Friday, 18 May 2012

Ascension, Mission, and Birth...

I'm preaching on Sunday morning following a period of reflection and feedback in our church: we are need of setting a vision for the next few years, a task we've probably not really done before, and are at the beginning of the process. For most people that will be a daunting experience: it's new, and new things often are daunting to well established congregations. My congregation will probably find it daunting. It requires us to wait on God, and to be open to things new as well as old.

Yesterday's Ascension reading, Acts 1:1-11, captured some of what is required as I see it. Jesus told the disciples to wait on God for the Holy Spirit to come, to enable them to be witnesses in all the world. If ever there was a manifesto for what it means to be Church, I think that short passage is one of them. Many people think of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, but I disagree: for me, the birth of the Church (and all the messiness that births often involve) was at Ascension -- all the confusion, clamour, expectation, disappointment, uncertainty is there, and also hope that new life brings, rooted in the word from Jesus that God will fulfil His promises and send the Spirit. To be Church is to wait on the Holy Spirit and as He leads to become witnesses to the good news from God in Jesus Christ.

As part of my preparation for Sunday I've been reading a book by Michael Moynagh called "Changing World: Changing Church" (London: Monarch, 2004). If you've ever read Moynagh before he brings all sorts of interesting thoughts to the table about Church and its future growth. Sometimes in terms of treating the problems besetting the Church I find him a bit too consumerist for my liking, concerned more about what people want than what we ought to be about, and often concerned that if we dont do something the Church will have no future - as if the Church was our responsibility and not God's. But when it comes to diagnosing the problems I think he is very good. I've been mulling over the following quote for a few days, and think I will use it this week:

...there is a growing recognition that we cannot go on as we are. Many clergy and lay people know that today's Church is not working, not connecting with people anymore, but they cannot imagine anything different. They struggle on with tried and trusted methods, feeling uneasy but with little vision for how things could change. Others are busting a gut to make existing churches grow, sometimes succeeding, but often wearing themselves out - and their congregations - instead...Still other ministers looks back to the 1970s and 1980s, desperately hoping to repeat what was effective then. But the world has moved on, and so frequently they are disappointed.They burn out, exhausted and disillusioned because they see little fruit.
Moynagh wrote these words nearly a decade ago, and so there have been some radical changes in the Church of England (in which he is a Priest and theological educator) since then, including moves toward pioneer minstry, and, since Mission Shaped Church, towards creating different shaped congregations. Nonetheless, this is not the story across the board, and I recognize still some of what Moynagh is talking about. For me this has meant a need to embrace a concrete sense of leadership as a minister, helping people to get a fresh sense of what we are called to be by God, and how we can embody that in our own context.

I had a robust conversation this week with someone who has been in our church for decades, and she reminded me that I need to carry people with me and not run ahead or put people off. Once this would have been like waving a red rag at a bull, but I listened hard to what she said, and believe she's correct. Except for one thing: it's not about me and them, it's about us and God. So this week I shall be asking the congregation and myself to wait on the Holy Spirit, to pray regularly and honestly, to be discerning, and for boldness to follow when and where the Spirit leads so that we can be the witnesses Jesus calls us to be.

This will not be an easy birth for us.


  1. Thanks for this Michael... I was just doing some teaching for CYM on this. I do wonder about the extremes of 'consumerism' and 'biblicism' in people's approaches to future forms of church. Stephen Bevan's "Models of contextual theology" is still useful in teasing out the options. But I often return to the need to listen to God, (1) as He is at work speaking within the culture beyond the church; and (2) speaking within the church community inspired by Scripture. I often find that (1) challenges (2) and that (2) is easier said than done even in charismatic circles. Look forward to hearing what happens for you all!

    1. Cheers for this Andy. I'm increasingly convinced that prayer and discernment are vital for the life of the Church generally, and for our concrete church communities. It is a difficult way of life to master though, the temptation to "do" something can overwhelm the call to wait on God. We are learning that together at the minute - it's a learning curve in many ways, but we shall overcome! M


Thanks for reading, and for your thoughts...