This morning, right at the start we simply asked, “are we open to hearing what God might want to say to us today?”. We’ve heard a lot of content in the last few hours, cast your mind back, maybe look over your notes, I wonder what has really struck a chord with you? What is God saying? Was there something someone said that really resonated, something you need to respond to in some way?
Maybe there were several things, maybe there were too many! As you know, one of the dangers of a day like today is that there are so many good ideas and important questions, that they end up feeling like exhausting, conflicting priorities. This is particularly challenging if your current job list and diary are already full to bursting. So today mustn’t be about adding on more and more priorities, but simply hearing what God is saying to us.
OK, we’re on the home straight.
How many of you, whilst preaching your heart out, have peered up from the lectern and seen a lot of blank faces staring back at you? This is partly because of the British disposition to be grumpy and cynical, but is also because the gap between the pulpit and people’s hearts is cavernous. It is especially painful when someone says “liked the joke vicar” as they shake your hand on the door, seemingly unaware that you really really meant it when you said that Jesus can transform our lives.
Another carefully prepared relevant sermon filed in the cabinet drawer.
I observe a lot of Churches that are striving to be more relevant, wanting to change and grow, but sometimes I feel that they are doing this in place of simply being with Jesus, and practising His ways. Sometimes this feels like a sticking plaster over a deep wound.
I’ve heard it said recently that whilst our post-Christian culture is now firmly in an ‘Age of Authenticity’, many of our Churches are still chasing what they believe to be an ‘Age of Relevance’. We tend to unintentionally create activities that are complex and busy, in a vain attempt to be relevant. I went to a Church event recently where the huge team of volunteers were so intent on serving faithfully and putting on a very impressive community event, that not one of the them actually spent any time talking with the people from the village that had come along.
My friend, who is very disillusioned with Church, says that we tend to turn our ‘simple and hard’ faith, in to something that is ‘complicated and easy’. There is nothing inherently wrong with creative crafts, cool music, contemporary film clips, dimmed lights, donuts and a brilliant worship band, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that cultural relevance pierces people’s hearts. If anything it just ends up exhausting people that are already worn out by the frenetic pace of life.
So much of post-Christian culture is largely deficient of the kind of nutrients that society requires to thrive. Jesus invites us to taste for ourselves a whole new way of being nourished. The cultural menu is already full of Porsche Driving experiences, yoga clubs and mindfulness colouring. It is no wonder why the Church programmes fail if they attempt to compete by offering a bland alternative. Or even worse, we end up being colonized by the culture that we were trying to influence.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying we shouldn’t understand and engage with culture, I just don’t want to waste energy competing with it. So, rather than perennially asking how we can do Church better by being more culturally relevant, we simply need to be asking how we can become more like Christ by spending time in His presence, so that we practice His ways.
‘For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks’ (Luke 6).
The things we say and do flow direct from our hearts.
The beautiful dance between presence and practice.
Do you sometimes feel that there are too many opportunities to top up our Christian head knowledge, but too few moments for our learning to connect with our practice? Many sermons close with “Go and live this out…”with very little instruction on what ‘living it out’ actually looks like. Rarely do we invite people to journey alongside us, personally, as we go through the emotional/relational pain barrier and work out the incremental steps towards change together. ‘Whoever hears these words and puts them in to practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock’. As we embody Jesus practices, and do the things he did, we are slowly transformed by the renewal of our minds.
Of course, it is the Holy Spirit that transforms us, as He creates new neural pathways that quite literally renew, rewire our mind; but we are active partners in this process, creating the conditions for the Spirit to transform us by living the way that Jesus did. Spending time with our Father. Living out of the overflow of that relationship. This needs time and space. We are invited to drop our nets and choose a different way of living. It is a narrow path, there is no short-cut, and the only way is to die to self… but death is the only path to life! Real life!
Whilst it is often ignored, misunderstood and mocked, this is the full-flavoured adventure of a life time that all the generations long for. This is particularly true for younger generations who are spend hours every day on their phones, scrolling through bland nonsense, searching for a cause to live for. Deep calls to deep. Buried somewhere deep in people’s soul is a longing for authenticity and truth, a truth that can only be found in Christ.
Author Mark Yaconelli recently challenges and encouraged us to be “Guides and not gurus”. So, that got me thinking, when it comes to this radical journey of Christian faith are we raising indigenous Sherpas or a blogging tourists? Indiginous sherpas know the ancient narrow paths like the back of their hand, because they’ve spent their lives walking them. Blogging tourists learn and regurgitate the facts, commentating from the outside.
Are we indigenous Sherpas or a blogging tourists?
That is a tough question for all of us.
If you’re like me, too often I talk like I’m the former, but my actions betray me as the latter.
Here is a second tough question. To what extent do our Church’s rhythms and structures lead to new disciples finding this narrow path? Are your Churches methods and models leading people in to presence of God so that they can practice his way?
We give thanks for all the lives that have been and continue to be transformed. We thank God for the consistent rhythms of worship and witness that provide an anchor in the storm. We thank God for the minor victories, the moments of hope, the mustard seeds of faith and the mysterious ways that God brings about His will…. And we do trust Jesus when He says “I will build my Church”.
To what extent do your Church’s rhythms and structures help Jesus to build His Church?
Have you heard this famous phrase? “the systems we employ are perfectly designed to get the results that they’re getting”.
It’s hard isn’t it! What do the ‘results’ in your Church reveal about the systems that are being employed? If your answer quite pragmatic like mine, maybe even a bit defensive, why is that?
These are tough questions for us all, but it is important that we are frank because too often we talk around the issues and never say what we really mean.
A while ago I took some families on a day trip to Hunstanton, many of them rarely got to go on holiday, infact some of the children had never even been to the beach. The two Church minibuses arrived first, the third van, which contained bags, deckchairs and swimming costumes, was stuck a bit further behind in traffic. As the families walked down the beach together, the children were bursting with excitement. They weren’t aware of the strict British beach ruled and itinerary that starts with saving the best space on the beach and marking out your territory with windbreaks so that you don’t need to see or speak to any other humans that day. They didn’t know the rules. When they got to the beach, they ran with wild excitement, fully clothed, right in to the cold North Sea. They didn’t care. They were in the sea. It was not in a book, it was real. A deep, refreshing, enormous, wet, salty playground. They were drenched and so happy.
Our Churches need to be places where children and young people that don’t know the rules can run in to the sea and worship, where they can express the raw exhilaration of being known and loved by the God of the whole universe. “He’s wild you know. Not a tame lion” as CS Lewis puts it.
And we do see this. All over the Diocese. There are now so many places children’s and youth ministry is central and thriving. There are loads of signs of hope, and many things to celebrate, but I still see far too many exhausted Clergy, struggling to put up the windbreaks, unable to run in to the sea themselves. Too often our systems, patterns and structures are making things worse and not better.
In my opinion we need to take a close look at what it means to prune in winter, in some cases back to the stump, being fully present with Jesus, so that all energy redirected in to new growth in springtime.
If we are going to respond to the new things that we feel God might be saying to us, it will inevitably involve making some bold decisions about the way we use our time. For example: Jesus spent the vast majority of His time, thousands of hours, discipling teenagers and young adults. Similarly, He was in no rush to send the children away, quite the opposite, he spent time enjoying their presence. If we are going to emulate Jesus in this way, and understand why it was so important to Him, then we need to cut away some other stuff. There is a big question for all of us. What stuff? Dallas Willard said that we must “Ruthlessly eliminate busyness from our lives”.
This kind of statement can make people quite angry and defensive, especially when you are trying so hard to juggle priorities, and take time off. I am not ordained. I do not fully understand the pressure you are facing. But I’ve worked alongside Clergy for 20 years, I’ve wept with and for many people that have been broken by unfair pressure, sometimes self-imposed, to be all things to all people. Please forgive me for any aspect of this that is patronising, but I do want to ask these simple but important questions.
Does our busy calendar of Church events and services provide us with poignant moments of God’s presence? Yes, of course.
But do we need to take a long hard look at our priorities and patterns and the effect these have on our Churches and their leaders. Yes.
I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Timeless rhythms and ancient words anchor our souls in a time of unprecedented change and great uncertainly. But the same rhythms and words can also lead us to a place of phariseecal blind stubbornness. There is a fine line between the two and it all comes down to our hearts.
For many of us it means starting with pruning in winter, personally and corporately, in some cases right back to the stump, so that we can redirect the energy to new growth in spring.
This is why the Sabbath command is so central and so life giving, as both a day and a mindset. Just as the Israelites were invited out of slavery, from the frantic production of bricks for Pharoah, to a place of rest and intimacy with God, so too are we invited to escape the Pharaohs of busyness, consumerism and frantic productivity, and rest in a place of intimacy with our Father. Just like our culture, our Churches are making people too busy for God.
So, my encouragement in this last short talk of the day, is that we find ways of pruning and simplifying the way we do Church, so that we enjoy can being the Church. As we make ourselves fully present to God, his love overflows in us. Without a complicated evangelistic outreach programme of events and activities, people will naturally start to join us as they see Him at work in our lives and communities. Well, that has been my experience, particularly in the last couple of years, as a group of us began to live intentionally in the unhurried rhythms of grace. Eating together and living out the way of Jesus. One by one our neighbours and friends have started to join us. As it says in John 13 “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, how you love one another”. For it is Jesus’ infectious love that draws us in, heals our wounds and sends us out, to run into the sea.
The place where the generations gather to eat and drink, to laugh and cry, to listen and love. The place where our stories connect, and we find ourselves hidden deep in God’s story. In bread, in wine. In Him who ate at the houses of the outcasts, the revolutionaries, the broken and the lost. In him who said “can I eat with you?”.
The place where reconciliation is made possible. The place where justice is present. The place where our shopping habits bless God’s creation. Where the story behind our food is known and celebrated. The place where we taste the Glory of God.
The place where our lives make sense. Where our messy families are accepted and loved.
In this age of authenticity, as we deconstruct all that has gone before, we lean on our tables and search for the truth. We put down our phones, so we can look one another in the eye. We lay down our lives, so that we can love our neighbours. We open up our homes and share all that we have. Our food. Our time. Our money. Ourselves.
In winter and spring, we fast and we feast, we mourn and we sing, we commit to eating together through thick and thin.
This is not new, it is very, very old.
We return to the place where our ancestors gathered, the same place where one day our children’s children will also gather.
Chad Chadwick 15th Nov 2018