.)
If you do make the magic gate beep then the security person has to frisk you to make sure you haven’t got anything you shouldn’t have on your person. Then, finally, you proceed to the end of the conveyor where you wait for your hand baggage and other belongings to join you again.
When they arrive you grab the box, hope your trousers remain up, and join the ever-changing group of people who are reassembling their ensemble.
From the security gate you go into the wonderful world of duty free shopping. Big discounts are promised but, in my experience, the prices don’t seem much cheaper than in the high street. But if you want to buy anything you have forgotten to pack, or that was confiscated at the security gate, or simply because you want to carry more stuff around you join a queue. Because you can’t just buy it, you have to show your passport and boarding pass. And some people in front of you won’t have realised and can’t remember where they put them. So you wait.
Finally you have bought what you need and look for somewhere to sit while you wait for the electronic board to show which departure gate your flight will be leaving from, and to tell you when to go there. In the meantime you might feel peckish, go to buy some food, and join a queue to pay for it.
Then you wait. (This bit always seems a lot longer than it actually is).
The board suddenly changes and shows that they want you to go to the departure gate. Depending on the airport you then either have a long walk (occasionally using the travelators that enable you to walk at hyperspeed until you step off at the end and come to a juddering halt) or you get on a transit vehicle to take you there.
When you arrive at the departure gate, guess what, all the other passengers are there too and you have to find somewhere to sit until the plane is ready for boarding. So you wait. You wait for the moment when you hear the announcement that the flight is ready for boarding. And then everyone rushes to the desk and forms yet another queue.
So you wait, shuffling slowly forwards, until you reach the desk, hand over your passport and boarding pass one more time, and are told that you are worthy of flying on their aeroplane and admitted into the mysterious world beyond the desk. There may be a passenger boarding bridge (jetway) that enables you to walk from the desk around a series of unnecessary corners and straight to the aeroplane. Or you may have to go down a series of stairs or escalators and outside where a bus will take you to the plane, or you will walk across the tarmac to the plane.
When you get near the plane (whether on the boarding bridge or ready to ascend the stairs from the tarmac to the plane) you join the end of another queue. Slowly but surely you get closer to the plane and as you enter the door you show your boarding pass to the flight attendant who tells you that your seat is ‘down there’ (where else will it be?). You shuffle slowly along the aisle as people ahead try to cram unfeasibly large bags (how do they call that ‘hand luggage’?) into unfeasibly small overhead lockers and finally find your seat. You deal with your own hand luggage and collapse into your seat.
Then you stand up again quickly because you have sat on the safety belt buckle.
You move the belt and sit down again.
Then you wait.
You wait for all the passengers to board the plane. You look disappointedly at the person who arrives a few minutes after everyone else looking flustered at having run and almost missed the flight.
Then you wait.
Various announcements will be made over the intercom, most of which are ignored by most of the passengers.
The flight attendants will go through the humiliation of doing the safety demonstration while being ignored by most people.
Then you wait.
At last you sense the plane is moving as it is pushed away from the terminal and you get ready for take off.
Except that the plane has now joined a queue of planes awaiting permission to take off.
So you wait. The plane slowly shuffles forwards in the queue.
And just when you think the plane may as well drive to your destination it turns and pauses. You hear the engines start to increase in power and the plane leaps forwards. I love that moment. Judging by the white knuckles and vice-like grip on the armrest I perceive that others around me perhaps don’t share that joy.
Soon the rumble of wheels on tarmac is replaced by a funny lifting feeling and the sound of wheels being retracted as the aircraft climbs into the sky at a seemingly impossible angle. Then, slowly but surely, the angle of ascent gently lowers and the flight attendants burst into life.
Depending on the airline you are on food is either offered on a complimentary basis (ie included in the cost of the ticket) or you have to pay for it. But the flight attendants spend an inordinate amount of time travelling up and down with trollies dispensing food and hot and cold beverages, collecting the debris from the food and hot and cold beverages, offering duty free goods for sale (see above) and interrupting the flight in other ways.
I have a theory about this. My theory is that it is less to do with feeding the passengers (who could bring their own packed lunches, subject to restrictions on drinks) than it is about crowd control. If the trollies are going up and down the aisles we have to stay in our seats. If the flight attendants are constantly offering us things we feel like they are concerned for our wellbeing and are happier. If they keep interrupting us they are stopping us from becoming bored and restless. That may be a cynical approach, I have never tested the theory with anyone who knows about these things either.
If you are on a posh flight you may have some in flight entertainment system offering you a range of films, old TV shows and a map showing you where your aeroplane is relative to the departure and destination points. If you are on a budget flight the in flight entertainment is whatever you brought with you.
All of this action takes place in a relatively confined space for however long it takes to get to the destination. It is punctuated occasionally by turbulence and the ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign being illuminated. (It’s fun to watch those in the queue (!) for the loo working out whether or not to remain in the queue or return to their seats. My observation is that most stay where they are.) Rumours that the ‘turbulence’ is the way the pilots deal with the monotony of the flight by jerking the flight controls up and down are not to believed at all.
Then comes the moment when you sense that the aircraft is starting to descend. The ‘fasten seatbelts’ sign is illuminated, the flight attendants check to ensure that everyone has obeyed, their seats are upright, armrests are down, tables are stowed, electronics (in flight mode) are off, headphones are taken out and luggage is not around people’s ankles. The aircraft may circle around for a while as the pilot awaits our slot in the queue (!) for landing and then the final descent begins.
If I can see out of a window I like to play a game on the landing descent. It starts with trying to see if I can identify any traffic moving. Then I like to be able to identify a human being on the ground. Soon after that we are usually on the ground (with or without ‘whump’ depending on the landing).
The aircraft engines are thrown into reverse, breaks are applied and the plane slows to taxiing speed. Where it joins a queue (!) to taxi to the stand where we will disembark. Even though the flight attendants (and captain) may tell everyone to remain seated with their seatbelts fastened until the plane has halted there’s always at least one person who thinks that they can get a head start on everyone else by getting up before the plane has stopped. Everyone else gives them a hard stare or tuts silently – hoping that a flight attendant will tell them off.
As soon as the plane stops it’s every person for theirself. We all grab our luggage and seek to push our way into the aisle, even though the doors are not open. We all wait impatiently to disembark, knowing full well that there will be more queues waiting for us as soon as we do. Queues to transfer into the terminal building. Queues for passport control. And then the interminable wait for the luggage.
We try to anticipate which carousel the luggage will appear on. We try to manoeuvre as close as possible to the place where the luggage is ejected from the conveyor belt onto the loop on which it will travel until claimed. And when it finally all starts up we look expectantly at the conveyor in the hope that our bags may be first off. They never are. I have another theory that they send down dummy bags to start with because I have never been the first and have never seen anyone else collect the first bags.
Joy of joys you see your bags and fight through the scrum to retrieve them – checking for footprints and other damage. Once they have all arrived (hopefully) you join the procession through the customs check and out into the airport arrivals area. You check all of the people holding up names in the vain hope that someone somewhere has decided to pick you up (even though you didn’t arrange anything). And then you emerge, blinking, into the daylight or even the night – breathing in the fresh air.
Then you go to whatever destination you have – you holiday or attend a business meeting – and then you repeat the whole process in reverse.
Some of you may be wondering why I have spent so long talking about the flight and only a sentence about what you do at the destination. The reason is that this is intended as a parable. About church. Or more specifically about church services.
Church services are not the destination of our Christian faith, they are the journey. They are to inspire, equip and encourage us for the rest of our lives. What we do, who we are, how we are, what we say when we are not in church is the destination. That’s where the rubber hits the tarmac and we live out our lives as followers of Jesus and witnesses to his love and good news. If we spend all our time focussing on church services we are like someone who travels abroad and focusses on the journey rather than the destination.
The churches in Colchester and the surrounding area are in the middle of a fortnight of focused mission activity.
For us it began with a community barbecue on our forecourt on Saturday – 500+ burgers given away, live music, face painting for children, a couple of talks, me doing some magic tricks (why did it only rain when I came out to do my illusions? And why did so many of them go wrong, I felt like Tommy Cooper!), lots of conversation, a good day. Thank you again to everyone who took part.
We have also got a couple of sofas which we are putting outside the church on the streetfront each lunchtime, with a sign: “We’re listening.” That sign might seem creepy outside GCHQ but outside our church it has led some people to come and share what is burdening them.
There are other activities throughout the week – some involving our own groups and some jointly arranged with other churches. There is a team of people working with the churches in the area to help us in the different activities and they have been a joy to work alongside.
This increased activity is alongside the ‘normal’ activity of being a church. That’s one reason why bloggages might be a bit more intermittent this week. It’s not that I have stopped reflecting, I am just struggling to find the time to share those reflections with you.
My reflection so far is that when we offer things that are rich in God’s grace and gently offer to be there for them people respond warmly and positively. They ask us ‘why’ we are doing things and we can engage in a conversation. By contrast there are other approaches that make people feel guilty and inadequate and they walk away – we probably all have enough guilt of our own, after all. I have seen some people walk past ‘street preachers’ and physically cower away from them as they are told that they are ‘sinners in need of salvation’.