Stepping into Grace

stepping-into-grace-frontSo I’m pleased to be able to say my book ‘Stepping into Grace’ is published today by Bible Reading Fellowship. This blog was the training ground for many of ideas that made their way into the book. So it seemed apt to explain a little of what the book’s about and why I wrote it.

Most simply Stepping into Grace is a book about the beautifully formed and mysterious book of Jonah. About Jonah and his journey from Israel to Ninevah. A picaresque journey which is not primarily an external journey but an internal journey where Jonah’s faith, vocation and identity are all transformed.

But it’s the context of Jonah that makes it all the more interesting for our time and our situation as the church. Jonah is written after the exile and is a ‘diaspora advice tale’ – a story written by exiles to grapple with the challenge of exile. Who are we? Where is God? Can he be present amongst these people in this place? How do we continue to be the people of God living in a foreign land within a dominant culture suspicious of our faith and practices?

When we are living through the complexities of a crisis, we tell stories. Stories are good in a crisis. They are open forms to help us wrestle with the issues without closing them down. They are participative forms that draw us in and engage with the story in ways which enable us to engage with the challenge we face.  And it seems to me that Jonah is an exceptionally good story to help us reflect on the challenges and anxieties we face as the people of God today.

Before Jonah is called by God to preach to the Ninevites at the beginning of the book he is fully involved in a plan of restoration under the king of the northern Kingdom of Israel. Under this king (Jeroboam II) Israel experienced a small reversal of fortunes against the Assyrians and re-established its borders to a previous point of security. Of course, from the point of view of the later experience of exile this now looked ridiculous. Everyone knows it didn’t last. And when the inevitable came and the Assyrians exiled the Jews of the northern kingdom it was brutal.  It’s like that footage of Neville Chamberlaine coming down the steps of his airplane in 1938 waving that scrap of paper and declaring ‘peace in our time’. Hopeful at the time, but ultimately futile.

Jonah is stripped of this illusion of safety and security however when he is called to preach to the Ninevites – the very people who are Israel’s greatest enemy. He is forced in the story to confront what the exiles were already confronting – life as the people of God exiled from the land and face to face with the enemy.

And what transpires is a journey that maps out the journey of soul searching, lament, anguish and reformation that Israel went through as they dwelt in exile.

As I’ve written about on the blog before – I think exile is a pretty helpful and apposite metaphor for our experience as the Christian church in post-Christian Britain today. In many ways we are offered the same choice as Jonah – continue to attempt a programme of nostalgic restoration based on our own will and our own resources, or venture out into the call of God to participate with him in a movement of reform which is happening by the initiative of his Spirit.

And the thing is that if we, like Jonah, willingly or reluctantly, take on that call to venture beyond safety and security, face up to the challenge of mission to people who are not like us, we will find that it will change us, and stretch us and deepen our understanding and faith in this unboxable God of grace. Our vocation is not simply to do what God has called us to do, but to allow ourselves to be shaped into the people God would have us be, and that takes courage.

That has been my, sometimes painful, experience as a pioneer minister in Poole, Dorset. Given the role of creating something new that would connect with unchurched people I found myself travelling a very similar journey to Jonah, a journey that took me from confidence and ambition, through something of a dark night of the soul, to a renewed understanding of God’s grace.

Which is why the book is called ‘Stepping into Grace’. Because grace is not primarily a status, a kind of kite mark of authenticity. Grace is a flow of God’s life that he invites us to enter into, step into, be embraced by and led by. Grace aims to encapsulate and transform all that we are, our doing and our being throughout the course of our journey with God. And one of grace’s key modes of transformation is invitation – invitation to venture beyond ourselves and take on challenges that seem impossible and impractical, invitation to be vulnerable, stupid, in danger, without a plan or a strategy, so that the work of grace can get to those places where we cling on to the ridiculous illusion that we know what we are doing.

In exile God’s people discovered grace anew. They thought they knew all about grace, what it was and how to get it. Exile blew that all apart. That is where we are. Challenged to wrestle again with how to be people faithful to a God of grace without shrink-wrapping grace into presentable and manageable forms for the consumption of others. The challenge is enormous and it will take leaders of humility, vulnerability, obedience and courage to help us find our way. If in some small way this book helps people navigate this challenge, then I will be glad to have written it.

 

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The church of 2030 starts here

I recently received an email to say that the course I had booked on had to be cancelled due to lack of interest. The course was entitled ‘Preparing for 2030: Mission, Megatrends and the Future of the Church Conference’. And I guess I thought it was perhaps church-technology-of-the-futurerevealing that a course looking at the kind of world we will be ministering in in 15 years’ time did not garner enough support. Some will argue that the course was fishing in a pretty limited pool given that a large proportion of current church leaders in the Diocese where I work will be retired in 15 years’ time. There is also the perennial issue of encouraging busy clergy away from their context to engage in the important-but-not-urgent stuff of ongoing learning.

Even so, that a course, oriented so clearly towards the future mission of the church, could not attract enough participants to run suggests to me that we have a problem. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to study what the future might look like. We are not sufficiently concerned about the future of the church to seriously consider what changes need to made now to plan for it. Perhaps, even worse, we are not sufficiently aware of the rapidly changing world we are in to see that unless we study the future we are forever living and ministering in the past.

In periods of rapid change any organisation needs to be extremely adaptable in order to remain effective. But to be able to adapt we need to be willing to adapt. And to be willing to adapt there needs to be a commitment to it. Gaining that kind of commitment requires some work, the telling of truth about the present as well as any casting of vision for the future. To some extent we all hold onto the present as the last remaining vestiges of a warmly held past and we do not let go easily. Adapting, changing and orienting ourselves for the future requires three things: reality, relinquishment and renewal. All too often to we clamour for renewal without first doing the work of enabling one another to face reality and relinquish the past.

As part of my ministry recently I have been meeting with a small group who represent a new worshipping community within a local parish setting. The new community was deliberately set up in the hope of engaging new people. Many of the group are committed to the future of the church but have also been a part of this parish for many years. They remember the past with great fondness. I have spent the past 6 months exploring mission for their context with this group. However, it has been hard for our discussions not to be drawn back into concerns for the church, that is the church building, a beautiful old building, devoid of heating, in completely the wrong place for its community. The last time we met however there seemed to me to be a turning point. I presented them with some harsh realities about the place and identity of the church in modern society and culture. I presented them with the concept of a church in exile; on the edge, no longer at the centre, no longer asked for its opinion, or respected for its views, no longer (physically or otherwise) at the heart of community life and able to reside there and see people come to it. As this picture developed and we discussed its merits, the mood in the room grew gloomy, then resistant and then finally resigned. It was a hard truth, but it was nevertheless the truth. The church of Christendom, able to command such an influential and prominent place in society and culture, has gone. We are in exile. And the sooner we face up to the reality of that and relinquish whatever false and nostalgic identities we have for our church the better.future-vision

Much as the exilic prophets did for Israel, telling them the truth of the disastrous nature of the situation they were in, church leaders must do for their worshipping communities. Unless we embrace the reality of our identity as people in exile we are never going to orient ourselves to be the sort of Christian communities we need to be now, or in the future. We need a conversion. We need to relinquish one paradigm and positively accept the reality of another, one where we must learn again what it means to be faithful witness to Christ in a culture that is not oriented by his message or ethics in any substantial way.

Recently Archbishop Justin Welby, speaking at the recent New Wine leaders gathering said this:

“I want to say to you today that I believe from the bottom of my heart that the long years of winter in the church, especially in the Church of England, are changing. The ice is thawing, the spring is coming. There is a new spring in the church.”

Encouraging words. But I am not sure many are truly aware of the reality of the winter we are emerging from. Or if they are, they look nostalgically to a balmy summer of yesteryear to inspire any hope for a new season. Some will not be able to spot a coming spring because, as I believe, it will look very different from the new season that might hope for. Renewal is not a return to some recycled past. Renewal, by its very nature, is the unexpected wonderful new reality of God’s inbreaking into his world and his people.

The concept of exile is powerful truth for us. Like Israel of the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem we must face up the reality that the old dispensation has gone. We must learn to live in a new land and embrace being strangers and aliens instead of lords and leaders. To do this we must face the reality of our identity and relinquish hopes and visions inspired by warm feelings for the past. Only then might we begin to embrace renewal, the new thing that God is doing in his church to which he invites us to participate. 2030 may seem a long way away, but it starts now, with a conversion to a new way of seeing, a new paradigm of church identity and mission where we embrace the truth of our identity as exiles in a foreign land.

Middle voice ministry

megachurchThere has been a lot of debate with the CofE over the past few months that orbits around the agenda of church growth. The Green Report which was made public earlier in the year, though not primarily about church growth but about preparing people for senior leadership and responsibility, drew a huge amount of criticism for what was thought to be an unhealthy emphasis on the language and techniques of enterprise and business.

More recently there was been a significant debate on the nature of church growth and the role of leadership to bring it about. On my own Twitter feed I was able to witness a sharp disagreement between Ian Paul and Giles Fraser on the relative roles of church, vicar and God in bringing about/or not bringing about growth.

One common response to the Green Report was to criticise its lack of theology. It was in my view unfairly accused of jettisoning theology in favour of the techniques of enterprise simply because the document contained little out and out theology. Defenders of the report replied that it did not set out to be a piece of reflective theology but a contribution to a conversation in which theology was clearly an inportant partner.

Theological reflection on these issues is precisely about dialoguing theologically with experiences learnt in other fields. That is one thing the church does so well, and Justin Welby’s leadership experience in the oil industry, which has been subtly maligned by some in the light of the Green Report, is something we should welcome at a strategically critical time.

But theologies can overreach themselves and become deaf to realities and experience, particularly when these threatenderelict church a strongly held position or expose a weakness or a wound. Whilst Giles Fraser’s piece on the theology of failure was a powerful and brilliant re-emphasis of the counterintuitive nature of Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not the whole story. Success and growth in the Kingdom have a gospel trajectory of downward mobility and resurrection. Success is not necessarily an empty church, with the weeds growing through the floor. Success is a church that has experienced failure, perhaps even emptiness, with courage, faith and the gospel of the cross and resurrection. Success is a church on a journey through the cross and the grave and out the other side (perhaps over and over again).

I would want to add another theme to the debate however. As well as good entrepreneurial leadership, and good theology we desperately need good spirituality, good Christian spirituality. This will be a many faceted thing. It will however be something unique, something particular to the nature of church leadership. In light of the current debates there is one aspect of this I would want to try and describe.

The church growth agenda does throw up huge challenges for church leaders. Not least the question – what might I do to enable my church to grow? There are no end of recent books written advising the church leader on what he or she might do. At the same time we are fond of praying in the light of Psalm 127:1 ‘unless the Lord builds the house the labourers labour in vain’. Work hard. Pray hard. Work and pray hard. And what will be the end result? Growth? Perhaps? But at what cost? Exhaustion, burnout, depression, disillusionment? A generation of church leaders who can produce results but no-one wants to imitate?

Much of the current language of growth errs far too much on our natural inclination to do something. To be the architects of our own success. We might give the nod to God for doing it all, but as something of an afterthought. Eugene Peterson explores this same dilemma through an insight from the nature of Greek verbs (well he would wouldn’t he!). Greek has passive and active tenses. But it also has a tense that is lacking in English, the active-passive tense. It is what you might call a ‘middle voice’. The middle voice describes activity where ‘I actively participate in the results of an action that another initiates

Actively participating in the results of an action initiated by another –  that sounds a lot like ministry!? Ministry earthed in good theology. It is Christ’s Kingdom and Christ’s church which he has founded but which we are graciously invited to actively participate in. We therefore minister with a healthy scepticism toward too much activity rooted in the active tense, where it is ourselves constantly initiating. We are also not inclined to embrace a theology of complete passivity, for God’s grace suggests an invitation to join in. He has something for us to do! We therefore seek to practise an active-passivity, a ‘middle voice ministry’, that encourages us to hold our initiatives lightly, reflectively, humbly and honours the initiative of God highly and reverently.

Prayer handsFor me the key to practising this active-passivity is prayer, not so much prayer of the intercessory kind, though that is important too. No, prayer of the contemplative kind. Prayer whereby we are predominantly in listening mode, listening for God’s initiative so that in hearing it we might more confidently participate.

Bishop John V Taylor wrote a generation ago, ‘we have lost our nerve and our sense of direction and have turned divine initiative into a human enterprise’.

There is nothing wrong with human enterprise, but everything wrong with it in terms of Christian leadership when it becomes untethered from or outpaces divine initiative. To guard against this happening we must rediscover our middle voice. We must become contemplative leaders, able to lead in an enterprising fashion, but from a place of deep listening.