Yesterday evening I joined a brand new class group. Some of us had belonged to such groups in the past, and so came with differing prior expectations. Some of us never had, but were intrigued by the invitation. We spoke of how we might spend our time, how often we should meet, how much "homework" would we set ourselves, did we need to nominate a leader? But we decided all of this was for later. First of all, we need to spend time getting to know each other, building trust and making connections: we needed to share stories.
One of the tragedies of religion is that we so easily unlearn the habit of vocalising how we have noticed God moving in our lives. It is too easy to "do church" without describing to each other how God's story has interacted with the stories of our lives. For some, lockdown has made testimony (for this all it is) easier. A Zoom breakout room can feel more purposeful than a post-service chat over coffee and biscuits in a church hall. For others this is a deeply isolating time. Is there anyone you know in need of a meaningful conversation today?
Whatever our circumstances, we all need to make testimony normal – structurally, collaboratively, and individually. More resources will follow, but asking each other "where have you experienced God this week?" is as good a start as any.
Sharing stories acts on many levels. How often do we recognise God acting in our societies? We now devote considerable energy as a district to sharing stories of God at work, and our gospel of hope from brokenness across our churches and beyond, and always find this to be time well spent.
But we are not called to speak of God just to each other. We need also to celebrate God present in our communities. I have been blown away by the collective creativity of so many of our churches in maintaining dialogue with their neighbourhoods through lockdown, ranging from modern mass media to posters, flowers, candles and crafts. But we need always to be asking ourselves. "If I had never belonged to a church, why and how would begin to approach one?" Sam, our Communications Officer, would love to have a conversation about making communication easy, about your church's next step in being church in public.
Being church in public is not just advertising. Sharing stories is not only therapeutic. Both are a precursor to a culture of invitation. Not an invite into an exclusive club, or a collection of activities. We are not even inviting people to come to church. We are creating a culture of invitation to relationship with Christ. And we don't need our churches or ourselves to have everything sorted to start, because we can trust that God speaks into the hearts of our neighbours.
Too often we have become afraid of the E word. Sharing stories will be hear to help you make testimony normal, communication easy, and invitation natural. There are tools and resources available to help us. But ultimately when we offer invitation we will hear from the response proffered that the grace of God has gone ahead of us. Read John 1:43-51 and ask God who is the Nathaniel to your Philip?
Neil Harland, Mission Development Support