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My Birthday Picnic…

Before I left for my ‘grand tour’ I gathered some mates for a bit of a birthday picnic in a local park, some of my friends are Christians, some wouldn’t call themselves Christians and others would say that they were/had been Christians.

It was interesting as a motley collection of people gathered together to chat, eat and drink together a group whose only common-denominator was me, but as I thought about it this was actually saying something very profound about mission and outreach.

Too many of us as Christians get somewhat ‘sucked into Churchianity’ where over the years of our Christian commitment our social network reduces to becoming more and more Churchy and less and less meaningful engagements with those who have different faith/worldviews and values than us.

The Comedian Milton Jones once remarked that Church and helicopters had one thing in common: “They both suck you into the rotas!”

Whilst I was a Vicar in Kingswood I realised that almost every night there was a meeting that someone expected me to go to, normally with people who already attended Church, and normally did not move the Kingdom cause further either, and yet as I look back I wish I had spent much more time growing and maintaining my friendships -many of which withered and died during my time as a Vicar as I was so busy attempting to keep the Church happy that I neglected the people -friends and family- that God had put around me, which I deeply regret.

I had a foolish notion that as these were all Churchy meetings’ I was somehow being faithful to my calling, but in reality I wonder if my presence made little if any difference?

Indeed, looking back there was a perverse irony that Church takes up all our time, so we end up putting on social events for our members, and we end up putting on outreach events so that we can meet our neighbours -when perhaps if we were better at valuing and maintaining the relationships we already had everything might look very different.

I wondered of the idea that some Churches call formation, is taking people who are functioning well as Christians living/working alongside normal people, place them in a weird churchy bubble for three years (also give them a new job title and uniform) and place them in a new area and context and wonder why they struggle to relate to people whose lives don’t revolve around this odd bubble we call Church.

When I was a college one of our Modules was known as B.S. (which where I come from B.S. is slag for Bullsh*t!) here it stood for Biblical studies, but my friend Simon and I suggested it should stand for “Beer Studies” and the module would entitle spending an evening in a pub and having conversations with local people about the normal stuff people talk about.

Although initially suggested as a ‘joke’ the idea actually exposes a problem Christians have of not being able to speak to the people they live amongst.

Which is a strange problem for us to have as Christians as our faith revolves around the incarnate God, God who become human, lived as one of us, came amongst us, dwelled with us. Jesus knew the people he was talking too, he mixed and ate with those he should have done and those who people thought he shouldn’t!

Jesus was part of the culture he spoke into, his life, faith and teaching spoke the language of those he was amongst, he was holy and without sin, but he was able to integrate and build relationship with the people around him.

Jesus spoke their language and yet we often speak a different language of theology and/or church (and indeed often becoming more middle-class too!), yet Pentecost enabled “everyone to hear in their own tongue”, what has gone wrong?

The challenge for us as Christians is to get out of our Churches is to make friends with those around us and listen to what they say and learn to understand the culture and language of those around us rather than expecting people to come to us, speak our language and understand what we are going on about and why it matters.

Anyway, I digress, here I was drinking beer and eating birthday cake (which is a strange mix) with people I have got to know over the last eighteen months of being here, and I noticed a few things.

Firstly, to become friends with people takes time, it has taken a while from small talk at the school gate to grabbing a beer!

Interestingly, I became friends with one guy when I needed a hand putting up my daughters trampoline, and asked him for help. I pondered on this, often friendships are forged by either us serving someone, or us humbling ourselves and being served – asking for help. If I said (as I was tempted to do with my ‘proud-male-head’) “I can manage this trampoline all by myself” -I might never have become friends with my neighbour across the road.

As we chatted over the trampoline he talked about one of his friends who he grew up with becoming a Pastor and the conversation flowed normally and naturally about faith, it wasn’t forced or weirdly premeditated, but talking about life and stuff and somewhere in the mix there was a moment of sharing bits of our story/faith journey.

Too often we are so paranoid about talking about our faith that we either end up tactlessly crow barring it into every conversation, or we never mention it, both of which is a bit weird, we often presume that people are not interested in faith, and indeed many of them have their own stories to tell and are keen to chat to someone.

The question we as Christians need to ask is are we approachable and if people want to ask something more deep and personal are we respectful enough for people to feel okay in speaking to us about spiritual things?

Recently with a project “Poole New Monastics” I am involved with we have a number of people who would not call themselves Christians as friends and part of us; one day in the pub one of them asked “Andy, would ‘success be for you if we all became Christians?” -a great question! To which I had to answer that I think Jesus is amazing and would love everyone to follow him, but friends are friends no matter whether they believe the same thing as me, and everyone has something valuable to bring” -I love my friends far too much to just treat them as ‘projects’.

My friend Dave is a Christian Schools worker and he takes lessons with the chair of the local humanists society (also called Dave, just to be confusing!) and despite both having very different world-views, and both disagreeing with the other person, they have become friends.

We have a myth our society needs to debunk that unless you agree with someone on everything you cannot be friends, when I believe the reverse is true, the wider we have our networks of friends the more we all learn from each other, hear each-other’s stories, and understand the world a bit better.

When I was a Church-based youth worker there was a saying “we do not love our young people in order to convert them, we love them no matter what, but we would love them to know/love/follow Jesus!” -Just as with my little girl, I would love her to know/love/follow Jesus, but whatever she decides to do I will always love her.

My friend John, a Baptist Minister, who has recently moved into the area to plant a Church, has said that first thing he wants to do is just make some local friends.

My challenge to people who talk about “doing mission” is hang out and make friends with people around you, often our missional desire is (partly) a realisation that we have got ourselves into a Christian bubble that is suffocating our souls.

So, lets be people that make friends -real friends- at work, at the gym, in the pub, at the school gate where-ever it is you hang out. Yet, it needs to be said (especially as we get older) that making new friends sometimes takes time and a bit of a risk in making ourselves vulnerable -perhaps it means going to one less Churchy meeting a week and joining a group or evening class about something you’re passionate about or would like to learn more about? Another Baptist Minister in my last parish spoke about how he had a radical idea of radically cutting back the Churchy meetings to free people up to develop meaningful relationships in the community, but what happened was people just ended up watching more telly.

I have heard lots of people talk recently about community and fellowship both of which are important but too often these are cliques that keep us from the real world and in a Christian bubble, it is important to have supportive friendships with other Christians but too often these become too exclusive.

So, make friends, drink beer, eat birthday cake and then go to the gym, get out there and widen your circle of friends and if your Church has become a bubble then gently and with love burst it!

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