Reflections on Discipleship – The Number Zero

My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …

Well, we’re off! Last Sunday, on Jan 18th, we launched the Year of Discipleship in our diocese. Where I was we reflected on the story of the 12 spies casing the Promised Land, mixed our metaphors by talking about ‘Tiggers’ and ‘Eeyores’, and decided whether we were more keen to get our hands on the grapes (the good things promised to us by God) than we were scared of the giants (the things which might stand in our way). We prayed a liturgy of rededication at the start of the year, and ate grapes, praying that God would keep our eyes fixed on the grapes rather than on the giants.


That evening I started re-reading Vincent Donovan’s classic Christianity Rediscovered[1] which I have been meaning to do for ages. It’s the story of a Roman Catholic Mission to the Masai in East Africa in the mid-60s, and it must be 30 years since I last read it. I was struck like a sledgehammer blow at a passage in which Donovan writes to his Bishop. He reports that after his few months at the Mission, which has been around for seven years, there are thriving schools, an active hospital, with an ambulance service to bring sick people to it, financial aid for those in need, and compulsory religious instruction for children in the schools. Relationships with the Masai people are cordial. Sounds great!

But then his letter goes on:

‘Almost never is religion mentioned … The best way to describe realistically the state of this Christian mission is the number zero … There are no adult Masai practicing Christians … no child, on leaving school, has continued to practice his religion, and there is no indication that any of the present students will do so. The relationship with the Masai, in my opinion, is dismal, time-consuming, wearying, expensive and materialistic. There is no probability that one can speak with the Masai, even with those who are our friends, about God … In other words, the relationship with the Masai … goes into every area except that very one area which is most dear to the heart of the missionary …  I suddenly feel the urgent need to … go to these people and do the work among them for which I came to Africa … and just go and talk to them about God and the Christian message.[2]

This he did. His first conversation with a local chief was greeted with the puzzled response

‘If that is why you came here, why did you wait so long to tell us about this?’

a comment which he was to hear again and again. Needless to say, his new-style mission met with phenomenal results and growth in discipleship.

I had a flashback to a conversation  in the past with a rural priest who told me that ‘Of course, we’re not here to evangelise the village!’, a comment greeted by nods of agreement from his congregation.

I don’t know how you react to this story, but I wonder whether for some of us it might be the time to start of a new kind of church, which is proud and confident to talk about its Lord. If Donovan’s experience rings true, it is worth asking the question ‘What is stopping me, and my church, from simply talking about Jesus?’ Many of us, of course are already doing this, but my suspicion is that some aren’t. Maybe it’s time to begin.

[1] (London: SCM, 1978)

[2] p 15

For our Diocesan Year of Discipleship blog, click here.

Reflections on Discipleship – Fears and Fantasies

Last Sunday I was preaching at a St Andrew’s Day Patronal Festival, and although I must have read the passage in question (Matthew 4:18-22) hundreds of times, I was struck afresh by two things, both of which I believe are good news for would-be or slightly nervous disciples.

You see in my experience people have some pretty powerful fantasies about what it would mean if they really decided to follow Jesus, to surrender everything to him. This passage speaks powerfully into some of those fears.

I noted firstly that here and elsewhere Jesus often calls disciples in pairs. Here we have Andrew and his brother Simon, followed by James and his brother John. In John’s account of the story, these two pairs are followed by Philip and Nathaniel. It seems to be a bit of a pattern. I wonder if this is because Jesus knows just how difficult it can be to swim against the tide on your own. People often feel, I reckon, that to follow Jesus will isolate them. Their friends won’t like them any more, or understand them: they won’t fit in at work, or down the pub, or at the golf club, or wherever it is they live and move and have their being. They’ll turn into religious nuts, unable to take a place any more in normal society. So it is significant that in the case of these disciples Jesus calls them together. We’re stronger when we’re not alone. Later on Jesus is going to send them out to put into practice the things he’s been teaching them, and again they are sent out in pairs. We’re meant to support one another in this enterprise of discipleship, and I believe Jesus knows that. If you are feeling some kind of sense of call to go deeper with Jesus, the first job is to ask who else around you is feeling the same call, and whether you might respond together. Tragically it can be the case that church is the last place where we can really speak about our relationship with God. But if we can foster a culture where such conversations are common currency, I bet we’ll see more people discovering the same call, so that we can strengthen and support one another as we respond and obey.

But the second bit of good news might just be even more important. Look what Andrew and Simon are called to. ‘You’re fishermen’ says the ever-astute Jesus (I reckon it might be the boats, nets and all-pervading smell of fish which gave him the clue). How do you fancy catching people instead of fish? I think this is significant because another common fantasy people have is that if I really obey the call of Jesus to follow him I’ll have to go to Africa. Serious Christians always seem to get called to some awful mission-field, so although I do like Jesus I’d better keep a bit of distance. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard this fear expressed. In fact Jesus is calling them to do what they’re already good at, and presumably enjoy, but with a new twist.

When I was 18 I went off to university to become a chemistry teacher, but for reasons I won’t bore you with (but which you can read about in my God’s Upgrades … My Adventures) it didn’t work out. But a couple of years later, when God got his hands on me again, I started the journey to Christian ministry. Now 33 years on the thing people say most often about me is to thank me for my teaching ministry. There are, of course, several aspects of my ministry which go the other way, and I’ll spare you the details of what people say I’m lousy at, but the point is that my instinct to teach was a good one, but that God wanted to take it to a new level. He hadn’t created me to teach people about chemistry, but about his Word and what it means to live for him.

So if God is calling you to go deeper with him (or if you are involved in caring for and nurturing those who he is calling) look for the stuff you’re already good at, passionate about, and experienced in. It may well be that God doesn’t want to turn your life upside down, but merely to enhance what he has already put it in your heart to do for him.

Surprised by the F-word

Here’s the latest excerpt from God’s Upgrades … My Adventures published by Authentic.


Being by now an old hand at IKEA, I had become friends with most of the guys, and I had even had some positive contact with the constant stream of temps who came and went. But there was one person who still struck fear into my heart. Tom Hollick was over sixty, grizzled and cynical, the most foul-mouthed person in the room (and that took some doing), humourless and always moaning about life, the universe and everything. He seemed to regard work and the management with all the bitterness of someone trapped in a dead-end job for far too long. He looked not unlike Van Gogh’s picture of his friend Dr Gachet but with a much bigger moustache. In fact his moustache was even bigger than mine, which really does take some doing, and considerably more tatty and tobacco-stained. I so hated him!

 Then came the inevitable evening when I returned to the depot to find my name with his on the board for the next day. This was not going to be fun. I didn’t sleep well that night.

 ‘You’re the vicar, aren’t you?’ he asked as we were driving through the yard to the gatehouse. I braced myself and admitted that indeed I was. ‘I’ve been wanting to talk to you.’

 Now what was I in for? If he hated the church and all it stood for anywhere near as much as he appeared to hate everyone and everything else, I was going to spend the day getting a really severe ear-bashing. However, I was in for even more of a shock than I had worried about in my worst nightmares.

 ‘I did that “Alpha” course last year’ Tom admitted with as much of a coy grin as he could manage. It looked as if it was costing him a considerable amount of effort. In spite of the grin, I felt I was in for an in-depth critique of the whole process. Perhaps I was the first person he had been able to share his insights with, and I was going to get the full spiteful vitriol of his totally negative experience. Oh well, in for a penny …

 ‘What did you think of it?’ I asked, on the basis that if he was going to hit me it would be better before we got onto the motorway.

 ‘It was absolutely f****** brilliant!’ I wasn’t quite expecting that, and I pondered just for a moment exactly what Nicky Gumbel would have made of this accolade.Front only

 ‘Tell me more’ I prompted, and for the next twenty minutes I got a blow-by-blow, liberally peppered with words designed to illustrate clearly just how much he had enjoyed the whole experience. I listened open-mouthed as he told me how much he’d enjoyed both the material and the discussion, what a friendly crowd they were, what a turnaround it had brought in his life, and how he and his wife now went to church each Sunday. But even that wasn’t the end of his excitement.

 ‘We’ve got this woman who does that “singing in tongues” in the church’ he confided. ‘It’s bloody beautiful!’ I was able to be enthusiastic and share in his wonder at this wonderful gift, and to admit that I could do that too, although nobody had as yet described my singing as beautiful, an admission which filled him with even more awe for this strange vicar who had suddenly dropped into his life. Tom showed me the Bible he brought to work each day to read in his tacho-breaks, and told me how he didn’t always find it easy to understand and what did I think about such-and-such a passage? It would have been such a help to have someone else at work he could ask. Finally, with great wistfulness, he said ‘I really wish I didn’t swear so much, but I just can’t help it.’

 During the day he told me, almost with tears in his eyes, about a heart-breaking situation in his family and a huge decision he had to make. ‘Will you pray for me about it?’ he asked.

 Tom and I never again found ourselves paired up, but we kept in touch in the depot and I was able to ask him sensitively how things were going as we bumped into one another from time to time. I still remember to pray for him now and again, for his witness in a very difficult environment, and for the growth of his sanctification!


What’s Church For? Taking a bullet for Jesus

I was asked some while ago by a follower of this blog to comment on what I though the church might be like in 20 years’ time, and I’ve been giving considerable thought to that question. I decided that now might be a good time to address it. In spite of coming out as one on one of those silly facebook quizzes, I don’t claim to be much of a prophet, but I do have some thoughts which may or may not turn out to have been inspired. So I want to take a few weeks, under the category of ‘What’s church For?’ to take a glimpse as far as I can into the general future. I want to begin this week with an old joke.

The vicar is just about to launch into ‘The Lord be with you’ at the start of the service, when the west doors of the church burst open and in come three men, all clothed in black, and with black balaclavas over their faces, carrying AK47s. Grabbing the attention of the congregation (which isn’t too difficult if you behave and dress like that) the leader shouts out ‘Anyone who isn’t willing to take a bullet for Jesus, get out now!’

As you might imagine there is a mass exodus from the church, but a few determined (or stupid) souls remain firmly in their seats, praying fervently. The gunmen then fire a few warning shots into the air, and shout again ‘We really mean it! If you’re not willing to take a bullet for Jesus, get out now while you still have the chance!’ Almost everybody leaves at this point. The leader of the gunmen strides up to the vicar at the front, looks him straight in the eyes, and says ‘OK Father – that’s got rid of all the hypocrites: you can start the service now’.

As I gaze into my (figurative, of course) crystal ball, I wonder whether this scenario might actually tell us a bit about what is going on in the church, and where we might be headed. I have recently moved to a new, largely rural diocese in which the vast majority of churches are small, struggling, and grouped together in impossible benefices. Not surprisingly people are by and large elderly, discouraged, and worn out from the burdens of administration and fund-raising to keep ancient buildings standing, even though many of them have very few actual services.

File:Cullompton , Countryside looking toward St Andrew's Church - - 1217350.jpgThis is not, of course, about hypocrisy, but I do predict that the time will come when the generation which values its church culture enough to keep on living sacrificially for it will pass away and much of the C of E will simply cease to exist. Younger generations, those who are so absent from the life of the church, have a very underdeveloped sense of duty compared to their parents and grandparents, and I predict that a lot fewer dead horses will continue to be flogged in the future. I suspect that the hierarchy, who have worked so hard at maintaining if not a priest then at least some ministry in every parish will simply admit defeat and finally begin to think seriously about new shapes of Christian witness, particularly in rural areas.

Church will only happen in places where people really mean it, are achieving some degree of success in their Christian mission, and have the resources to carry on and the vision to draw new people into their life. The church will be slimmer but hopefully fitter, and maybe ready to begin missionary work again to convert our nation to Christ.