Mission Essentials Four: Prayer

I remember listening to a great talk by Dick Dowsett on prayer.  It would’ve been around 1997 ish in the big top at Skegness for Word Alive (part of Spring Harvest).  His talk was rooted in Ephesians 1 and I can still picture Dick bouncing on his heels as he exhorted us to make prayer an attitude.  This re-vitalised my view of prayer.  As a young Christian, I had a view of prayer as an activity.  I return to this message often and find it to be comforting and challenging, depending on what kind of day I am having.

Yes,  I engage in prayer as an activity, but I find it most helpful to see prayer as an orientation or an attitude.  The depth of prayer is found in my heart first, then in my words. The richness of prayer is given an outward vesture in my words and actions.  Am I a person of prayer? How does prayer play a part in my spiritual life?  And how can it form an essential part of our mission as churches?

131349989_1a79dcc0b9How easy is it for us to bluster on in mission without prayer?  We have the good idea, get the meetings going and find all the practical details are in place.  Are we guilty sometimes of forgetting to pray?  How should we pray for our mission?

Let’s take a look at Paul’s words in Ephesians 1, and see if they resonate with us today.  We will hopefully draw out some principles for churches and praying for mission and maybe also some ideas for us as individuals regarding prayer.

Why should we pray for mission?  

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints..  (Ephesians 1:15, ESV)

In the first part of this letter, Paul sets out the basis of the faith of the early church.  He writes of the ‘riches of his grace’, ‘redemption through his blood’ and being ‘sealed with the promised Holy Spirit’ – it is clear that Paul has been deeply affected by what God has done for him. It is for this reason that he then prays for the church in Ephesus.  God has done something amazing for him, through Jesus, and he wants this to spread throughout the region.  So… he prays.  That appears to be his starting point.  Everything Paul writes to, and does, in Ephesus is rooted and founded in prayer.  Maybe this tells us something. We should begin mission with prayer.  Our mission should find its origin in prayer.

How should we pray for mission?

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers..                     Ephesians 1:16, ESV

There are two simple things in this verse.  First, the fact that Paul never ceases in prayer. Secondly, he prays for the people he is writing to.  The people of Ephesus were learning about faith, but Paul tells them he is praying for them.  He is thinking of them.  His heart and mind are turned towards them, because of what God has done for him.  How do we do on these two aspects of our church’s life and mission? Are we ceaseless in prayer?  Or is it all to easy for things to stop us?  Are we guilty of ‘just getting on with it’ without realising that the whole activity of mission ought to be soaked in prayer.  Perhaps as churches, we could mutually encourage each other to let prayer be part of our mission – at the beginning, in the middle and at the end.

The second half of verse 16 guides us to pray for our communities.  If we are holding an event and expecting guests – let’s pray for them.  If we are not sure how many people are going to engage with something that we are doing – let’s pray that people will come.  Let us turn our thinking, planning or worrying about mission into prayer.  Pray for opportunities, pray for growth, pray for the people that we meet.

Prayer could become an attitude in our churches, not just an activity.  With this attitude before us, it could be that opportunities for mission become greater, it could also be that more people catch the vision and become involved in mission.

Eight simple tips on prayer and mission

  1. Find the pray-ers in your church!  – some people epecially love praying and will do it beautifully dutifully.  Find them and ask them to pray.  Praying is a gift and some people have it in greater measure than others.
  2. Get people to sign up to pray for events whilst they are going on – some people may not be able to help with Alpha or Messy Church, but they can pray!
  3. Write a special prayer for mission and growth – share it with your church leaders and encourage it to be put in your news sheet or included in your weekly intercessory prayer.
  4. Set up a monthly prayer group or meeting, specifically to pray for your community – so not praying just for churchy things, but for everything and everyone in your community.
  5. Start every planning meeting or conversation with a prayer – wherever it might be.
  6. Ask people you meet whether you can pray for them
  7. Pray for growth in church and in the daily office (if that’s your thing)
  8. Keep a prayer journal for the church – what did we pray for?  Encourage people to write down their prayers at home.
  9. When you walk in your community; pray – offer the community to God.

Mission Essentials Three: Stationery

Yes, I know.  This might not be a subject which immediately springs into your mind when you think about mission.  For me, though, stationery is beautiful and when used well, can greatly enhance our work in mission.  My daughter mocks me mercilessly for my love of stationery.  Sometimes I am guilty of over-extending my spending on stationery items.  I have a good collection of pens.  Different shades, different textures, different makes – all these things are important.  There’s nothing worse than ending up at a meeting, and realising that you are carrying an unsatisfactory pen.  (or maybe that’s just me)  And as for notebooks….

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I am sure you have your own stationery foibles.  Elements of your work set-up that may seem like minor details, but when they are off-kilter, you just can’t get comfortable or be as creative as you want to be.  I believe that stationery can take its part in Christian mission.  Please bear with me as I try to explain.  Also, people tell me that we should write about what we love, and I love stationery!

 

Post-it ® notes are great (other sticky notes are available).  They are portable and can help a large group of people be heard.  I expect that if Jesus took orders when he fed the 5000, he would’ve most likely taken them on sticky notes. Easy to distribute, brightly coloured and a wonderful method of gathering a lot of information, quickly, from a diverse group.  Maybe you are working on your Mission Action Plan in your church? Maybe you are brainstorming at your PCC or church council – get the sticky notes out and be creative.  Pass them out and make sure everybody fills one in with an idea or a question.  They can then be moved around and afterwards worked with by a follow-up group.  Stick at it and see what God does with your ideas.

Paper has been around for a long time.  Great truths have been written on paper or papyrus for centuries.  Keep records well and don’t forget to look back to what has gone before.  In our digital age, it could be that a lot of mission activity isn’t ever planned, written or delivered on paper anymore.  The mission of the church has been going for centuries; we are merely building on what has gone before.  Much of it recorded on paper, possibly gathering dust in a vicar’s study or church office.  Remember the heritage.  Build on the past.  Acknowledge what has gone before.

Writing has developed over the years.  In ancient times the sap from plants was mixed with animal blood to produce a dye that could be transferred on to the walls of caves or tablets of stone. Other materials used to write included charred bones, mercury ore and tannic acid. Quill pens came into use in the 8th Century (ish) and were used up until Victorian times, where more sophisticated inks began to be developed. How can we be sure that what we write will last? Can we be creative in what we write? Is there somebody in your community who could pen a poem to inspire you in mission? Will these words of inspiration be preserved.  Jesus famously once wrote in the dirt, when he was trying to teach the Pharisees about sin. We don’t know exactly what he wrote, but can assume that it was something piercingly profound. Things we write can convey meaning and can last forever.  Get creative people involved in your mission. Maybe write a prayer to inspire mission in your church. Write a short story.  Write and ask God’s Holy Spirit to inspire the words.

Diaries and calendars are important when it comes to mission.  Operating an accurate calendar can be deceptively tricky.  We have to work hard to co-ordinate things with our friends and colleagues.  We also nee d to be aware of wider community events; try to avoid clashes, but keep an eye out for what we can collaborate on.  Keep a journal, whether as an individual, or as a church.  What would you put in your journal?  People you pray for.  The priorities you have in your community.  Some aims you might have in mission.  Some answers to prayer.  Some successes.  It is heartening to look back on a journal or diary, which keeps a realistic record of faith and mission.

So, is stationery important?  Possibly not for you.  That’s OK, we will look at social media later in Mission Essentials… For some, though, thinking about stationery and having a good attitude to the details, can be a springboard for safe, creative and engaging Christian mission.

 

Mission Essentials Two: The Meeting

The papers are shuffled.  The chairs scrape into place.  The low-level chatter comes slowly to a pause.  The coffee has been sipped. It’s time for the meeting to begin.  You look around and work out how the meeting will go.  Will it stay on time? Will there be any drama?  Will I get across what I want to? I wonder what the football score is?

Meetings can be dull.  I wonder what coping mechanisms you have developed over the years to cope with the tiresome travails of interminable meetings?   In the church we are guilty of perpetuating the need for meetings. Almost to the point where everyone is unaware of why they happen in the first place! The BCC show W1A brilliantly satirises the aimless sycophancy of some meetings – production meetings in the show are punctuated by inane mumblings and thoughtless reactions to a pre-arranged agenda. Ring any bells?

Maybe your meetings are otherwise.  Maybe they are fantastically run, creative, thought-provoking and always achieve their aims.  Maybe.  I find the idea of some meetings intriguing:  How do certain national leaders behave in meetings?  How did the England cricket team’s Ashes debrief meetings go? Any meeting behind a closed door holds a moment of mystery for us.

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a meeting

In the church we have loads of meetings.                                 Meetings to plan things.             Meetings to discuss things. Meetings to choose things. Meetings to brainstorm things.   Meetings to network.               Meetings to feedback.         Meetings to arrange meetings. Meetingszzzzzzzzzzzzz – sorry, I nodded off for a moment….

 

How can we use meetings effectively and efficiently in our Christian mission? Let’s explore some ways that we could make our meetings as relevant as possible. We will use Acts 15 as a blueprint for good, positive mission-focused meetings.

Where? is important

“Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem. (…) When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders.. ”   Acts 15:2, 15:4 ESV

Paul and Barnabas were keen to spread the news of the Gospel to all people – they wanted Gentiles to take their place in the church.  They knew that there were certain barriers to this happening; cultural and religious matters which could prevent this expansion. They promoted their cause at a meeting!  The Council of Jerusalem was the place to be.  Everyone who mattered was there, from each wing of the fledgling fellowship of early Christians to the hardline Pharisaical thinkers.  Paul and his friends got their timing just right.  For us it might be a challenge to know where and when to discuss things that pertain to the church.  Maybe we could find a local forum that is already meeting to promote our cause or to tell people what we are doing.  It may be that your local council has an open part to it’s meeting.  It would be brilliant to go there and speak clearly of the life and good news that we can share with those in our community.

When? is important

Just before Chapter 15, we read that Paul had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles”. (What an excellent phrase.)  This was due to the work that Paul had done in spreading the message amongst those who didn’t believe.  But in the Council of Jerusalem, Paul and his friends give a passionate discussion about how they could overcome the issues that could potentially divide the church.  Both Peter and James speak about the covenant faithfulness of God and work their way towards a resolution.  This meeting was timed to coincide with the effect of growth in the church.  Growth lead to certain growing pains and a possible split in the church.  The early apostles met together at this time to find common ground and to best move the church forward.

Who? is important

All the important people seemed to gather in Jerusalem for this council meeting.  The apostles (Paul, Peter, Barnabas, James etc), the elders of the church in Jerusalem, believers from the Pharisees and other members of assembled church.   A real mix of insiders and outsiders, the leaders and the led, the important and the less-so. We read that there was “much debate” between those who were there.  This is an encouragement to us in our meetings, because we don’t always see eye-to-eye with everybody.  Healthy disagreement is good, as it helps us to see things from other perspectives and discover a richer understanding of the things we might be in disagreement about.

What? is important

At the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 it was religious practices such as circumcision that was high on the agenda.  It could be that we have other, more pressing matters to discuss at our meetings.  Let us make our meetings be part of the vibrancy of our mission life together and not just a dull necessity.  Let’s meet in the key places, let’s meet at the right time for our community and people, let’s do our best to include the right people, let’s include some prayer, let’s include the views of as many as possible. May our meetings be positive, full of God’s Holy Spirit and worthy of God’s mission in our church life. It could be that the where, when and who of our meetings follow the blueprint of the council of Jerusalem and lead to the kind of growth that the early church saw!

 

 

 

 

Mission Essentials One: A Good Idea

When was the last time you had a good idea?  Some people are good at ideas.  They think of a good idea every hour of the day.   Others might feel like their reservoir of ideas has run dry.  In our churches it might feel easy to have loads of good ideas; but are they simply that?  Do they just remain merely ideas?  Maybe they are never even given a voice, maybe they are left hanging in the air, maybe they are squashed by a louder voice. It is a real challenge to turn a good idea into something that actually happens.  How do we work out which ideas are the ones which will enthuse us?  How do we discern which ideas our community will love? How do we transform a good idea into something which leads to spiritual and numerical growth? Perhaps we all know the frustration of our fantastic theoretical idea never having the public exposure it deserves…

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a good idea

I’ve had some great ideas over the years. I have often thought it would be a fantastic idea to combine the function of a washing machine and a dishwasher into one unit…. I’ll probably sit on that idea for quite a while.  Equally silly is my idea of expanding the range of assistance animals for the deaf and blind – I think I’d choose a ‘guide chimpanzee’.   I realise that idea must stay where it is – in a Monty Python-esque parallel universe.

So, we can usually acknowledge when an idea is rubbish.  In fact, it could be true to say that most ideas stay on the shelf, never to be implemented.  It is very possible that this is because they are the bad ones… But, how do we uncover the gems?  How do we ensure that the good ideas stick?  How do we give life to a good and positive notion, concept or belief? Let us turn to our churches and explore how a good idea can be an essential in our mission and community interaction.

Whilst making the following comments, I am aware that the key good idea for mission, is to put God before everything we do.  We need to pray.  We need to tell people about Jesus. We want to show people that following God is OK.  God’s all-ecompassing forgiveness, love, grace and mercy, in and through what Jesus has done for us and the ongoing indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our lives is the key good idea.  I do get that, and in a way, this foundational good idea underpins everything we do as Christians in our mission and community work. That said, here is some (hopefully) pragmatic comment on how to develop good ideas to carry into our church life.

Who can provide a good idea ?  Very often, the best ideas for mission and outreach do not come from church leaders or vicar-types.

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maybe not a good idea..

It’s sometimes hard for those in such roles to admit this, but a sound theological and spiritual education doesn’t immediately confer an ability to relate effectively with the community they abide in.  A good idea can come from anywhere or from anyone.

So, what is the key point here for identifying where a good idea will come from? Let us listen to one another.  If you are a leader in a church – talk to those around you. Listen to them. Carefully. Ask the younger members of your church what they think is a good idea for mission. Listen to them. Carefully.  Ask the older people – their experience is vital!  In fact, ask everyone..  ask the local shopkeepers, ask your local headteachers, ask your local councillors, ask the staff in local businesses, ask the people in the street.

But what shall we ask them?  Here are some ideas of questions…  you might just get some good ideas in response…

  • What is the best thing in your community?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What would you like the church to do in the community?
  • How do you spend your leisure time?
  • Is there anything missing from your local community?
  • What do you think is the most important area for growth in the church?

If you are able to ask questions, then don’t forget to collate the answers together and get a diverse group of people to look at them and work out what are the most prominent themes in the answers.  And don’t be surprised if the best answers come from unexpected places or people!

When do good ideas get implemented? When a list of good ideas (see Appendix One) is being discussed, how do we discern which ones to put into action?  This is the really tricky bit.  It is where many churches stall and become overwhelmed by the task at hand.  These are some of the traps we fall into as churches:

  • Trying all the ideas at once – this rarely works, and can often lead to exhaustion, negativity and a feeling that nothing can ever get done.  Trying to deliver on six good ideas, when resources are stretched can be counter-productive.  Why not spread six good ideas over a couple of years?  Or longer? Perhaps we sometimes need to wait.  To assess our resources, so that one or two good ideas can be done well.
  • Filing the ideas away – sometimes there are so many ideas generated, that we just roll up the big sheet of paper, tidy the post-its away, file the notes neatly in our study, because we cannot face the task of discernment and implementation.  If we have asked people for their opinion and their ideas, we must do our best to process them to the point of some kind of action.  So.. pray that somebody will volunteer to work through the ideas and collate the information, so it can be easily presented and seen.
  • Waiting for the right time – this sounds good in theory, but can lead to an endless procrastination..  Give the best idea a go! Find a completer-finisher and get them on board.  Talk to people, get them enthused and take some action!

‘I will never say the word procrastinate again, I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed’  (Flansburgh and Linnell 1990)

How do we get good ideas that work?  It might sound straightforward, but the answer to this question is simple.  As churches we are guilty of over-complicating things. We have our foundational mission, we know what we are trying to achieve.  We might even have several good ideas to choose from.  We can have everything in place: a good idea, a good team, the perfect timing, sound finances and the Holy Spirit with us, yet sometimes it still doesn’t work!

In Christian mission our task is to keep praying, to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, to keep the message of Jesus at the front of all we do.  Everything else can just be a load of good ideas.  Let’s work together and pray that we will see our churches grow.  May we all find our role in the God’s mission in our communities and this week especially thank God for those who create the ideas that transform our church life together..

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Appendix One – A list of good ideas

  • Clear up the litter in your community
  • Start a regular, clean, family comedy night
  • Put some encouraging messages on your noticeboard
  • Hold a youth talent night
  • Have a regular team at your local pub’s quiz night
  • Hold a thank you/celebration event for your local shopkeepers
  • Dog-walking club
  • Organise a community recipe book

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Mission Essentials

IMG_9449Yes this is my top drawer of my desk.  Full of essentials for my work and life.  It was an unplanned snapshot of exactly how it is today.  The sticky notes seem to take precedence, but in there you can see such vital items as pens, paper clips, scissors, highlighters etc.  There are always some random things too – the wire that doesn’t appear to attach to anything in particular and the purple earphones that nobody likes.

How do we prepare ourselves for life and for our life in the church?  It can be hard to be resourced correctly.  Sometimes it can feel like we are way off target.  When we ask ourselves “How am I going to ensure I have what I need?”; sometimes the answer is straightforward. For a fried egg, we need eggs, a frying pan, some oil and a spatula.  For a walk in the rain, we need good shoes, a waterproof and maybe a map so we don’t get lost.  More complex parts of life need more thinking about, more planning and, often, more experience to really feel fully prepared for.

This is true for our mission as a church – there can be so many formulae, blueprints, projects and visions, that we end up not having a clue which resources we actually need.  For the next part of this blog, we will be looking at 12 Mission Essentials.  From the beginning of 2018, we will take one essential each week and see where it takes us.  We will explore it and try to see how it can enhance our mission together. They are intended as a provocation and encouragement to action.  There may be some lightheartedness along the way, but our mission as churches is a serious one.  Here we will try to ensure that we have the resources that we need.  Are you ready for the journey of Christian mission? In your community? In your church?  In your life?  Well, for that journey, we may need some of the following Mission Essentials:

  • A Good Idea
  • The Meeting
  • Stationery
  • Prayer
  • Social Media
  • Words
  • Food
  • A Good Ear
  • The Plan
  • The Arts
  • A Destination
  • Trust

Maybe you’ll join me on the journey?  I hope so, as feedback and a discussion is always welcomed.  Have a great Christmas adventure, and see you in the New Year.

James

who is in control?

Control is a dangerous word.  It’s OK, and in fact vital, for us to have a control for our TV or for our Xbox.  It helps when we exercise control of our pets and our vehicles.  We may have to control things at work.  I get berated in the garden for my poor control of the football.  MV5BMTA1MTUxNDY4NzReQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU2MDE3ODAxNw@@._V1_All these things are good and normal… But we have to be careful when we use the word control in relation to our human relationships. However much we might like to sometimes, it is not acceptable for us to control other people; even if they are close to us – our children, our spouse, our friends.  The only person I can have any semblance of control over, is myself.   You might well know the feeling of wishing you could control somebody else from afar:

“If only I could fast forward this talk/lecture/conversation.. ”

“If only I could put this person on pause… ”

“I’d really like to eject this person from my life…”

This kind of feeling can easily occur in church life.  We look at others, and their activity or engagement with faith or mission, and we can’t help but conclude that it would be far, far better if they did it my way.  If I could just only control the way they think and approach things, then it would be so much more effective.  Working collaboratively can test our levels of self-control.  We have to listen to other people.  We have to take their views on board.  We have to find common ground.  We have to stop ourselves saying what we really think.  Self-control is vital for the planning stage of mission.  If we could all exercise it in equal measure, then it might just be easier to work together and to move forward effectively.

What would be even better, would be to be able to control those we are seeking to reach out to.  If we could just make them believe! What a brilliant shortcut to full churches and thriving communities that would be.  Mind-control of those around us is attempted by some, and is rightly rubbished.  It’s not right to even try this kind of thing.  So, how do we exercise self-control? And why is it important in our faith communities and in our mission?

The self-control that St Paul calls us to, is to do with us being watchful and temperate in our physical and spiritual lives.  The Authorised Version translated the word as ‘temperance’.  Temperance has become associated more with self-denial and the ability (or inability) of some to stave off the guilty pleasures of alcohol and other substances.  The Temperance Movement (not the Glasgow-based rockers) is engaged in the social promotion of abstinence and being teetotal.  An admirable attempt at austerity, but perhaps not in line with what Paul meant in his litany of fruits of the Spirit.

Paul is writing about a healthy way of being, yes, but one that has a more holistic feel to it.  It is not self-control in terms of us controlling our destiny; but it is an earthy, pragmatic encouragement for us to be more aware of our own being.  To manage ourselves more positively.  To not worry that we cannot control others.  To keep ourselves in check.  To walk with God’s Holy Spirit, we will exercise self-control.  We will continually orientate ourselves to God.  We are safe with him and he will keep us on the right track.

Finally, what does it bring to our mission as a church?  It helps us have perspective. A perspective that allows other views be listened to.  A perspective that gives others the ability to be involved.  A perspective that puts us in our proper place – not in control, but much more aware of where we fit in with God’s mission.  Working together in mission is such an exciting thing.  We are encouraged by Paul to manage ourselves, so that we can listen, contribute and plan our part in God’s story of mission.

Gently does it…

Gentleness is our penultimate fruit of the Holy Spirit.  That’s not to say that the fruit of the Holy Spirit ever come to an end, but you know what I mean.  Paul uses the word which can be translated as meekness (KJV) or gentleness (loads of other versions).  Being gentle is something that some of us find difficult.

‘Gentle Ben’ is a great story – the Alaskan brown bear befriends a young child in the original novel.  It is a fanciful story of a usually fierce and unpredictable creature being friendly, kind and careful with the humans he comes across.  But in a dramatic turn of events he is provoked and he retaliates dangerously, his claws are revealed and he protects his territory with violence.  The tale returns to a calmer version of Ben and the image is conveyed once more of a docile animal, who exudes great gentleness to all around.

Why should we bear gentleness as a fruit of the spirit?  What good will being gentle do us?  Especially in our mission as a church; shouldn’t we be being strident, forthright and incisive?  When we are preparing for a mission project or event, we often are encouraged to speak about boldness.  We are often sucked into thinking that if we use the loudest voice, or the loudest music, or the loudest clothes, or the loudest colours, then people will flock to us!  Our event will be a roaring success.  Sometimes, though, people can see through the loudness.  Sometimes we might just come across as a bit too keen. A bit too loud.

Where does gentleness fit in to our mission?  We have to be careful in mission, we have to be sensitive, we have to have respect.  Ultimately we have to listen.  Gentleness is a way of being, which leads us to a space where we listen to what is around us.  We listen to one another, we listen to our culture and we listen to God. St Peter writes in his letter:  “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect..”  What a great way to sum up how we can include gentleness in our mission and evangelism.

Jesus also uses the same word, when he says “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth”.  I don’t know about you, but this is a glowing endorsement of gentleness.  It is another fruit of the spirit that goes against the flow of our society.  Success is equated to power and power is in the hands of the strong, the loud and the over-confident.  Gentleness as a way of being is not fashionable in social, political and (sadly) religious life.  In scripture it carries echoes of humility and mildness.  Do we show humility towards others?  Do we show humility towards God?

Our mission is not about a grand show, telling the world how clever we are.  It is a real response to God in humility.  It is best to engage in mission after we have listened, which I believe is part of gentleness. We can go boldly and we go with a message of power, but we do it with the gentleness that the Holy Spirit gives us.