Leadership Lines

website leadership lines
Leadership Lines


A bi-monthly thought from one of Vision and Leadership Team:

March/April 2017.  Written by Tim Fergusson.

Dear friends,

Back in January, in a Sunday service, we read John 14:6. Jesus said in response to a question from Thomas, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” During the sermon, I said that in the uncertain world of Brexitrump, after the steering wheel of our political direction has been given a sharp tug, we are no longer certain where we are heading.  Thomas said to Jesus, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” In shaky times, our question is similar: “We don’t know where we are going, so how can we know the way?” To Thomas back then and to us today, Jesus replies, “I am the way.” Not, “I know the way,” or, “I will instruct you in the way,” but “I am the way.” As life proceeds in ways we don’t expect, we don’t necessarily have a map with a clearly marked destination. But we do know Jesus; we know the one who is the way. Which is why at the beginning of the chapter, Jesus told his disciples not to let their hearts be troubled and why at the start of the next chapter he says, “Remain in me.” Staying close to Jesus enables us to make sense of the journey and rest secure in the certainty of our eventual destination.

Jesus is the way. But he is also the truth. And the same seismic change in the political landscape that has demanded we recapture our confidence in Jesus being the way, demands also that we consider how he is the truth. For we are becoming familiar with a culture that declares itself to be ‘post-truth’; we have been introduced to the possibility of ‘alternative facts’; and we are learning to be on guard against ‘fake news.’

Let’s deal with the latter two first. ‘Alternative facts’ was the phrase used by one of the White House team, Kellyanne Conway, to defend fellow team member and press secretary Sean Spicer, in his assertion that there were more people at the President’s inauguration than had been at any other. By every usual measure, this was demonstrably untrue, so the journalist to whom Conway was speaking at the time pointed out fairly that, “Alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” As there is a clear call from Jesus for us to demonstrate straightforward honesty (“Let your yes be yes and your no be no,” Matthew 5:27), we can and should rightly denounce deliberate lies that seek to serve a certain agenda, whether presented as ‘alternative facts’ or as spurious reporting – ‘fake news.’

That’s the easy bit, because facts are facts.

But truth is a little harder to nail down. ‘Post-truth’ was apparently the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year. (I guess this is like the Oscars for words?) The Dictionary defines post-truth as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” We get the idea. As long as an emotive assertion is made strongly and frequently enough, the reality of a situation can be ignored such that the assertion is believed by many people. They believe it despite it being untrue. And if this practice is widespread, our society has moved into a post-truth era in which truth has no bearing on, say, how people vote, or what they believe about another people group.

However, the implication of this definition of post-truth is that truth = facts and that as long as we are faithful to factual information, we have told the truth. I’m not sure that Jesus or any biblical character or writer would have seen it this way. The word of God (the Bible) which reveals the Word of God (Jesus) is surely not so much a book full of facts as a book full of truth. The classic example would be the account of creation. It does not deliver not scientific or historical fact, for the categories of science and history were unknown to the ancient writers of Genesis. It delivers theological truth – it tells us about the nature of God and the nature of our relation to him. The story is true in that it proclaims a powerful and creative God who brings order from chaos and being from nothing. It is true without requiring the world to have been made in six 24-hour periods.

It only takes a minute of reflection to realise that we are surrounded by parallel truths. That I am a sinner and that I am forgiven are both true. That we are all in some way less than other people (less quick, less kind, less slim, less clever, less all sorts of things) is true, but so is our equality in Christ – we are all loved as God’s children. Truth then becomes not a matter of facts, but a matter of discernment. We need wisdom in a world of competing truths to discern what is really important and which truth will shape our lives.

When Jesus says, “I am the truth,” we realise that the key to this necessary discernment is the same as the key to knowing the way. A closeness to Jesus and a participation in his character and nature will lend us the spiritual discernment to wisely understand the truth that we need to believe and then defend with all we have. We do this with humility – carefully listening to the voices of others lest in their experience we discover the presence and therefore the truth of Jesus. This is why in church in the last few years, we have sought to listen to the voices of asylum seekers rather than be driven by the facts of immigration statistics. It is why I was encouraging us in 2016 to hear the voices of those who are gay rather than reaching for biblical texts which will exclude before we have listened. The interpretative lens and the deeper truths are found in Jesus – he is the truth.

So as we engage with others at church, as we read our Bibles, as we listen to political opinion, and as we relate to one another we should reject all lies that are designed to deceive, but where different views compete for our allegiance, let us draw near to Jesus to discern the truth that we are to live by.

January/February 2017. Written by Tim Fergusson

In the last Leadership Lines, I proposed we ought to take seriously the message from Lynn Green, the general secretary of the Baptist Union who is calling Baptist churches across the country to be ‘beacons of hope’ based on the premise that they have already learnt to be ‘beacons of prayer.’ As you read this, we will have just had three evenings of prayer and (I hope) prophecy to begin the New Year. May God inspire us to be a people of prayer throughout this whole year – it does feel like we need it right now! I spoke at our carol service about fragility, a concept that Jo Price picked up on as she preached on New Year’s Day.  There is fragility in the circumstances of a number of people in church right now – most especially through serious illness – but there is also fragility in society at large that I can sense in the press and in conversations I have with friends and strangers. It stems from uncertainty over the consequences of the decisions of the British and American electorates during last year, and is fanned by the seeming increase of extremism in so many arenas – from violent religious adherence on one hand to on the other hand, the more sanitised but still serious mutual demonisation of left and right in the politics of so many countries.

Into all this, Jesus speaks. His words are familiar but we often have the luxury of forgetting them. “Do not be troubled” he says. “Trust in God. Trust also in me.” This is the opening line of John chapter 14, as Jesus starts to hit his stride in what has become known as the ‘upper room discourse’ – initially a conversation but increasingly a monologue that spans four chapters of John’s gospel. In the discourse, Jesus seeks to reassure, comfort, strengthen and prepare his disciples in the face of what is about to happen, namely, Jesus’ physical departure from them, firstly in order to die, then to return to heaven. Everything that has become secure and predictable for the disciples is about to shaken. “Do not be troubled,” says Jesus, “but trust in me.”

We will be exploring these chapters in our Sunday services over the coming three months to take us up to Easter, where we eventually discover that what was so traumatic for the disciples becomes the means by which all people can know God’s forgiveness, life and fulness. In studying Jesus’ words in this way, I pray that we may learn to trust more, and may learn to hope more, for no circumstances we face can thwart God’s love for us or his capacity to resurrect kingdom life from even the most troubling of times.

November/December 2016.  Written by Tim Fergusson.

So, I’m Moderator of the trustees of the Heart of England Baptist Association, as many of you know. If this sounds like a rather unglamorous role, that’s because it is, um, rather unglamorous. I gave the word Moderator a capital ‘M’ to make it look more important. There are good bits, of course.

Helping our four Regional Ministers set and pursue a vision for Baptist life across the 170 Baptist churches in the West Midlands is fun. Getting to hear some great stories about what churches around the patch are getting up to in mission is a pleasure – did you know that HEBA have just ordained (in Stafford) the first-ever deaf Baptist minister, Susan Myatt, who will serve those who, like her, have sign language as their first language? Or if you are Facebook-savvy, have you seen how Limbrick Wood Baptist Church is using social media and a bit of graphic design to raise its profile massively and so punch above its weight? But much of the time, being Moderator (capital M, remember) involves talking about the merits of charitable unincorporated organisations versus companies limited by guarantee, or wondering how to resolve a japanese knotweed problem in the graveyard of the unlikely-named Darkhouse Baptist Church. Surprisingly important, both matters, but not exactly at the cutting edge of kingdom mission.

However, as Moderator, I do get to be part of the Baptist Union Council. The Baptist Union of Great Britain has a staff team based in Didcot, is overseen by its own set of trustees, makes executive decisions via a small Steering Group, but seeks to listen to the wider Baptist family in England and Wales through the Baptist Union Council. Council has about 70 members and meets for two days, twice a year. It is a genuine privilege for me to discuss the direction of travel for the whole denomination with some of the movers, shakers and elders of the Baptist scene.

At October’s Council, Lynn Green, the BU General Secretary, started to talk to us about ‘Beacons of Hope’. Her vision is simple enough – that Baptist churches are known across the country as Beacons of Hope – places where anyone who is anchorless, isolated or despairing may discover welcome, belonging and purpose; places that are known in local communities as being life-giving not joy-sapping; in short places that reveal Jesus to all who encounter them. She is looking for:

Churches that inspire a longing for God.

Churches that inspire a longing for mission.

Churches that inspire a longing for relationship.

These days of challenge and change, she said, are not a time for defensively hiding away, but for bold presence in our communities. (Sunday Out, anyone?) But all that Lynn said had the premise that churches had already taken on board her previous vision – one that she articulated a year or two ago – that Baptist churches should be Beacons of Prayer. We kind of let this earlier message of Lynn’s pass us by at Olton Baptist. Maybe we jumped straight to the activity of being in the community. Not that we have not been praying, of course, but could we really describe ourselves as a beacon of prayer?

2016 has been a challenging year for us, I think. Challenging for the leadership, challenging for the congregation, challenging for many individuals. I think it’s time we addressed our prayer life together with greater passion and intent. I want OBC to be a beacon of hope. How much more successful we will be if we are first a beacon of prayer. I am reminded of some words from Acts (4:31):

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

September/October 2016. Written by Tim Fergusson

Many contributed in some way to our discussions on disability and on sexuality through June and July. Our aim was to think about the welcome we offer others, and whether our attitudes unintentionally distance or exclude others. On the matter of disability, we have a follow up day of training. The matter of sexuality remains more difficult to navigate because, as expected, our conversations revealed widespread opinion about homosexuality. Some of us cannot get beyond what we see as the Bible’s prohibition of same-sex sexual activity. Some of us can no longer accept what we see as damage to the gospel because of the consistent rejection of gay people by churches. We will prayerfully and carefully continue to think on this subject as it is not going away anytime soon. I hope to address in forthcoming sermons some of the broader subjects that emerged, such as how we interpret the Bible, or what church membership is and how if at all we police behaviour. Above all, I want to trust God to lead us to a place that does justice to both his unlimited grace to all people of all types and to our heritage as biblically-minded and grounded followers of Christ.

Having prepared people for marriage over fifteen years of ministry, and conducted thirty or so weddings (it would be many more if I were Anglican!), it was a new experience to be involved in a wedding within my own family when my oldest son was married over the summer. It was a wonderful day and my wife and I felt blessed by the whole weekend. One thing especially stood out. ‘No man is an island’, so they say. But nor should any couple consider themselves sufficient in themselves. As it happens, my son married another Baptist (this wasn’t an arranged marriage or anything…) And as we met people from the church where his wife grew up, it dawned on us that she had been nurtured within a whole community, and prayed for over many years and through all the ups and down of growing up. With both the bride’s and the groom’s family and friends gathered there, it struck me that this wedding was a community project! It was not just the joining of two people, but the culmination of the work of several churches who have loved and guided children into Christian adulthood. I appreciate that not all new marriages can boast this privilege – which is why we are so conscious of God’s grace in this. And I appreciate that not all those that a church nurtures will end up married. But the occasion made me realise the invaluable contribution of those that work with, pray for, encourage, correct, accept, love and walk alongside our young people. May each of the emerging Christian adults we have in our own church be a whole community project.

July/August 2016.  Written by Tim Fergusson.

Last week (20th-24th June) felt of great significance. Locally, at our church meeting, we discussed the outcome of our three evenings of prayer in May. While useful things emerged, such as a strong encouragement to continue to meet to pray in this way, the idea of creating a satellite congregation that I floated in last month’s Bulletin seemed not to sail very far. I came away from the meeting thinking that this was an initiative to dock for a while, perhaps to be thought about again at another time. In the meantime, the leadership will be coming back to the meeting soon with a proposal or two about increasing our staff, as strengthening our ministry capacity seems now to be a priority.

But all decisions and plans for the church, in fact all decisions and plans for anything, were suddenly forgotten in the later events of the week as the British people voted to leave the EU. As I write, David Cameron has announced he will step down; Jeremy Corbyn is hanging onto party leadership by only a thread following the departure of most of his shadow cabinet, and Lord Hill, the UK’s EU commissioner has resigned. (Catching the mood, even Roy Hodgson has joined the walk-out…) Our credit rating has been downgraded, the pound has tumbled, and a second Scottish referendum is now expected. In short, the political and economic turmoil is widespread. There are many troubling aspects to the whole debacle, from the reasons why the Prime Minister put the question to the country in the first place, to the misinformation and tone of the campaigns; the deep divisions that have emerged in political parties and among communities; and the lack of strategy for what would happen subsequent to a vote to leave. These are nervous times, and fear of the consequences are widespread.

I am afraid that my theology does not allow me to offer immediate words of comfort – we as a nation have no privileged guarantee of stability, or special entitlement to protection in a volatile world. God calls us not to denial of difficulty or to empty optimism. He calls us to trust. But trust in what? He calls us to trust in the creativity of the Father who can envision good emerging from any circumstance; trust in the lordship of Jesus whose authority over all human powers remains undiminished; trust in the relentless dynamism of the Holy Spirit who works to bring about the will of the Father. If this sounds vague and not that comforting, perhaps it is because it has been a while since we felt the need to lean collectively on these simple, timeless truths. But now is the time to learn again the discipline of trust. It is certainly the time to pray for our nation, for our leaders, and for each other, that we might exhibit that we are not overcome by uncertainty, for we have a God who is “a refuge and strength, and ever present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)

May/June 2016. Satellite Congregations. Written by Tim Fergusson.

Reasons and stories. If you want to introduce change, I once learnt, you have to give people reasons why it is necessary or good, and stories of how it might look. In the last Leadership Lines, I talked about how we accommodate growth and gave a few reasons why we might want to begin a ‘satellite congregation’ rather than try to pack more and more people into Langley. The idea would be for a smaller, less formal church congregation to start in a new place and maybe at a different time. For those that attend, this congregation would replace their of usual worship at Langley, rather than being an additional commitment. The existing Langley congregation and the new satellite would be thoroughly connected, sharing children’s resources and finance and policies and ethos and leadership oversight, allowing both congregations to benefit from the economies of scale whilst remaining small and relational enough for everyone to know everyone. This way of growing (duplicated again, if necessary) might provide us with a model for expanding our church that does not involve the launching of a completely independent and possibly precarious church plant. I have called the model ‘satellite congregations’ – others call it multi-site church.

This, in brief, is the reasoning behind the idea.

But what might it look like? Here’s the story that I pictured in my head one day as I was out praying and walking in Olton:

Down on the edge of Jubilee Park is a Guide Hut. Next to the Guide Hut is a larger Scout Hut. Next to the Scout Hut is the much larger and more permanent Summerfield Education Centre. Imagine a group of Christians, maybe 25 in all when children are included, who decide to meet in the Guide Hut each Sunday afternoon. On the second Sunday of each month, it’s Sunday Out and Families in the Park takes over as usual and people come and go and play games and make crafts and run around outside and drink coffee and eat cake. On the other Sundays in the month, something happens which looks a bit like church. There are songs of worship, but the band is just one person with a guitar. There are prayers, but they include the children. There is a sermon, but it is more a conversation than a monologue, and while it is happening the children are busy making something, or they stay with the adults – whatever suits each family. The timing is flexible, the set up minimal, the technology simple.

One or two of the regulars from Families in the Park start to come every week instead of just once a month. They get involved in helping and after a while, somebody from the congregation sits down with them and takes them through the essentials of Christian faith. They have picked most of it up already and gladly affirm their desire to become followers of Jesus.

A few times in the summer, they meet a bit earlier and start with a barbecue in front of the hut, and the children play some games in the Park. And whether it’s summer or winter, people always stay after worship for coffee and cake. Somebody contacts the Council and they agree that the congregation will help keep the park tidy, so a few people meet every other Saturday morning and litter pick. Some local people start to help.

After a while, more people join. Some are new to faith. Some are there for the friendship and belonging. Some are already Christian but are looking for something more rooted in their community. With the new people, the Guide Hut becomes too small, so the congregation moves to the Scout Hut while retaining the Guide Hut for some more focussed children’s work – it is but ten seconds walk from one to the other. There is talk about seeing if instead of using the two huts, the congregation might approach Summerfield Education Centre to see if it might be hired. With its hall and separate rooms it might be just the answer for a growing church…

This is what is in my mind’s eye. I can think of any number of reasons why it might not work as pictured, but in essence I can’t see many reasons why it should not work. The thing is this: Who would want to be part of such a venture? Who would be happy to leave the familiarity and the buzz of a Sunday service at Langley School for the adventure of something smaller and riskier? If the answer is no-one, the vision dies straight away. If the answer is someone, we would love to discover who that someone is – please come and talk to us!

March/April 2016. Enlarging the tent for all. Written by Tim Fergusson.

We seem to have been growing our Sunday congregation. It is both an encouragement and a challenge. So imagine we wanted to build a church building. (I don’t by the way.) What would we need? A couple of million quid? Churches that set about on big building projects often reach for Isaiah 54:2-3 to help justify the expense:

Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and the left. Your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.

When the Vision and Leadership Team (VLT) met to discuss how we accommodate a growing church, we deliberately started with these verses. How do we read them in our context? The talk of tents resonates with our well-worn metaphor of our church as a base camp. But to grow a tented community you don’t erect a larger tent, you put up more tents. So if (and I have received no guarantee) we continue to grow, let’s not think about bigger buildings. Let’s look for how we can erect more tents, thus spreading out to the right and the left. At our church meeting a few weeks ago, we grappled briefly with what it would be like to have a satellite congregation – another expression of Olton Baptist Church in a different place or meeting at a different time, or both. If we accommodate growth by adding a congregation, maybe we can reap the benefits of having a big church’s centralised resources, whilst still being relationally connected through our smaller congregations. What do you think, and could you imagine joining something smaller and fresher? Please talk to the VLT if you have any thoughts.

Meanwhile, as we wonder about the new, we continue to develop exisiting themes. Again, there is a mixture of challenge and encouragement.

A challenge: For some time, we have talked about how we welcome and embrace people who don’t fit the OBC ‘norm’. (A measure of success might be that there isn’t an OBC norm!) We have made headway with regard to asylum seekers and refugees, who have enriched our church even as we have sought to serve them. Recently, we have been asked to consider our welcome to those who are gay – a section of society that churches have frequently ignored or pushed away. We have perhaps only just begun this journey, but I would like our starting point to be the adoption of an openness that has generally not been evident in churches. An openness to listen to those who are themselves gay and who can tell us what our language and our views sound like to them; an openness to grapple as much as those who are gay have to grapple with how sexuality relates to discipleship; an openness to live with whatever personal discomfort comes with the possible disruption of our usual categories and assumptions. The vowels of grace ask us to endure awkwardness, embarrassment, inconvenience, offence and uncertainty as we encounter challenges to our tidy world. They are not easy to endure – that’s why it is grace! But please can we determine together to do so?

An encouragement: Yesterday, the Sunday Out explorer group leaders got together. There were some simple but lovely stories:
• At Crossing Points, the sense of supporting those who are already community-makers as the group helps the allotment committee.
• At CSI, the commitment of the team to turn out and work for the good of Olton whatever the weather may be.
• At Hockley Heath’s Café in the Park and and at Families in the Park, the visible profile both groups now have in their locality that results in new faces being added each month to those we already know well.
• At Have I Got News for You at Happy Heart café, the easy introduction of faith into conversation about the week’s news.
• At Bible and Boggle at Langley Hall Social Club, the increasing interaction of those that go with the regular members and the plans to join in their social events.
• At Sunday Elsewhere at New Holme Gardens, the sense of belonging that has been created among the residents who come to the service.
• At the Partners’ Brunch at the café on Dovehouse Parade, the way we can include partners on a Sunday morning instead of leaving them at home!
• At Community Chaplaincy, the emergence of a vision to be praying for our streets and letting the streets know that we are praying for them.
There are some difficulties – those who go into Brookvale nursing home are looking for a new venue with the Home’s imminent closure. And there may be an uncertainty about how to develop some of the groups further. But there remained plenty of passion for Sunday Out! Which is great to see two years after we began it.

So, encouragement and challenge. Let’s rejoice in the first and rise to the second.

January/February 2016. Formalising and formulating. Written by Tim Fergusson

It may be just as well that we don’t have an annual awards evening at church. I’m not sure whether selecting a ‘Church Personality of the Year’ would be productive. Nor, say, ‘Winner – Best Homegroup,’ or ‘Best Supporting Musician.’ And who would get the ‘Lifetime Christianity Award’?

Nevertheless, as 2015 flows in to 2016, a quick review of last year may be in order.

Perhaps it was a year of formalising what was already going on among us. For a year or so, we ran Sunday Out as an experiment, but in April we decided to continue this outreach indefinitely. For five years or so, we had been involved with the support of asylum seekers and refugees, but in June we affirmed that this support would be a priority for us as a church. For between two and eighteen years, five people in our congregation had been on a journey towards faith in Jesus, but in October we marked their following of Christ in their baptism. And we had a raft of new members formalising their desire to work out their discipleship in covenant partnership with the rest of OBC.

All of this needs further consolidation. Sunday Out will always be a fragile thing, requiring our patience, commitment and faith. Supporting those seeking refuge in Britain will always demand our sacrificial intent to embrace the vowels of grace. And those newly baptised or newly in membership will look to us for encouragement and for a place to exercise their God-given gifts. (Regarding the first of these, I think incidentally that we are starting to see a greater connection between Sunday Out and Sunday In (as it were) for most of those visiting us over Christmas came because of our Sunday Out contacts.)

First of all then, 2016 needs to be business as usual, pursuing as before that which is important but no longer novel.

But I hope 2016 may also be a year in which we formulate new plans. I have been reading Exodus. In their desert wanderings, whenever the people of Israel settled down briefly, they were quick to grumble. More of the same (a life in tents, manna to eat, and so on) caused them to turn inwards and complain about what they did not have. When the particular complaint was a lack of water and Moses asked God what to do about this, God said,

“Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” (17:5-6)

So what I would ask of you is this. Will you pray? Will you pray for OBC’s leadership as we seek to walk on ahead, looking for the place where God has already gone before us, the place from which new streams will flow? The VLT are at present thinking about what our staffing needs are, but this has raised significant questions over how big a church we wish to be, and whether the emergence of a satellite congregation might be wiser than continually packing more people into Langley. It is very early days in our thinking, and we have come to no conclusions, but have begun to sense that this may be where God is ahead of us, waiting for us to arrive and strike a rock.

November/December 2015. Learning from Aidan. Written by Paul Cheesman

The First Base Camp?

One of my favourite places in the world is the part-time island of Lindisfarne off the North East Coast. We re-visited it in the summer whilst on holiday. It has often been said that the membrane between heaven and earth is a little thinner here (a good place for solitude and silence as someone was preaching on a while ago…)

One of the things I love so much about the place is the spiritual heritage the island has. Back in 635 St Aidan travelled from the monastery on Iona at the request of the new king Oswald of Northumbria, to establish a mission ‘base camp’. The monastery he established on Lindisfarne was not a hide-away-from-the-world but a place for explorer groups to head out from. Aidan was hard-wired for meeting the needs of the local community, as he wandered (deliberately on foot so he could chat to folk he met) through the local communities. He viewed money as a means to get to mission, be it feeding and clothing the poor or freeing slaves. He and his team established schools and were committed to seeing people access the Bible.

One of the things I find most fascinating is that he was a remarkably gentle and gracious evangelist. There was no sense of ‘forcing’ the gospel on the pagans of the day. He had a method of gently engaging them in conversations as he was able, and introducing them to Jesus and the idea of faith in him. In his mind, there wasn’t an artificial divide between the sacred and the secular; between meeting physical needs and feeding them spiritually. It was as if everything were spiritual. Sound familiar?

In some ways, the place of the church in 2015 has more similarities to the early Celtic church than it has had for centuries. Many of us grew up in a (admittedly waning) “Christian” nation, where people had an understanding (to some extent) of Jesus and the Bible and some even wandered into church of their own volition to find out more. Things have changed in my lifetime. Base camp thinking is not just a bright idea that we’re trying for a bit, it is an essential mindset as we look at how we are going to engage a post-Christian community, just as Aidan had to engage a pre-Christian community.

We’re probably not going to be paying for too many slaves to be freed (thanks, Wilberforce) but Aidan’s pattern of spotting needs, addressing them, engaging folk in conversation and gently finding opportunities to then speak about Jesus is a great model for us. Lets keep going.

“So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all.” Galatians 6 verses 9-10 (Message)

September/October 2015. Sewing up the church. Written by Tim Fergusson

I have never sewn anything ever. Never sewn a button on a shirt, never replaced a zip, never darned a sock. Okay, so no-one darns socks anymore. But in my house, anything that needs a repair or an adjustment goes to the seamstress-in-residence. She got ‘O’ level needlework, you know. Many people today see the church in need of repair. It’s not hard to see why, with so many churches (Baptists among them) ageing and dwindling in numbers. If repair is required, how might we sew up the church? A few weeks ago, various people from across the HEBA (Heart of England Baptist Association, of which we are part) got together to ask what in broad brush terms God is doing among us. I think some common themes emerged. It was easy to establish that traditional patterns of church life appear increasingly unsuccessful in a generation for whom church is mostly alien territory. More discernment is required to determine what to do about this. Hope might lie in the church exhibiting three characteristics; three features that might help sew up the holes in the fabric of the church in the UK:

A spiritual church in which formulaic or trite expressions of worship are replaced by a broader, deeper, and much more honest spirituality that shapes the whole life of the church members.

An experimental church where it becomes normal, not exceptional, for congregations to try alternative ways of being community together and reaching their neighbourhoods (Sunday Out, anyone?)

A wise church which is known less for its judgment of the lifestyles of others and more for its modelling of a different and attractive way of living.

Spiritual, Experimental and Wise – a way of SEWing up the church. Investigating these three characteristics will occupy our Sunday sermons for a couple of months. (I think it reasonable to assume that we have by now had enough of Hebrews! Thank you to all those who have expressed appreciation for the teaching over the past four months as we thought about Jesus as the priest who does all that required to bring us back to God, and the call to take our faith seriously and hold fast to Christ in all things.)

I’m looking forward to exploring all this… but I am also aware that the niceties of how we might be church can seem a bit trivial right now. There are some big fish frying on the national scene at present, about matters that I expect are at least as dear to God’s heart as the health and relevance of his church. Assisted dying is coming before Parliament again on the 11th September and I worry about the ramifications of its legalisation for vulnerable people. And the language and proposed legislation emanating from our government about the migrants in Calais or those crossing the Mediterranean anger me – who on earth do we think we are to believe that we can shut out the suffering of others?

July/August 2015. The gospel of change. Written by Jon Fortnam

What’s the phrase – “plus ca change, plus ca change rien”? The more things change, the more they stay the same. Well, yes; and no (a typical lawyer’s answer?).

On the global front, the events in Tunisia and elsewhere at the week end remind us of the apparently limitless inhumanity of humankind which leads us to question “why?”; Greece’s economic crisis and continued membership of the EU remain unresolved and speaks of the perils of placing our complete trust in financial systems and those who manage them. Closer to home, the pain of innocent victims caught up in others’ anger and abuse seem ever present. So the names and places have changed; but it might feel that the stories remain the same.

Yet there is hope: for whilst God’s limitless love is the same yesterday, today and forever – it never changes and at times like these, we can throw ourselves into His loving arms knowing that we are ‘in Him’, so that our identity, our future are secure, even if we don’t understand the ‘now’ (remember Ephesians?). And we can do so expecting God to change us – to be more like Christ, dependent on His Father, and to this extent the saying is altogether too gloomy.

Someone once said the essence of the gospel is change – as we spend time reflecting on these things with our heavenly Father, in our prayers, our bible study, the quiet and the noise of our daily comings and goings, we can expect God to speak into our situation, to give us grace to be ‘in step’ with what He’s doing and wanting us to join in (of which, what a reminder from Hebrews 8 last week end and back to Ephesians again – check out 2:19).

As my time on the VLT comes to an end (I step down from the VLT in the Autumn) I look back at how we as a church have changed in the last five years – Tim has joined us as our minister, the ‘OK Club’ has come into existence and we have twice as many children now as then; Sundays Out are part of our life together and we are a more diverse and enriched group than we ever have been. Changes for good; but if we are not also being changed as individuals; changed to be more like Jesus (Ephesians 5:1 has it ‘imitators of God’, living ‘in the light’ rather than in ‘darkness’), then we are missing out.

Let’s seize every opportunity to be imitators of God individually and as part of His family. Will this involve change? For sure! Change for good – well certainly change [to be more] for God! And if you sense God’s call or ‘nudge’ to join VLT, to be part of the team steering the church ever more towards Jesus, let us know! It’s been a privilege and a joy for me to serve in this way with Mark, and Jo . Have I changed? How could I not have done? Is there more to come? Oh yes!