Category Archives: Mission

Seth Godin: What’s ‘education’ for?

This post about public school in America, its industrial roots and lack of connection with the nature of contemporary society gives clues to how we might train people in theological colleges, how we ‘do’ mission and church, and how we disciple people today…  Enjoy!


A shepherd’s tale

Easy-to-organise last-minute creativity for a Christmas service if you’re pressed!  Goes well with Luke 2:8-20 (or radical choice – instead of!).

 “We’re the unsung heroes, you know…No one gives us the blindest bit of notice.  You’d think we were dirt, the way they treat us when we go into town…

 The wages are rubbish and when you think what we have to do…  Night shift in the freezing cold, wild animals on the prowl, and not a sniff of danger money…  Bored out of our minds half the time and scared witless the rest…  And in the day we’re at it non-stop – getting the maggots out of them, shearing them for market, hunting down the strays…  Oh, did I tell you?  We’re shepherds…  We provide food for that stuck-up lot in town, wool for them as can afford it, and lambs for sacrifices in the temple…  And all the thanks we get for it is the evil looks in the street… ‘Better stand down-wind of him…Cor, what a whiff!  Did someone let one off?’ 

So there we were this one time…  Sat round the fire with the usual bottle of something to keep the cold and the fear out, and then – there’s this other person there with us, talking to us somehow…and you could just hear a voice, inside you and outside you at the same time, if you know what I mean…  Of course you don’t…I know you don’t…you couldn’t unless it happened to you…And I tried to look at him but it was like he was made of light…really brilliant light…

He said about the baby…a special baby born for us…  ‘For shepherds?!’ I said, trying to make a bit of a joke of it, stop myself feeling so weak and wobbly.  ‘Is there going to be a posher baby born for society people?’  I still wish I hadn’t opened my mouth.  But he – she – it didn’t break me into a million pieces.  It said, ‘This baby’s for everyone, and will bring peace to everyone who worships him.’

And then there was singing.  No, not us!  But them – a whole load of them by now, a blaze of light and music like you can’t describe.  But it fills you with a joy and excitement so big you think you’re going to explode.

So we went to see the baby… he was easy to find, the only one in an animal shed – his mother had used her wits and made a trough into a kind of cot…God must have a sense of humour, I thought, to put his kid – if it really was his – in a baby bed like that.  And among the straw and cow muck – well, we fitted right in.  By the time we went back to the sheep, everything had changed.  God thought of telling me about his Son’s arrival.  He wasn’t the God I thought he was – he was much better.  Much more human.  Much more down-to-earth!  I could worship a God like that…”


A group of ladies were making their way towards us along the corridor, a little unsteadily,  led by care assistants.  We’d started the worship-service-cum-hymn-singalong in the second floor lounge while they made their way up from the bottom floor: it was ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’, known as ATB&B in the trade (Avoid This – Boring and Banal).

As I went to call a welcome, singing heartily, I saw the lady at the front moving in an odd way – in perfect time to the music, putting one foot to the other and taking a step forward.  Then repeating with the opposite foot. And back to the first….

Nicole* was dancing.

I can’t tell you often I want to dance in worship.  Not the ‘offer your hamster to the Lord’ other-worldly group dance, or the ‘caught up in the Spirit amongst a hall full of people’ dance, but the normal ‘kick your knees up and jig about in sheer unpracticed exuberance’ kind of dance. (Is that normal?!) I’m slowly introducing figures from country dancing into worship at our largely traditional Eucharistic church (strip-the-willow is a great image for the dance of the Trinity…).  And here was Nicole, from the ground floor where all the doors are security locked to discourage patients from wandering:  Nicole, void of speech, bright of eye, absolutely on the beat, dancing purposefully into the lounge for the service.

It’s not often I’m too choked to sing ATB&B – usually I’m thinking about the link to the next part of the service, and then find I’ve no idea what verse we’re on.  But Nicole and I held hands and danced.  I twirled her gently in a dignified way.  Her brilliant black eyes reached out to mine in delight.  I squeaked bits of the chorus, as I slowly processed the means God had used to answer my heart’s cry, and the trust he had placed in my hands.  ATB&B couldn’t have gone on too long.  It was redeemed for me in this moment, in this interchange of gifts: my need to dance being met so completely and beautifully by Nicole.

And I was reminded of a statement by Angela Shier-Jones that applies normally to pioneer ministry (which this wasn’t, although maybe those of us trying to pathfind a meaninful way of leading worship amongst people suffering with memory loss or dementia might be pioneering a little):  ‘Pioneering ministry cannot be done to a community by someone who knows what they need, it can only be done with a community by someone who shares that need.’

*not her real name

Gospel Cocktails (3rd and last post): waitress service

It was a joy to see our church membeFiona Doughton, Brenda, Pauline Wigmore and a queue at the cocktail standrs serving the punters at the Flower Show.

It’s not part of our church culture or tradition to be so ‘out there’ in terms of pointing to an invisible Other.  Our congregations serve the local community in a myriad of valuable ways:  they raise money for the hospice, raise awareness of issues surrounding Alzheimer’s, support the Youth Centre, form the body of the Rotary Club, WI, Townswomen’s Guild and more…  They’re also comfortable generally promoting the church – the building, the services, anything tangible.  But ask them to talk explicitly to someone else about God, or their faith… that’s not something they’ve been used to.  They’re not particularly cocktail drinkers either, as far as I know…!

Preparing for the event, we reflected on some of the treasures of the Christian way:  joy, peace, hope, faith, forgiveness, life.  How could you express these qualities in terms of flavour, colour and texture?  It proved a creative activity involving experimentation with juices and mixers, and asking others for their opinions.  One of the men made the bar!  Then all the church team members learnt how to mix a cocktail…

Behind the bar they served, resolutely refusing payment.  Aged between 8 to 91, waiters and waitresses rose to the occasion and dressed in character – bow ties, pinnies, Hawaian shirts!  Again, trying to embody Biblical images of God, we were working with ‘I came not to be served, but to serve…’

They hawked their wares with ease, in a way they wouldn’t have wanted to if we’d been inviting people to church, or trying to ‘sell’ faith in some way.  I think many of them (us) got a buzz from putting across something of their faith in an imaginative, playful way without having to find their own words.

As far as the recipes are concerned, if you’re reading this and thinking of having a go I suggest you don’t use our recipes.  Deciding on the names and experimenting with the contents was a valuable part of the whole process:  an opportunity for everyone to reflect what we wanted to share with others of the riches of God, and what the experience of it might mean.

It took a while to get the cocktail idea off the ground.  It seems you have to model a new concept – put it in the domain of the concrete – before most people will buy in to what you’re proposing, however carefully you might try to explain what it involves.  ‘Gospel Cocktails’ were mooted in church for a year with no response at all.  Finally a group of about five people agreed to explore the possibilities, and we did a demonstration in a service one morning to put the concept across.  I was chuffed with the number of individuals who volunteered to do a stint behind the bar after that, and they did a great job.

I’ve already been told we’re doing it again, and we’ll make the most of it next time – we’ll have a whole Cocktail Day in preparation, learning about classic cocktail-making, and trying out some new products for Portishead summer events…


Gospel Cocktails (2): the layers

Overflowing JoyThe task of mission in our time is to say something true about the nature of God and what it is to be a disciple of Jesus.  That’s what I think, anyway, at the moment.

Gospel cocktails allow people to engage with these subjects on various different levels.

For those who took up the offer of a free drink there were multiple levels of access.  On the most basic level, it was a drink.  Hurrah!  The queues for the refreshment tent were sometimes long… God represented as thirst-quencher.   On the next level, it was a free drink.  Everyone likes a freebie.  Without a catch.  And for the teenagers, perhaps, or the harrassed parents trying to draw a line in the sand of costly treats, the ‘free’ tag brought relief and eager custom. God represented as the gift-giver, whose grace we endlessly encounter.

When people got this far, they were invited to peruse the menu.  At which point, they generally read all the names of the cocktails:  Overflowing joy, Life in all its fulness, Sure and certain hope, the Gift of faith (we didn’t tell people what was in this one – they had to take it on trust), Peace beyond understanding, Forgiveness.  And a choice: to think about the drinks in terms of their contents, or in terms of the spiritual gift they promised.  To ask for a drink, and subconsciously (or not) formulate a prayer.  God represented as the source of inner riches.

Some, I’m sure, engaged only with the flavours.  But some clocked the joke, and the underlying seriousness of it.  There was lots of teasing around the concept of forgiveness; one lady had Forgiveness, went away and came back a while later for a top up.  What had she done in the interim….?!  I wonder if English people find it easier to talk about faith in these light-hearted terms than in more traditional ways….

In less busy periods we followed up these comments, or asked people if they thought the cocktail lived up to its title.  One man, after being assured there was no catch to the offer of a free drink, challenged me directly with the confession: ‘I’m a lapsed Catholic.’  ‘You are most welcome,’ I said, quoting Aragorn from the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He and his mate had a drink, went away to tell their wives and children, brought them back.  We had some tables and chairs set out in the bar and invited people to write a response to their drink on the paper tablecloths: some people unprompted wrote prayers.

Church people came too, for their cocktail.  I loved that about it:  it didn’t matter who you were, what your background, age, gender, faith status was, you could go away with some sort of gift…  an experience that said something true about God.  And in a way where the medium and the message were so closely aligned you couldn’t get a cocktail stick between them.

Gospel Cocktails Part 1: inside-out metaphor

I am zinging with the success of our church-run cocktail ba2013-07-28 15.32.53r.

It’s fair to say cocktails have never been part of church culture.  But why not claim them as such?  They are, after all, intended as an appetiser…  a drink to make your taste buds spring to attention and get ready for more treats to come.  What better way of introducing people to the life of faith?  They are celebratory, and refreshing, and try to paint a picture in a glass.  Long Island iced tea looks just like iced tea; and a Tequila Sunrise looks like – well, a sunrise.

Of course, there’s always the alcohol issue.  We gave this much thought; in the end, we left it out for practical reasons:  licensing laws, inclusivity, cost.  Our cocktail bar popped up at the 150th anniversary of the Portishead Flower Show.  There were few complaints about the lack of alchohol, and for those who objected, we reserved the right to point them to the AA tent round the corner.

Why cocktails?  Well, it stems from Isaiah, as with much else.  Through Isaiah God says,

‘Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.’

Isaiah is working in metaphor.  Free wine, water and milk – these are metaphors for the life-giving, mourishing, joyful presence of God that won’t cost you a penny.  And it’s a bit weird, but we’ve turned the metaphor inside out, we’re playing it literally…  We’re offering refreshing drinks for free, and expecting them to point to God, and life in connection with him.

So at the Heavenly Cocktail bar we served ‘Peace beyond understanding’: a delicious combination of mango smoothie and cream, shaCocktail bar staff in characterken together with ice and served with an olive (olive branch – peace – get it?!)  And ‘Overflowing joy’: the sweetness of grenadine, the tangy desert island taste of pineapple, add the fizzy zip of ginger ale and a wheel of lime to garnish.  In the end we ran out of Joy and had to send people off to breathe in the fizz from previous partakers.  And ‘Forgiveness’ – more popular than you might expect…  Lemonade, sparkling water, honey, with waving fronds of mint… incredibly light and cleansing.

We too tried to paint a picture in a glass, but of an inner reality, of the spiritual treasure chest we have access to through the Holy Spirit.  We tried to offer people a new way to pray; engaging with their need and God’s riches without self-consciousness or analytical thought.  What a pleasure to hear a person ask with a lilt of surprise in his voice, “‘Can I have ‘Life in all its fulness, please?’, and for my wife, ‘Sure and certain hope.’  She needs it after the week she’s had.”


Does it matter how people hear the gospel?

Someone asked me recently why I don’t simply come straight out with a presentation of the Christian faith to the people I meet, describing an occasion when he’d done just that.  Out for a drink with an acquaintance, he’d asked for permission to explain his beliefs, and was gratified to spend the rest of the evening in a detailed discussion of Christian beliefs and practices.

The question was challenging: yes, why don’t I just come out with it?  Why do I spend time building relationships, exploring spirituality, trialling gatherings of different kinds to bring people together?  Why has it taken two years to begin to speak about Jesus with some of the people I’ve got to know?  Am I a coward, watering down the gospel, afraid of personal rejection, misguided about the nature of conversion, or doubtful of the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to people?  Well, yes…possibly all of the above!

But I wonder if the way people come to faith has an impact on the way they exercise faith later, and what they understand church to be.  My objective in growing a community through which people are invited into an encounter with Jesus is to try to keep the medium of the gospel as closely in line with the message as possible, and to give an accurate expectation of what it’s like to be part of a church.

It’s one of the most counter-cultural aspects of the gospel in our generation and the hardest for us to grasp:  that this business of salvation isn’t primarily ‘all about me’ (to misquote a well-known Christian chorus).  I think the translation of the New Testament into English is partly to blame, or the fact that the English language no longer distinguishes between singular and plural forms of ‘you’.  So generations of Christians in the English-speaking world have read Paul’s letters to the nascent churches around the Mediterranean as though they were written to them personally and individually, when they were actually addressed to whole communities and meant to be applied in the plural.

Add this to a highly individualistic consumerist culture, and a decision to follow Christ can be just one more expression of personal identity with no implications for post-decision life.  From a one-to-one discussion of the gospel an enquirer might construe that Christianity is an individual matter, a question of intellect and rationality that a person can assent to or dismiss, that can be kept separate from the rest of their life experience.

Faith is a communal matter.  It is caught from members of the community, its shape and character is learned from a community, and arguably, an equirer needs to have a taste of the community in question before committing to it.

Simply outlining theological concepts and personal beliefs seems a mono-dimensional way of inviting people into a new way of being.  What I’m trying to do is gather a load of people tentatively interested in exploring ‘the God thing’, and as if they were standing round in a circle with Jesus at the centre, help them to move closer to him by moving closer to each other.

It’s more like barn-raising than a kind of contractual exchange of ideas.  And I hope for multiple objectives achieved: relationships multiplied, community engendered, stories toldImage of people engaged in barn-raising, teams built, skills grown, gifts discovered, laughter shared, a distinctive expression of church posited that’s deeply rooted in life as it is lived day-to-day.  So the means of growing into faith is aligned  with the way it is lived out.

It’s altogether fuzzier, riskier, trickier and scarier than adding new believers to a known church entity one by one.  I still don’t know if this is just an ill-conceived idea or an inspired one.  I’ll post a photo of the barn if and when it’s up!




Sequel to the prequel

Thought I’d better just say a few words about compost!

It surprises me how little the church needs to do in fact to soften the soil.Just being nice can be enough.  No, really.  Friendliness, openness, humility.  Being involved in the life of the community, remembering people’s names, acting as if the tragedies of other people mattered.  Appreciating the demands on other people’s time.  Getting on with each other.  Doing what you’ve said you’ll do.  Offering words of appreciation.  Valuing someone’s contribution.  Smiling.  Yes, really.  Serving in small ways.  Sharing of yourself.  Telling the truth.  Laughing!  …Nooo, not really?!!  Responding to suggestions.  Admitting mistakes.  Facilitating good times together.

We don’t have to solve the problem of poverty in our community (although that would be ideal) or heal all the sick (wouldn’t that be great?).  We just have to be approachable, trustworthy, warm individuals.  And people will start to listen.


The Parable of the Sower: the prequel

What happened before the sower went out to sow?

I could make pots out of the soil in my garden.  It’s clay.  There’s no other description for it – it just needs to be moulded and fired, and I could eat fish and chips off it.  It’s useless as stuff to plant things in – you put a fork in the ground and the turned lumps of earth are like sticky irregular cricket balls that defy the laws of gravity and cling to the fork prongs rather than falling back in the hole where they belong.  Breaking it down into particles small enough to cuddle a young plant is a labour of Hercules; you chop down the hunk of clay into smaller chunks and it immediately re-combines itself into a glutinous mass that would smother life sooner than nurture it.

Didn’t Jesus know about compost?  I don’t know how many hundredweight it’ll take to make my soil plantworthy.  Of course nothing grows in it.  Nor does anything much grow in the builder’s rubble I call a vegetable patch next to the garage full of DIY and gardening kit.  Before the sower went out to sow, surely he spent hours ploughing up the clumpy earth, sending his labourers to pick out all rocks and stones, pulling up the weeds that were likely to throttle the seedlings, and digging in manure?  Why doesn’t Jesus tell us what happened before the sower went out to sow?!

It’s relevant because some of the people we live among are like my garden clay.  It’s not that they don’t want to receive the seed, it’s just that they’re going to need a lot of preparation before it’s possible.  Leading a baptism on Sunday, I think I heard someone stifle a snigger when I said getting to know Jesus was a good reason for exploring God’s kingdom.  And I wondered: if I could download a schematic from their brain of what that name conjured up, what would it show?  Possibly a string of swear words and a man in a long white dress?

Some people are unchurched to the third or fourth generation, and have no idea what Christianity is about at its heart.  They’re going to need a lot of compost to break down the skewed scornful media messages that form people’s image of Jesus.   Some people have been hurt by religious institutions in the past – an elderly man I recently met at a wake told me he was permanently scarred by the harsh discipline he received as a child at the hands of teachers at his church school.   Healing these hurts with loving kindness is like removing sharp stones and scraps of broken concrete from the soil.  And we need to pull up the weeds of mistrust: these are self-seeded from the widely-reported wrong-doing church individuals and institutions have committed in the past.

You can only do a little of this at a time – it’s back-breaking work that takes a lot of patience.  So each church and each individual disciple needs to prepare the ground square by square in their own back yard: people trust their Christian friends and their local church when they don’t trust ‘religion’ because they’ve pinched and prodded us and seen what we’re made of.  This is before we do any real planting.

Obviously Jesus knew about preparing the ground…  he had John the Baptist to do soil-shifting on a grand scale what with lowering mountains and filling in valleys and suchlike.  I think we need to identify the people groups of clay in our society, and start preparing the soil.  No expectation yet of fruit.  Seeds will bounce.  Bring on those who will give their time to doggedly preparing the ground for planting.

To be a pilgrim

Want an updated version of ‘To be a pilgrim’? This was sung at my installation service in June 2011.  Feel free to use and improve if you wish – no copyright!

To be a pilgrim

Sent by the Father above
Jesus drew near us;
Journeyed with his people in love,
Chose not to fear us;
His great humility
And true simplicity
Are marks of what it means to be
A faithful pilgrim.

Now risen from the dead
Jesus anoints us;
Pours grace upon our head,
Calls, gifts, appoints us;
“Go, journey through the street,
Share me with those you meet;
I’ll come and wash your feet,
My fellow pilgrim.”

Lord, for the route unknown,
Send us your Spirit;
Guide us as we journey home,
Life to inherit.
Grant courage for the way,
Give wisdom what to say,
Fill me with love and strength today
To be a pilgrim.