Category Archives: church

Out of Nothing: A Cross-shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions

Out of Nothing fc1Those of you who follow me on twitter or follow my other blog will know that I am shortly to have my first book published. In Out of Nothing: A Cross Shaped Approach to Fresh Expressions, I tell the story of my pioneering ministry on a new-build housing development on the edge of Northampton. As I write, I highlight and investigate ecclesiological questions that arose along the way that are pertinent to fresh expressions of church. In the end I attempt to answer the question ‘what is success?’ by proposing a theological foundation by which to understand fresh expressions of church. This foundation is Christ-centred and is based on the action of God in the world, and takes in understandings of atonement origins from Karl Barth and Eberhard Jüngel.

Out of Nothing is published by SCM Press at the end of this month (June 2018). You can pre-roder your copy here.


Hope of the World

bill hybelsI recently came across these notes I made of Bill Hybels’ talk at the 2013 HTB leadership conference. Some useful thoughts on vision and team.


The local church is the hope of the world. There is nothing like the local church when it is working right. The local church will only work well if it is fed well and led well. Can’t talk about leadership without vision

Vision casting – often we start by describing the place we want to go. This may not be the most useful way to bring people with you, however well you cast the vision of that place. People like it ‘here’. They know ‘here’. It’s comfortable ‘here’. You might need to start showing them exactly what is wrong with the place you are currently. People need to see the problems. And they need to realise that we cannot stay in the place we are.  Then a solution can be received. Start by building an airtight case of all the reasons why you can’t stay here.

Vision is most under threat in the middle of the project. Initial enthusiasm has died down and the end is not yet in sight. Need to remind people how far you have come in order to keep going. This also might be the point at which leaders are most vulnerable.
How do we attract, develop and maintain a great team. Leaders need people to share the vision with, and to include others in. Looking for people with the five Cs: Character, Competence, Chemistry (someone you get on with), someone who fits in the Culture of the church, and someone with Calling from God. You will regret it if you compromise on these.
Need to take the time to define the culture of the church. What’s unique about it? At Willow Creek (Bill’s Church), they want people who are incessant tinkerers, who will tweak and tinker in order to improve things.
Figure out who are the most important people in the team. If calamity struck, who would you not want to lose. Who could you cope with losing. Why are they the people you’d not mind losing?  What needs to change? What has changed to bring them to that place (assuming they were important to you when they were hired)? Sometimes you realise though this that you are under using people. Make sure people are not under challenged.
We lead people but the toughest person to lead is yourself. It is our own job to keep ourselves refreshed and healthy in our leadership.  We need to find ways to replenish ourselves. Need to find the rhythms to help ourselves remain full. If we’re a pastor the best thing we bring is ourselves filled with the Holy Spirit, where we have life, patience, and humour.


photoWhen asked by one of the teachers of the day which of God’s commandments was the greatest, Jesus gave this answer which silenced them.

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt 22:37-40)

Few today would argue that there are any better commandments than this. It emphasises a love for God with every fibre of our being, heart, mind and will, and a love for all those around us, even those we may disagree with, as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan illustrates. Implicit in the two commandments is a love for oneself.

The question, “but who is my neighbour?” is a good one. If we are supposed to love our neighbours, who are they? In one sense everyone is our neighbour – people of different nationalities, creeds, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and ages. This is true, but sometimes an answer like this is not practically useful to those wanting to live out a life of “loving their neighbours”. If we are to love everyone, where specifically do we start?

This is where Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon’s book, The Art of Neighbouring, can come in useful. Looking at American suburban society in particular (the book is not limited to this setting but is primarily written from this point of view), they saw that, in fact, people often don’t know those who live immediately around them. I think this is true in the UK too, especially in new-build developments which don’t have a lot of history or long-term residents. Their answer to “where do you start?” is to look at other residents of your area.

They begin by asking you to think of the people who live immediately around you. Can you picture them? Beyond that, what kind of relationship do you have with them? Do you know their names? What sort of person are they? What do they like doing or talking about? Do you know what their desires or concerns are? With this in mind, Runyon and Pathak saw the great potential for impacting community cohesion, security, and general welfare of society for the better, simply if Christians took this command seriously with their literal neighbours. The idea is not to set out with a mission to convert them, but simply to share something of God’s kingdom-goodness with the world by creating loving and peaceful communities. Think about it, how much of your town would be impacted if every member of your church made a commitment to get to know, befriend, and be involved in the lives of those who live around them? I also have no doubt that a side-effect of this will be to open up opportunities for people to find out about and discover faith. When people are confronted with God’s goodness, some will respond.

It is an easy read, with that one central point running through it, and full of suggestions of how to out the greatest commandments into practice, but as always, it will need some adjustment to the individual context. It is a simple premise which, if a number of churches in one city commit to, could have a big impact.

Never too late.


A couple of weeks ago I came upon this story in the Independent newspaper: The Dying Remorse of Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Kalashnikov invented the infamous automatic rifle, the AK-47, and as the article says, it’s the “weapon of choice, for revolutionaries, drug cartels, terrorists, kidnappers, pirates and soldiers”. Despite the 100m weapons in circulation, Kalashnikov made surprisingly little money from his invention. It was simply designed and easy to copy. Still it has been responsible for who-knows-how-many millions of lives to be cut short.

Earlier in his life, Kalashnikov justified his invention like so: “It is not my fault that the Kalashnikov was used in many troubled places. I think the policies of these countries are to blame, not the designers.”. He may have half a point. The designers of a bread knife cannot be held responsible if that knife is used in a fatal attack. Yet an AK-47 is not a bread knife. It was designed in order to put together and shoot quickly and repetitively. It’s purpose is to kill.

Yet still, the burden of this knowledge must have become a weight upon him. At the age of 91 he first entered a church, and asked to be baptised.

“My spiritual pain is unbearable. I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people’s lives, then can it be that I… a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths? The longer I live the more this question drills itself into my brain and the more I wonder why the Lord allowed man to have the devilish desires of envy, greed and aggression”.

The same day I read this article, I happened to be reading a section of Matthew’s gospel, and the parable of the workers in the vineyard. A landowner is looking to hire labourers for a day’s work on his land. He goes down to the market place (the job centre of the day) and hires some men who have not yet found work, promising them a denarius for their day’s work – this was the going rate for a labourer at the time. A little later, around lunchtime he goes down again and hires some more men. And twice more, in the mid and late afternoon he finds some more men. At the end of the day the men line up to receive their pay, starting with those who came last. Those who had worked only a few hours received a whole day’s pay – one denarius. As did those who were hired in the afternoon and at lunchtime. When the turn came of those who were hired first to be paid, they thought they may  be entitled to more, but they received exactly what was promised to them – one denarius for a day’s work.

It seems the Church is there, as it should be, for the spiritually broken, no matter how severe the crimes or burdensome the guilt or how late in life they come. This is the point of faith, that we all have messed up and called far short of God’s standard, yet through the sacrificial death of Jesus, we can hear the words “You are forgiven” and be welcomed into God’s family. We all get the same reward, whether we’ve been trying to follow Christ for our entire lives, or whether, like Mikhail Kalashnikov, it takes us until our tenth decade to discover him.

Well done to the Orthodox Church for welcoming him in, declaring his sins forgiven through Christ, for easing his guilt. He has received the same reward available to all who come to Jesus.

The Chocolate Nativity

chocolate christmas hershey kissesThere have been a few tellings of the nativity story, using chocolate, around recently. This is the one I’m using on Christmas Eve, adapted from some found online, in particular from one I was passed by Grange Park Church from last year, and from Alistair Cutting and David Keen‘s blogs. The text has been adapted to fit the chocolate that I could find. (Couldn’t find a Topic anywhere!). The idea of using it is to help people stay tuned in to the story, as it can be quite easy to phase out on hearing familiar words again.


It’s a familiar story; It has little to do with reindeer pulling sleighs and flakes of snow. I don’t want to fudge the issue, so I’ll begin the story of the first Christmas.

Once upon a time, some 2000 years ago, a young girl called Mary, heard a wispa from the angel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of God’s son. But how could this be?

By order of the government, Joseph had to return to the town where he was born, Bethlehem, which was many miles away. Being pregnant and unmarried in that culture was a terrible thing, so Joseph took Mary with him: it would surely do them good to have a break (kitkat)

There were no busses then, especially no Double Deckers. Mary and Joseph had hardly a dime (Daim!) to their names, so they had to walk most of the way.

It was a long journey, for a young girl, so heavily pregnant, and the ground was very rocky.

When they arrived, Joseph desperately tried to find a place to stay. There was no room in any of the inns or hotels, and even the clubs were full.

Eventually they were offered the chance to stay in the outhouse of a local pub. The stable! And so it was there in the inn that the baby was born. They didn’t have a cot to put him in. But they had to make to with an animals feeding trough, a manger. They laid him on the straw, which was very crunchie.

The baby was named Jesus, which means “saviour”.

That night some shepherds tending their flocks saw a bright light in the sky. Shepherds have a tough job, and they needed a Boost.

Some angels appeared, in the sky, singing. But they weren’t singing any classic tunes, this one was a new song:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven and peace on earth”. The Shepherds said, “come on let’s go to Bethlehem and see what has happened there”.

When they arrived, they found  Joseph, Mary and the baby who was laid in a manger – it was smelly and dirty, not really a fit place for king.

“isn’t he a poppetThey thought to themselves

They were filled with wonder, Could this be the one the had prophets foretold? It was getting late, after eight in fact, so the shepherds returned to the hills.

Meanwhile, in a far country, some astrologers (they were real smarties) were busily scanning the galaxy, looking at the star(bar)s. Suddenly they saw a bright star near the milky way. Was it mars? No, it was a star shining with extraordinary brilliance, way out to the east. They realized that the star signaled the birth of a new King in Bethlehem.

There were no aero-planes in those days, so the wise men climbed on their caramels (camels) and set off on their long journey.

They arrived at the place where Jesus was, worshipped him, and presented gifts from their bounty. Gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

This child is the true king. The Son of God – so he is Divine. To use an old testament phrase, he’s The Lion of Judah. He is God incarnate.

He came to bring God to each one of us, and lets face it, we could do with a refresher, couldn’t we!

Jesus is certainly worth having a celebration for!



communionA wonderful (lengthy) quote from Unapologetic on the meaning and importance of communion (probably my last quote from the book). And as it’s quite difficult to quote Francis Spufford in small chunks, here’s the lot:

“Every Sunday morning, in all the church’s human niches, from downtown Isfahan to downtown Manhattan, in places of great wealth and comfort and in cities under bombardment, on every continent including Antarctica and once, I believe, on the moon, we hold again a stylised version of the original Passover meal in Jerusalem. There is bread, there is wine. We bless them using one of the Passover prayers. We break the bread, we pour the wine into a cup. We repeat Jesus’ words from the story. This is my body. This is my blood. And then for us the bread, made unmysteriously from wheat, and the wine, made unmysteriously from grapes, are different. There has been a change in their meaning. For some of us, the material bread and material wine have altered (on a tiny domestic scale, with crumbs and dregs and washing-up) in the same way that the material world was altered by having its creator within it. Right there on the table, the set of the world once more contains itself as a member; once more, a peculiar knot has been tied in the fabric of existence. For others of us, the change of meaning is made by the material world aligning itself to form a sign of what began happening once in Jerusalem long ago, and (the sign reminds us) is still happening now. Either way, the change puts the same strange burden on our imagination and our understanding when we do what we do next, and eat the bread and drink the wine. We’re eating God. We’re eating Jesus. The body [of Christ – the people of the Church] that wants to the a body is eating the body it wants to be. The pun multiplies. ‘O taste and see’, the choir may be singing, if it’s the altar of a cathedral we’re filing towards to take our bite and our swallow of the meal. The tasting is literal: tongues, teeth, gullet and intestines are all involved. The God of everything is demonstrating again his gross indifference to good taste in the other, polite, little-finger-extended sense. Because it’s inescapable: this is an act of sacred cannibalism, in symbolic form. The Romans, used to temples where the literal blood of animals flowed, passed round rumours of the vile stuff Christians got up to on a Sunday, and perhaps it’s too easy for us now to soothe away into familiarity the language we use. Perhaps there ought to be a hint of repulsion, of taboos overridden, when we sup the red stuff in the chalice, to keep us reminded of where our sign is pointing: which is towards Skull Hill, and the human body on the cross there. We aren’t just eating Jesus. We’re eating his death. We eat and we drink because we desire monstrosity’s end, but the sacrament carries us into the monstrous, through the monstrous, to get us there, just as the story we tell only arrives at hope by way of tragedy. The meanings of the bread and the wine line up along a bloody corridor, as barbarous as the barbarous world God is working on, and at the end of the corridor, once we have accepted the strange and frightening gift we are being given, there is forgiveness, We eat the bread, we drink the wine, to be joined to the act by which forgiveness came. We eat the end of cruelty and shame. We eat amnesty for whatever the particular load of the HPtFtU* was that we brought to the dinner table. We eat the rejoicing that this one time, in spite of all sorrow, the world’s weight was flipped over and turned to joy. We eat grace.

And that’s what the church is for. Forget about saints, popes, bishops, monks, nuns, processions, statues, music, art, architecture, vicarage tea parties, telethons, snake-handling, speaking in tongues, special hats. All of that stuff (OK, I’m not sure about the snake-handling) can be functional in its time and its place, can do things sometimes to inch forward the work of love, but it’s all secondary, it’s all flummery, it’s all essentially decorative compared to this. We eat the bread. We drink the wine. We feel ourselves forgiven. And, feeling that, we turn from the table to try to love the world, and ourselves, and each other.”

* HPtFtU – The Human Propensity to F*ck things Up is Spufford’s way of describing the brokenness of the world, sin.

Square brackets are mine, round brackets are Spufford’s own footnotes.


IMG_0113I was talking to a local minister who works on a UPA estate the other day, and he was telling me about the make up of his community. In his area, people have very strong social bonds with their extended family group, who, by-and-large, haven’t moved far away from the home they grew up in. A number of such groups exist on the estate, and there is little crossover between them. The result is that if you get to know one or two members of a group you then get access to the whole group. In his case, a couple from one group started coming to his church, and soon enough most of the group were coming. This reminded me of hearing about some historical cultures, and some  tribal cultures today, where the religion of the tribe or group depends on the religion of the chief. Still today, some orthodox Christians in Ukraine date their conversion to 988, the year King Vladimir was baptised in the River Dniepr. As the king goes, so goes the country.

Often Fresh Expressions of church focus on building community, and that is exactly what we are trying to do here. A sense of community is something tangible that new-build developments often lack, and people notice it most when they stop work and have their first child. Their previous social networks are closed to them or more difficult to access so other local and child-friendly networks are needed. But this is a middle-class area, which is different to UPA areas. It seems, as you climb higher up the social ladder, finding a meaningful community which springs out of the locality becomes increasingly difficult.

This is something that Trystan Hughes picks up on his recent book, The Compassion Quest. Isolation is seen as something to be sought:

We are taught from an early age, either consciously or subconsciously, that detachment is something for which we should aim. It may even seem to us that the more successful we are, the more we earn the ‘privilege’ of privacy. We may well begin our adult lives in a terraced house, but then we work hard so that we can ‘upgrade’ to a semi-detached house. Then our dream is to purchase a detached house. If money is no issue, we might then buy a house with a large garden surrounding it, separating us from our neighbours. Worse still, for security reasons we might then erect large fences and gates around our shiny new house , which shut us in and shut the rest of the world out.

There is talk in Christian circles of a return to community living (or at least community principles), and there have been experimentations in ‘New Monasticism’ – a community which lives by a rule of life (and which may or may not live together). But contemporary expectations in housing, and even in the design of our new developments are often at odds with community-building. For instance, how do you live i community when all you have to work with are distinct single-family dwellings? Development design is slightly better than it was twenty years ago, but only marginally. Houses are designed as mini-castles. Now, the front garden, a place where you may have once sat outside saying ‘hello’ to passers-by, or where you may have done the gardening, are commonly replaced by hardstanding parking or removed altogether. (Most of the houses on my development have only a few feet of front garden). Outside space is now only in small, private, back gardens. In many cases, parking is at the back of the house meaning that people don’t use their front doors – another opportunity to bump into your neighbours is gone. In a neighbouring development (20-30 years old), there is no public place to meet besides the play park. At least we have a coffee shop and, hopefully soon, a community centre.

We need to be connected yet in many ways, our current society makes it more difficult than ever to form close communities. It remains a challenge for those in Christian groups to build community and live out our interconnectedness. God is connected to each one of us and we find we share in his riches better together than alone. In fact, the desire for connectedness and relationship is an integral human need. We are hoping that our connection to God demonstrates itself in the way we relate to other people. The first two commandments that Jesus affirms in Mark 12: are actually two sides of the same coin. There can be no love for God without love for one another, as he is Father and Creator of all. It is also He who informs, guides and enables our love for others.

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”

 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions. (mark 12:28-34)