Sunday, August 26, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 81) Really... again?!

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  The September Church Members Meeting squarely faced dire financial facts.  The gap was daunting.  Yet astonishly the spirit of the meeting was uplifting and enthusiastic in face of the problem.  Looking back I realize that the growing church membership and the reality of being present on the main street 24/7 with so many good things happening had sharpened faith and expectation. The meeting turned out to be gloriously positive.

People spoke about one last day to complete this financial challenge. Can you imagine it?  Asking for gifts yet again!  I was bowled over....after all we had been through with a real possibility of giving fatigue the church wanted to press on once more.  One Scripture resonated with us: 'Now finish the work so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means'. (2 Cor. 8:11).  That text spurred us to declare that we would hold a Day of Willingness on November 18th. 1990.

As before, in Easter 1984, the day was to be preceded by nights of giving (and prayer) on the Thursday, Friday and Saturday beforehand.  Everyone received letters asking them to be prayerful and to be open to willingness.  Willingness of generous hearts was all important!  Rather than me sitting in the vestry to receive gifts on those three evenings Vernon Gosden, our Building Fund Treasure, took responsibility.  And each evening people came to pray and give.  Those of us who had been around for Easter 1984 were reminded of a developing spiritual momentum we felt back then.

We agreed that the morning offering on Sunday November 18th would also be added to the total. As on the previous Easter occasion as soon as the offering was collected Vernon took to the side vestry to add it to the gifts and promises of the previous three night.  The signal that he had completed the task would be an opening vestry door. I could finish preaching.  I wondered how long I would need to preach this time.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure * 80) Ever changing

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Always people were coming and going.  Our associate minister and wife, Nigel and Sarah Manges with their first child moved onto Dronfield Baptist Church in Summer 1990. Simon Houghton succeeded him and was inducted into ministry on September 23rd 1990.  I learned so much through the three associate pastors I experienced as team members as they brought their distinctive gifts to help lead the church forward.

At the same time church members were of course coming and going.  The most positive moves were of students who had come to faith and were now moving onto careers all over the country - I continue to hear about church leadership that many of them exercise.  That was a great export.  Sometimes we had to engage in the much more difficult exercise of pruning the church roll of those who no longer shared in our life.  In 1989 we removed at least 25 people in an attempt to be more honest in our statistics which required a great deal of pastoral care and sensitivity.  How difficult it is to keep an accurate list of church family members!

Yet, so much was happening through 1990 as the Stone Yard Centre drew in hundreds of people for all its activities.  We had become a Christian presence on the main street and with joy men and women continued to come to faith in Jesus Christ, Lord of the upside-down kingdom.  Actually, during the year 48 members joined us of whom 25 were baptized.  Each of those baptized had their own story of being found by God and how their witness invigorated (as well as challenged) fellowship life. A. W. Tozer said: 'Give me a new Christian before he has met too many other Christians and heard too many sermons'.  This was raw discipleship.  Tough though many of the challenges were in our commitment to serve the city, the very vision to undertake this revealed Jesus alive and at work in our midst.  It was a thrilling time to be alive in ministry.

Yet, I cannot skate over the crisis that was to face us in Autumn of 1990.  The finances of the centre were still trouble.  A gap remained over  £100, 000 (actually I think  £105,000) even taking into consideration all the loans, promises etc.  this debt stared us in the face.  The Church Members Meeting in September had another crisis to face.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 79) Internationalism

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Involvement with the homeless particularly focused attention on using the premises during Winter but once the restaurant area and halls were all open and geared up we found ourselves at the heart of much else - especially a Summer outreach programme.

Hundreds of overseas students flock to Cambridge each Summer in order to learn English and enjoy this beautiful city.   A vision grew to become the International Student Outreach programme which involved us with other neighbourhood churches in providing accommodation on Summer evenings for serving refreshments with friendship and witness.  Henry's (at Holy Trinity) and Andy's (as St. Andrew's Street) served tens of students with teams of Christians - themselves drawn internationally - hosting these events.  An annual highlight was our turn to host one Sunday service which would focus entirely on reaching overseas students.

Giving hospitality for Christian events in Cambridge gave us many opportunities.  One significant long-term relationship arose when the Cambridge Korean Church asked whether we could become their base in the city.   Meeting on Sunday afternoons, they launched their community in December 1989 and immediately became part of us (a relationship that holds fast right until the present). We loved their friendship, sharing occasional joint services and their feasts!

When I visited Seoul, Korea to speak at Baptist World Alliance meetings  I was utterly stunned on the second evening to find one of the Cambridge Korean Church members awaiting me in the hotel lobby.  Apparently he had taken note of a conversation in Cambridge about my visit and knowing he would be back in S. Korea by then made the decision to find me. Unsure where I might be staying he had visited many hotels where delegates were lodged, eventually finding mine and then waited patiently for my return.  His desire to take me home to meet his family was sadly impossible because they lived some distance from Seoul and my commitments filled much of my time. However, he stayed overnight in order to spend time with me the next day.  What kindness.  That's hospitality!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 78) A lone voice

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Details about the sermon series were easily at hand because I have written about it on a couple of occasions, particularly in a small book.  Doing Theology in a Baptist Way was written by four Baptist college principals in 2000 and I was responsible for the section on 'Theology and Preaching'.
The significant starting point for me is Baptist identity with the specific context that belonging within the Baptist tradition provides. Because of our distinctive commitment to live under the Word of God together, gathered as believers focused on word and sacrament, a community comprising those who have been baptized or who are on the way to baptism, we of all people should stress the corporate nature of the preaching event. 
I argue that preaching and community are reciprocal realities - those who hear are gathered into community of faith with the preacher.  Not an audience but congregation. 'The sickness of preaching is not to be cured by individual remedies to render the preacher more interactive, narrative or multi-media in style. Rather the hope for effective preaching lies in the involvement of preacher and listeners in shared life together in Christ, shaped by God's word.  Corporate preaching.

Unsurprisingly I tell this story about the homeless as an example.  I summarize it:
As the main preacher I found myself both bruised and sustained by the demands of preaching to myself and my community in new ways which exposed me to upside-down ways of living there and then. At no time can I recall such disturbing personal wrestling, such vulnerability, and such answering grace in God's truth.
This conviction about preaching and leadership has burned within me and has been expressed in much of my writing ever since (especially 360degree leadership: preaching to transform a congregation),  I really do believe that hearing God's word for a whole people energizes preaching and church meetings in/for God's big purposes.  However, as I title this blog....I fear I remain a lone voice as few contemporary preachers seem interested in God's leadership through preaching.  But, it's my story anyway!

Monday, August 6, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure 77) Edgy living.

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  My first church secretary commented many years later that he reckoned this was the most significant series of my ministry.   Others have told me how they experienced this series somehow (by the Spirit) brought us to a sense of engagement together so that as a community we experienced something new.  We moved towards a freshly discovered edge of living in the kingdom.

I have noticed how the language of 'ministry on the edge' has recently become fashionable in some circles.  For us, this immediate challenge of living out the values of God's upside-down kingdom with the homeless felt edgy!  And the highest highlight of my many church member meetings was when we faced the proposal of making our main Upper Hall a safe place for the homeless to sleep.  Early discussion repeated several hesitations, some of them serious.  We prayed as a people seeking to do God's will, knowing that it involved overnight staffing as well as altering our premises.  In our ears the challenge of living in God's kingdom echoed.

To my wonder (our wonder I think!) the meeting was unanimous that we should offer our hall.  The full-time coordinator of Winter Comfort, Nick Dykes, came to speak to us about the consequences of providing such accommodation.  And during the Winter months of 1991/2 nightly attendance varied from 10-25 with 114 different people sleeping.  Through dedicated follow-up some 25 of these people were eventually found alternative accommodation.   The following Winter numbers were up and for 4 months a total of 50 volunteers (many from our own church) formed teams in overnight shifts.

As envisaged there were some difficulties.  One of those sheltered was found murdered the next day. Interruptions to church daily life were more common.  But there were joys too.  Some members set up a Bible study for those who wanted to attend and many experienced surprises as these vulnerable people shared their stories and reciprocated friendship.

The story was to roll on and in a few years our sister Baptist Church, Zion, gave their adjoining Sunday School block to become a homeless shelter called Jimmy's which is still in vital ministry. 

Saturday, August 4, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 76) A rebuked preacher

(*please skip if you have not been following this story). While the church was sympathetic to helping the homeless in principle, several voiced concerns about the practicalities of providing accommodation in premises which already had a wide number of other uses.  Open our doors in this way and it could dominate our mission.  Already we had drunkenness sometimes interrupting worship services - what else might happen? What would be the knock-on effects on the general public using our restaurant, or our children's work using the same halls.  Wouldn't it change our whole ethos on the main street and make it less easy for strangers to come in?  Oh, you can imagine the fears and how understandable they were!

The rebuke about shirking this need was one of the factors that led me to preach a sermon series called 'The Upside Down Kingdom'  which I preached directly to myself as well as the church. The first sermon was called 'Down is Up', based on Luke 1:46-53.  I began:
Most of us are conventional, happily fixed in our own culture where we've been brought up to do certain things in certain ways. So we try to make Jesus conventional and predictable too. We play safe and over-spiritualize, concentrating on the comforting words of Jesus. If we come across revolutionary words we try to avoid their practical implications which might affect us socially, morally, politically, economically.......
Titles like: Blessed are the poor, Losers Finders, Loveable Enemies, Last is first, Low is High, Peace with a Sword, Unseen is seen brought deep challenges Sunday by Sunday.  And I found myself repeating like a refrain these words:
When Christ comes among us he turns everything that people thought about life upside down. Something new is happening among us, right now.  God says 'My kingdom is here. It's a kingdom of love and service, The least are the greatest, outcasts are welcomed, adults become like children, enemies love each other, leaders are servants of others'....
Was a God-happening occurring?

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Cambridge God Adventure* 75) On our doorstep

(*please skip if you have not been following this story).  Each year the national Baptist Assembly (with delegates from churches all over the country) passed public resolutions calling for action on a number of themes. A resolution deploring the growing number of homeless people, especially younger people, on our streets called for local churches to act on their behalf.  We knew we had to.

The church set up a Homelessness Task Force which began to focus  minds and hearts. In the April Church Meeting in 1990 they reported that in Cambridge an estimated 250 single people were living on the streets, squats or overnight hostels.  They mentioned a new organization called Winter Comfort that was working towards providing help during the winter months.  Several individuals took up the practical challenge of working with projects such as the Cyrenians and others were concerned about the politics of homelessness and not just the symptoms.

But, the 'symptoms' were unavoidably confronting us as a whole church.  Whenever we left worship, we were faced by homeless people requesting food and money and during services needy people were drifting in asking for help.  When the weather deteriorated we found people sleeping on our front steps.  Of course, with the restaurant area next door we were able to give drinks and shelter on Sundays and a team of volunteers developed skills at befriending those who came to us on Sundays.  But what about the much bigger problem of overnight accommodation and in the worst of weather?

I vividly remember the shock when I invited the founder of Winter Comfort to have coffee with me in the Stone Yard Centre.  After briefly looking around at this new church venture he stared at me and said: 'But what are you doing for the poor?  Can't you use your property to give shelter overnight?'  I realized how much easier it was to focus on issues like unemployment and loneliness than on giving over our premises to sleep the homeless.  It was a rebuke I have never forgotten.