I will be 49 soon. The countdown to the big 5-0 begins. Not complaining. I love this stage of my life. But it’s a good time to reflect on the past ten years. It was easily the most momentous decade in our (my wife Jill’s and my) lives. Especially in ministry terms, and especially in how ministry unfolded from the time I was a year away from turning forty until now – a year away from turning fifty. So here’s what could be an open-ended series of blog posts (intermingled with the usual stuff, and hopefully signed off before my fiftieth birthday party!).
I don’t make quick decisions. I do make radical decisions. But not quick ones. When Jill and I were courting and I hadn’t asked her to marry me after eighteen months, in fact when it seemed I had been quite ambivalent about it, she read me the riot act. Good on her. What can I say after 20 years of marriage other than it’s been a riot!!
So when, after a few days hanging out with Steve, the leader of The Crowded House network of churches in Sheffield, England (having invited him to stop over in Perth on his way to Sydney and Hobart back in April 2006), you’d told me that we’d be winging our way not six months later to live there, I’d have raised some serious eyebrow.
But we were. In five months we raised fifty-thousand dollars from generous people either keen to get rid of us, or keen to see what we could learn about missional household church. We rented out our house, took our daughter out of school, packed our bags and went on the adventure of a lifetime.
My mum had always prodded me when younger about the fact that “God may want you to be a missionary in China for your life.” Her tears at the airport as we merely left for the UK for a year showed there may have been a bit of bluster in that comment!
When Steve landed in Perth that April he came with two young interns. I organised a series of talks and discussions in cafes and churches around Perth for pastors and interested leaders. It was all so low key, but deep, in a way that only that early missional conversation could be.
The conversation centred around how household church could both be the low bar of church entry required by a post-institutional age, and also be the solution to the lack of community the established church lacked and mourned for.
It was immediately evident that Steve had thought about all of this as much as Alan Hirsch had. His mantra was that there was nothing that big church could do that little church could not, and there was much that little church could do that big church could not.
In retrospect there are holes all over that statement, but my first observation of Steve was that he was no self-doubter. He could quickly, quietly, and with no little intellectual and theological rigour, argue his case. He had that mix of theological orthodoxy and ecclesiological radicalism that I felt could be a key to evangelism in the late modern West.
Steve could also divide a room pretty quickly. More than one or two people in those meetings pushed back, and pushed back hard. But for the most, people were all ears, especially those from my theological background who had only just learned that the word “mission” could have an “al” on the end of it and still be a word.
Me? I was already a groupie, a convert, and not a little star-struck. The two young interns who came to Australia with Steve were fun, friendly, and – most importantly to the missional household model he espoused – like family. There was a strong relational bond between them all that they attributed to their model of Christian community. We wanted some of that!
After four days together – and this is important – it felt like we’d known them for years. I remember saying to Steve that we’d love to come and check it out in England to see how it worked. His reply was simple: “Why not come for a year and see?” Jill and I looked at each other. We had no crucial work or ministry ties to Perth at that time, our daughter was young enough to make that move easily, and we had enough contacts and supporters to make it happen – and quickly. By the time we’d left them off to the airport to continue their travels we’d made up our mind to go.
I well remember in the months leading up to leaving, a good friend who has since also planted a thriving church, but was then a pastor in a large evangelical Anglican parish, asking me why we were going. The conversation went like this:
“Because no matter what you do, no matter what you put on, people are not walking past your building thinking ‘I might go there'”, I said, “In fact they don’t even see your building, it’s not on their radar.”
I know what you mean,” he replied, “We put on a guest service and no one turns up – again.”
That was my exact issue. And I still hold to this. If you consider the church’s guest service to be the river mouth – the point at which the friend of an unbeliever can intersect with church after a period of friendship evangelism – then if there’s no water in the river mouth, you’d better check upstream. Chances are that’s where the problem starts.
Chances are the people in your church are not having conversations about Jesus with their friends. Chances are their friendships are not thick enough for an invite to be issued without looking awkward. Chances are their work colleagues live on the other side of town and could not connect in any meaningful way with your church’s people anyway. Chances are the workplace watercooler is nothing like that midday well outside that Samaritan town.
That’s the primary reason we packed up and went to England. We wanted to see a sustainable model of church that engaged with the community evangelistically. I didn’t just want to be involved in something “missional”, whatever that was coming to mean, I wanted to create solid opportunities over time to tell people about Jesus and see them converted from something to something. We were committed to the church being a winsome witness to the culture, as well as individual Christians “witnessing” to their friends. We wanted to see both/and, not either/or.
So we found ourselves on a plane, heading to a city we had visited a decade earlier – the Sheffield of the Full Monty era, but knew nothing else about. What was the church scene there? Who could we reach? What types of people lived there? Would we fit in? Would we want to stay forever, or would we scurry home with our tails between our legs? We had booked return flights, November 5th 2007, my mum’s birthday. We left on her birthday and we’d be coming back on it, depending on how things transpired.
Depending on how things transpired. That’s an innocuous enough statement isn’t it? It’s no spoiler alert to say that how things did transpire still occupy my mind at least once a week almost a decade later.
Next time: The Honeymoon Period