Monday, November 28, 2016

Spot the difference? Reflections four months after re-locating.


In last four months we've moved from a provincial city in the South West of England to a larger city in the Midlands. Lots of things in our lives are different now... wise friends counselled us in August that there is difference that is good, difference that is bad, and difference that is just difference.

Much is similar. 
  • We still live in the UK. 
  • We're still in a church that uses a mix of old and new music, and where the normal ministry approach is based on expositional bible teaching. Sunday meetings are basically very similar. 
  • Both are in student cities, and in both most people in the church came to faith in a different church somewhere else in the UK. 
  • A majority of both churches are middle-class graduates. 
  • The local UCCF staff worker is a member of our church in both cases, and the church is popular with students.
  • The speciality coffee scene is strong in both locations.
Some things are different, and could be bad or good depending on various factors...
  • Politically, we've moved from having a Labour MP to a Tory MP, and from a Remain area to a Leave one...  In our previous church, the Sunday after the vote in June was sombre, with visible lamenting. In our current church, support is evident for both sides.
  • As winter hits we'll probably get less rain and more snow. 
  • We've left the beaches, and traded Dartmoor for the Peak District. 
  • My job is a bit different - though essentially an expansion some aspects of part my old job, with other things I used to do covered by other members of the team here. 
  • My wife isn't in paid employment at the moment which makes for a big difference in her day to day life compared to teaching part-time previously. 
  • Our school age boys were at the same primary school but are currently at different schools. 
  • Our current church is part of the FIEC, our previous is in the Newfrontiers family. 
  • There's much overlap in that but some differences in theological emphasis and practice, most noticably a difference between informal and formal membership, and elder-led vs. elder-led/congregational polity.
More noticably, here's a few of the differences we've experienced which probably all fall into the third category and probably have the most impact on us.
Large City (320k) vs. Small City (120k)... The large city brings increased cultural and ethnic diversity. Both cities are very green, but in our old city you could see the hills beyond the city wherever you were. 
Small Town Life (35k) vs. Small City life (120k)... A corollary to living in a big city is that it's made up of smaller towns. We've found ourselves very much in a small town in a big city. There's enough here to mean we only very occasionally venture out into the wider city. Previously, I might traverse our smaller city often, I rarely need to leave our neighboorhood now. With a combination of church, running club and school gates it's rare to walk through town now and not see someone we know - even after four months. You might walk further to get that same experience in a larger setting.
Large multi-congregational church (500-600) vs. Large single-congregation church (250-300)... Our old church met as one congregation in a large venue - it felt very big and the sense of scale effected a lot of how things neeed to be done. Our new church meets in a space that is half the size, and has 3 morning congregation and 1 in the evening. Numerically our new church is twice the size, experientially its like being in a much smaller church. Alongside that, the actual scale increase means a staff team here that includes almost 3 times as many people in full/part time roles.
Local church vs. City wide church... Most of our new church live within a mile of our Sunday venue. In our old church we were gathered from across a bigger cityscape. Community functions differently in these two approaches. In our new church people think about the locality of our building and happily walk to church...  in our old church people would travel further and think of their lives more widely... that said in both locations people think nothing of travelling for work and to a supermarket. On a geographical Triangle between Church - Home - Work, home and church are nearest.
Church with a building vs. Church without a building... Our old church ran through home groups, our new church has strong home groups but also has the capacity to run many midweek ministries to serve different parts of our community. In our new church this most significantly includes a large midweek work with International Students from nearby Halls of Residence. When your Sunday venue disappears from Monday to Saturday then your visible presence is a community scattered into all areas of society... without a building its more natural to join in with what's going on, having a building makes it more likely that you'll set up your own stuff. There's 'go and tell'  and 'come and see', and a place for both.
70 year old church vs. 13 year old church... Both our old and new churches have a median age that is young - early-30s at a guess with a large number of students. By virtue of being around for longer our new church has a wider demographic spread, and includes people who have grown up in the church. Our new churches includes within its umbrella a 3 year old church plant into one part of our small town. Both churches have some history of sending people out to other nations or parts of the UK into church ministry, relative to scale and time. Both churches are transient but some of our new church have been members of the church for decades longer than our previous church has existed.
I'm sure there are other differences and similarities... some are gains, some losses, very many simply difference.

Image - Creative Commons - Forsaken Fotos

Sunday, November 20, 2016

God's Purpose in Election: 4 things we do. 6 things God does


The question of God's sovereignty and our freedom in salvation (and life more generally) is no easy question. On one level it's an unresolvable tension. In his book "How do you know that" Ellis Potter suggests something of a solution - to not try to fit the two things into a pie chart - a percentage to God and a percentage to us... there's no satisfactory solution there. Rather than flattening to a 2D plane, what if we consider them as two intersecting discs, our experience of freedom and God's purpose.

Both real, certainly experienced as real. What can we say?

Limiting ourselves to Romans 9-10... Our angle on the painful dilmma of friends and family who don't know Jesus when you do... and then God's.

What do we do?
1. WE HAVE ANGUISH AND SORROW (9v2) Paul has "unceasing anguish" and "great sorrow". There is no permission to go any further in this conversation if we're not similarly affected. There is a right emotional tenor to this doctrinal wrestle and it cannot be cold and detached. One imagines the original manuscript of Romans 9 is tearstained.
2. WE HAVE DESIRE AND PRAYER (10v1) Paul has great desire for his friends and to come to Christ. And he prays for that to happen.
3. WE SPEAK OF CHRIST (10v14) Paul preaches the gospel word that brings Christ near to anyone who hears it.
4. WE ARE HUMBLED (9v29) "Unless the Lord Almighty had left us... we would have...". But for his grace we know there would be no hope for us. We were at the end of ourselves, hopeless except for the grace of God. Confessing our own sin isn't a first step to trying harder, nor to write ourselves off... but rather to turn and receive his compassion and mercy though we'd rightly deserve to be hardened and cast aside.
What does God do?
1. HE DEALS IN GRACE (9v6-21). He has a purpose of election. People who find life in the Triune God are not excluded or included on the basis of birthright, DNA, genealogy, nor on works - good or bad, effort or desire. We call this grace. It seems outrageous - that God would visit his love on anyone, or not, should provoke us to cry injustice!
2. HE GIVES NEW NAMES (9v22-26). God's purpose is to take vessels of wrath and call them vessels of mercy, to take not loved and make them loved, to take not his children and call them his adopted children. The best, and only candidates, to become part of God's people are those who aren't.
3. HE DEFIES EXPECTATION (9v27-32). Those who find Christ weren't even looking for him, whereas you can be zealously religious and miss him. But for his intervention we'd all be gone. That's a shocking change in perspective, but an honest one. Though grace makes that scandalous, works-based religions just make it impossible, for who can be good enough?
4. HE SETS FORTH CHRIST (9v33). God's purpose of election puts a stone in the road. Some stumble over this stone, some believe in him. The issue is always, always, always: what do you do with Christ. CH Spurgeon said this gave him great encouragement - when he preached Christ no-one would have good reason to reject his message - no one could claim ethnicity, or track-record, or class as an excluding principle. The only 'valid' response is to say "But I don't want Christ" -- to which the preacher can't help but say, look again, look again at him!
5. HE SENDS PREACHERS (10v5-15). God's purpose is to come near in his gospel word. You don't have to sack heaven or exhume a body to get to Christ, he comes near in his word. He "richly blesses" all who call on him, and everyone who calls on him... calling requires hearing, which requires a preacher, which needs someone to send preachers. God sends preachers - like Paul to the people of Spain who haven't yet heard. Public preachers and conversationalists, people with 'beautiful feet' to speak of Jesus.
6. HE HOLDS OUT HIS ARMS (10v16-21). God provokes hard-hearted people by having those who aren't even looking for him find him... and he holds out his arms all day long. The issue always is that people become obstinate, they don't want the humiliation of a saviour like Jesus Christ, they don't want the weakness of a crucified saviour. 
The same 2 chapters yield these observations. Rather than tension, we should see fresh depths of grace, motive to introduce people to Christ and to cry out in prayer to the God of grace.

Image - FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD: LETTERS TO EXILES - Episode 4 (Jean Valjean)