The summer evening sky has finally gone dark. The beach is quiet again. The action has moved into town where the surfers are clubbing through the night. Partying with them are members of Dawn Patrol. One of these young Christians walks up to a big guy in the nightclub because he says he has a word for him from God ~ and the big guy bursts into tears.
In school assemblies with two to three hundred 14-15 year olds, Ambassadors for Christ are seeing schools work taking off. Working with Christian Unions they present Gospel through drama … "you could hear a pin drop". A youngster presents his testimony ~ it is very faltering and embarrassingly slow ~ but a teacher says "It was brilliant".
An old man visits York Minster. His wife is dying of cancer and he hasn't been in church since he was 13. He prays in the Minster for help and then goes into the Spurriergate Centre for a prayer request. He talks with them. They organise a Macmillan nurse for his wife and in due time they celebrate Communion round her bed before she dies. After the funeral he brings flowers in to the Centre. He is now doing Alpha and is involved with his local church.
How it warms our hearts when we encounter the Spirit at work, and when we detect some kind of resonance going on! This is where we know God lives!
Three of the last eighteen months for me involved meeting people who are active in the extraordinary developments of Christian work unfolding in Britain today and these are some of their stories. We may fear that the church as we know it is disappearing, but my encounters showed me that there are people doing local mission, making connections with the context around them and seeing how the Gospel relates. The Holy Spirit is at work.
Models and patterns of church are thoroughly diverse. I heard about fruitful initiatives in alt worship groups, evangelical churches, free churches, traditional Anglican churches, community groups and individuals. One constant was the refrain of 'meeting people at their point of need' so that the engagement is 'real'. From all the different varieties of work, the key dimensions that were commonly identified as essential for the mission of the church are that it should be (a) Relational and relevant - so engaged with people that they are met at their point of need and it will make a difference; (b) Active and flexible - seen to be involved and involving in a way that also allows response to change; and (c) Invitational and purposeful - drawing people in to work for results in a forward thinking approach.
My mission in this exploration was to discover how new patterns of church relate to God's worldwide mission and specifically to Anglican mission agencies.
I found little sense of connectedness to the whole body of Christ worldwide, though there is a widespread heart for 'what we can do for people in need' elsewhere. There's a paradox here because I also found that the expression 'world mission' stirs underlying negativity because it resonates with the unacceptable face of colonialism as in the patronising superior view of 'the good that we can do for others'.
'World church' ~ the gift of Christ to which we belong ~ stirs anxieties too. Rather than experiencing a sense of enrichment from it and embracing it to strengthen local mission, some have acknowledged that it triggers guilt feelings because we are aware of our western materialism and affluence, over against the poverty of so many countries.
I met many people who said their faith and worldview had been transformed by experience with Christians in a poorer country, but it seems none of them is deliberately applying it with the people where they are now. The one exception is the work John Summers has done with St Barnabas in Plymouth, using his experience of base ecclesial communities.
There is widespread uneasiness about traditional mission agencies. One reason is the underlying anxiety that they just want your money. We do ~ but more than that we want to inspire your passion for God's mission so it spills over from your own vision into prayer and giving!
Another reason is that mission agencies are associated with the fading institutional church model. I found no hostility to CMS; there seems to be huge affection. But it is a bit like affection for an ageing aunt. "She was quite a girl in her time"!
What has not been obvious is that CMS continues to resonate with the work of the Holy Spirit in our time, and is often at the leading edge of global mission understanding. Examples include
~ initiating international mission teams to work with the church in Britain;
~ commitment to 'south to south' mission partnerships (many in conjunction with USPG and others);
~ support for exchange of gifts that one part of the church can offer another, like hospital and prison chaplaincy newly developed by the Romanian Orthodox church.
Back here the mantra keeps echoing in our ears ~ 'the church is in decline'. There are only a few churches where the statistical evidence contradicts this. But it is only part of the truth and we must not use the vitality of the church in other countries as a rod for our backs in Britain. They are in a different 'place' and when you step outside the stable embrace of our traditional structures and patterns, it is amazing where you find the Holy Spirit at work, resonating in people who are leading others to transformed lives through faith in Christ.
How vibrant we might all become when we resonate with the whole body of Christ and God's mission heart for the whole world.
Gill Poole is CMS Southern Team Leader based in Oxford UK