St Barnabas 22nd April and St Michael’s 29th April 2012
Reading – John 21
Over the past couple of weeks church members have received alongside the weekly notice sheet a hand-out entitled “Our Mission Action Plan”. I don’t know what people have done with the hand-out, whether they have tucked it in their Bible or made a paper aeroplane out of it, or accidentally put it through the washing machine, but just in case, here is a link … please do take a moment to read it through. Because this Mission Action Plan is an important document. It has come out of a year’s discussion and planning and prayer by the two PCCs, and it is designed to shape and mould the life of St Barnabas and St Michael’s over the next five years. It represents our understanding of where the churches are at the moment, and where we believe God is leading us next.
Of course, you may wonder, what is the point of having a Mission Action Plan? There are, after all, plenty of organisations with mission statements, and vision strategies, and not just Christian ones. And it has to be said that many of them simply stay as words on a piece of paper, often repeated parrot fashion without any understanding of what they actually mean. I am reminded of the sign in Tesco’s that says “Toilets this way” and underneath the company slogan, “Every little helps”!
But my hope and prayer is that this Mission Action Plan will be far more than a few words discussed at an annual church meeting and then forgotten. After all, the very term, “Mission Action Plan” is hugely important. It reminds us, firstly, that our priority as a church is mission. Not simply gathering in a holy huddle on Sundays or forming a club for the like-minded, but going out with something worth sharing.
And, secondly, this involves action. Yes, it’s great to talk about mission. We can go to any number of conferences on the subject, and we can read all the latest books. But there’s something that we have to do.
And thirdly, we have to plan. Too often churches drift along simply doing things they have always done, assuming vaguely that God is in control and therefore we can leave all the details up to Him. Of course Jesus is Lord, and He can work in spite of us, but He would much rather have us actively working alongside Him.
No, we need a Mission Action Plan, for all those reasons I’ve just stated and more besides. So how then do we go about drawing up such a plan?
One approach would be to ask ourselves what a successful church looks like, and try to copy what they do. We could set up children’s groups, and lunches for the elderly, and soup runs, and large evangelistic campaigns. We could download the resources from their websites, get in a few famous speakers, generate lots of good, local publicity. And no doubt we would see some fruit from that work. But we would also quickly find ourselves exhausted, unable to sustain all the good initiatives that we put in play, and in the end the fall-out could even damage the long-term health of the church.
Because the thing to realise is that our church is different. It has its own history, its own strengths, its own weaknesses. It is called to minister in a particular place and to a particular group of people who are not exactly the same as other people in other places. Yes, of course our goal is the same. We want to see people coming to the living Lord Jesus and growing in their faith. But we need to ask ourselves what precisely the Lord wants us to do as His people here, with the resources and the gifts that are available to us now. Otherwise like the first disciples fishing out on the lake we may find ourselves spreading our nets widely but not actually getting a single catch.
So our Mission Action Plan, then, doesn’t start with doing, but with listening. We don’t draw up a list of activities and ask God to bless them as a kind of spiritual afterthought. Rather we sit down and we humbly ask the Lord to reveal His good purpose and will to us. Sounds simple? Well, in theory, it may be. But in practice it can require a great sacrifice. Listening to the Lord can involve laying aside our busyness, making the time to be still, even giving up some of our long-held ambitions and dreams. We shouldn’t perhaps be surprised, then, that in our reading from Romans Paul talks about becoming slaves to righteousness. This whole business of listening and obeying challenges us at the deepest level as to whether Jesus really is Lord of our life or whether we are just paying Him lip-service.
Of course, I realise that even this idea of listening to Jesus may be quite difficult for some people. After all, we can’t meet Jesus in person like the first disciples gathered down by the lake. Oh yes, we know that we are supposed to meet with Jesus through reading the Bible day by day, and by having regular times of prayer. But if you are being honest, you find the Bible a difficult book and you have all kinds of questions about prayer. Yes, you’d certainly like to know Jesus was speaking to you, but how or when He speaks today – that’s a different issue altogether.
This leads on to the first key point about our Mission Action Plan. That if we are to be effective in mission, we must quite simply learn to be with Jesus. You see, I have a hunch that the reason why many churches don’t succeed in their mission and outreach is not because of any lack of will or effort of their members. Generally church folk know they are called to share the gospel with those they meet. But it’s so much harder to share the good news of Jesus if you yourself are unsure how your relationship with Jesus works, or if you’re not sure how to sustain it in all the pressure and business of today’s modern world.
So if you turn to page 2 of our Mission Action Plan you will see there are two goals under the first principle of “being with Jesus”. The first is an individual one – that every church member should have some pattern of regular, personal devotion with Jesus. Now that sentence isn’t written to inspire guilt or fear, but to recognise that if we are to be the people God wants us to be, each of us need to learn to spend time with Jesus regularly, and it should be a priority of the local church to help you do this.
Let’s go back to those first twelve apostles Jesus called to serve Him in His ministry. How did Jesus train them up to do His work? Did He send them on a theology course, or pay for their attendance at a church-growth conference? No, Mark 3:14-15 tells us: He appointed twelve – designating them apostles – that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. Now I realise not many of us are given the apostolic gift to preach and to drive out demons. But I believe all of us are called to be with Jesus. How would it be if for the next three years we made spending time with Jesus our top priority? I am sure that in the long run the effect would be dramatic.
Jesus’ mission action plan involved finding some ordinary people and calling them to be with Him. It was a breathtakingly simple idea and it changed the world. And of course as He called these people they found themselves not only in a new relationship with Jesus, but also with each other. From now on their lives were bound up with each other. Not because they all liked each other, or because they came from the same background. But because their unity in Christ was greater even than the huge differences which existed between them.
And so in the course of those three years Galilean fishermen learnt to rub shoulders with a Judean extremist and with a collaborator who used to collect taxes for the hated Romans. We know from several gospel stories that they didn’t always find it easy to get along. They had their petty arguments about who was the greatest, and who was going to sit at Jesus’ right hand. But Jesus used even these incidents to teach more about Himself and what it means to follow Him.
This reminds us that the second way we learn to be with Jesus is to be with His people. Now we may well disagree with some of God’s people. We may even consider that one or two appear to live on a different planet altogether. But actually we are all – despite our differences – part of the body of Christ. And when we gather in the name of Jesus, Jesus promises to be present with us, to teach, to guide, to warn, to comfort. Not only by speaking to us directly but also by speaking through those around us, as they pray, read Scripture, even as they serve the tea.
That’s why Sunday worship also comes under this heading of “Being with Jesus”, and why the second goal under this heading aims for all who attend our Sunday worship to grow in their love and knowledge of Jesus Christ. Not just by one person up the front imparting information and others soaking it all up. But by us developing as the body of Christ, each one of us using our gifts to serve one another, even and especially when you are so very different from me, and I am from such a completely different background to you.
We are fast moving towards our second principle in our Mission Action Plan which is “being with each other“. And this of course begs the question – who is the other? We tend to think of the local congregation but of course the church is so much more than this. This movement Jesus started in Galilee some 2400 miles and 2000 years away has become part of a worldwide movement, and we must never forget our mission partners in Paraguay and in Kenya. Nor must we forget we are part of a wider denomination, or only one of a number of different local churches. That’s why our second goal under this heading stresses our work with mission partners to share resources and gifts.
But whoever we precisely we mean by the other, one thing is clear. Being with God’s people involves getting to know them. It’s one reason why at a local level the social events in our church calendar are so important, that we can have a chance to share our lives together. But we don’t have to wait for a formal church social event to find out more about the person sitting next to us.
People sometimes scour for the book of Acts to try and find out what key strategies they can learn about church growth, and they come up with all kinds of theories. But what they so often miss is the key fact that the early church had everything in common. They practised hospitality. They shared with church members who were in need. They took every opportunity to break bread together. Now these people in the early church were real people. They too lived busy lives. They had no modern conveniences to carry out so many of the tasks we can so easily perform with the click of a button. But church wasn’t a bolt-on to their already busy lives. Church was, in a sense, their life and everything flowed out from that one basic fact.
Now of course there’s a limit to how well we can get to know each other on a Sunday morning. Even with the best will in the world Sunday services are often very busy occasions and our time for fellowship can be limited. And that’s why under this heading of “being with each other” our first goal stresses the role of small groups and networks. Not so that we can form cliques or little sub-groups within the church, but quite simply that we can Grow in Faith Together, supporting one another, praying for one another and helping one another learn more about Jesus. After all, most of the New Testament was written to churches who most of the time met in small groups. These were the places where faith was nurtured, gifts were developed and leaders were raised up. And if the New Testament church is a good example for us to follow, it seems to me that small groups need to be right at the centre of our mission action plan.
I realise that by talking about “being with Jesus” and “being with others” it can sound as if our Mission Action Plan will only end up making our church more inward looking and more concerned with those who are already believers. But that is to misunderstand the purpose of the plan. For it is by learning to be with Jesus and by learning to be with others we are strengthened and resourced to go out into our community and the wider world. After all, when Jesus spent three years with His disciples He didn’t retreat to a monastery or hide indoors. His teaching of the disciples took place most of the time on the road, among the local people, confronting head on the issues of the day.
Let’s return to our gospel reading this morning. What was the purpose of Jesus cooking breakfast for His disciples? Well, first and most obviously it was to show them that He was alive, in a real and personal way. Now He could have shown them in many different ways that He was alive. But He chose to reveal Himself through a meal, and as you may know, meals at that time were hugely significant occasions. They were opportunities for fellowship and friendship, where by the acting of eating bread together you recognised your common bond with those who shared your food. So here is Jesus not only revealing Himself as the risen Lord and Saviour but establishing a community of people in fellowship with Him and with each other.
To use the language of our Mission Action Plan, Jesus was teaching these disciples to be with Him and to be with each other. And what happened after this meal down on the lake shore? Did they simply go back out onto the lake and carry on fishing, as they had always done? No, they returned to Jerusalem and waited for the promised Holy Spirit so they could go out in obedience to the Lord’s commands.
I realise that I am running out of time to go through the third principle of our plan which is about “being in the community and the wider world“. But I think that’s OK. We can get so hung up about mission and what we need to do, and indeed it’s very easy for church leaders to make congregations feel guilty they aren’t doing enough. Actually I believe that if we learn to be with Jesus, to walk with Him and with each other in the power of the Holy Spirit, then most of our difficulties about mission fall away. Because when the risen Lord Jesus becomes real to us, then the difference in our lives will be visible to all those around us, whether we are aware or not. We won’t have to go round counting the number of people we talk to about Jesus each day or work out how many doors we need to knock on. We can rely on the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives to point others to Jesus.
After all, it wasn’t the first disciples who chose to call themselves “Christians”. It was the townspeople of Antioch who nicknamed them “little Jesus-es” – which is what the term Christians mean. They saw something of Jesus in each one of them. And whether these people called them Christians because they were mocking or were generally in awe makes in the end little odds. The presence of people who knew and loved the Lord was having a visible impact in this hitherto Gentile, pagan town.
Now I realise I have covered a lot of ground this morning. But don’t worry we’ll be coming back to our Mission Action Plan in our PCCs meeting, in our church away day, and on many more occasions besides. I guess if you were to ask me sum up the essence of our Mission Action Plan it would be this: that outreach and evangelism starts with us. Have you met the risen Lord Jesus for yourself? Do you know yourself to be born again as a child of God and as a member of Christ’s body the church? And if so, are you yourself walking in the power of the Holy Spirit?
Because it’s when you can answer those questions for yourself that mission begins.