My first ‘serious’ girlfriend was a girl called Pat. I was 18 and she was 17 and we went out together for a whole year … and then she knitted me a jumper for Christmas and I started to panic?! I mean us boys back in the 60s all knew that when a girl knitted you a jumper it meant that she was getting really, really ‘serious’ and it was time to ‘do a runner’ … so I did. She was actually a really nice girl and I was just a ‘silly boy’ still wet behind the ears.
But why do I begin this blog with a snippet from my ancient past, you rightly ask? Well, the thing I most remember about Pat was that she was a student at Ealing Art College specialising in fashion and design. Consequently, she was always at least one step ahead when it came to the latest fashions. To be honest this could be a little embarrassing for me. When all the other girls were wearing long skirts, Pat was wearing miniskirts. By the time the other girls had caught up and were all wearing miniskirts, Pat was wearing pencil skirts that ended just below the knee? These are just a couple examples of Pat ‘daring to be different’ … and in a way, I admired her for this.
I have been a Christian getting on for nearly 60 years now, and an ordained and accredited Baptist Minister for almost 50 years. In that time, although my commitment to Jesus Christ and the essentials of evangelical faith have remained much the same, my understanding of exactly what this really means has grown and developed considerably, as has my awareness of how these things need to be worked out in practical ways for today. This is particularly so when it comes down to me becoming more ‘missional’ as both a Christian and a Minister, and for local churches to become ‘missional communities’ rather than a ‘self-preservation societies’. Whilst there are some encouraging signs – ‘beacons of hope or light’, if you like – in some places, the overall picture for the ‘Church’ in the UK is one of decline. I am no way a ‘marsh-wiggle’ (readers of C S Lewis’ Narnia stories will understand) but neither do I live in ‘cloud cuckoo land’. The story is yet only ‘part-written’ and the journey we are on remains ‘unfinished’. God is at work here in the UK I am convinced … but if we are to experience that ‘spiritual awakening’ we all want to see, we must change. We must ‘dare to be different’!
Much of what we do as church is designed primarily to preserve the status quo, to keep various organisations and activities going regardless of whether they are past their ‘sell-by date’ or not. At one of our recent ‘open church meetings’ we had considerable discussion – initiated by our Pastor – on the question ‘What can we do as a church to reach out to the local community in meaningful ways?’ In response members of the church and congregation came up with lots of suggestions and ideas. In reality, however, probably 80% of these suggestions were essentially about how we could get people into our church (and therefore maintain a ‘Baptist presence’ in our village) rather than reach out to our community in practical service in Christ’s name? Amongst the suggestions put forward were the ‘usual suspects’: coffee morning, women’s meeting, young wives’ group, church youth club, etc, etc.
Contrast this with the kind of ministry being exercised at the Lighthouse Project (www.lighthousewoking.org) in Woking (initially a church plant by the Vineyard Churches in 2011, but now part of the Emmaus Fellowship) who acquired the lease of a wonderful but derelict building in the heart of the town and seeing its beauty and potential, a vision was born to create a sanctuary in the centre of Woking with the sole purpose of serving and enhancing the surrounding community, showing God’s love in practical ways. Virtually all that the church does (often in partnership with other sympathetic helpers and agencies) is deliberately designed to be outward looking and serving the local community where the need is greatest. Whilst maintaining a ‘spiritual heart’ at the centre, the church engages with the local community in numerous practical ways such as a food bank, clothing bank, debt counselling, job club, cookery school, support for recovering addicts, craft centre, family support, coffee shop, and so much more. In this way they have developed into a Community Hub Church and engaged in genuine Integral Mission. As a consequence, they are growing both spiritually and numerically compared to more inward-looking local churches who continue to decline. This has all come about because a group of Christians, back in 2011, ‘dared to be different’.
There is, of course, clear biblical warrant for such daring: In response to God’s call, Abraham was brave enough to leave his comfortable life in Ur of the Chaldeans (Genesis 11:27-12:9) and head for God’s ‘Promised Land’ ‘even though he did not know where he was going’ (Hebrews 11:8). It would have been much easier to stay where he was in the comparative luxury of Ur of the Chaldeans, or even to have moved ‘just a little bit’ in God’s direction (to show that he wasn’t really a spiritual ‘stick in the mud’) and opt for a ‘settled’ life in Haran. But Abraham dared to be different and stepped out in faith in response to the call of God!
In much the same way the Apostle Peter, in response to the call of Christ, stepped out of the boat and ‘walked on water’ (Matthew 14:22-33). As John Ortberg suggests: ‘Peter may have been the first one out of the boat, but Jesus’ invitation to walk on water is for [us] as well!’ If we want to walk on water, we must get out of the boat. We must deliberately walk away from the of our own comfort zones, from settling for less than God’s best for us, from being ‘self-preservation societies’ rather than ‘missional communities’. We must be brave enough to move beyond our fears and discover God’s unique calling for our individual lives and for our churches. We must ‘dare to be different’! Oh! And by the way … do note that Peter did much more walking than sinking. He got all the way from the boat to Jesus before he started to falter … and when he did falter, Jesus reached out and caught him!
When Julia and I were on holiday in Chania, Crete recently, we had a favourite café, in one of the side streets leading up from the Venetian harbour to the maze of lanes, shops and ancient buildings that make up Chania Old Town. Our café was half way up the street, opposite a rather nice clothes shop, and many a morning would find us just sitting at one of the outside tables, drinking our coffees, eating cake, and watching the world go by. Both Julia and I are inveterate ‘people watchers’ and many a pleasant hour or two was whiled away whilst sitting in a café or bar or restaurant simply watching people – people of all shapes and sizes, nationalities and personality types – many of them simply enjoying walking about in the sun enjoying their holiday in this beautiful place. We were both amused and intrigued one morning when, sitting outside our favourite café, we saw a couple come up the road from the harbour.
The wife immediately disappeared into the clothes shop opposite whilst her husband stood outside looking at his watch every few minutes. After about 10 minutes he went into the shop and dragged her out before she spent too much money. There was then a lively debate between the two of them as to which direction to go in next. The wife wanted to explore, to continue up the road (which, to be honest, didn’t look particularly exciting and appeared to end in a brick wall about 50 yards further on). The husband clearly thought that the way his wife wanted to go was a dead end and insisted that they went back to the harbour. In the end the wife gave in to her husband’s intransigence and plodded back to the harbour clearly dragging her feet in frustration. What the husband didn’t realise, but Julia and I both knew (having walked the whole of Chania Old Town umpteen times), was that the direction his wife wanted to go in wasn’t a dead end but a sharp turn to the left which led to a beautiful and intriguing maze of shops and ancient buildings, stairs and alleyways, twists and turns, with a surprise around every corner.
Reflecting on this later, we thought how much this incident illustrated the two contrasting approaches to both the way we often live our lives, and the way as Christians and local churches many of us approach the challenge of living in these days. It is so easy to quench any sense of adventure or challenge from God to step out in faith, and settle for the familiar, the known, the safe option, rather than ‘dare to be different!’