Stepping out in faith

2 September 2013

The beginning of September can be a challenging time in church life. For some of us there can be a sense of excitement as we think about what God may do this year and as we plan and hope and pray. For others of us our hearts sink a bit, Summer is over and the year ahead stretches out, busy and challenging. And God invites us to follow Him into September, and the sense that God is stirring us up applies to September as well as June; and the truth of God’s encouragement not to be afraid stands.

After Conference in June, Sharon Willis from Cregagh brought a reflection on Conference to that congregation. I was re-reading it this morning and it struck me that it is a wonderful reminder and a prompt to all of us to keep going. So, for those reasons I asked her permission to put it here. My prayer is that it will be an encouragement and a prompt to action for all of us.

“So I've been asked to give an overview of the Methodist Conference this year.  If you're like me, Conference is one of those things that you hear mentioned every year, without having much of a clue about what goes on or what it's all about, so I turned up in Carrickfergus not really knowing what to expect, or even what I was there to do.  The programme itself was pretty full, with a mixture of business sessions, talks, worship time, and discussion in district groups.

By all accounts, talking to those who had been before, this was a very different Conference to those of previous years.  From the start, there was a sense that God was saying something new to the Irish Methodist church, and that we need to start listening and be ready to do things in new ways.

I always get a bit nervous when I hear that kind of talk. Part of me thinks 'Oh, here we go again, another list of things that are going to be awesome and life-changing, if only we let go of all the old boring ways of doing things'. I guess I've just got a bit cynical about that kind of talk, which so often seems to be an excuse to bash the traditional ways of doing things, without putting anything in their place.  So it was refreshing to find that this year seemed to be something different.

Fundamental Constants

One thing which was clear throughout Conference was that there was a genuine desire to start from where we're at as a Methodist Church, and to be true to those great unchanging truths which define us. If, like me, you're into science, you'll be familiar with the idea of 'fundamental constants', those values which underpin everything and cannot be changed. We were reminded of our own 'fundamental constants', those truths which we must keep central in all that we do.

At one of the Bible study sessions, we read the story of Moses and the burning bush, and in particular, when God identifies Himself by saying "I Am That I AM".  And fundamentally, that is our constant - God is who He says He is, unchanging, in control, and working out His story through His creation.  We recited the creeds, reminding ourselves that we do believe in truths which do not change according to our fashions or trends.

With this in mind, the purpose of this special Conference was to ask a number of key questions about the church in general, and the Methodist Church in Ireland in particular.

What is our purpose as a church?

The first question being asked was 'What is our purpose as a church? What is the church for?'. In a Bible Study, our new President, Heather Morris, took us to Matthew 28 - the Great Commission.  When we look at this, we often see it (naturally enough) from our point of view, as God giving us a mission - "This is our mission, and our purpose".  But when we take a step back and look at this through God's eyes, across the span of history, we see that in fact, there is a bigger picture here, and we are part of God's mission. God is inviting us to be a part of what He is doing to bring blessing to the world.  Our purpose as a church is to say 'yes' to being involved with bringing blessing to the part of the world that we have influence over - our own community, workplaces, friends and families.

Our focus as a church, therefore, should not be inward; rather, it should be outward. We should not come to church asking 'what do I get out of this?', but we should come asking ourselves 'How can I be part of what God is doing to bless this community?'.

We see that there is a long-term purpose here.  It's not about instant payoffs; rather, we should be seeking to invest in the future of this area and this community - building things which will last, which will bless our children and grandchildren.

It's about saying 'yes' to God's invitation to be part of what He is doing.

How will this happen?

Secondly, we asked, 'How will this happen?'. If we choose to take up this invitation to be part of what God is doing, how does it actually come about? . At Conference I spoke to quite a few people who are in churches whose resources are dwindling, the money is not there, yet the needs are growing. There are tiny churches out there who can't afford a minister, who were hearing this. The idea of changing anything from that starting point is laughable.

But we need to realise that God doesn't work by giving us what we see as ideal starting points. When God wants someone to go to Pharaoh and ask him to free the Israelites, we would probably have started with someone in power, who was articulate and had the ear of the king. God starts with Moses, who is so overwhelmed that he can hardly get out a sentence when he tries to speak. When Jesus is looking for a group of people to start His church, we would probably have selected a good-sized group of the religious leaders, who knew what they were talking about and maybe had connections with people in power. Jesus gathers together 12 guys who are uneducated, fairly incompetent, and at times unfaithful. If we think about how to bring blessing to our communities, where would we start?

So the first point is simply this - it will happen by the power of God. He who has invited us on this journey will give us the power and ability to see it through. It's not about us or what we can do, or what resources we bring.

In Numbers 13 we read the report of the spies. Most of the spies saw the giants and gave up. But Caleb saw the potential blessing and said "We can certainly do it".  And that needs to be our attitude, as we say "Yes" to God's invitation to follow. Like Caleb, who saw the blessings in the Promised land, we need to let ourselves imagine what blessing could come through us, and take that step of faith that says "We can certainly do it. Even though it looks hard, and we have very little to bring, we can certainly do it, because God is with us."  Like the priests who would eventually lead the people into the land, but who had to be the first to step into the river to cross it, we need to get our feet wet, taking risks, but believing that God is with us and has even gone before us to prepare the way.

In short, when we hear God's invitation to follow, we need to simply say 'YES'.

Where do we start?

Of course, the final question that we need to ask is this: where do we start? This sounds great as a general idea, but what difference is all of this going to make today? Three things were suggested, three things that we can all say 'yes' to right now:

  1. Choose to rejoice in the good. Celebrate small blessings where we see them. Where there is a little spark of something positive, let's choose to pour fuel on it by encouraging it, rather than dousing it with the water of negativity. We can be realistic - there will be challenges ahead. But we can rejoice when we see what God is doing.  Let's choose to do things that will build on the foundation that's there, rather than giving up. Where something good is happening, let's affirm it and remind each other of it.
  2. One of the songs we sang at Conference was "10,000 Reasons" by Matt Redman, it encapsulates this attitude so well when it says "Whatever has passed, and whatever lies before me, let me be singing when the evening comes" - let's look every day for 10,000 reasons to rejoice.
  3. Choose to bless our community. We can do normal day-to-day things with an attitude of blessing other people. We can choose to take time to listen to the needs of our neighbours and to think about how we could meet them. We can choose to take time to help out with the community work here in church next year; we can pour juice and mop up spills and be a listening ear, and if we do those things in God's power and to His glory, then we will make a difference. Let's look for those ways that we can bring blessing, and choose to say 'yes' to doing them.
  4. Choose to free each other to try things for God.  We can create a culture of encouragement and affirmation, where it's OK to step out in faith, because everyone is behind you, wanting you to succeed, and not sitting with arms folded, ready to point out the negatives. In a culture of encouragement, if things does go wrong, people are there not to criticise, but to pick you back up and help you move on. We become free to take risks and try new things. In another Bible study at Conference, we looked at the parable of the yeast - how a little bit of the stuff goes right through the bread. Churches are similar. Having someone who believes in you makes the world of difference; it enables you to try new things and to be creative and to take risks. On the other hand, even a little bit of negativity at the wrong moment can run us down, leave us deflated, and stop us from taking the opportunities that have been given to us.

And always we need to remember that we can do this, that we can risk failure, that we can step out in faith and get our feet wet, because ultimately, this is God's mission, not ours.  We're doing it in God's strength, not ours.  And whether we succeed or fail, God is unchanging and eternal, and we cannot destroy what He is doing - we can only choose to be part of it or not.”

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