St John’s Church, January 2022
Happy New Year!
At the beginning of this new year, I thought it would be helpful to share a few thoughts about my sense of how God is leading us and how he is at work. We have recently experienced some changes, not least of which has been Chris Beaumont moving on, and we continue to live through the Pandemic. At times of change and challenge, it is particularly important to stay together and keep our eyes on Jesus seeking to be led by him. I hope these thoughts help bring some focus and encouragement in this. On reading this, I would love to hear back from about whether what I am sharing resonates and to hear from you any additional thoughts you may have based on how God has been leading you. Do get in touch!
There is lots to be thankful for in the life of St John’s right now and some real signs of life. I am frequently encouraged by all kinds of stories of God at work. At the same time, though, it is also true that a generalised effect of the pandemic has been to make us all feel weaker. This weakness takes forms, for some its very personal, for others its about friends, family, their workplace, or church. Like most churches right now collectively we are experiencing change and some challenges as we seek to rebuild out of lockdown; this can give a sense of weakness.
However, I want to suggest that in God’s eyes human ‘weakness’ is not necessarily a problem, in fact it has some significant advantages. You may remember what Paul said about weaknesses when he prayed to God to remove the thorn in his flesh,
‘…he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ 2 Cor 12:9-10
Wow! Paul boasts about, delights in, and is glad for weakness; how can this be? Well, God had just said that God had told him that his power is made perfect in human weakness. It was Paul’s hunger to know more of God’s power that led him to ‘celebrate’ weakness. Earlier in that same letter to the Corinthians, he wrote,
‘…we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.’ 2 Cor 4:7
The thing about a jar of clay is that it does not distract from the treasure within. If the jar is too elaborate, it would be possible to be distracted from the treasure by the jar.
Paul’s conclusion is that human weakness emphasises God’s strength. So, could the same be true for us? Now, do not get me wrong, I do not like feeling weak, its painful. I carry with me every day the pain that I and many others of us have experienced over these last couple of years and this is a big burden. I am certainly not ready to say that the pain we have experienced is from God. But I am becoming increasingly aware and even confident that God is working through it. So, why is human weakness associated with God’s strength; what are the advantages of weakness?
Firstly, weakness breeds humility and humility leads to a greater dependence on God.
Secondly, humility leads to creativity and an openness and willingness to do things differently.
Thirdly, tough times bring a certain simplicity in which we can return to the essential essence of what it means to follow Jesus and be called by God.
There is a very human tendency in church life to seek God’s blessing on our own plans rather than remembering that Jesus says that building the church is his job (Mat 16:18) and our role is to partner with him. The tendency of many churches in the past has been to develop grand and high-production glamorous services and complex organisations running lots of programs all focused on attracting large numbers of people. But are we now seeing that although those efforts are well-intentioned, there is a risk that they can distract us from the essential aspects of church life? But if we partner with Jesus, we allow him to build his church his way, does this not eventually lead to greater fruitfulness? ‘Unless the Lord builds the house,’ the psalmist writes, ‘its builders labour in vain.’ John Wimber famously said, ‘God wants his church back!’
I am not saying that these tendencies have all been true of St John’s, and I have always been grateful about the spiritual authenticity of the of our community and approach. But our experience of weakness through the pandemic is an opportunity for reset and review, and to be affirmed back into and refocus on the essential essence of what it means to do church God’s way. So, what is this essential essence? I sense God leading us back to three things:
Being and doing church the Jesus way is about knowing Jesus and making him known, about following Jesus and teaching others to follow him. It has Jesus firmly at the centre with us his people on the journey of discipleship. Jesus sends us into the world as he was sent (John 20:21) to do the things that he did (John 14:12). That means we need to do what he did the way he did them. And how did he do them? He did them in, through and by the power of the Holy Spirit. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is essential to a life of following Jesus. So, it is about Jesus, and following him in the power of the Holy Spirit. We must therefore seek more of the things of the Spirit.
Being and doing church the Jesus way is about building and planting community (Jeremiah 1:10). Why? Because this is what Jesus did. He gathered a community of people around him and then commissioned them to do the same (by making disciples, baptising them and teaching them – Mat 28:16-19). To do this, we must equip, develop, and teach people how to live the shared life of the Spirit in community and teach some how to be leaders of existing communities and to pioneer new communities.
Being and doing church is about recognising that we are one church family that is part of the wider body of Christ in the city and beyond. With humility and generosity, seeking to work in partnership wherever we can. This includes with St Peter’s, with the diocese as part of the Resourcing Church programme and Shaped by God Together process, with Holy Trinity, and with other non-Anglican churches in the local area and wider city.
I heard someone say this recently, ‘following Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t lead to better services but to better mission.’ I found this statement challenging, because there is a part of me that would love to have the biggest, best, most glitzy services in the city. But that is not where I sense God leading us – God is leading us back both individually and corporately to the simplicity of an authentic relationship with Jesus lived by and through the power of the Spirit that will lead us into mission. Good quality services are part of this, but so is doing church in lots of different ways, shapes, and sizes. Exploring how to do this well is something we want to continue to do.
As I pray, I am reminded that following Jesus is an adventure. There is a wildness about the life of the Spirit. The apostles in the book of acts were able to do so much for God because they were so willing to be led by the Spirit on the adventure even when that meant doing things that seemed illogical and irrational. I want to share with you a bit more personally how this is working out for myself, Kate, and my family.
When we came to Leicester, we experienced the ‘wildness’ of the Spirit. We had such a powerful sense of the call of God even though coming to Leicester was never something that we ever considered. This call got stronger when we came to St John’s. The call was a family call – we experienced it together. For the first few years of our time in Leicester the adventure was exciting. We saw God do amazing miracles, people came to faith, and we experienced God’s provision for the journey. There have been challenging times too and we have not always lived in the fullness of this, but the sense of the call of God has never gone away. In September last year, both Kate and I had COVID, and while isolating with lots of time to talk, we began to sense God speaking to us about the St John’s vicarage. We did not move in there when we first came to St John’s because it was occupied by somebody else. But recently, the house has become available again. To be honest, we have been happy where we are so did not have a desire to move. Also, the house we are currently in is a larger, nicer house than the vicarage, so lots of reasons to stay. But the more we talked about the possibility of a move, we felt our hearts (as John Wesley once put it) ‘strangely warmed’ so we made enquiries. One thing led to another, and we now have a firm plan to move in early Feb. As we pray about why God is leading us there, a big part of it is about feeling called to take a step towards the church. By this we do not mean the building, but the church family. It is a desire and call to connect more deeply with the church family. The word we receive when we pray is to ‘invest’ in people. The practical advantages of being close to the church building will make this much more possible.
In all of this, we have felt again the excitement of following Jesus of being on the adventure. We have sensed the excitement of seeking to know Jesus and make him known, of experiencing and seeing the difference he can make in people’s lives through an experience of his kingdom. The excitement of building and planting community and developing relationship and partnership with others in the city seeking to do the same thing.
After Jesus death, his disciples had an experience of weakness. The risen Jesus tenderly, lovingly, and firmly restored them to a place of vision and passion. My prayer for each of us this new year whatever our experience of challenge and struggle is that we encounter the rise Jesus comforting us, healing us, restoring us, and renewing us. And that in this renewal, we each experience a call back to the essential essence of what it means to follow Jesus and rediscover the joy of the adventure of faith on which he invites us.
So, in the light of this personal sense of call, and in the light of this renewed call back to the essence of following Jesus, what does this mean for the weeks and months ahead for our church family? Firstly, it means we continue to develop our Sunday services with particular goals in mind: while being sensitive to the form and tradition of our services our primary goal is that Sunday gatherings are places where people can encounter Jesus through worship, teaching, prayer ministry, and authentic community. Do consider how you might help do this, what team could you join (welcome, coffee, prayer ministry, sung worship, etc.). Secondly, we pray! Whenever you find people following Jesus and hungry for the life of the Spirit, they pray. We are constantly seeking ways to engage our church in prayer, there are details below of opportunities to pray – deciding to participate in one of these might be the most significant thing you can do for God this New Year. Thirdly, we need to focus on building and planting community. This will require investment in people and the details are yet to be worked out. But for now, especially at these times when it is so easy to disconnect, remember what the writer to the Hebrews says,
‘…let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another…’ (Hebrews 10:25).
So do stay committed to your small group and if you are not in one, please join one (let me know if you want help to find one).
With all this in mind, there are three specific things, I invite you to consider:
Consider how you can engage with prayer both individually and with others. There are opportunities to pray within the life of the church as below. Look out for more in the future.
Tuesdays before work at 7am by Zoom.
Wednesdays after school drop off at 9am.
Presence service – our most ‘prayerful’ service, commencing on 16 Jan.
Alpha (beginning on 20 Jan) – the excitement of the adventure of following Jesus involves introducing others to him so that they might experience the difference he makes. Alpha is a great way of doing this. A great habit to get into is to pray regularly for five friends who do not yet know Jesus. So, this New Year, I want to encourage all of us to; ‘Pray for the five, invite the one.’ Which one of these might you invite on Alpha? And if you invite them, do you need to attend with them?
Small Groups – keep going! And if you are not yet in one, go to one!