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  • DNR - Natural Church Growth, Life and Death

    This week I have glanced at some stuff on natural church growth.  It all sounds very fine and lovely but it doens't quite connect for me.

    The true fruit of apple trees, it says, is not apples, it's more apple trees: the raison d'etre of apple trees is to make more apple trees.  Hence, it claims, by analogy, churches exist to make more churches.  Well, hmm.

    In the wild, apple trees don't produce all that much fruit, enough presumably to ensure that there will be more apple trees, though most of the 'offspring' clearly won't survive, otherwise the planet would be overrun by apple trees.  Further, the point of reproduction is that apple trees don't live forever - they die, so if they don't pass on their genes there will be no more apple trees.

    Also, apple trees, as we tend to think of them, are grown and tended for the specific purpose of producing apples.  They are pruned and grafted to generate the desired product.  And this has biblical precedent in the analogy of John 15 - I AM the vine.  These aren't 'natural' vines, they are subject to vineculture.  Vines and apple trees have a productive life after which, unless they are wild, they are cut down and mulched or burned; even in the wild they will sooner or later die of old age.  Maybe the natural church growth models recognise this life-cycle issue, that churches have a finite span, but I didn't spot it (they talk of leaves forming compost but not dead trees).  Maybe because churches are often seen as more like oak trees or redwoods which live for centuries we just never quite face this reality.

    I think churches do eventually die, not because they have failed to reproduce (though they may have done) but because they are old, sick or tired.  One of our difficulties is our reluctance to accept this - we inject the latest bought-in package for evangelism, discipleship or outreach, we pour in money or personnel in a desperate attempt to keep to keep an old, frail body alive when what it really needs is to rest in peace.  Sometimes it is possible to resuscitate or even resurrect a church, but sometimes it isn't.  If we claim to be 'natural' in our approach, might there be a time to quietly annotate the metaphorical medical file of a church with the letters DNR (Do Not Resuscitate)?

    None of us want to be esslesiastical undertakers or palliative care nurses, but it is a valid ministry.  Just as the hospice movement recognises that success is a good death rather than prolonging life, so we in church life need to learn when to intervene, when to stand back and how to make endings as healthy and hopeful as we can.

    PS As I typed this I recalled ths story of the fig tree that Jesus 'zapped' at the start of holy week.  Sometimes this leads us to make an unhealthy association of death with punishment for unfruitfulness (in the case of this poor tree when it wasn't even fruit season).  Lack of doing/being what churches are meant to do/be will have its consequences, but that isn't the same as dying 'old and full of years.'

  • Wisdom and Folly

    Old John, Bradgate Park-Leics.jpgThis is a folly - but it is built on solid rock, overlooking Leicestershire countryside and due to its Victorian over-engineering will weather countless storms.  So, was the builder a wise person?

    The Tower of Pisa - a campanile - was built for a purpose but on poor foundations and over the years vast sums have been expended on maintaining it as its lean becomes ever more perilous.  So, was the builder foolish?

    The parable of the wise and foolish builders is one of two I am employing for part of our service on Sunday, the other is that of the wise and foolish virgins.  They form part of the two discourses that 'book end' the Matthean version of the gospel.  Re-reading them this week has caused me to problematise the ideas of wisdom we so readily draw from the parables, neat, tidy and proof-texty - ideal for Sunday School but not so good for real life perhaps?

    The foolish builder rushes in, puts up a building - which might be beautiful and functional - but it cannot weather the storms; the wise builder takes time to consider the best location and puts up a building - which may be ugly if functional - that can weather the storms.  (The foundations bit is Lukan not Matthean, but we happily read across).  The wise virgins have gone prepared for a long wait, the foolish ones have not, the consequences are inclusion or exclusion from the celebration.

    Yeah but... It is obviously wise to think carefully before embarking on a project but this 'wisdom' can paralyse if we let it, never actually doing anything because we haven't covered every angle.  There is a balance to be found, and finding it isn't easy.  We obviously need to be prepared for the long haul (spare oil) but how long and what is enough reserve?  We don't actually know and sooner or later we have to take the risk.  The balance between wisdom and folly isn't as easy as perhaps we'd like it to be.

    The second part of the servcie will move on to 1 Corinthians, specifically vv 18 - 31 to briefly consider divine wisdom and folly.  Churches - and Christians - can so easily err in the 'Jew/Greek' way either expecting God to do everything, and spectacularly at that, or championing current philosophy, whatever that may be.  But God's wisdom is folly - the whole Christ story is so ridiculous it offends - and even extends to God favouring 'the weak.'  This isn't about God making everything hunky dory for the weak, but the weak showing God's wisdom.  What might that mean for the two fellowships to whom I will preach at a joint service?  God's wisdom - the source of Christian hope - involved vulnerability, isolation, rejection and death, can we walk that path?  Is it wise?  Is it Godly? In 2 Corinthians are the famous words 'my grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.'  How is that wise?  Can we dare to see as God sees?

    We will sing some wonderful old hymns that speak of God's wisdom in the challenges of life, but also this one as a preface to communion, based on Proverbs 9: 2 - 6


    Come and eat at Wisdom's table,

    Come and lay your burden down;

    Come and learn the power of weakness-

    Wisdom's cross and Wisdom's crown.


    In her house there is a table,

    Richly laid with bread and wine.

    All the foolish are invited;

    She calls to us, 'Come and dine'.


    In this world we will have trouble

    And our comforters will fail;

    All our answers will seem useless,

    All our hopes will seem unreal.


    There are roads which lead to danger,

    There are paths which lead to life:

    Wisdom's ways are filled with choices

    For the travellers she invites.


    There are those who search for reasons,

    there are those who look for signs:

    Wisdom dances on the tombstone

    of the fool who bled and died.


    Come and eat at Wisdom's table,

    Come and lay your burden down;

    Come and learn the power of weakness-

    Wisdom's cross and Wisdom's crown.

    Doug Gay (fl. 1998) © Doug Gay


  • The Kingdom, the Parish and the Circuit?

    Last week I hosted what turned out to be a mildly annoying Churches Together Ministers' Meeting, during which the newest arrival told us what would have to change to fit with what was envisaged for the Parish.  Ascension - our one united communion service, something we hold very precious - would 'have' to be Anglican, the Pentecost united service would need to have its time changed because there would be parish baptisms at the time it is scheduled to occur, and as for the united Christmas Day service, impossible.  I could get into a whole tirade about the nonsense of baptisms occurring outside of normal public worship and what it says theologically and culturally, but it doesn't really fit this rant!

    Yesterday I bumped into our Methodist minister at the induction service - his circuit includes both local congregations - and asked him how he felt about it.  He agreed with me, 'never mind the Kingdom let's worry about the parish,' he said cynically.  This afternoon I will be talking about the illusory nature of Christian Unity and the glimpses we get of what it just might be if only we could grasp the idea that it is the incoming Kingdom for which we pray, not the parish, the circuit or the gathered congregation.  My people are forgoing a 'Baptist' service so that we can use the much more liturgical WPCU form and are accustomed to closing our services in order to worship God with our siblings on Christ when this is possible and desirable.  Maybe this is why I get cross when others don't/won't do likewise.


    Yours is the Kingdom -

    Not ours, but Yours.

    Yours is the Kingdom -

    Not the parish and the circuit

    The Association, the District, the Synod, the Diocese.

    Help us not to confuse our structures with Yours

    Not to force our will or resist Yours;

    As we pray for the incoming of Your Kingdom

    May we grasp how this transcends not only nation, race, class and gender

    But denomination and tradition too.

  • New Beginnings

    This afternoon I was at an induction service at D+6.  It was a cold, bright winter afternoon, but Geoff would have been disappointed - no mulled wine (see here)!  I did my best by taking a bottle of wine as a gift to the new minister - something the moderator thought seemed like a good tradition to be starting.  It was a very happy service - and as inductions go fairly short at only about 75 minutes.  The sermon was well delivered - except the opening sentences made me need to bite my tongue quite hard with its implied critique of small, older congregations as if death is their only option.  A little harsh given at least two such fellowships were represented; maybe I'm a tad sensitive, who knows.  All I do know is that I've served my little church for five years and - despite the relentless challenges along the way - have no sense that it has been futile or doomed to end in failure, at least not if we can see past human measurements to the God who calls and keeps us.

    It struck me as a little odd that the greetings were deferred until after the food - which meant that some VIPs had already had to leave - and that some of the greeters looked as if they'd just wandered in from the garden (maybe an apt metaphor given the horticultural theme of the sermon).

    Five years ago, on the equivalent weekend, I was inducted at Dibley.  My, what a lot has happened since then!  I wonder what this minister will be thinking five years hence, and whether his garden will be coming up roses?

    I like inductions, they are times of excitement and hope, and I think they are important milestones to which we can look back not just with fondness, but also to remind ourselves, if needed, that we were once sure this was of God!  Thinking back to my own, it is surprising how much I can recall - including references to futile gestures of climbing into wells, the risk of Messiah complexes and the fact that ministers are actually just naughty boys/girls.  (I'm sure there was some deep theology too!).

    Among the songs today was one Matt Redman's finer offerings - not exactly great for congregational singing, but the words carry great meaning and seem a very honest statement at this time of new beginnings:


    Blessed be your name

    In the land that is plentiful,

    Where Your streams of abundance flow,

    Blessèd be Your name.

    And blessèd be Your name

    When I'm found in the desert place,

    Though I walk through the wilderness,

    Blessèd be Your name.


    Every blessing You pour out I'll

    Turn back to praise.

    When the darkness closes in, Lord,

    Still I will say:

    Blessèd be the name of the Lord,

    Blessèd be Your name.

    Blessèd be the name of the Lord,

    Blessèd be Your glorious name.


    Blessèd be Your name

    When the sun's shining down on me,

    When the world's 'all as it should be',

    Blessèd be Your name.

    And blessèd be Your name

    On the road marked with suffering,

    Though there's pain in the offering,

    Blessèd be Your name.


    You give and take away,

    You give and take away.

    My heart will choose to say:

    Lord, blessèd be Your name.


    Matt & Beth Redman Copyright © 2002 Thankyou Music

  • Theology in Year 4 RE

    So, this afternoon I trotted off to school to do RE with Year 4 - some sixty 8-9 year olds - for the last proper lesson of the day before 'golden time' (pah, in my day you just behaved because it was expected not to get to do fun things on Friday afternoons).  Anyway, it was fun, I like doing this session - ten minutes input on Baptism and then about 20 minutes of Q's and A's ranging for the sublime to the ridiculous.

    So there we were, some practical questions like 'where do you go to get dry' and 'is the water warm or cold', some odd questions like 'what happens if you're doing a sea Baptism and there are crabs in the sea or a big wave comes along' and 'you know the three kings, did they find the Holy Grail and what happened to it' (que?) and then a stonking great theological one 'suppose you were baptised when you were, say, three, and then when you were older you decided for yourself that you wanted to be baptised, could you be?'


    Excellent question.

    My answer - it depends which church you are on because they have different rules.  If you are in a church that usually baptises babies, they would probably allow you to do something called 'reaffirming your vows' where you can make the same promises for yourself.  Also, they probably have something called Confirmation, which is a special service where you make the promises for yourself and someone like the Bishop puts their hands on your head and prays for you.  In churches like mine which think that people should choose to be baptised for themselves then yes, you could be baptised.

    Do I score points for ecumenical sensitivity?  And would my Anglican/Methodist colleagues have said something similar or would they have said 'absolutely not!'?  Hmm.

    There's always a joker in the class isn't there; in this case a young high Anglican/RC who had been to an ashing service at some point.  Because I'd begun with literal meanings of the word 'baptizeo' and the flippant concept of baptising biscuits in tea, and because in answer to a sensible question I'd spoken about 'towel bearers' he decided to say 'well, could you dip your biscuit in the tea, wrap it up in a little towel and then put ash on it?'  The teacher was not amused in the slightest.  I declined to answer because it was just a silly question (though secretly I found the image quite funny and at least he'd listened and taken in enough to construct it).

    I suspect some of the children thought I wasn't a real 'reverend' because of the lack of black shirt and white dog collar (giggle giggle from the girl who told me that's what they wore) but I hope that they found some of it interesting.  I enjoyed the questions - sensible and silly - and the questions they imply for those of us whose calling is to think theologically.