Sabbatical Day 30: Urban Harvest, rough sleepers and street evangelism

Last day of theological study today and, as I felt I was almost done, I stopped for longer with the homeless and rough sleepers on Corporation Street and the Cathedral Square. Over three weeks I’ve been stopping to chat and offer help, I’ve experienced a genuine community which gathers, shares their lives, belongings and problems, as well as creating some issues, as all communities do.  We have had some banter, spoken about Jesus and the frustrations with housing in the city, the reducing number of options, the isolation of being housed a long way from friends, the boredom and lack of opportunity to do anything meaningful. By the end of two hours of hanging out today, I’d given away a book of devotions on the psalms and a bottle of water, fed a dog and exchanged phone numbers with a guy who wants to be involved in changing work with the homeless, with the church. We will see where the Lord takes us when I get back in September.

In the library I carried on reading Urban Harvest.  Roy Joslin describes how mission in the new urban centres of the 18th and 19th century would start with “rugged enthusiasm” by clergy/pastors who acted as trainers for energetic, evangelistic laity.  Once churches became established, however, the mood turned to “ordered refinement”, with an increased professionalization of the pastor/clergy and reduced involvement of the laity in evangelism.  Joslin also described the social and physical shift of those who had been lifted by gospel ministry, who would either leave the area or disengage socially with the culture from where they first came.  Churches had to walk a tight-rope between “enthusiastic evangelism” and a much quieter order.  This problem, it seemed to Joslin in the late 1970s, and to us today, is a perennial one for churches in the inner city.  I look forward to reading on.

On the way home I passed the Birmingham City Mission street evangelism team and stopped to offer some encouragement.  There’s a huge amount of street work by all sorts of religious organisations on New Street and the High Street.  It feels like the market in Ephesus, as I imagine it.  All sorts of ideas and ideologies are on offer and people are willing to  stop and engage.  I’ve spent time talking to Muslims, JWs and ordinary folk in the street about Jesus over the past few weeks.  It was good to see some orthodox Christians in the mix.  Birmingham feels like a place were people are searching and the church needs to do some rugged and enthusiastic evangelism.

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Sabbatical Day 29: I’ve almost finished Part 1

The Edwardian Tea Rooms at the Birmingham Art Galley provide a relaxing way to start the last of 5 weeks with my head in theological books.  The tea rooms are in a double-storey room about the size of a tennis court with huge comfy armchairs and sofas and free wifi. There were two or three other customers until about 11:00am, when it began to fill up.  The library opens at 11:00am, so I moved out to find some quiet, but didn’t get it.  Too many people were talking loudly on mobile phones.  It’s a library!

The front door of the Art Gallery overlooks the site of the old library, and its demolition is almost complete. I have watched each day as giant telescopic jaws reach up seven floors to crunch away the 1970s concrete and twist its re-bar, mercilessly pulling down the old library bit by bit.  I’ve got to know some of the characters who hang out around the town hall and conservatoire.  The Big Issue seller, JWs, rough sleepers and the trumpet busker all loiter with intent at this bottleneck between the city centre and Broad Street.  I’m going to miss being part of the daily story of Birmingham when I finish this week.  Every day I have set aside time to speak with someone and to help a rough sleeper.  Today the Lord gave two opportunities for me to speak the gospel with folk.  The blessing of no deadlines!

One other thing I have discovered during my ESL is that Birmingham library has a massive and diverse Christian theological reference section.  I found a Latimer Study Guide today on the Doctrine of Justification in the Church of England which quoted R.C. Lucas at the 1979 Islington Conference!  See my notes below.

Today’s reading for my study guide was on the work of God in preaching.  Why does God use preachers and what does he do when they preach?  I finished Michael Horton’s A Better Way, which built great confidence in what God does every time his word is opened and preached and the Holy Spirit works in the hearts and minds of believers.  So I wrote the answer to the question on preaching in the Study Guide “Why Should I Go to Church”; “How does God make promises and speak to his people.”  I’ll leave the guide to sit now until I get back from Singapore, when I’ll look at it with fresh eyes.  Any helpful comments are most welcome.

Urban HarvestI also started a booked by Roy Joslin, Urban Harvest: Biblical Perspectives on Christian Mission in the inner cities.  I’ll make notes on it this week.

Here’s my notes from today, from Horton and The Latimer Study Guide:

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Sabbatical Day 28: Grace Community Church Tipton

It’s the week before the youth from Holy Trinity West Bromwich, St Luke’s Wolverhampton and Grace Community Church head off to Pathfinder Camp.  Tim Ambrose (senior pastor at Grace) and I served on camp together for the past 10 summers (Tim did two before that and about seven or eight as overall leader) and this is the first year in all that time that neither of us will be there.  And so it felt right that we join them for church this morning, because it is the time of year when Black Country folk go to camp.

We received a really lovely welcome before we got in, from Jane, Tim’s wife, who also served for many years on camp.  Then, once inside, a lovely lady got out of her seat to ask if we were new to church and Tipton.  We explained our connection, but still felt very welcome.  Grace church had a fantastic singing group which was in full flow as we arrived 10 minutes before the start of the service (three of the singing group had also served on camp!)  Tim led the service and preached the second of a two-part sermon series on the good news of hell, from Psalm 73.  Following the events this week in Turkey and Nice, the timing could not have been better.  In the briefest of summaries, the world is full of injustice, which caused Asaph, the psalmist, to wobble in his trust of God.  Yet, we have no need to fret or retaliate but instead must trust all ultimate justice to God whilst we seek the eternal good of our enemies.

It’s been great to spend four Sunday’s in local churches of all sorts.  There are many pockets of truth and grace keeping the light of the gospel burning in our nation. When will the fire of revival come?

Our two eldest get back from Scotland in about an hour and I can’t wait to hear their stories of their summer camps (Christians in Sport Sportsplus at Perth and Scripture Union on the Isle of Arran). We’ll be spending most of next Sunday on two planes with 5 hours in Changi airport as the second stage of sabbatical begins.

 

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Sabbatical Day 25: Bilston Library and Horton’s A Better Way

Four library’s in four towns in 25 days.  I am not collecting library tickets.  Our car needed a service and the workshop’s in Bilston.  If you are ever in Bilston, pop into the art gallery at the back of the library, there’s a brilliant exhibition on the history of steel making in the town.  From the rise of blast furnaces in the 18th century to the decline of Bilston when old Elizabeth was closed by British Steel in 1979.

Michael Horton. A Better Way

Michael Horton. A Better Way

At my meeting with Garry Williams last week he recommended that I read Michael Horton’s A Better Way on the theology of preaching and the drama of the communion service. Horton published this work in 2002 in response to two emerging brands of Christian worship.  There was (is) a routine tradition, attended by mostly elderly people, which has lost a real sense of what church is for and what God is doing when the church meets.  Old habits die hard.  Then there is an enthusiastic, dramatic and diverse type of worship, which despises routine and clambers for innovation. Novel music, drama, art, technology and gimmickry designed to appeal to consumer culture.  Horton believes both forms of worship lack a deep sense of the truly dramatic work of God and so he outlines a better way.

Horton’s introduction and first few chapters really hit the spot where I am itching.  I have been drawn to investigate Cranmer’s communion service and am seeking to teach the drama of communion, rather than dumb it down.  I have felt like we have been slightly stuck in a loop in our communion services but I don’t want to turn to gimmicks to draw a crowd.   I am naturally and theologically adverse to fluffy innovation for innovation’s sake.

I think my study guide has all the theological elements I need.  Horton has provided the content for an extra question about the drama of meeting God on his terms and responding to God in faith and obedience.  What could be more dramatic than an encounter with the living God and knowing where we fit in covenant history?

Here’s the paragraph’s I have culled from the opening chapters of Horton’s book.  More next week.

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Sabbatical Day 24: Light on the Metro

A change of pace, of depth and of topic.

A change of pace, of depth and of topic. David Platt’s book “Radical Together” puts the communion service in it proper context.

This morning I found myself needing a break from the sacraments. Preparing a study guide on communion is still my main study aim, but Francis Turretin was too much for me yesterday.  I needed a change of pace, of depth and of subject for today. So, I picked up David Platt’s Radical Together to read on my short journey into Birmingham on the Metro and started reading where I left off at chapter four “The Genius of Wrong: Building the right church depends on using all the wrong people.”

David Platt’s thesis in this chapter is that the church does not need a building or programmes to be church.  It has made me ask questions about what we do at Holy Trinity without coming up with any answers.

The church at it’s simplest and best is gathered by God to hear God speak through his word; it prays for the forgiveness of sin and for the needs of the world; and the church is united to Christ, believer to believer, in communion; it is then scattered for a week to love and serve the Lord until the next time it gathers.  That’s it!

This sort of church gathering happens in tiny, secret churches in nations hostile to Christ; it happens in the open air, in countries where buildings are too expensive; and Platt cites the example of a church in the southern United States, in the inner city, which had sent 25% of its 100 members on an overseas mission trip and when the group returned they decided to stop renting a building and began meeting, instead, every Sunday, in a multi-storey carpark.

When it comes to buildings, we have a problem in Britain.  Our climate!  It is still regularly cold and wet in midsummer, let alone for the rest of the year, so we need somewhere dry and warm for church to gather.  But Platt’s point is this.  Instead defining church as the place which runs centralised programmes and appoints the “right” people to run the programmes, with the rest of the week as their own time, the church is gathered to be built up in Christ and then sent out with a vision to work full time for him in his kingdom and to give their lives for his glory.

The timing of this chapter has been brilliant.  Not only does it confirm what a close brother has been saying for a while, but it also confirms the weekly importance and centrality of the communion service, properly understood and practised.

When the youth and children’s work department at David Platt’s church asked the question “how can we reach as many children with the gospel as possible this summer?” they decided not to run a centralised holiday bible club but instead they equipped parents to run holiday clubs in their homes the same week.  They did it and reached many, many more children that week than normal and parents grew in faith and obedience as they stepped up.  Some parents even decided to continue the work every week, making a long term difference to their street.

In this model, pastoral staff are liberated from being an organisational bottle-neck and church members are free to use their knowledge, gifts and energy as they see fit.  God does his work in His world through His word and His Spirit.

Chapter 4 of “Radical Together” challenges me to ask: “How can we as a church best teach the knowledge of Christ so as many people as possible give Him their all in their short lives?”  Or, “how can we as a whole church best serve others in the name of Christ and so give our lives, time, money and energy to make disciples of all people?” The question and answers are always contextual, but they need to be asked.

One of the great blessings of being on sabbatical is the complete lack of deadlines and routines.  I have deliberately set aside an hour or more each day to watch the city and engage with its people. I have spoken with Muslims and JWs about Jesus. I have met, fed and spent time with the homeless. I have observed people in the grounds of Birmingham Cathedral as they go about their day. Today, I had lunch on a bench outside the Cathedral and ended up spending 45 minutes with a big group of the homeless. We spoke about their past, their needs and their hopes. I watched and listened as people came and went, looking for a mamba or a spliff, falling out with girlfriends and stirring trouble and I wondered where to start. Then I realised, God’s already made a start.  Other people have been doing the same today. Other people have broken routines to deliberately do gospel ministry, or made new routines to do gospel work. The question which David Platt asks remains to be answered.  How can the believers at Holy Trinity reach the most number of people, from all nations, with the gospel of Jesus Christ and make disciples who will make disciples?  If the answer is not “start more programmes in the church buildings”, then what is the answer?

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Sabbatical day 23: West Bromwich library

I have set myself a goal for the five weeks of study during my sabbatical.  The goal was to understand Cranmer’s theology of Holy Communion and to be able to teach it to new and mature believers, so that our main church service becomes a more meaningful and essential part of life for those who have learned the importance of Communion.  The idea is either we dumb down or educate and, as an Anglican, dumbing down isn’t really an option.

The study guide (or catechism) is now one big question with eight questions, so far, which answer the first.

Why should I go to church?
1.  What is the basic Christian story?
2.  How does God speak to his people?
3.  What is a sign and how does it work?
4.  What is a seal and how does it work?
5.  What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?
6.  What does it mean to be “in” Christ?
7.  What happens when believers gather for a communion service?
8.  What are the main parts of a communion service?

I think that these eight questions cover the foundations, although questions 5 and 6 were added this morning, so there might be more to add.  Once these questions are answered, I will move onto the second part of the guide, in which I aim to explain and teach the parts of the communion service, including the 10 commandments, the Lord’s prayer, the Nicene Creed and the communion liturgy itself.

Today's reading

Today’s reading

This blog has been a really helpful way of reflecting on what I have been reading and producing. Someone who had been on sabbatical said the time will fly by. This is day 23 of 84. I don’t have a deadline for completion. If I finish, I’ll be glad, but the discipline of study and reflection is what these days are for. Here’s my notes from Francis Turretin’s section on the sacraments (Qu19) in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology. I also read Jonathan Edwards “An humble inquiry into the rules of the Word of God concerning the qualifications requisite to a complete standing and full communion in the visible Christian church.” which, when he published it, led to the congregation of his church in Northampton, Massachusetts to fire him—June 22, 1750. At least he wasn’t put in a fire, alive, for his view on the sacraments, as the Church of England bishops Ridley and Latimer were on October 16, 1555. I sincerely hope the result of my study project doesn’t generate similar reactions.

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Sabbatical Day 21: More old friends and liturgical insight

Three weeks of sabbatical, three very different church services.  This week, Amanda and I were child free and visited Edgbaston Old Church where Nick Tucker has been vicar for a year or so.  This service pretty much completes the spectrum the forms of worship we could experience.  We’ve been to a pizza, pop and conversational service at Bearwood Chapel, a reverential but informal communion service in a school hall at St Luke’s and this week a fully liturgical service, with a robed choir, procession, organ and service book.

The timing of today’s service has been significant.  Three weeks of sabbatical study has opened my eyes to what God does when his people gather for communion. Nick did a good job of leading us through the service, with the opening words (something like) “As we are gathered today, we will hear God’s word, sing his praise, make requests to him in prayer and he will join us as his people as we share in communion.”  I now have a sense of wonder and praise for God, that he works and things really change when He gathers and unites his people in Christ, which I did not have before this sabbatical.  There is much, much more going on than a social gathering of people who share the same faith, hear the same sermon and enjoy the same form of worship.  Having thought about what happens at communion, over the past three weeks, I am eager to teach others, so they can share in wonder, praise and true gospel unity.

Edgbaston Old Church is significantly bigger than it appears from the road.  It’s twice as wide as I imagined, with an almost square footprint.  There were around 60 or 70 worshippers in a building which could probably seat 400.  There is huge potential for growth, especially given the 28,500+ students from over 150 nations at the University of Birmingham, as well as the settled population of the parish.  Nick gave out prayer cards from Leading your Church into Growth, with the following prayer, which I will pray with the church:

God of Mission
Who alone brings growth to your Church,
Send your Holy Spirit to give
Vision to our planning,
Wisdom to our actions,
And power to our witness.
Help our church to grow in numbers,
In spiritual commitment to you,
And in service to our local community,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.

Leading your church into growth

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