Monday, 27 February 2012

The Tragedy of Jim & Ginny

Jim's Story

Hi. My name is Jim. I am 25 years old. I have a lot of friends, some from my uni days, others that I've made at work and the football club I play for.

One of my friends, Ginny,  is a Christian. She keeps inviting me to an Alpha course. I'm interested in her, but not the course. In general, Christians seem judgmental and church seems like a dinosaur that somehow escaped extinction.

I agreed to go to the Alpha course, it's on a Wednesday evening which clashes with football practice, but heh, it's only for a few weeks and at least I get to go out with Ginny.

Week four of the Alpha course was kind of pivotal for me. Not only did it make sense, but I also had this deep conviction somewhere inside me that it was true. I'm very confused now. Not about Ginny though, I really like her, even though she won't sleep with me yet.

That sense of conviction just wouldn't go away. Eventually I got some time by myself and poured out my heart to God. As I did I had the strangest feeling of calm and love... weird. I've agreed to go with Ginny to her church on Sunday. I might as well, I haven't been able to play in the league since I started the Alpha course. The club has a rule that if you don't come to practice, you can't be picked for the team.

Ginny's Story

Hi. I'm Virginia - Ginny to my friends, who are mostly from the church I go to, although there is one guy I know from Uni (Jim) who isn't a Christian.

I quite like Jim, my friends tease me about him. They also warn me not to get involved because I can't have a relationship with someone outside the faith.

I think Jim fancies me! He agreed to come along to the Alpha course. I'm really not sure what to do, I don't want him to go just because he thinks I might go out with him. I wouldn't have asked him at all, except I didn't really know anyone else to invite.

Jim's become a Christian! It's so wonderful, God has been so faithful, he's even agreed to come to church with me on Sunday - even though it's his football day!

Jim's Story

Church was weird. A kind of poor-man's rock concert with a lecture in the middle. People doing really odd things, gabbling, falling over, dancing. I'd have run a mile if I wasn't having dinner with Ginny after. By the end I'd kind of got used to the weirdness, there was certainly something of God there and the people seemed really nice. I did feel I was a bit on display mind.

Now the Alpha course has finished, I could go back to football training, but there's some sort of housegroup thing that Ginny goes to and I feel like I should go along to that.

One of the guys on the sounddesk at church must have heard that I'm a DJ in my spare time, or was when I had any! He asked if I'd help now and again. They really don't have much of a clue so I said I'd be glad to help. Turns out though that you have to come to a rehearsal on a thursday evening. Bit of a pain, I normally meet my Uni mates for a drink, but I guess it's only once a month.

I must admit, the Christian thing is really making a difference to me, the way I think, the things I value. Life does seem so much more real now - I just want to shout about it all the time!

Ginny's Story

I am so thrilled for Jim. He is so different, so committed - he's even given up meeting with his old Uni friends to help out on the sound desk. With that and housegroup, he's really in a place where he can be discipled, away from the pretty dodgy influences of his old friends!

He is really kind to me too - I think I'm falling in love with him. There's a Marriage Preparation Course starting in the Autumn, I'm praying...

Jim's Story

Not the most romatic venue, the church weekend away, but it seemed right anyway. She said 'yes'! We're going to be married next Spring, apparently there's a Marriage Preparation course in the Autumn. I'm so happy!

We had been thinking of joining one of the short-term missions trips - I'm so keen to share with others what God has done for me, but that will have to wait till next year, we've a wedding to plan. God is so good!

Ginny's Story

I'm married! I can't quite believe it! God is so faithful, I prayed for a husband and even though Jim wasn't a believer, he has brought me one! We had a wonderful wedding - the guest list was a bit fraught, Jim wanted to invite lots of his old friends, but in the end it was ok, because not that many of them could make it. All our joint friends from church were there though, it was such a godly celebration, a great a start to our married life.

Jim's Story

We're really enjoying being a married couple, it feels very grown up having our own home and being able to invite friends round for meals. We're hosting a housegroup for young couples now that we have our own place.

It's all changed on the work front too. By coincidence (or should I say God's providence!) my father-in-law runs a sound equipment business and he had a vacancy in his technical department. I'll miss my old colleagues, but what a privilege to be working for a Christian company.

Ginny's Story

I'm pregnant! We didn't plan on it quite this soon, but well, I won't go into the detail! The baby is due the week before we were planning on being a part of the mission's trip so obviously God has a different type of mission for us!

I've not been too good for the last few weeks, having to rest lots. Jim has been fantastic, what with work being so busy and his commitments at church and housegroup, somehow he's still had time to be a real help to me. He's going to make such a great dad!

Jim's Story

Twins! How can they not know till they are born these days! We haven't slept for what seems like years, but finally life seems to be smoothing out again. I keep telling everyone I know how good God is - of course they all agree!

I'm very keen to share what I've discovered of God and there's a new outreach programme for guys who like football. I'm so unfit it will probably kill me, but I'll give it a go!

Bumped into Freddie, one of my old friends from the football club. I was really sad, turns out he went through a really difficult time shortly after I left, seemed like he didn't have anyone to talk to about it, almost killed himself, taken till now to get out again. Promised to meet up with him again soon. Must text him later when I can find some space - diary is pretty full these days now I've taken on the leadership of the AV team - on top of work and homelife!

Ginny's Story

Our 10th anniversary! Who could believe it! We're going on our first missions trip to celebrate! Can't believe it's taken this long, but with four kids and our church committments, it's just not been possible!

I've never been so moved in my life. The things we saw, the poverty, the desperateness... and yet the vibrancy of peoplle's faith. What a challenge to our way of life. It has really shaken me up.

There's a weekend conference coming up on how to start and run effetcive prayer groups for missions and Jim has said he'll look after the kids so that I can go.

The conference was amazing, some fantastic stories and great ideas. It will mean another evening out but we're committed to making it happen. Small beginnings, but a few friends praying can grow and make a huge difference I know.

Freddie's Story

I knew Jim pretty well once - lots of us did. He was always a kind-hearted bloke - one of the lads, but you could trust him. I know a lot of us felt a real loss when he started with that church thing - we lost a good friend.

He did invite us to his wedding, but to be honest we'd pretty much lost touch by then, he'd stopped coming to training, couldn't play on Sundays and didn't seem that interested in us anymore. Of course, when you get married you get a new circle of friends and when family comes along, your priorities change - that happened to Mike and Tony and some of our other good mates. But Jim just disappeared, seemed to get so busy with church and church people that he didn't have time for us. Real shame. Could have done with Jim through some of my difficult times. I bumped into him once, we agreed to catch up over a pint, but I knew it wouldn't happen. Never mind, good luck to him.

Jim's Story

Sad, sad day. Just been to Freddie's funeral. Never did get that drink with him, one thing or another kept getting in the way. Amazing to see so many people from the past of course. They were all happy to see me and Ginny and the kids. But we had so little in common, didn't seem much point of contact. All a bit embarassing really.

Ginny's Story

Jim's a bit down after the death of one of his old mates. Still, we've been asked to lead a course on friendship evangelism so that should take his mind off it. It will lead into our next Alpha course. Wouldn't it be amazing if one of his old friends came to Alpha, just like Jim did all those years ago!

The Pastor's Story

Ginny & Jim have been wonderful servants of the church. I remember when Jim first came to Alpha, I had the privilege of baptising him and leading their wedding. A great couple - a great family, so committed to the church. The prayer group Ginny runs has doubled in size this year, the AV team has become so much more professional under Jim's leadership. And of course they have such a heart for the lost. They're stalwarts of our short-term missions trips and they run our Alpha course. And that's besides hosting one of our home-groups. They're wonderful people, generous with their time and money. If only the church had more people like them.


Saturday, 18 February 2012

The Christian State

There's been lots of chat on Facebook and other media about the issue of prayers in Council meetings here in the UK. Eric Pickles, the larger than life MP responsible for local government, has promised swift action to change the law - in order to uphold the righ,t in a 'Christian Nation', for prayers to be part of the formal business of council meetings. Thinking Allowed thinks we have gone mad.

The US has a legal separation of state and church, but a higher proportion of 'christians'. The Britain we allude to as having a 'christian' identity is not the Britain of today. We have become, are becoming multi-cultural. In the 'golden age' of Britain being a 'Christian' nation, we executed those not of our faith, ruthlessly exported our brand of Christianity and held people in the grip of a legalistic piety that simply covered over the same old sins. (As well as doing some pretty amazing stuff...)

The truth is that in those halcyon days, from the outside we probably looked as frighteningly draconian as some extremist Muslim states do to us today.... Over time of course, all regimes tend towards a broader, softer approach before being subsumed into the next thing. It's the history of society.

Jesus said that his kingdom was not 'of this world'. He avoided the political power that was offered to him - in the end Judas betrayed him as a means of provoking him to take it up. Peter wanted to start the revolution but Jesus told him 'put away your sword'. Now that's not to say that Christians should avoid politics - far from it, we need Christians in every walk of life, every sphere of influence. But it is to say that Biblically, the means of furthering the gospel, building the kingdom is not rooted in state or political endeavour.

And so to the vexed question of prayers in council meetings (or 'acts of Christian worship' in school assemblies for that matter). I'm all for groups of Christians, who feel called to be in politics or teaching (and for those of us who benefit from these professions), to be praying regularly and fervently for those directly involved. But given the nature of Britain now, how can we possibly impose these practices on a society that is at best bemused and at worst antagonised by them? Are we really saying 'you are welcome here and you are free to practice your religion, but actually, we are a Christian nation and as a society we practice Christian norms which you must respect and to which you must adhere'? In short you are welcome provided you become like us or if you won't, then hide-away so you don't interfere with our 'Britishness'.

In practice this means that we welcome your presence, want you to integrate rather than form a ghetto. But by integrate we mean become aligned to our definition of Britishness, which includes our Christian heritage. So even though the majority of councillors are not practicing Christians, as part of the formal business of politics, we will pray to a God we barely understand and in whom we mostly disbelieve. You Muslims (for example) who have a very clear view of your god and practice your religion 'religiously' must take part in this strange ritual or absent yourself from it.

The truth is most British people aren't 'British' by these definitions. Most Brits wouldn't pass the citizenship test that we require aspiring Brits to take. So why, as Christians, do we put our trust in these archaic descriptions of who we are? Why do we think that losing the legal right to pray in a poitical forum is putting the furtherance of the gospel at risk? The battle to establish the kingdom is not synonymous with keeping Britain  'British' - the latter was lost decades ago (if it was ever a battle) and the former remains ours to win.

The reason, after 2,000 years that Britain is not a 'Christian' nation has nothing to do with the vagaries of politics. It has everything to do with the fact that we don't love God. We love self, we love our friends, our family, our church. We love our jobs, our homes, our holidays, our possessions. We love our lives. We love our ministries. we love the little successes when one or two come to Christ through an alpha course or outreach programme. But we don't love God.

We don't love God enough to give up our lives, our homes, our security, our jobs. We don't love God enough to give up our rights, our insularity, our freedom. We don't love God enough to overcome the embarassment of talking about him or the fear of rejection if we offer to pray for someone. We don't love God.

And we don't love God because we don't understand forgiveness. 'He who is forgiven much, loves much'. As we approach Lent, why don't we spend less time worrying about the impact external decisions have on the gospel and more time before God? Time inviting His Spirit to convince us of sin, that we might know afresh the depth of our need for him and the wonder of his love for us.

Let's take a fast from being British, from insularity, from fear. Let's feast on telling others, demonstrating to everyone, the love of God. That's what church is about.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Church Isn't Working - Part 2

Most churches in the UK are quite small – less than 50 adults. Increasingly they comprise an elderly and ageing population meeting in old and costly premises. Their focus has narrowed to paying the bills and maintaining a programme of services and meetings. There is little energy for anything new, and less appetite for it anyway. There is a fear of change and almost no direct contact with the world, unless it chooses to come into the confines of the church. They fear the world, fear the inevitable; the loss of their own minister, the dwindling congregation, “shutting the doors”. Often they are characterised by a sense of impending defeat.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the newer churches; meeting in school halls, converted warehouses or refurbished older buildings. Full of enthusiasm and excitement, the numbers give a sense of success, of victory against the odds, which translates into upbeat worship led by gifted musicians in rock-concert style performances. There are enough people to staff multiple programmes and plenty of entrepreneurial leaders to initiate them. There’s generally enough confidence to risk occasional forays into the world; special events, ‘missions’, outreach programmes, Alpha. It all generates a self-sustaining stream of income, newcomers and vision in a broadly optimistic context.

At one end fear and age deter genuine engagement. At the other end self-sufficiency, comfort and busyness mitigate against it.  Looked at in the light of its God-given purpose – to be the mechanism by which the gospel is communicated and the nations discipled, it has to be said. Church isn’t working.

There will be those who dispute that assertion. They will point to Africa and parts of Asia which have seen explosive conversion rates. Over half a million new churches in 11,000 new denominations in Africa in recent years. But two things mute the enthusiasm. It was in just such an African nation, with over 90% of the population Christian that saw the genocide in Rwanda. Secondly, I don’t live in Africa. I live in Europe, in Britain, where Christianity is in retreat. Let me repeat. As a vehicle for communicating the gospel or discipling nations, church isn’t working,

Meanwhile, the perception of the church by those outside it is that  it is an irrelevant relic of a long-past age. Worse, it is characterised by bigotry and hypocrisy;  self-righteously pronouncing judgments against a sinful world. Even those parts of the Church that retain some respect for their social compassion (The Salvation Army for example) are seen as anachronistic and twee.

At a time when people are more open to spiritual concepts than for many years and where the government is flinging the doors wide open to the involvement of religious groups, this is tragic. With more emphasis being placed on care in the community – the bread and butter of the Gospel - the opportunities for demonstrating the love of God abound, at the very point that energy is being diverted into self-serving maintenance.

Again, I hear about the hard work, I know the long hours, the commitment, the years of faithful service. I know the challenges, the difficulties, the setbacks.  I know the stories; the one's and two's who came to faith, the occasional healing, the marriage saved. These are genuinely good and worth rejoicing over.  But it can’t possibly be enough. There are too many in our street, our work-place, our school who are dying inside and who have no clue as to why or how that can change. There are too many for whom Christ died in vain for this level of effectiveness to be acceptable. The truth is that church as an institution isn’t working.

How did this happen? How did the dynamic, life changing, society transforming, Spirit energised community that is church change into something overwhelmingly designed to serve itself? True, it might be an environment in which we can worship together. It might be a place in which we can receive. There may be times when the big gathering, the inspiration of the many coming together is important. But when did the notion that church is designed to be a hospital for the Christian sick or a place to go for training, equipping and evangelism become so accepted?  In the Gospels and Acts, healing happened in the home, the workplace, the street whilst teaching and training happened on the job. Jesus modelled it, explained the bare minimum and sent them out, empowered to do it.  If our faith has become dependent on input from experts and our strength for the work based on a weekly pit-stop, then, literally, God help us – a church built like that cannot ever accomplish its mandate.

Church is supposed to be dynamic, visible, living communities of people passionately loved by God, radically loving one another and their world. No more, no less. It leads to transformation, to explosive growth and in the process to non-conformity, to diversity and inevitably to the possibility of heresy - either actual or  perceived. In order to minimise this risk, church has become an institution, an organisation, codified, bound by tradition and paralysed by orthodoxy. We are so concerned with preventing anything ‘going off the rails’ that the rails have become prisons.

Of course, if we take the risk of non-orthodoxy, of new things in new ways,  the enemy of our souls will breed discord, competition and drive groups towards the margins and beyond. But at the same time the Holy Spirit will be leading into all truth, revealing Jesus and saving many.

Often it will mean new leaders, young, untested leaders who aren't so entrenched in the existing ways. This is also unsafe, but in truth, the leaders in the early church weren’t trained, often they weren’t even long-time believers. They weren’t from the right background, they certainly weren’t ‘safe’.  The believers didn’t  meet once a week for a quick fix of God before going into all the world and they didn’t meet in insular and exclusive groups to study and pray for a world with which they never engaged. They didn’t know all the theory, have all the books or go to all the conferences. They did have the Holy Spirit and a passion for Jesus. And they did change their world.

Church isn’t working when it excludes or restrains those with non-conformist vision and passion. How would those first believers or apostles have fitted into our church?

Let's 'think allowed'. Is the above a fair reflection? If not, defend! If it is, why and what do we do?