September 11, 2016

Part 5: The Tipping Point

I’m an Anglophile and spring 2007 in Sheffield was the perfect English cliche.  Yellow daffodils in vacant lots.  Flush cherry-tree blossom against the metered granite of Sophie’s Gradgrind school.  Impossibly green fields with lambs the colour of milk.

An English spring is that seasonal tipping point when the clocks go back, the sun lingers and everyone’s out on the city streets. Sheffield was all hip young things pushing even hipper prams; sober Pakistani men in traditional shalwar kameez sporting long hennaed beards; sassy local gals just off the cash register braving the cold in short skirts for a night out; cocky uni students in the park playing five-a-side in jeans and indie teeshirts.


Still miss that street

We were six months in with six months to go.  The tipping point of our trip.  A year is too long to be a tourist.  We’d put our roots down deep, knowing even then it would hurt to uproot them, but that’s what you do, right? Even then I foresaw the same sweet pain of Paul and the Ephesian leaders on that Miletus beach in Acts 20 when he left them forever.

Truth be told, by that time we were thinking of staying.  Thinking of going back to Australia to settle our affairs, and then shifting our lives to Sheffield for good. Don’t tell our families!

But then again the whole idea of family was being contested. The overarching narrative was this was – or at least was becoming – our family. Blood is NOT thicker than water, remember. The sheer volume of time spent with each other had so tightened our relationships that the idea of leaving seemed inconceivable.

Sophie sixth birthday in May was, if you can pardon the pun, the icing on the cake.  With so few her age in the church, our household crew of mostly late teens and early twenty-somethings threw  her a fantastic party; balloons, presents, games, fun, songs around a guitar, the works.  The look on her face!

We had only known these people since November the year before,  only been in household church with them since January, but there was a richness to life together that swept even a six year old up into it. Sophie still talks about it nine years later. I still look at that photo of Sophie in her dressing gown, laughing and getting a hug from the two girls from our group who’d babysit her when Jill and I had a date night.

Our household crew of fifteen on mission together, sharing the gospel with non-Christians – that was our focus.  Not a lot of evangelistic fruit, which did worry me a little, given we had wanted to explore whether this model might be the missing link. Despite the radical ecclesiology designed to make the gospel as accessible as possible, the gaping chasm between us and the culture still seemed almost unbridgeable for all our efforts. Integral to the evangelistic framework was the idea of “gospel in community”.

Despite all of the effort there seemed little serious interplay between the wider community and the gospel one.  More between the university students and their friends, but almost non-existent for the older people whose lives were locked in to daily commutes, school drop offs/pick ups, and caring for ageing parents.  The late great David Foster Wallace speaks of “the trenches of adult life”, in which you reach an age in which stuff just has to be done, and you’re responsible for it whether you want to be or not. Missional  life – or at least the zesty interpretation of it that we were experiencing – doesn’t really know what to do with that stuff I reckon.

But the very act of taking the mission seriously did one thing for sure: it fast-tracked the depth of our relationships, our concern for each other, and the depth of our partnership in the gospel.  Laura, Mike, Ben, Jo, Hannah, Emma, Ben (again), Ian, Kathryn, Duncan, Heather – fellow soldiers in the inner Sheffield suburb of Sharrow.  Even as I list the names I feel a pang that nine years hasn’t dulled.

There we’d be 7pm on a Sunday night, a few guitars and a saxophone sitting nearby as we prayed for gospel conversations at the pub open-mic night later that evening.   I realised that we don’t wait until the church community is loving enough to go out with the gospel: Go out with the gospel and the very act will increase your love for each other.  Don’t wait until your group has enough faith to take a gospel risk: Take a gospel risk and God will increase your faith simply because you’ll being clinging to Him as you do.

We were in and out of each other’s houses, praying, encouraging.   A growing Sunday gathering of all the households at which the singing raised the roof.  Large prayer meetings that still felt intimate and urgent. Good deeds in the neighbourhood.   Mind you, I wasn’t holding down a 40 hour working week over the Pennines in Manchester.  Some of the older guys with teenager kids were not nearly as much on the radar as the rest of us, particularly those of us who lived in that hilly tangle of streets surrounding the city centre. Suburban life, even compact Sheffield suburban life, seemed so liminal and sedate.  I still suffer urban withdrawal symptoms to this day.

The Crowded House was by now punching above its weight locally as church refugees came to see what the fuss was about.  The gathering swelled in size, creating a two tiered system of casual observers and deep participants.  Internationally  there was growing interest from Acts29, from Tim Keller in New York, from a variety of Aussies too.

Live@215 was a highlight, a Friday night music gig. Bored and broke asylum seekers; Christian students bringing their non-Christian friends, Middle Eastern academics from the university; a homeless girl snoozing on a pew and sneakily charging her phone: A third place where we brought our friends into our networks of Christian relationships.

Spring was great.  But summer never came.  It was the wettest summer on record in the UK.  One afternoon, after weeks of rain, endless drizzle punctuated by downpours, the ground could hold no more.  It gave.   Sheffield’s valleyed housing estates were inundated; homes flooded for several months.  Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground, the famous Hillsborough, had four feet of water on the pitch.  Jill barely got home from work before her office flooded.

Church barbecues fizzled.  Outdoor plans were hastily rearranged.  We began to see how desperate English people were for a good summer. Without it, you’d be back into autumn and the long nights in no time.

We began to see other things too.  I’d had a few run ins with Steve over what I considered an overbearing leadership style, a heavy-handed approach that stifled creativity in younger men.  So even though a succession of younger men became interns in our time there, the role of intern looked a little too much like being “broken in” – an exercise in making sure they were humble enough to be involved in this ministry. The proof that one was humble enough appeared to be enough menial household tasks done often enough over time.

And for a church planting network I wasn’t noticing a lot of obviously gifted pioneering planters among the young men.  Steve and Tim were obviously very gifted, but the slightly spiky, apostolic types who get under your skin and forge new ground? None that I could see.  I began to wonder whether the style of leadership was self-selecting.  What would happen if a gifted contrarian joined?  Could that person find a place?  Could that person be allowed to lead hard? I wasn’t so sure.

I also grew increasingly concerned about the language of accountability. The traffic went one way. Accountability went upwards, but never down.  For a group publicly shaped by its two senior leaders to be “life-on-life, eyeball-to-eyeball”, there was a two speed economy going on.

And there was a level of court intrigue that I have seen nowhere else in a church; a maelstrom of ebb and flow in which access to the inner sanctum of friendships and decision making  was its own reward.

When you  are so rewarded, you gets to see the machinations of the party machine; to hear which people are problematic; who is wayward; where – and who – the disappointments are. And you begin to be too easily pleased with yourself for being so much smarter than all of that.   That somehow you have attained this exalted position because you are not problematic, not wayward, not a disappointment. Not exactly Frank Underwood’s White House, but you get the point.

And there’s an allure to it isn’t there?  Especially when you get to hang around well known church leaders, the guys who speak at conferences that you podcast. And it’s easy to want to stay there.  It can become intoxicating. Intoxicating to the point that when leaders and their sanctum talks about how such and such “is a law unto themselves”, you nod and say yes, yes, they are.  When a city wide churches event is held and your church won’t be attending because it can’t have the final say in what happens, you tend to explain it away, give it a hall pass.

Or maybe you don’t.  Maybe that was just me. Or the me of ten years ago.  The Steve McAlpine of 2007 seems a foreigner to me now, and I no doubt, would be to him. The Steve McAlpine of 2016 just seems that little bit harder, that little bit more doberman than the labrador Steve of 2007.  I recently told a good friend that I used to be passive aggressive. He said “Yeah, and now you’re just aggressive.”  He never knew what hit him 🙂

So  when one day, after I’d booked a flight to the US to visit my Texan friend Mark, who had invited me to come visit his church plant, I got a phone call from Steve telling me to come around “for a little chat”, I had no inkling what I was in for.

It started well enough, ushered into the familiar front room in which all leader meetings, ones-on-one, and pastoral care sessions took place.

Steve got straight to the point.

“I think you’ve got a bit of a problem.  I think you’re a law unto yourself.”

Blindsided. That’s how I felt anyway. My heart raced immediately.  I had no idea why he thought that of me, but plenty of experience of him thinking it of others to know that it might not end well.

He crossed to the evidence.  I had not asked permission to go to the US to visit Mark. Hadn’t cleared it with him. Had just gone ahead and made my own decision. And that was a problem.  It exposed something about me in terms of the gospel. It was a trend that others had noticed in me too. It needed to be sorted out.

By this stage I am trying to gather my thoughts, trying to get off the ropes, trying to at least get some points on the board before I hit the canvas. I gave it my best shot:

“Put twenty people who have worked with you in the room, and twenty people who have worked with me in the room, and ask them who is more likely to fit the description of being a law unto themselves.”  

Jill, Sophie and I were going to be crossing the Channel to France just two days later, but with that comeback I realised I’d just crossed the Rubicon right there and then.

And then, just as quickly as it had flared up, it was over.

“Okay that’s it.  I’ve got nothing more to say if you can’t hear me on this.” 

With that he got up and went to make his way to his office at the back of the house.

“Seriously? That’s it?”

And it was. He didn’t do “Plan B”.  I hadn’t taken my medicine, so there wasn’t really any point talking about it further with me.  Soon I was out the door, putting on my sneakers in the porch, my hands shaking, and walking home to talk to Jill, my head in a spin as I replayed the conversation in my head.  As I pored over the months we’d been there asking the question of myself “Is that how people see me, a law unto myself?”

Except I didn’t walk home to Jill.  I walked over to the home of the other senior leader of the organisation, Tim. I needed Tim to know just what had just happened. I needed to debrief before I went home to Jill. I needed to calm down.  More importantly I needed to know that what just happened was an aberration, not the regular way conflict was dealt with in an organisation whose values state that it will not let conflict go unresolved.

I had assumed Tim would express shock or disbelief, or maybe even suggest a solution, when he heard my story as it spilled out.  The walk around to his place had cleared my head.  I loved his house, the gentle mood he’d infused it with, and which comes across so clearly in his writing. His study has a rich, quiet air of well crafted words.  Instead there was a rather sad look of recognition on his face as if he’d been here before.

I thought things might have changed,” he sighed, as we sat and talked.

Though the more we talked I am not sure why he thought things might have changed, because something sounded suspiciously like a pattern.

Turns out, there had been others. Other leaders like me. Others who’d probably sat in Tim’s  – or someone else’s – house recounting it; shaken up and ready for a sleepless night staring at the ceiling.  And  where were they now?  Why hadn’t I met them? Were they in Sheffield? They weren’t in The Crowded House, that’s for sure. I’d never met them or spoken with any of them, not at that stage anyway.

Maybe that comes with the territory in pioneering Christian movements.  Maybe it takes that type of character to get a movement going.  I’ve certainly heard those sorts of things expressed among missional settings.  You know the sorts of things: that  if you’re getting a difficult thing off the ground then those at the coalface get a hall pass in terms of how they treat people; that breaking tough ground demands a difficult and ornery character; that a few casualties are often the price to pay to plant something.

And there’s certainly a high sense of ownership from someone who by sheer force of will, grit and gifting, births a church expression that a whole bunch of rent-seekers scoff at, ignore, or assume is theologically suspect. That sense of ownership can tend towards a high degree of control, and a suspicion of outside influences watering down the flavour.  Maybe that all comes with the territory.

Or maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe that territory is foreign territory, enemy territory for God’s apostle, a place they should never go. Maybe the character of the Man who got the whole thing off the ground in the first place is what’s required.  A character summed up by his words in Mark 10 to his deluded and self-aggrandising followers, and which – on the surface at least – seems completely unsuited to the hard grind of missional church planting, but which is its crucial DNA:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Whatever it is it’s fair to say that I wasn’t reflecting too much on the finer theological points of missional leadership as two days later, Jill and I drove down the motorway to Folkestone en route to France. We had plenty of hours ahead of us to talk about what had just happened.

Our main fear was that we had reached another tipping point altogether; a point at which, try as we might, we might never rekindle the heady lightness, the sheer exuberance, of those early spring days just a few months before, when the family of God of which we were a part, seemed like a sweet, rich slice of heaven.

Next time: Rapprochement 


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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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