Overfished mission

This is a guess but I think there is at least some historical evidence behind it. The Church lives by mission. That is if it is to survive it can only do so by the act of people who are not yet its members!

Historically the church has had a fairly broad understanding of mission. Yes it ran evangelistic campaigns but these ran side by side with social groups and welfare provision. It clothed the naked as well as preached the good news. A church was a multifaceted organisation.

Then the church realised and I think around the 1950s, that certain actions brought in more members than others. So it argued that concentrating on these were efficiency. You did not need all the suprastructure of the other mission activities nor the random pastoral visiting, nor the social chit chat with friends. What you needed to do to grow was concentrate your resources on the receptive. Social outreach could be just for the sake of helping others it was not part of the churches central mission. A very good way to dishearten the volunteers.

Lets take the old Sunday Afternoon Sunday School. Well yes that was largely child minding so the parents could have sex without the kids around or go down the pub. So we concentrated on the Sunday morning Sunday School for church children which was far more productive in terms of immediate numbers. Except that now the children end up down the pub with the adults, or some other activity (e.g. junior football and rugby clubs often meet on a Sunday). So the kids instead of learning about Christianity, learn sport or go to pubs with their parents. That means they don’t gain the basic language in which the church puts the gospel. So we are talking to people now who speak another language. Children don’t know the Christian stories any more, this is a cultural and an evangelistic loss to the church.

The problem is that many of the other less effective programmes actually created the receptive demographic. The result of not cultivating them made people feel the church was “hypocritical” only interested in looking after those who were interested in it. The church was cutting what did not suit it and not necessarily what people around wanted the church to cut.

What is more the apparent success rate of some began to make the people in the churches began to feel inadequate in just doing the ordinary things that had supported people through generations. They felt no longer able to talk about their faith because they weren’t as good as Billy Graham. Not realising that unless they talked Billy Graham could not reach their friends.

Basically the church got into harvesting and forgot to plant.

To change metaphors for the last fifty years or more, we have fished in a non-replenishing pool. The stock is almost gone and we have not taken care to see it is replenished. In other words the Church has over fished.

This is bad news because the catches are meagre now, and the only way that the catches are going to improve is actually to put resources into replenishing the stock. To do that we have to take effort away from the catching and reinvest it in all the things we gave up fifty years ago. Yes that means social outreach, yes that means social activities for people around the buildings and yes that actually means putting their desires higher on our priority list. Only there are not as many people to fish and we are not as fit as we were fifty years ago.

The good news is that there is the wider sea, the bad news is our boat is less sea worthy than it was because we have not had to keep it up to standards for the last fifty years.

A generous church?

I am beginning to think that church finances will only really be sorted when we stop talking about how to save money and start talking about how to handle money, not just as individuals but as institution. Let me be clear, I am not in favour of wasteful spending, but cheapest ain’t always best.

Let me start with some quotes:
2 Samuel 24:24
But the king said to Araunah, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver

1 Timothy 6:17-19 (English Standard Version)

As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

Psalm 112:4-6 (English Standard Version)

Light dawns in the darkness for the upright;
he is gracious, merciful, and righteous.
It is well with the man who deals generously and lends;
who conducts his affairs with justice.
For the righteous will never be moved;
he will be remembered forever.

What do we see?
That the giving of bits that cost us nothing that are easy, is not the way that God approves. Counting the pennies and making sure everything is done as cheaply as possible is also not the best way. What we need to do is to get people to think what the church could do if it wasn’t watching the pennies so closely.

Basically as the church is at present it is strapped for money for mission. The two things that take priority on spending are ministry and buildings. A healthy congregation should be spending that again on social outreach and mission, according to John Calvin. That shows the deficit in many congregations and it shows where our priorities are. How do we change our priorities and how do we finance the mission of the church?

Firstly we need to consider how we give. There is a joke out there about tithing:

A systmem of raising money that demonstrates that the average member of the congregation is living on twenty ponds a week!

Tithing is a system that is a flat rate tax. Lets allow people to use take home pay especially as the chancellor gives back basic tax. Then for a Christian that is the money that God has given you to live on. The person with first claim on it is not you but God. Tithing is therefore a sign that it belongs to God. The URCs suggestion that half the tithe should go to other charities and half the tithe to the Church seems a decent enough suggestion. However then you have only done the minimum, what you give beynond that is really what makes you generous.

I fully accept some people struggle to make ends meet as it is. Some of these members the church probably should help by teaching them budgetting skills. others are genuinely financially short and should not be expected to pay a tithe, in fact the church should be giving to them. However this should be more than compensated for by the extra giving of those who are “rich” and by rich I don’t mean the super rich I mean anyone who would class themselves as middle class due to income.

I also happen to believe that a congregation should tithe as well and give 10% of its income to situations where the Church is struggling to make ends meet. I don’t care whether this is overseas or places of mission within the UK. This should come out before we pay Mam or for buildings. In other words the first call on our finances is the church catholic in the broadest sense.

When we start to look as our money as God given rather than ours, then there should come a different attitude of heart to what we do.

Religious Vocation and the call to the Christian life

The title sounds pompous, and that is because I am trying to word something that is very difficult to word. Vocation is easy, the call to the ordain ministry, however I want really to talk about another call, a deeper call and a more personal call.

This is the call that I believe God issues to all creatures and that is the call to be what we will be. I notice that I phrase that almost identically to the name God uses in Exodus “I am what I will be”.  That is not intentional, I did not set this up to be like that, but it is not accidental either. There are thought processes that are on going that link this call, with the essense of God.

However to put this in worldly terms it is the call to strive to reach your potential as a human being. Now I am not being as simplistic as to suggest their is only one role for us and in achieving that alone we can be happy. Rather human’s are social animals, potential is only realised together with others. So this potential has to be realised by a process of negotiation and that process can lead one down many different tracks. However the striving to be, more yourself, so as to do the good only you can do, is an essential one of human beings. I happen to believe this call lies deep on all souls. We long to unify ourselves with the potential of the God, who is what he WILL be, to realise our potential.

The thing is vocation is a type of expression of the call. This call is different for every human being, but sometimes we recognise a group of them as falling into a generic type. Vocation is the name for just one of these types. I happen to believe educators are another, I can well believe that relief worker is another, and healer another. However agriculture is another, cook, mother, sportsperson and so on are also generic types and maybe there are types we don’t like to recognise such as person reliant on social welfare.

The problem is that when someone is blocked in the expression of one type, they don’t sit down and think “ok, so not that way at present, lets look at what is available now”, they think “that’s me denied, I cannot reach my full potential because they won’t let me” The vocation is grounded in relationship, no one can force themselves to be something the community does not wish them to be. It was no good Moses being called by God to lead the Hebrews out of slavery, if the Hebrews had decided that actually they would rather stay where they were than follow him.

What is more the basic call is not stopped by the fact that one expression is turned down, it remains, you just have to re-appraise the situation and see what other ways there are of becoming the person you would like to be.

URC and the discourse about being too diverse

First something for people to ponder and get back to me upon. Martin my supervisor started to day to ponder that the URC had more similar theological core ideas than Anglicanism did. I challenged this, I think effectively by pointing out that I have on occasions to use an “Anglican dialect” in order to get ideas across on places like Ship of Fools which is dominated by Anglicans. However my reason for challenging that was not that experience but being involved in the “Who the Heck are we?” I heard people within the URC expressing the exact same sort of opinion about the URC. So I am sceptical about both claims.

    However it is worth pondering that some people in the URC don’t feel that there is a lot in common with others in the URC. I suspect it has a number of roots.

    1. Firstly I think that some of it is due to our independent spirit. The feeling that the way the our URC does things is the way our URC does thing and is a full legitimate way of being URC in all its idiosyncrasy. 
    2. Secondly I think that when people start to encounter other URC congregations there is surprise at the different valid forms of being URC that others have. It is a richness but it also starts many people asking about what does it mean to be URC. 
    3. Thirdly I think there is some genuine bewilderment at the diversity, especially on certain hot issues. 
    4. However I suspect there is some importing of the Anglican discourse where there are real and current power struggles going on. The question is if the Anglican’s are having such a difficulty on keeping their show on the road, why aren’t these issues causing us equally difficulty. 

    That last question needs answering in multiple ways, both in terms of:

    • our independent heritage which leaves us with a much more  bottom up structure than the Anglican Communion, 
    • the commitment to unity and therefore travelling together, 
    • that tensions have been faced at other stages, remember what the 1990s were like anyone?
    • conditionality of our understanding of revelation which results in a blurred identity 
    • that we have several not just one hot topic, anyone fancy a round on whether its necessary for a Christian to be pacifist?

    Turning the other cheek

    There once was a man employed at a Northern University on a temporary contract in staff development. Actually lots of people have, but this is a story he told.

    When he was fairly new in post, somebody in the manner of University switch boards put a lady through who wanted to send a copy of her magazine in which the University had put a job advert. Why she got his number, is one of the obscurities of University switch boards and people trying to negotiate the fact that there is not one central number. I don’t know whether she had dialled two numbers in the wrong order, or if she had been passed pillar to post as people tried to guess the right person.

    Anyway as he was new (maybe that should be especially as he was new) he did not have the number of the correct person to hand. At which point she turned on the snot. She made him feel as if she was in some lah-de-dah operation in the South of England with swanky offices and all creature comforts and he should just jump at her behest. Southerners who try and make northerners feel small don’t go down well. He obviously had assertiveness training as he managed to after some time to get off the phone with the promise to ring her back.

    He can remember doing two finger signs at the phone after he put it down.

    Then, in his words, he “took control

    He looked up the number required, which was in personnel and in the next block of offices  but not something he knew at the time. He rang the lady back, said he now had the address which he passed onto her all the time being as courteous as courteous, even offering to email the address to her so that she would have it in the future.

    When he had finished the lady apologised for her earlier behaviour, which is what he had intended her to do.

    It’s a great story as it is not one we hear told very often. The guy in “taking control” meant that he did not let the ladies unprofessional attitude rile him into unprofessional behaviour. However the maintenance of professional behaviour here seems right in line with Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek and walk the extra mile. I am not claiming he was a Christian but he was repeating Christ’s teaching to a secular group.

    So is the commands about forgiveness or about not letting others determine how you respond and your mood? Is it about freedom or forgiveness?

    A Welcome is not enough

    I said in the discussion that welcome is not enough. I think I can now spell out the two other stages that need to happen, one is prior to the welcome, invitation/introduction and the second comes afterwards integration.

    Firstly most people are not going to cold call a church for worship! A few, a very few and normally in my experience people who are fairly marginal to society do. The rest when looking for a church, would rather go to one where they know somebody or even know a friend of a friends. So at this stage it means people letting it be known they go to a particular church and speaking of the good things about it. You will notice that personal evangelism can be part of this process but it does not have to be. So a congregation needs to actually spend some time thinking about what it is good at and encouraging people to talk about those things.

    I also think that it is quite possible if we want people to cold call our congregations putting up the old fashioned “Public Worship” is more effective than “All welcome”. The thing is that “public” says to people “you have the right to be here”. In a world where more and more public spaces are being privatised that may be an important message to get across. Actually “All Welcome” is very problematic. It is used in many situations where all are not welcome, so people tend to disbelieve it. It sounds desperate, we will take anyone who comes. Nobody particularly wants to belong to an organisation that is desperate for new members.

    As for integration that is the real test of inclusiveness. It is very easy for someone to be welcomed the first three or four weeks they attend and then ignored once their face is familiar. This makes becoming part of a congregation very difficult indeed. At this stage people still need someone more familiar with the congregation to befriend them. For instance if it is stated “Please see Jane Bloggs for tickets for the Christmas lunch” they often won’t know who “Jane Bloggs” is even though they have been around for a while. They need to have someone they can ask in a none threatening way. Otherwise they are effectively excluded from these events. That goes further, any idea how hard it is to set up a direct debit, when you don’t know who the giving secretary is, etc. Then their gifts aren’t know to the congregation so often overlooked. There also is a need for pastoral care before they are fully a member and one gift they do have is the ability to see the congregation more as an outsider would than those who have been there for twenty years.

    Diversity within the URC

    This is part of my response to “Who the Heck are we? Exploring identity within the URC”

    On the online seminar (Webinar) I heard several people say “We are very diverse”. I want to question that. I have attended ten different URC. These include two in Urban Priority Area and it also includes liberal and conservative ones. Also there are former Presbyterian, and former Congregationalists as well at least one ecumenical partnership.  It covers membership sizes from about twenty to two hundred and includes growing and declining churches. I simply don’t see it in most areas of our life.

    Let me start off stating where there is diversity. If there is theological spectrum from liberal to conservative then yes we are very diverse on that spectrum. However many moons ago, I sat in on a qualitative methodology course in the social science. One lecturer was comparing a Durkheim statistical analytic approach to Sociology with something like the approach a Barthian  postmodern experiential approach. He pointed out that although they were unlikely to agree on anything, they did agree that there was something worth discussing, and even though they were pradigmatically opposed they could have a conversation with each other because in some extent they were talking the same language. In some ways Reformed Theology is like that. It tends to lead to strongly held extreme positions (both liberal and conservative), people don’t agree, but they are working out their positions within a framework of thought.

    However in many other areas we simply do not display that diversity. We go from very low to something approaching low moderate when you talk liturgically. That is weekly service of the word with monthly communion are normative whether conservative evangelical or liberal. We change the hymns but not the format.

    Views of the Eucharist go from low Lutheran to pure Zwinglian with very little at either end. Ironically I suspect of those that have thought about it Calvin’s position is the one most commonly held although Zwinglian is more often taught (but then according to my supervisor that is the case even among the Roman Catholics and he is a sociologist of liturgy)! There is little or no correlation with the views on communion and the frequency of partaking!

    Then there is the way the Bible becomes a symbol of “orthodoxy”. I can still remember sitting in a organising committee reviewing lent groups. One member was a liberal URC member, another a moderate liberal Anglican (at least by our standards). The Anglican said “too much bible study”, the URC said “too little bible study”. Over and over again I have come across a smattering of members in many different congregations who have a knowledge of the Bible that is only possible to attain through years of consistent study. Twice ministers from the pulpit has said that very few have read the Bible from cover to cover only to find that there are several in the congregation who have. One congregation would maybe labelled conservative; the other liberal. Actually neither name fits the complexity of the theological position of either congregation well.

    Our ways of working create a similarity between congregations.

    Then, congregations are proud of the “independence”. Even the former Presbyterians tend to voice independent sentiments, and quite enjoy doing things their way. Normally their way is very similar to the URC just up the road, but hush don’t tell them that. Its a bit like the no uniform days at school, where all the girls are free to wear exactly the same pink dress.

    Painting things blue and selling orange marmalade are not random. The blue one is very particular and there is nothing accidental about it. The colour blue is actually a light shade of royal blue, it is called Presbyterian Blue and was coined at the time of the Orange revolution! It is a method of saying strongly protestant and loyal to a protestant monarch. I doubt that 10% of those who are choosing this colour are aware of its heritage but they feel that this is the colour they ought to use.

    Selling homemade orange marmalade I first put down to it being a “Scottish thing” and therefore done in congregations with a Presbyterian background. However I am finding this common elsewhere. It may still be due to “Scottish Heritage” as many of congregations which don’t have a Presbyterian background (or not a recent one) do have a lot of Scots as members.

    Thirdly we are culturally similar. Two obvious reasons for this, one is the asking of hard questions: this is not culturally normative, as far as I can make out most people, perhaps after a period of youthful rebelliousness, feel that keeping the show on the road is enough for them, and they don’t want to analyse things. Its not just our Anglican and Methodist friends. Secondly we are governed by committees. Committees take skills, and they are not skills the majority of the population have. In fact they are largely middle class and they are getting rarer in society. I suspect that you have to be upper middle class, senior management, before you actually get to deal with committees. The small local institutions that used to “train” people in this sort of process are failing, and have been for a while. There is an increasing split between the highly committed “keenies” and the majority lax membership, whether this is unions, social club or church. It is a fairly specific group within the population who will be attracted to a church where asking hard questions is encouraged and that is run by committees.

    Gathered and Scattered

    This is just my noticing. Many of the former Presbyterian congregations try to distinguish themselves from the Congregationalists as a “gathered congregation”. This is nonsense. All that gathered mean is that it is a church that is formed by a group of like minded people meeting together rather than one set up for an area. The fact is that ALL URCs are gathered. In fact all non-conformist congregations are gathered, technically even the Roman Catholics. Being a gathered church is the English norm.

    What the Scots members are doing is contrasting being “gathered” with being a “parish” church in Scotland and therefore assuming that somehow therefore the Congregational churches which tend to be more local are somehow “parish”.

    What they actually need to distinguish is probably local, civic and specialist. Local are congregations whose audience is defined by being in a locality, civic are congregations that are defined as being the URC for a specific metropolis (about the nearest thing we have to Cathedrals but they are spread pretty randomly: Birmingham has one, Sheffield does, but Manchester doesn’t and I don’t think Leeds has one either. Some smaller places: Chesterfield, Doncaster, (Wakefield used to) have them as well. There is no coherent structure to where they are and where they aren’t, they are town centre and will often act as a central church. Finally there are specialist churches, these are ones that have a specific bent to their behaviour, they may be into: healing, retreats and meditation, Social justice, gay rights. The local congregation tends to attract local people (although not all will be local), the civic congregation tends to attract people from around the town, and the specialist congregation has a wider spread yet.

    Now the former Presbyterian Churches are often best set to become specialist congregations, they did attract people from a wider area; although I think the fact St Andrews Sheffield for many years had a member on the Isle of Skye was a bit extreme. The problem is they need to change their speciality, as being the “Scottish” is no longer a viable option (not since the 1970s).

    All the church is called to do is to remain faithful

    I have heard this several times. It sounds good even to me and if properly understood it is true but it is rarely understood. It is interpreted to mean “All we need to do is to keep going as we are.” That is dangerous, a false lie, it is the modern equivalent of the servant who was given one talent and chose to bury it in the ground.

    The key word is Faithful. Most people associate faithfulness with things staying the same, with remaining as we are, with keeping the status quo. However faithfulness is one of relationship, it is not faithful to suggest inside a relationship that both people must remain the same to keep things as they are, there must in any relationship be space to grow and change. Indeed faithfulness is altering a relationship to accept the change in another. What would we think of mother who kept her baby in nappies as that was a way to faithful or insisted in carrying the child everywhere no matter how big they grew.  I think we would feel that such a person was psychologically in trouble. We know in our relationships with other people that being faithful is actually a matter of continual change.

    So it is with God, the call for the church to be faithful is not a call for the church to be static but a call for the church to adapt its relationship to God as its circumstances and understandings of God change. Fighting to keep things the same because that is being faithful, is a failure of relationship, and far from being faithful it is highly unfaithful.

    Who should the local congregation be evangelising?

    I have heard that someone recently preached on how the church should be doing outreach to people whose alcohol addiction leads them to drink on the streets, people who are homeless and people who are sustainably addicted to drugs. Well I admit those are challenging areas to do outreach in. It is like it is a bit of a challenge to take the gospel to groups of people who no one has tried to take the gospel before. There are challenges and I fully accept its worth doing but…

    … as someone who has been vaguely involved with it can I say there is one big problem, the area is over subscribed with those who want to be involved in it!  The people who around here fall into those categories go from one Christian mission to the next Christian mission and get food, clothing, worship etc from that.

    The real challenge, the biggie, the one I fail at is …

    To take the gospel to people who outwardly are the same as us. To cross the taboo line in society and talk about the faith with your friends. To be prepared to be ridiculed amongst those you socialise with. To be prepared to adapt church so those people who have never been to church feel welcomed and treated with respect, because they believe they won’t be. The challenge is not to bring the very different to Christ but the almost like us to Christ, who can and will ask awkward questions, may think you a religious freak and suspect you of judging them even if you don’t.