The Elemental Experience – Taking Church Outside

The church is in an interesting position in the UK at the moment. People are spiritually seeking, they are beginning to understand there has to be more to things then we live, we die, we are dust, but they have no connections in many cases to any existing spiritual belief. On one hand it means they are unlikely to wander into church but on the other it means they are going to be willing to listen to the Good News.

There is a lot of talk in Christian circles about making God more relevant. Making the Gospel easier to swallow by removing crosses and offering good coffee and other silly phrases get bandied around. I think we are getting it wrong on that front. To paraphrase one of my favourite books and films, The Princess Bride, “Relevant! ” “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Gospels are always relevant, a God of love who sacrifices himself for us is a story that will always be relevant because don’t we all want to be loved like that. I think, I hope, that we are confusing relevant with accessible. We need to take the Gospel where people will hear it and share it in a form that can be understood. Think of it in terms of translating the Bible from Latin to English. That may mean through bite size messages in Messy Church, through holding a service in a pub, making key services at Christmas and Easter, (when people are more likely to enter a church) more accessible or discipling a couple of people by meeting with them regularly and “doing” life with them. This all makes the Bible accessible and is a stepping stone to all the things that support growth as a Christian.

The other thing we have to do is behave in a way that won’t scare people off before they’ve heard the good news. Lead with love.

And that’s our choice, take the Word to the people or fade away.

One of the key things about Elemental is the use of hooks. We use crafts, tea, coffee and cake and sofas. Do not under estimate the power of a sofa in a Festival setting. It is not wrong to use tools to get people to a place where they can hear. Feed them, entertain their kids, give them coffee. They’re hooks and we are fishers of men. Choose the right hooks and they can make the perfect introduction to conversations about faith. One of our congregation makes nets for rabbiting with ferrets. The nets are made by hand by a method that hasn’t changed in several thousand years. Simon Peter would have made nets by the same method. Powerful conversations followed as he showed people how to make nets.

Training is important. It is one of the keys to the success of Elemental Tent. Many people find talking about their faith difficult. Mission is pointless if God isn’t part of the conversation. Ideally it will be something everyone in the team involved can do, with encouragement and training. So training is important. Simple pointers on how to start conversations, how to work with someone who is a spiritual seeker, offer an honest view of Christianity that grows from love. Look at the items for sale at any festival and it becomes clear that many people are spiritual and interested to find a deeper meaning to life which, in many ways, makes a festival one of the safest locations for mission. A great place to find your feet in sharing your faith.

So what is Elemental Tent?

Elemental Tent is intended to be an Oasis of Calm and creativity, somewhere away from the commercial elements of a festival. Somewhere where the world is open enough and heaven is close enough that conversations about faith can take place.

My son Harry walking the labyrinth at Wickham Festival.
Advertisements

The intangibles

This Christmas may be a Christmas of change. I was listening to “You and Yours”, Radio 4’s consumer programme and they were discussing, as consumer programmes do, spending on line and on the high street in the run up to Christmas. Consumer spending was down fairly dramatically on previous years, clothes retailers particularly were feeling the pinch and offering huge discounts that still weren’t inspiring people to buy. This was quite a news item in and of itself but there was something more interesting. The Vox Pop interviews on the street were filled with people who had one message, they were fed up with buying and owning and giving “stuff” and wanted this Christmas to be about time with family and friends just enjoying each other.   

Any adult will tell you, Christmas can be a very stressful time of year. There is a lot of expectation built into Christmas around the meal being “right” and the gifts being “right” and a whole load of other pressures that we put on ourselves. Even if you are a Christian you are not immune to this.

This Christmas may be a Christmas of change. If those street interviews are representative of the nation as a whole (and of course there is no reason they should be, they are just a snapshot) then I cannot help but feel this is a good thing.  As Christians we are called to make disciples. Making disciples isn’t the same as leading someone to Christ, although sometimes the two are conflated. Discipleship requires a commitment, to community, to friendship, to journey with someone in their life. If this is becoming a world where people are seeking something more meaningful than a life of consumerism then our job as Christians has become easier in some ways. We have Good News, all we have to do is learn to tell it in a way that leads with love. In Christmas we have the vision of a God who loves us so much He is willing to be born into the potential for hardship, suffering and death of human life. In Easter we see a God who loves us so much He was willing to die for us. Just because He wants to be with us. That’s the world we are looking to introduce people to. That’s what every Christian agrees on. That’s the core of our world. That’s what we’re offering the world.

This Christmas may be a Christmas of change, a change we can be part of. All we have to do is recognise the opportunity and whether it’s a family member, a friend, a work colleague or a complete stranger who’s looking to find something more this Christmas, something intangible, take that opportunity to talk and share the good news. Because if people are looking, they will be willing to listen and we can offer something that stands head and shoulders above everything else, a God who loves us all.

Wishing you all a blessed and happy New Year.

I love this Cartoon by the late Johnny Hart

Why we Remember

My son is 10. My father, the only person in our immediate family who fought in the war and lived through it died the April after my son was born. What my son knows of war comes from media and history lessons.

As we lose the generations who fought in the two world wars, the truth of the horror of war risks being lost. If we lose that truth we risk making the mistake of thinking war is acceptable. We start talking about the statistics of acceptable loss and human suffering stops factoring in our decisions. It is important, so very important, that we don’t lose sight of the human cost.

I have told my son about his grandad’s war about what he saw and what he lost and how he hoped no one would ever go through that again.

We remember to keep the memory alive of how they suffered so we could live and in doing so, hopefully avoid further pain on that scale.

Remembering remembrance

I somehow doubt that there is anyone in Britain whose life was not touched by  the First or Second World War in some way. It may be directly, or through relatives or a myriad other ways.

There are 53 identified Thankful Villages in the UK. 53 parishes where all the men who signed up for the services in World War 1 returned safe out of some 12,000 Anglican parishes.

Everyone knows the origin of the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance and a large part of the population will be wearing a poppy, particularly for Sunday.

War affects many more than just the soldiers fighting in it though. It affects civilians whose lives are destroyed but also it affects the families of soldiers, sailors and airmen.

My Father was in the Navy and was piloting landing craft on D-Day. at 19 he saw his best friend shot in the head and killed while standing next to him and, in his words, he delivered whole Canadians to Juno Beach and brought back bits of ones. I can’t say for sure how this affected my father. He never spoke of his experiences in combat until shortly before he died, but I believe it affected how he lived his life from that point on. From post war stories he told me I believe he tried to cram so much in to travel and life because he knew any day it could all end. He stood against injustice any time he saw it. He loved and worked hard to build and support community. He hated to talk about feelings and was physically reckless on many an occasion. Today he would probably have been diagnosed with PTSD. I can’t speak for my sisters but this affected how I lived my life. He probably came out of it fairly well compared to many. Emotional and mental damage was relatively minimal.  DSCF2494

There was a mention on Radio 4 recently of a poll that showed the majority of British people valued and supported their armed forces but didn’t like the idea of them dying for them. That seems eminently sane to me. I value the fact that there are people committed to laying down their lives in defence of me but I don’t ever want there to be a situation where they need to.

I believe it is important to look after all the victims of war, Civilian and armed forces, which is why I was pleased to find out about the existence of the Armed Forces Covenant, a commitment by the nation to support our armed forces and their families. It’s not perfect and too much it should do falls to charities instead.

As a Christian my life is built around someone who was willing to die for me. On Sunday I will be remembering Him as well as the soldiers, sailors, RAF and WAF and Wrens who fought and died and fought and survived.

 

So what’s it all about?

Outreach is the vehicle through which the church works out it’s missional purpose to share The Good News (Evangelise).

I’m not sure how accurate that is but it seems a good starting point to work out what we are doing.

If outreach is simply reaching out, then mission should be the purpose that drives it. Running a food bank is outreach, mission is bringing God into the mix by evangelising.

So is outreach simply service under another name? I don’t know but looking at what happens as many churches outreach that could well be so.

One of the great things about the churches I work with is they get the difference. They don’t always find it easy but they get that’s what it’s about.

I work in what is called soft evangelism. I wasn’t there for the main era of Billy Graham Crusade inspired evangelism. I came to Christ through soft evangelism, my wife was a Christian and I found myself getting to know her church, getting to like them, wondering what made them the people they were and discovering Christ along that route. At it’s heart Christianity is about relationship and however you come to Christ it is relationship that keeps you there, relationship with God and relationship with fellow believers.

Most things we do as a circuit are based around this idea of building relationship, Elemental Tent, Faith Al Fresco, The Prayer Caravan, Alpha. They’re all things that allow for that slow build, faith by osmosis, but there is space as well for that moment of revelation and clarity. Either way though the people who make up the Meon Valley Circuit are prepared to give their best to those conversations to help people on their journey.

cropped-4658847_ad200981

An Elemental Take Away

 

Reflection is a wonderful habit to develop. It requires time and space which aren’t always easy to come by but it is invaluable.

This year was my first time leading the Elemental Tent. I don’t mind admitting that it was slightly terrifying being the person where the buck stops. For the first week afterwards all I could recognise were the things I’d done wrong, the areas where I’d failed. Other people said complimentary things but I paid them no heed.

Two weeks after I took the time to sit down and reflect. There were things I could have done better looking back, but there were things that went incredibly well, better than I ever hoped. I took a balanced view of the event and had to conclude that, despite areas for improvement, it went extremely well.

This wasn’t down to just me though. This was about the team that had been built and trained and encouraged this year and over the preceding years. There are people on the team who can, have and did make excellent decisions about all sorts of elements of Elemental. My role in leading was to support them, trust them and encourage them. Yes I had to be the final arbiter on some occasions.

This was also about the thought and planning that had gone into the five years the circuit has been at Wickham Festival with the tent. The basics of it are obvious, food, craft and conversation but how it is put together is what makes the difference. It’s built on solid foundations of years of study, training that provides a real engagement for volunteers, and an understanding that one size does not fit all. It’s those qualities that mean it has been able to change leadership and still thrive.

When it works it works well and it works because of the foundations it is built on. We have been invited back yet again by the organisers of the Wickham Festival. They recognise that Elemental Tent brings something of value to the festival and want us a part of the set up. We offer something unique and spiritual and that is valued.

20180805_190512_HDR

(My son, Harry, walking the Labyrinth outside the Elemental Tent)

Prayer

Please forgive the disjointed rambling that follows. I will doubtless look for an opportunity to edit this into some more cohesive form later but needed to get my thoughts down.

I was in a long discussion the other day about what motivates church. I was talking about how a particular church was motivated and driven by fear in the things it did and the decisions it made and the friend I was talking with was saying that we need, as churches, to be led more by prayer. My argument was, I will admit, very negative and pessimistic where as my friend was clearly more optimistic. In hindsight I see we were both making the same argument from different sides.

When things don’t work in a business the obvious thing is to look at your working processes. Do you need more management, less management, streamlined procedures, tighter control, downsizing and on and on. These decisions can be made based on factual data and with an eye to the financial bottom line. They are decisions that can often be made based on fear. Fear of competition, fear of job losses, drop in market share and they are decisions you often see churches making. It might be the introduction of Messy Church or all ages worship or breakfast church or a whole variety of other things. These are all things that can happen for two main reasons. one is a fearful, kneejerk reaction to a drop in congregation numbers or an inability to attract families, the other is a prayerful reaction to the same thing. Both can lead to the same decisions but there is a vital difference.

When we act out of fear we act in our own strength and that rarely is sustainable. The things we do disappear under a lack of interest and commitment, that relationship fails, attendance drops, volunteers disappear.

When what we do grows out of prayer however it’s chance of success is so much greater because God is on our side. It’s reacting to that still, small voice, that nudge that follows prayer that is important.

This has been a difficult thing for me to get a real understanding of. Although I accept I’m saved by Grace I need my faith to work out in a practical way in many respects and I find formal prayer difficult. Every denomination has a format for prayer that is predominant in their church. If you grow up within a church you often take that on unconsciously. Prayer for me has always been something others have done, exhorting God to do what they need of Him. As a Christian who came to God later in life I had viewed prayer as a long conversation with my dad. In conversation we rarely call people by name more than once and most of my prayers started “hey God” and then headed into a rambling mess of questions, pleas, angry rants, apologies and awkward silences. This was nothing like the formal prayers I heard in church and so I rarely prayed publicly with or for someone. I was very much a “Go into a quiet room and shut the door” kind of prayer person which is fine. It is, after all, scriptural.

I spent a long time coming to understand public prayer, praying out loud around others and came to a number of realisations that, while probably obvious and well known to others, were a revelation for me.

First and foremost is that public prayer, prayer groups and prayer meetings aren’t about God as much as they are about building up the children of God, firing them up. Praying privately we know God is listening and God is on our side but we are only human and in some ways we need to know we are not alone in what we are asking of God. When we pray for God to step in, be it because of a terrible disaster, illness affecting a member of the church or an outreach venture the church is considering or anything else, we know two or more of us are standing together and that is massive.

Matthew 18:19-20 19“Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Which brings us not so neatly back to the original point. Many churches are motivated by a fearful reaction to the world around them. Many other churches are motivated by a prayerful reaction to the world around them. Fear can lead you to pray. Fear can lead you to attempt things in your own strength. It seems to me that successful churches are the ones who let prayer lead them out of the darkness and into being like Jesus, the unsuccessful ones are the ones who let fear keep them in the darkness and build rules and procedures to try and hold the dark at bay.