Tuesday, July 10, 2012

For the pod: Steam at twenty below

Many years ago I was part of the tiny church community of St Andrew's Moscow just after the wall came down. We were about 20 in number and we used to stand around afterwards in 20 degrees below and watch the steam rise from our coffee cups. We were Russians, Kenyans, Ukrainians, Canadians, Americans, Ugandans and a few Englishmen and women. The liturgy was exactly the same every week and was delivered just as you would expect if you have ever visited a C of E church near you, the hymns were tuneless,  and sermons were a tad forgettable yet well-meaning but I can confidently say God was by his grace powerfully at work in all of us. There were 'better' churches more like the wonderful evangelical one I had left behind in the UK that I could have attended with 'sounder' teaching, warmer buildings, less dull PCC's and many more people. I had been a Christian for less than two years at the time and my heart was rather a mess. However, after a few visits to other churches, I resisted the 'better' more sparkly, frankly easier and less frustrating options and instead went where I felt 'called'. I also have the claim to fame that I ran the first Alpha course in Russia in my flat in 1994.

As an aside, one of Furtick's words to church planters is don't plant a church unless you know you're absolutely called to it- because it's just too hard. Thus far I would attest to that but also to lots of joys. It does help when the most unlikely people in your church share their prophetic dreams with you about your church plant and your call to plant it but that's one for another time. Jesus needs to call you by his word to take the initiative to plant something (this happens over years) and you need to respond in hopeful obedience when the time is right and when you hear him. Furtick seems right- if you haven't heard him then probably don't do it. I hope I've heard :)

When I wasn't at church in Moscow, I was trading containers of cigarettes with men who wore dark suits and carried guns. I could tell you stories but you wouldn't believe me. I think I learnt more though and was prepared for ministry through this season more than anything else I have ever done. I sometimes worry at young Christians seeming desire for the glitz, the emotional and the cool as though it's in these things that God is properly at work and through which resilience and character is formed. It's formed in the desert place and the tough reality of the market place in my experience.

Why am I telling you this? Well because it's big conference time. The truth is the Hillsong Leaders Conference will never ask an Anglican Vicar of a church plant of 20 in Barnes to come and share what he has learnt about following Jesus over the last two decades. They will only do that if I make it 'successful' and then and only then will the phone ring. Grace and success are not it seems to me always happy bedfellows. Works and success I get - plenty of hours, techniques from the world, plans, goals, resources, and driven-ness can make lots of things big and shiny and noticeable but not grace. Grace so often tells a different story. There are so many people I know who can tell extraordinary stories of God and his work in people's hearts but are never going to be asked onto a big stage to tell them. Don't get me wrong, I desire to preach to as many people as will listen but I am not sure my character is yet ready for a stadium gig. A vicar pal attended a summer conference a few years ago and was struck that the seminar given by a Christian celebrity about 'how to be truly beautiful' had 450 women in its tent and the one he and his wife were in on how to more effectively love the poor had just 30. My friend's have never sadly been back to that conference.

Some do get to speak on the big stage because by some measurement they indeed have been 'a success' and rightly many of them are people with something to share. It is also very costly to be given such a platform as I know from friends who have been given one and it's a huge responsibility that you really don't want unless you have the character to cope with it. Here's the thing- the steam you see at Hillsong is not that from 20 below coffee in a freezing church hall- it genuinely seems to be actual dry ice. Is dry ice perhaps the new prosperity gospel's incense? Now don't mishear me, because I think you should watch this talk called You're never really ready- it has some great wisdom in it and there really is a reason why they picked Furtick and not you or me. I have, as you know, been mightily blessed by this amazing young preacher and think everyone should read Fresh wind Fresh Fire. I also think Hillsong, despite all the corporate bling, is a movement being used powerfully by God to do so much good. But it's interesting to reflect on just how pervasive 'success'  and 'prosperity' is to contemporary church culture and to beware of it's potential grip on all our hearts.

Now, just so I'm prepared if Hillsong do ask me next year (I will check the diary and see if I am available) then what do you think- dog collar or no dog collar? Check out the venue just for starters- it looks like the set of the new U2 world tour. The band actually disappear into holes on the stage!

Listen to the talk and feel free to offer views.

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