It’s very easy to be busy. Most of us are good at doing things. What makes a real difference is being effective and to be effective we need really to know what we are doing, why we are doing it, and how best to move towards those objectives. That is why it is just ridiculous when people claim that in something like ministry or mission you don’t need rigorous theological training. You can be busy doing good things for a short term, but without careful and reflective purpose, very soon you burn out. Furthermore, you are likely to hurt someone else, as well as yourself.
Jesus once told a parable about a person who wanted to construct a tower, but did not first of all work out what it really meant—with a plan that included how to pay for it. In Luke 14.28 we read:
For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?
Sitting down: the image implies not rushing into it, but first thinking, planning, considering what we really want to achieve.
I want to apply this basic concept to the work I am currently doing with a local church. To consider our future together, we need some of this ‘sitting down’, to find the centre, the most basic and fundamental realities of what we (a local church) are about.
So much thinking along this lines focussed on ‘mission’, which may be defined in various terms, such as evangelism, community development, social justice or community care. All of these things may be important and vital, but I think they are not the centre. There is something prior to all these, which requires reflection and indeed sharing from the people, not just from the leaders. This task is theological: it is about discerning the presence of God.
What is central is, then, the conviction that the Church is not a corporate structure, for which the latest process of ‘strategic planning’ will allow us to renew our vision or the most recent leadership model will provide new direction. Again, these may be valuable tools but they are not the central concern. Before the Church, there is the Gospel. Before the Church there is the mission of God, the Holy Spirit. Before the Church there is the being and activity of God within creation, within the human community and thus in the world. To put it bluntly, John’s Gospel does not say that ‘God so loved the Church …’ but rather ‘God so loved the world’ (John 3. 16).
The central reality, and therefore also the central task, is what God is doing in the world around us. Eugene Petersen recently tweeted as follows: ‘The task is not to get God to do something I think needs done, but to become aware of what God is doing so that I can participate in it.’ This idea envisages the church as participant community, disciples of Jesus engaged with the mission of God in the local context.
So I am proposing to the local church that we engage in an exploration of three things, in this sequence: Purpose, Personnel, Plant. That is: we need to sort out what we are doing, centrally; then we need the leadership to enable and facilitate that purpose, and finally to clarify what buildings (if any!) are needed. This means we do not start from location and buildings, to work out what to do with them. That comes later.
Finding the centre is first of all a task of discernment. To make this possible, I begin with a theological conviction. The God we trust and seek to know is the God made known to us in Jesus of Nazareth, to whom the Spirit and the Word bear witness. Together, then, we will read the Bible and note the ways of Jesus: what he did—and this year we will follow Matthew’s account (as the Lectionary provides) to see what it is like when God is with us, as Matthew puts it. When Immanuel is real for us, what happens? A series of sermons and studies will explore such themes: For instance, when Immanuel is real, the word of God is present, not just in the past. As Jesus puts it in Matthew, ‘Your have heard … but I say to you’. So our task will be to ask what God is saying to us. Similarly, then Immanuel is real, there is food for the hungry, and healing. But so too there are storms and struggle. And then, too, there is the coming of new community, with amazingly different people showing great faith (such as the Indigenous Woman, in Matthew 15).
To take this account of ‘Immanuel’ as our key, we will then ask: So where do we see this same Spirit present with us, this same God acting in our community, like this?
That is the centre. Our task is to discern the presence of God in our community and to participate with God in that presence and purpose.
In conversation this week with a colleague, who works with a major aid agency, he reflected on the question of what makes such an agency distinctive, by virtue of it being Christian. They do not do anything different from other caring or aid agencies. He suggested is why they do it, which he said included why they ‘go in again’ when things have perhaps fallen down, in process or when yet another natural disaster hits the same desperate community. A foundation of hope is vital, though again I would not claim any Christian monopoly on hope.
I would rather suggest that one element here, again not exclusive, but nonetheless part of the picture, is the element I mentioned in the first of these blogs. It’s the idea of providence. Trust in providence is essential: it’s the recognition that it is not all dependent on us. If it were, God help the world! In reality, we can’t do it all. In the local context, every group needs to recognise that we cannot meet all the needs. This is the hideous fallacy of Christendom: the desire to draw the world into the Church. On the contrary, the missio dei is to draw the world into an awareness of the presence and life of God, already with the world, inviting growth, beauty, relationship, peace, hope, flourishing—in all the aspects and dimensions of life and society. It’s about learning, about art, about commerce and industry, as much as about ‘spirituality’. Actually, it’s about a spirituality that engages and permeates all those things, rather than some separate area of life claimed to be ‘spiritual’.
So, then, finding the centre is not something we do one year, or one time in our lives. Rather, it is the perpetual task of reflecting, both when we are ‘sitting down’ to plan our projects, but also while we are doing things, with each other, in community, at home and at work—in short, doing life as we say.
This is the direction we are heading, in this ‘interim’ ministry. As I said in that first post, this is the character of all faith really. We are in an interim situation, in the middle of something, and seeking to discern where it is taking us. We will not see it all through. We will just participate in it. May it be so, with joy and hope.