I’ll be your friend Roland

25 11 2011

Now I’m really showing my age! Anyone else out there remember Roland Browning off of Grange Hill? He was the fat lad that all the bullies picked on in the BBC kids’ TV show in the 80s. However hard things got for Roland, he was never quite desperate enough to take up the offer of friendship from Janet St Clair. Janet’s catchphrase on the show was, ‘I’ll be your friend Row-land’. At least I think it was. Maybe it’s one of those catchphrases that people never said, like, ‘Beam me up Scotty’. Anyway, the point is that however desperate you get, there are some people you don’t want as your friends. It’s less embarrassing to be a Billy-no-mates than to count some people among your mates.

I think Christians are to the rest of the world what Janet St Clair was to Roland Browning – the people who want to be your friend; but you’d rather boil your own head than be seen anywhere near them. That has to be remembered, I think, when we talk about making friends with people. If we encounter a certain reluctance from people when invited to our soppy events, that may be magnified when we try and be their friends. First you have to persuade people that you really are quite normal, or at the very least that your lunacy is more like theirs than they’d ever really imagined.

There is a serious point here. I think people are suspicious of Christians trying to be their friends because they think there’s a hidden agenda. ‘You just want to be my friend so you can make me join your church.’ It’s an understandable suspicion because it’s, at least partly, true. What does it really mean to say that mission and ministry are going to have be relational? Lots of things. But translating it into everyday speak, it sounds very much like ‘make friends with people so that you can tell them about Jesus’.

Doesn’t everyone have an agenda? The drug and alcohol worker I talked about yesterday wanted to work relationally. Translation: I want to befriend people so that I can get them off drugs and alcohol. People not keen to get off drugs and alcohol might not want very much to be befriended by a drugs and alcohol worker with targets to reach.

If this sounds negative, I don’t mean it to. I just want to temper what I’ve been saying in the past couple of days with some realism and to encourage myself and maybe you too to put yourself in the shoes of someone who might be the subject of my/our efforts to befriend. Relational mission inevitably means that there is an agenda behind crossing social divides and making friends. Members of the Church will do that to some extent because they want to share their faith.

But that doesn’t have to translate into instrumentalism. We don’t have to see making friends as a means to the end of evangelism. That is how people have experienced their interaction with Christians. Some Christians lose interest in people who don’t quickly make some grand profession of faith. Truly relational mission must involve a commitment to love and care for people whatever their response to our faith. Sharing our faith will involve giving an account for the hope within, talking about our experiences, not preaching. But it must also include responding to people’s real needs with real practical love and care. And here’s the nub: being prepared to receive both those things too: listening to people’s real experience and allowing them to care for us too. Without that, we patronise people. We meet them as ‘clients’ imagining ourselves in a position of superiority – having the ‘goods’ people need – rather than engaging with people as fellow human beings. That means recognising and accepting that we have as much to receive as to give and that in the end the only resources we have to bring are ourselves. All we have to offer is who we are.

That’s a world away from thinking that we, charitable, middle-class people, will out of the goodness of our hearts give the poor people of this working class area what they need. But in offering ourselves, I think we do bring something unique. First of all, who we are is (however imperfectly) shaped by  the Christian story that we inhabit. Whatever truth there is in that story will not be communicated by argument and persuasion; it will communicated only by who we are. Secondly, in offering ourselves in real friendship, that anticipates receiving as well as giving, we honour, respect, value and love people in a way that few others do. It’s a way of expressing our belief in people. It’s a way of saying: ‘You’re worth getting to know’.





Future Church with Mike Frost

23 01 2009

The first thing I did after being licensed to my new post was to go to that other city down the road to hear an Aussie bloke called Mike Frost talking about missional church. He was an inspiring and engaging speaker. He was obviously on top of his material. He spoke without notes.

Max is missing
The first of three sessions was in the evening of Friday 3rd October. He told the story of how he had a life-changing experience of engaging in mission in a biker’s pub in Elizabeth; a tough area near Adelaide. Mike was working as an evangelist and was invited to accompany somebody he met at a conference to come and see what he was doing at the Rose and Crown Hotel. It didn’t seem very cutting edge at first. A bad gospel song accompanied by some very ripe jeering from the audience, followed by a talk which Mike was asked to give, also accompanied by jeering. Then Mike asked if anyone wanted him to pray for anyone. This huge tattooed biker called Max asked him to pray for the lads (soldiers) in East Timor. Then Mike and the man who’d asked him along sat at the bar. The man than asked everyone sat at the bar what question they’d ask God if they had the chance to ask just one.

When it came to Max’s turn, he said he would ask God: ‘Who am I?’

That story, even though it’s second hand, bore repeating I thought. Mike Frost used it to illustrate how people for whom church is ‘the last cab off the rank’ were nonetheless engaged in a deep and profound spiritual quest. But it’s clear that in most of our churches, Max is missing.

What is church?
According to Mike Frost, there were four aspects of church life that were pretty much common to all protestant churches:

  1. worship
  2. community
  3. discipleship
  4. mission

The problem, according to Mike Frost, is that worship has become the central principle around which the others are organised. All our effort goes into keeping the church machine running. If we identify people with gifts we give them a job to do that’s about the worship gathering. The finances are all spent on sustaining the gathered worship. The machine becomes self-serving. Church planting has been about setting up a worship service and then inviting people to come along. Why are we surprised when they don’t? Or if they do, don’t they usually turn out to be Christians who are just fed up with their usual church and wanting to be part of something new?

What if mission was to be the organising principle?

That’s not just a question of re-ordering our common life because the wheels have come off (which I think they have) but because, as Mike Frost was saying, it’s, theologically speaking, the proper way to reflect the God we love, worship and serve.

Being ‘sent’ is fundamental to the nature of God. God sends God sends God, sends us. The Creator and source of all being ‘sends’ the divine nature in the generation of the One through whom Creation comes to be. That same One is sent as Redeemer. The Creator breathes out the Spirit who sustains and enlivens Creation. The Redeemer sends the enlivening Spirit out to fill the people God has called to participate in the work of Redemption. The Spirit sends those same people out in mission. Sending and ‘sent-ness’ pervades the whole economy of creation and salvation.

So what does it look like if mission is the principle around which everything else is organised?

It looks like Jesus!

Where is Jesus? On the street. With the outsiders, the poor, the irreligious. He breaks down the separation between the holy and the material; the sacred and the stuff of everyday life. He takes the holy water set aside for worship – for ritual washing – and turns it into wine for a party. 17 barrells of it! What would most churches do if that happened now?

This sort of re-ordering will challenge us to decide whether we want to be missionaries or members of the audience. Will we be part of God’s move in the world or consumers of religious goods and services.

If mission bceomes the organising principle then we’ll worship as we go – celebrating as we find grace at work among the people to whom we’re sent and mourning their loss with them. We’ll become disciples in the same way the first disciples of Jesus did: watching him at work among the crowd. And we’ll enjoy the deep fellowship of those who share in an ordeal – the life of ‘communitas’.

Waterskiing church
Mike Frost told several stories to illustrate what this might look like. One that stuck in my mind was of a man who gave up going to a ‘normal’ church on a Sunday and invited his friends to go waterskiing with him.

The first time they went he said that they’d be sharing a really good time together and that as he’d been brought up to say ‘grace’ before enjoying a good meal they ought to say grace before they enjoyed what they were about to receive. His friends looked a bit taken aback but they went along with it. Then he said that as they were praying, they might as well see if there was anything else any of them wanted to pray about. After an awkward silence, one of them hesitantly said he was worried about his job. Another mentioned his sick grandma. So the bloke prays for his friend’s work situation and for the other fella’s grandma. And they get on the water and have a fantastic time skiing.

Next week, the same thing, except this time the man who was worried about his job, says how much better things are for him at work and the other fella says his grandma has improved. Now here’s the bit in the story as I’m hearing it when I want to get clever. I’ve never believed or experienced that prayer is as simple or straightforward as that. I don’t think God is into delivering the shopping! But I decide to give Mike Frost a break and go with the story.

Anyway the story goes that more and more people come along, so that now there’s a couple of hundred each week. They’re baptising people in the river where they ski and sharing bread and wine at the picnic tables at the riverside.

My question about the understanding of prayer that story implies hasn’t gone away, but I think it would be fun to try it out, no? And the thing that really excites is that this story is about church happening where people are. It’s about worship and fellowship and discipleship flowing out of being part of God’s mission.

Fishing for people
One of the things that also really struck me was what Mike Frost said about Jesus calling those Galilean fishermen to become ‘fishers of people’. We tend to instantly imagine the individual on the riverbank with his rod and line. The questions then are about how do we bait our hook and how do we reel them in. He reminded us of what was right in front of our noses: Peter and Andrew, James and John didn’t fish like that. They used nets. And how did they spend their days? Not fishing at all. They spent very little time actually hawling in a catch. They spent the days cleaning and mending their nets.

Mike Frost suggested this as a very powerful image for the networks of relationships that Jesus was inviting his first disciples to invest their time in. Now I’m wary of any suggestion that we view our relationships in any instrumental way. We don’t make friends with people because we want to snare them in our net! But if we can see that as God working through us, as we are, who we are, where we are, I think it can be a powerful image.

It also reminds us that we don’t ever go alone. Fishing for these men was a collective activity. They shared the task and helped each other. None of them on their own would be strong enough to bring in the catch, they needed each other.

So we’re called to be missionaries but not solo missionaries.
We’re called to be missional communities.

Ringing the Bells
Mike Frost’s own missional community expresses its common identity through adopting a rule of life. It’s a much more monastic model that it is an ecclesial one. That’s something you pick up on again and again as you think about missional communities and the emerging church.

For Small Boat, Big Sea, the simple rhythm they adopt is captured in the acronym ‘B-E-L-L-S’ which stands for:

Bless
Eat
Listen
Learn
Sent

There are more details here.

It looks to me to be very much a reflection of the first Christian community’s life as recorded by the writer of Acts in 2.42-47. I think this could be a really fruitful way forward for the congregation of St Luke’s and for any other missional community that emerges as I work in the city centre.

Conclusions/Questions
I haven’t here being particularly critical of Mike Frost’s thesis. That’s mainly because I find it so convincing and it chimes so readily with my own emerging thinking on mission in the heart of Portsmouth. There are some questions to be answered though about what mission might be for. What’s the purpose of our being ‘sent’? What are we uniquely bringing to those to whom we are sent? What about the affirmation that you’ll find in every part of the church, whether high catholic or new church, that our ultimate human vocation is to worship God? Doesn’t that conflict with the primacy of mission that Frost’s/my approach calls for? Answers on a postcard, please…