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MAPPING THE JOURNEY (Views from the Abbey 26)

During the recent ‘deep clean’ of our church buildings at Abbey Baptist Church, Reading – a great opportunity to also ‘de-junk’ the various cluttered storerooms, nooks and crannies, cupboards and corners – we came across an old Route Planning Map from 1972. We love old maps. They are so colourful and informative – the ‘A’ roads marked in bright red, the names of important towns written in CAPITALS, the estimated mileage and time of various journeys between where you are and where you hope to get to clearly indicated (in a helpful chart) – but in terms of usefulness for today this particular route planning map is virtually absolutely useless. It is completely out of date. There are virtually no motorways indicated (apart from the M1). Things that were important then are not so important now (where you can find an AA Phone Box, for example). Even some of the so-called ‘important’ towns are no longer that important (Kidderminster is no longer ‘a vibrant carpet-making town). We are off on holiday shortly … but we won’t be using this particular map to plan our journey!

Reflecting on our ‘discovery’ I confess that the thought did cross my mind that this particular map could equally illustrate the ‘mission statement’ of many churches (including our own?) up and down the UK today. We are mapping the journey ahead using outdated maps and methods that may appeal to us but don’t cut any ice with the vast majority of people ‘out there’ – people whom Christ calls us to reach out to in his name (Luke 24:45-49). Many years ago Sir John Lawrence posed the rhetorical question: ‘What does the average church member want? He wants a building that looks like a church, Services of the kind he has been used to, Ministers who dress in the way he approves … and to be left alone!’ Is this observation still true today? Sadly ‘the proof of the pudding has been in the eating’. I visited a church some time ago and the first thing that struck me as I entered was a large notice that said: ‘Switch it off, unplug it, and empty it!’ Fortunately, it turned out to be instructions for the hot water boiler and not the Mission Statement for the Church?! Sadly, it could well have been the mission statement for many a church over the last 50+ years.

As a church we have a ‘Vision Day’ coming up in August. It will be an opportunity to re-think, re-work, re-pray our own ‘Mission Statement’. I hope we will use the day well. It is not a day for recrimination or regret (although perhaps a little repentance for missed opportunities in the past may not be entirely out of place). It is a day to seek, discover, and affirm the plans and purposes God still has for us (Jeremiah 29:11). We need to be brave enough to consign the outdated map we have been following to the heritage cupboard, and embrace God’s up-to-date Route Planning Map for 2021/22. I am not suggesting that following the so-called ‘New Churches’ Sat Nav is any better by the way. Many of these churches are discovering that their way of being and doing church is equally dated (far too caught up with Sunday stuff, sung worship, personal prophecy, etc. than selfless service in the community in Christ’s name seven days a week). Even Sat Nav’s need to be regularly updated!

God’s road map for us is unique (as with every other church). We can only find it by prayerfully waiting on God – and we need to start doing that right now, not waiting until the Vision Day itself to decide yet again to do nothing until we have prayed about it some more! We need to come with ‘God ideas’ not just ‘good ideas’ of our own. God will show us the way forward as we genuinely seek him. As in the days of the Prophet Isaiah we too ‘will hear a voice behind [us] saying, “This is the way. Follow it, whether it turns to the right or to the left.”’ (Isaiah 30:21)! Mixing metaphors, let’s dare to believe God has kept the best wine until last (John 2:10)!

One more step along the world I go,
One more step along the world I go;
From the old things to the new,
Keep me travelling along with you:

And it’s from the old I travel to the new;
Keep me travelling along with you.

Round the corners of the world I turn,
More and more about the world I learn;
All the new things that I see
You’ll be looking at along with me.

As I travel through the bad and good,
Keep me travelling the way I should.
Where I see no way to go,
You’ll be telling me the way, I know:

Give me courage when the world is rough,
Keep me loving though the world is tough;
Leap and sing in all I do,
Keep me travelling along with you:

You are older than the world can be,
You are younger than the life in me;
Ever old and ever new,
Keep me travelling along with you.

~ Sydney Carter (1915-2004)

Jim Binney

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