cost of discipleship

This week (first Sunday of September 2016) the lectionary gives me the section of Luke 14 on the cost of discipleship as the Gospel reading. To be a disciple, Jesus says, you have to hate your family and even your own life, you have to take up the cross, you have to dispose of all your possessions. He adds two helpful parables saying that to set out on a building project you can’t afford to finish is to invite ridicule and that to enter a battle you can’t win is foolish and that a king should sue for peace if he thinks he’s hopelessly outnumbered.

Given the current fashion for discipleship talk in the church (here’s the URC “missional discipleship” proposal and here’s the CofE page of links) this is a scary passage. In the case of the URC “discipleship” seems to mean “becoming self consciously and confidently Christian so that you can share your faith” (or something like that) – hence “missional discipleship” (I find this an appalling phrase but I know it has its origins outside the denomination so I’m not blaming anybody for it). In the material as presented I don’t see a lot of warning about cost and completion, nor about cross-carrying and death.

I’m finding it daunting to talk about Jesus’ strong warning about discipleship in this context. Far from encouraging everybody to take some courses and explore some options in developing as disciples his attitude seems to have been one intended to frighten anybody thinking about discipleship  as much as possible. “Hate my family”, “hate my own life”, “give up all my possessions”: and what do I get in return? A cross to carry? I think I’ll pass. Why would anybody, having heard all that, decide to follow Jesus, to become his disciple?

My feeling, reading the gospels, is that Christ wasn’t at all interested in accepting anybody into his circle of disciples. All the times I can think of when somebody approaches him (and there aren’t that many, unsurprisingly) he brushes them off. The demonaic burdened by Legion is sent away, the rich young man is scared off with unreasonable demands, Nicodemus is insulted. Nathanael in John 1 might seem to be an exception but even here Jesus has chosen Philip who calls Nathanael. The pattern seems to me to be that Jesus calls those he wants and pushes everybody else away. He seeks people out and rejects or at least strongly discourages those who seek him.

Now that isn’t necessarily problematic for those of us who are inside the fellowship of the Church, particularly those of us from “dissenting” or “voluntarist” rather than “Christendom”, “national” or “Catholic” “universal” traditions. We are (or should be) used to the idea that those in the Church are those who have been called. God chooses those whom he wills to be part of the Body of Christ, which we may think of in terms of discipleship.

What is more difficult, for me at least, is the contrast between what thay appears to mean to us and what it means in the Gospels (where the word “disciple” belongs, being used very sparingly in Acts and not at all in the Epistles or in Revelation). We seem to have an inclusive, gentle and gradual approach to discipleship. All are called to be disciples and it is something that one can embark on tentatively and in an exploratory way. What it means can vary from one person to another and doesn’t have to be too alarming.

That’s a long way from willingness to give everything up and carry the cross as minimum condition for entry.

I’m starting to think we should be a lot more hesitant in using discipleship language and a lot more humble about our relationship to Christ.

Maybe true disciples are few and far between. Maybe the rest of us depend on them and need to recognise how special they are. Maybe Jesus knows us for what we are and has tasks for us that fall short of what he meant by discipleship. Maybe.

At any rate I’m not comfortable with us using the word while ignoring what the one to whom we are supposed to be discipled has to say about its cost.


mark 8.35
I’m preaching from the Revised Common Lectionary again after a break when I used passages selected following other disciplines. This means that as I approach the second Sunday in Lent I’m looking at the first passion prediction in Mark (chapter 8:31-38), although having reflected on that Gospel reading I decided that I didn’t want to use the other RCL readings and took my own from Job and Galatians instead. As sometimes happens, when I looked at the Greek and studied the commentaries I became dissatisfied with the translations available to me, In particular the rendering of three words came to seem to me to radically dilute and even to distort the sense of what the author of Mark wrote.

The Greek words in question are:

first, “psychen” (usually translated either as “life” – as in the RSV – or as “soul” or worst of all – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS – first as one then as the other);

second, “apolesei” (almost always translated as “lose”);

third, “zemiothenai” (sometimes “forfeit” – as in the NIV, ESV and NAS, sometimes “lose” as in the KJV and RSV).

My problems with the  existing translations are:

1) the translation of psychen as soul encourages us to remain with a picture of the human being as composed of a mixture of separable body and soul that is quite alien, in my view, to the Biblical image. In particular it allows the pagan or gnostic idea of an eternal soul that is the real self and can subsist apart from the body (perhaps in a non-material “heaven”);

2) the translation of psychen sometimes as “life” (in verse 35) and sometimes as “soul” (in verse 36) accentuates this by hiding that the same word is being used in both cases, that the paradoxical claim is being made that the attempt to preserve the “psychen” is what dooms it and its destruction is what saves it, in any case it is the same “thing” that is at stake – the soul cannot be counter-posed to life;

3) the translation of apolesei as “lose” fails to do justice to the sense of destruction that word denotes – that which has been subject to apolosei hasn’t just been misplaced or hidden, it has been made ruin, furthermore this isn’t something that happens by accident, it is something that is done;

4) translating both apolosei and zemiothenai by the same word (“lose”) seriously distorts the relationship between the two verses, already disrupted if psychen is translated differently in the two cases – in verse 35 we have the counter-position of “save” and “destroy”, in verse 36 that of “gain” and “forfeit” – this matters because in verse 35 the focus is on the relationship between a person and his or her “self”, in 36 the shift to the language of exchange indicates the correct focus as on the relationship between a person and God with the self at stake.

This discussion of questions of translation is a preamble. The main point is that this critical passage on discipleship has a very serious and disturbing message for us, as sinners in need of salvation. The message is that our efforts at saving ourselves will always be not just useless but actually destructive, like the person in quicksand trying to find a way to stand we will simply intensify and accelerate our doom. Only by actively working against our established self-hood, our asserted independence of God, only by following and obeying rather than leading and deciding will we be saved.

This strikes to the heart of our sinfulness, which is basically our desire to be sovereigns of ourselves not subjects of the divine sovereign. Entering into the kingdom of God means we have to surrender our independence, destroy our selves.


In a few weeks we’re having a “vision day” at one of the churches in which I am minister. During my first 18 months here I have been somewhat surprised to find myself discerning that my call to this church (in fact to both churches) is a call to evangelism, to growing the churches by reaching out to those without current connection to any church. This was not what I expected or had prepared myself for, but so it is. Working alongside the churches I find they both feel themselves called to grow and so I have to facilitate and enable them in responding.

Given that both churches have been declining steadily for around 30-40 years this represents a real challenge. Nothing in our contexts is changing in a way that makes the churches as they currently are more likely to grow (or even stop shrinking) than they have been for this period. On the contrary the evidence is that “traditional” Protestant churches across the denominations are increasingly likely to decline. The churches that are growing are of a different kind from ours and often in a different kind of place. My perception is that if we remain as we are we will continue to get smaller.

This means that what is required of us, if we are to answer the call to growth, is change of some kind.

The approach I am proposing we take is to begin the process of change by trying to get some idea of what it is we are trying to change into. My belief is that simply superimposing some relatively superficial change on top of the church we already are is unlikely to be transformational, and that transformation, becoming another kind of church, is what is needed, if decades of decline are to be replaced by a new season of growth.

This is not because I think anything is wrong with the church we are, it’s because the church we are isn’t growing and growing is what we seem to be hearing ourselves told to be. I don’t think every church has always to grow. It is quite possible to be a church that is not growing or even shrinking and to be doing what God wants. However if we want to grow we need to become a church that grows, and that means, I think, being different in some ways from the church we are.

What needs to be determined is what ways these are, which will involve discerning what kind of growth we think we are to seek.

This in turn demands of us that we understand our position within our community in relation to our neighbours in the other churches. In our moderately sized (population around 20,000) town there are, in addition to the three Church of England parish churches (each with a quite distinct character), a Methodist, two Baptist. a Roman Catholic, an FIEC and a fully independent evangelical free church, a congregation of the Redeemed Christian Church of God and a recent plant from the Seventh Day Adventists, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses.

This implies that for our congregation to have something to offer the town it needs, to some extent, to think about what is its unique contribution to this rich mix of Christian witness. It has to think about who needs us and what they need from us (which may well include thinking about what we can contribute to the ecumenical work of our very active and effective Churches Together group).

We need, I believe, to think about who it is that is best advised to join our community and why. We need to think about who we will invite and what we will invite them to. We need to think about what we want to be, as a community, and how we want to be viewed, by ourselves and by others.

This does not mean, as I think it too often does, thinking about ways in which we’re “better” than the other churches, whether that be doctrinally more pure (although proclaiming and teaching the truth is good), being more welcoming or inclusive (although including people is good), being more active on issues of welfare or justice (although service and witness in these areas is good). I am always uneasy when a church seems to say “come to us because we’re not like those other bad churches” (which was my fundamental problem with the abandoned URC advertising campaign).

It does mean saying “this is what we’re like and if that’s the kind of church that can nurture your faith and discipleship then come to us”.

Which means having a strong sense of what kind of church we are and a confidence in telling people and inviting them to become part of it.

This is the key part of what I’m calling a “vision” for the church. It means a sense of who we are and what we want to become. That has to be in full continuity with who we already are but it has also to be aspirational, to be the version of our possible future self, as a community, that we are most enthusiastic about, because if we aren’t enthusiastic about it how can we expect anyone to want to join us in making it come into being.

The first challenge, then, is to find ways in which, together, we can arrive at that shared aspiration and can find ourselves filled with excitement at the prospect of our process of making it real.

The second is to find practical steps, that we’re capable of taking right now, that would begin to enable us to change in the ways we need to change.

Thus the things we actually do may not be dramatic, they may be the same as changes we might make without a conscious programme of self-development and transformation (communal discipleship) but their meaning and context are, I think, changed by putting them in that light.

fearofgodLike many other preachers I’ve been looking at Matthew’s gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus this week. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain. At the top his face starts shining like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear and stand talking to him. Finally a voice speaks from a cloud telling the disciples they should listen to Jesus because he is the beloved son of the speaker with whom the speaker is well pleased. At this point the disciples are overcome with terror and fall on the floor. Jesus comes and touches them, he is now alone, he tells them not to be afraid. The four descend from the mountain again.

There are a variety of possible themes and topics in this extraordinary passage but what’s held my attention this week is the disciples’ fear. This is clearly (to me) the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom. Their terror is occasioned by the direct encounter with the Lord, whose voice it is that they hear. They have gone up the mountain with Jesus to meet God and when they do they are overcome by fear.

So what’s so frightening about God? Is it that they think they have done something particular to deserve or provoke God’s anger? This doesn’t seem likely to me. After all these three have abandoned everything to follow Jesus who has announced the coming of God’s kingdom. God’s command to them is to listen to Jesus, which they have dedicated their lives to doing. If God is well pleased with Jesus it seems unlikely that he is going to be especially wrathful with regards to Jesus’ closest followers.

The disciple’s fear must be simply fear of God. God is scary just by virtue of being God. Many of the warnings about meetings with the Lord in the Old Testament imply this. Exodus 33:12-20 is an excellent example. God tells Moses that he is particularly pleased with him in v17 but then in v20 refuses Moses’ request that he (Moses) might see God’s glory because “no one may see me and live”. This is not, I think, along the lines of “if I told you I’d have to kill you” but rather a statement of fact. In the same way no-one could live unprotected in a vacuum no-one can live in the direct and full presence of God. It would simply be fatal to see Him.

It is also clear that this is not necessarily and always the case. One of the peculiar things about the stories about the Garden of Eden is that in them God is so straightforwardly present. There are also stories in the patriarchal narratives about meetings between Abraham and Jacob/Israel and God. When we get to Exodus, though, this is all behind us. Moses has close brushes with the Lord but cannot see him.

Human beings and God have got to a point where they can’t really be in the same place. Hence the Tabernacle and the Temple as places where this can be managed and made safe, where God can come into touch with his people without destroying them. These places become the centre of the Universe as the point at which its meaning and purpose can be fulfilled.

If we accept that our relationship with God is the most important thing about us, which I do, then this is disturbing. To go fully into what we are for, what we are about, being the image of God, implies a vision of someone whom to see is to die. We can’t be ourselves safely, to grow into our vocation might seem to be to risk destruction by an encounter with the one whose presence is fatal.

To get a sense of where to go with that desperate thought it might be worth speculating on why God is so dangerous to us, what it is that we fear. It is more than mere death, I think. In face of God we would be confronted with the fact that we are already, have always been, nothing. If we become something only in so far as we fulfill our purpose of representing God and if we have been failing and refusing that task then we have chosen nothingness always and already, this is “original sin”.

What we most fear, I think, is the recognition of our own emptiness and meaninglessness. To meet God is to be unable to avoid it. It is a deep existential terror because it has within it the truth of our being.

There is good news, though. The disciples survive and Jesus dispels their fear. In him they see the possibility of a humanity restored, the image of God fully present, so fully present as to be God. In the new Adam all is made right. After that hilltop experience they have come through the worst that could befall them and in hearing the story we can be reassured that with Jesus as companion we too can, if not see God’s face, at least hear his voice. We too can move forward in faith towards the realisation of our purpose.

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about Church growth recently. A lot of the impetus for this has come from a combination of this being a topic receiving a lot of attention within my denomination and my congregations and a reluctance on my part to believe that any single aspect of church life (in this case evangelism broadly understood) should be assumed to be always and everywhere the proper focus of discipleship,

I think that each Christian, each community of Christians and every association of Christians and communities of Christians has the responsibility of working to discern what God wants them to do, In every case this is, must be, unique and individual as well as sharing common characteristics. Thus we will all be commanded to love God and neighbour but the concrete outworking of that will differ. For some it may be primarily prayer, for others mostly service to the afflicted. Both of these, along with participation in the eucharist, study of the Bible, and evangelism, are indispensable parts of our following of Jesus but not in the same balance or in the same ways for each of us, individually or communally.

Hence where “growth” or “evangelism” are promoted as the central question I get uneasy. It seems to me quite possible that this could distract some individuals or fellowships from what they are really called to, or prevent them getting the support they need to live out their vocations. We should strive to see the Church as a whole, insofar as we can, and to recognise that what some churches do for and in that Church catholic, is quite different from what others do.

In regard to growth it is essential that the gospel is proclaimed to new people who have not yet heard or understood it and it is clear that some parts of the Church are called to that and do it very effectively. In particular the church planting networks, inside or more often outside the old denominations, are almost certainly the best at it. If a denomination like the URC feels called to grow the numbers of Christians as part of its response to God’s vocation then it should be paying attention to church planting (I’ve seen this work well for us, particularly in the thriving new ecumenical Church on Fairford Leys).

In regard to growth it is vital, too, that we strive to discern what kind of church we are called to grow and why. Too often, in the context of declining churches, the discussion of growth is framed by the needs of the institution seeking to grow. The logic of this can be: we are the church; it is important that the church exists to witness to Jesus; therefore it is important that we continue to exist.

This argument is flawed because its first premise is untrue. No fellowship or denomination IS the church. It is not in fact important that any particular part of the Church continues to exist unless there is something unique that it does for God. If there is not keeping it going may well be a waste of effort and contrary to God’s will. Before seeking to grow a part of the church we need to identify what about it makes it worth the effort of expanding.

This question will have a wide variety of kinds of answer. The church may serve a particular group of individuals who would otherwise be lost, out of touch with Christ. It might be geographical. Maybe it uphold and preserves a way of relating to God (theological or liturgical maybe) that would otherwise not be available to the Church. Perhaps it does work of service that is valuable, or maintains a building of real worth to the kingdom. Any of these and more are possible but there has to be answer otherwise the growth looked for may not be relevant to the Kingdom, may be a merely human idolatry of an institution.

What the answer to the question of “why grow this?” turns out to be will be likely to guide one in looking for how to grow as well. If we are saying that the unique vocation of our fellowship or denomination is a particular thing then we are looking for people who will be excited by and contribute to that thing. If it is expressing the faith and developing the discipleship of a particular kind of person we are looking for that kind of person. In any case we have a message we can communicate about why we love what we’re inviting people to join and work within, we know what our particular message is (although this will serve the universal message about God’s saving work in Christ and the coming of the Kingdom).

I’m seeking to discern what the vocations of the two congregations within which I serve are. I’m sure they are different and am making quicker progress (I think) in that process in one place than the other. However I am convinced that both have work to do for Jesus if we can listen hard enough to find what that is. What I would not want to do is to try to grow the churches simply so that they can continue to exist without working out why it’s a good thing for them to continue. If a church answers by saying that it needs to exist in order to meet the spiritual needs of the people currently in it then in all honesty it will struggle to find people who will want to join it.

The same thing is true of the URC as a whole. I have yet to see anyone offer anything like a compelling argument for why the Church needs the URC (although I do believe such an argument could be made). Until we do find such an answer and come to a widespread consensus on it the denomination will live a kind of shadow existence and any growth that we do enjoy will be about local fellowships finding their own path without much reference to the denomination.

We had a fascinating discussion of the nature of evangelism (sharing the faith with others) and its relationship to the life of our own church at the Potters Bar URC Bible study group last week. Those present reflected on what they would say to others about why they thought it would be good to become part of our church, what it was they really valued about their own membership.

Different churches are different. Ours is predominantly fairly elderly, most of its members are of retirement age, and consists mostly of people who have been members for a long time. There are some newer members but most of these are quite like those who are longer established. There is a small scattering of younger and more recent people but they are very much in the minority.

A key characteristic of our fellowship is the dense and deep network of personal relationships that mark it. These form a cluster of overlapping groups of friends who provide real care and support to one another. This “skeleton” supports the whole rich life of the church and enables it to integrate and absorb newcomers who can fit into this life. When talking about what they would say to people to describe the ways in which joining us would enhance their lives this belonging to a community was very prominent.

My wife and I have become deeply involved in the Nursery School which runs in the church building and as part of the charitable work of the church since we have been here. She chairs its management committee and I sit on it and together with another elder provide a link to the leadership of the church. What has impressed me over the last six months is the extent to which the nursery also functions as a community.

We are blessed to have a significant number of talented and committed people among the parents. These include graphic designers who have designed and produced new publicity material. Musicians who led the children in producing a CD. One of the fathers designed and implemented a new web site using the new logo from one of the graphic designers. Parents have run large and successful craft mornings during the holidays. They sourced a range of impressive prizes for a fund raiser, they have run coffee mornings and put on a massive event with a local children’s entertainer. Our walking float in the town carnival won a prize.

All this has been achieved from the voluntary efforts of those whose children attend the Nursery. Spending time with them it is clear that many of them have become friends through their involvement with us and it seems probable that these friendships will in some cases endure and form part of the network that makes our town such a particularly settled and comfortable place.

All this, it seems to me, has a good deal in common with the shape and life of a particular kind of church. I researched the history of the other church in which I serve last year in order to mount a proper celebration of its 70th anniversary. One thing that struck me was the pattern of the membership figures. The church began in the 1940s as an initiative of two families who had moved to the new village of Brookmans Park from north London, where they had been members of a Congregationalist church. It was centred on a Sunday School and grew consistently until the middle of the 1970s since when there has been steady decline.

The period of its growth, from 1943 to 1973 coincided with the growth of the village. During this period it provided a way for new people both to continue the Christian practice they brought from their former place of residence and to integrate with the life of the community to which they had moved. There were a range of groups, especially for women and young people, which did all sorts of things, from drama and flower arranging, through maintaining the church, to Bible study and exploration of faith.

We are sometimes inclined to be dismissive of the social lives of our churches, to be snobbish about churches that are “clubs” but I’m not at all sure we should be. The church as community has always been important, as any reading of the epistles in the New Testament will reveal. The common life of the people of God is always prominent.

Our difficulty lies in properly integrating that with our theology and our missional vocation, our calling to be Christ’s representatives to the world. At Potters Bar we are doing important community building work through the Nursery but it is unrecognised by and even invisible to much of the congregation. At the same time we may not properly recognise the extent to which the life of our community is both part of our witness and consonant with the gospel.

I am coming to believe that each church needs to recognise that the Spirit has shaped it as the body it actually is and not aspire or desire to be something else (although always ready to be changed by the ongoing work of the Spirit). Our mission cannot be to turn into another church (younger, more modern, bigger) but rather to be what we are called to be as fully as we can be. The more authentically we express the identity we have been given to more likely we are to witness effectively to God’s love. Learning to accept and celebrate our own uniqueness, with all its frailties and failures, is an essential step towards the repentance that enables the Spirit to transform us into the disciples we are intended to be.

For the URC as a whole this means finding what is unique and positive in being an elderly and declining body of disparate churches blessed with an amazing legacy of material and spiritual resources, NOT wishing to be a denomination of a quite different character (younger and bigger, more “progressive”, more “orthodox”, more “Reformed” or whatever it might be). We are who we are and we have our own distinct and unique vocation. We just haven’t discerned it properly yet.

Three apostles, three ways to follow Christ

Three apostles, three ways to follow Christ

In a recent Facebook discussion between members of the United Reformed Church about the Local Ministry and Mission Review process it was suggested that this should:

a) have an evaluative component, assessing the extent and effectiveness of the mission of the church and

b) this evaluation should influence the deployment of the main resource of the denomination, its stipendiary ministers.

Churches without effective mission were likely to wither on the vine, it was suggested, with the implication being that our resources should be concentrated on those churches with greater potential for growth and continuing life.

This is an argument that makes good sense in some was and one I have encountered before. The idea that some of our churches are not viable or have no long term future and that the denomination should prioritise supporting the more dynamic or higher potential churches is one possible response to the “crisis” in the denomination that I have recently read diagnosed by a potential candidate for the position of Moderator of General Assembly.

I am not totally without sympathy with the idea of analysing the possible pastoral positions in this way and identifying and prioritising “missional” posts in areas of intense activity or particular potential. This would enable those called to this kind of work to engage in it intentionally and purposively in contexts where it would be properly valued and supported. Given the current wave of enthusiasm for church growth in parts of our denomination that would feel appropriate and Spirit led.

I would, however, not two ways in which I think we should acknowledge problems with adopting this as a universal or simple strategy for the URC:

1) we, of all people, should be looking at our problems and our decisions ecumenically, at all times, that is to say we should avoid confusing our denomination with the Church

2) we should remember that “mission” (however we define that word) is not the whole life of the Church and that it is quite possible for a person, a congregation, or a denomination to follow Jesus faithfully without engaging in explicit “mission”

1) the ecumenical dimension

If we accept that our denomination is not the Church then the kind of tests it is suggested are applied to churches to assess their suitability for support might be applied to the URC as a whole. I believe strongly that as a denomination we should take some time to ask ourselves about our stewardship of our inherited resources. We are, in some ways, a very rich group of people. Our 60,000 or so remaining members are the beneficiaries of a formerly much larger movement within the church. This expresses itself in large part through our holding, communally, a property portfolio worth some hundreds of millions of pounds.

If we apply the test of “missional effectiveness” to our churches why do we not apply it to the URC as a whole? Are we convinced that we are the best possible users of what we have inherited? I am not prejudging the answer to that question. It seems credible to me that we could answer that question in the affirmative, if we could formulate what it is “we” bring to the Church catholic that is distinctive and of value.

Some would argue that it is our tradition of openness and innovation, our collective “liberalism”, “radicalism”, or “progressive” nature. There is something in this. After all the Congregationalists were early with ordination of women and there was a strong connection between the old non-conformity and radical politics. It is not straightforward, though. We can also be seen as inheriting a rather “conservative” evangelical theology, we are divided on many of the questions that now act as markers between radical and progressive Christianity and the rest. One way to understand the failure of the marketing initiative that became “Zero Intolerance” was that it represented an attempt to define a radical/progressive identity that found little resonance in the URC as a whole.

Another option is that we act as the bearers of the “Reformed tradition”. Again there is obviously something in this but it is rather problematic. What is distinctively “Reformed” (as against, on the one hand, the other traditions of the magisterial Reformation, Anglicanism and Lutheranism and on the other the radical Reformation) is hard to pin down and it is unclear that the URC as a whole embodies it, and certainly that it embodies it better than some of the alternatives. Congregationalism as a tradition stood somewhere between the Reformed and Anabaptist strands of the Reformation and since the evangelical revival has been deeply influenced by other currents.

We have work to do to define the URC as a body which still has something distinctive, vital and worthwhile to contribute. For what it’s worth my own view is that we do and that what we have to offer is our ecumenism, that we are “United” rather than that we are “Reformed”.

b) Ministry AND Mission

I think it is essential that we do not come to say or to believe that Mission is always and absolutely more important or a condition of Ministry. The two words should be held in balance. There are forms of Christian life that are profoundly valuable and which do not emphasis mission at all. Think, as an extreme case, of a hermit who spends their life in contemplation and prayer. They may well be living out a true and important vocation.

I recall a story I heard about small and isolated congregation of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who were custodians of a beautiful little church and a tradition of worship in a location where there was little in the way of a settled community among whom they could engage in any form of missional activity. In the course of a review of their life they came to believe that what they were called to was to make their worship accessible to visitors, of whom their location had a significant number. Their calling (their “mission”) was not to do anything much beyond provision of the most faithful worship they were capable of.

Again, I think of some of our churches I have experience of where long established, mostly elderly, fellowships have rich communal lives, of worship, of prayer, of Bible study and of mutual pastoral care. These churches are deeply committed to the gospel, as they understand it, and to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. There may be little that they are doing or know how to do or have the resources to do that we would recognise as “mission” but I would be very sad if we said or did anything that indicated we did not value their discipleship and their faithfulness.

Over the last six months I have really got acquainted with the books of the Bible associated with the “Johanine” strand in the apostolic Church. Reading 1 John with a Bible study group had a particular impact on me. The contrast with the Pauline epistles, which I know much better, could not have been starker. Paul was the missional Christian par excellence. Once a congregation was established he was on his way to plant a new one. He cared for and supported the existing communities but his drive was towards growth and expansion.

The letters of John are very different. He urges his communities not to worry about the fact that some have left and their numbers have fallen. Those who have gone were never true members, he says. The “world” is to be rejected, the believers are to be bound closely together and separate from the rest of humanity. The Johanine Church, seen through this lens, is exclusive, separated, strongly demarcated and inward looking.

I am not, in any way, suggesting that we adopt an exclusively Johanine model, just that it reminds us that there is more than one way to be the Church. In deciding how to proceed and how to evaluate, how to deploy and how to resource I hope we will remember that.