The Silver Bullet of Gospel Growth – Not Having a Building

centrifugal-vs-centripetalI’ve been putting together the preaching programme for next term. And we’re heading back into the book of Acts. We won’t finish it this time round. But it’ll take us into uncharted territory as we progress through chapters 14-20. And some of that will be hugely encouraging as we trace the spread of the gospel through 1st Century Europe.

One of the things that I’ve had my eye on as I’ve read through these chapters is Paul’s missionary strategy for reaching people with the good news of the gospel. It seems as though he had a twofold strategy. He went first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. In other words, for as long as he was able he preached the gospel in the religious institutions of the day. He ran Christianity Explored in the synagogue while he could get away with it. But sooner or later that became unwelcome. And he was kicked out. But it didn’t matter. Paul then concentrated on taking the gospel to the irreligious; the Gentiles. To that end he was forced to use other buildings. If the gospel wasn’t welcomed by the religious establishment he’d have to use secular space. In Corinth he made much use of the house of Titius Justus, a God fearing convert. And in Ephesus he hired the Hall of Tyrannus (a person not a place).

There are clear parallels with our own situation at Christ Church Balham (CCB). We do not have a building. Our gospel ministry is not welcomed by some of the religious establishment. Historically the Diocese of Southwark and some local churches find our biblical  convictions and patterns of ministry offensive and have refused us use of their buildings (even though some of them are dying on their feet).

Our situation here at CCB is not that dissimilar to that faced by Paul. We meet in many locations. We meet in a (currently) ropey but in the fullness of time shiny new school hall in the morning, we meet in a dark and occasionally distracting pub function room in the evening, we meet in homes midweek for Growth Groups, we meet in a drama studio for ‘Knowing God’ and we meet in a curry house for the ‘One Life Suppers’.  That’s terrific. It gets the gospel out of the four walls of a church building and into the local community. And I have to keep telling myself that. Because as a recent post has  revealed, I occasionally hanker after a building, convinced that it’s the silver bullet to church growth. But it didn’t seem to be in Paul’s day. The gospel seemed to get along alright without the church’s need to call a place their own. And I have to keep telling myself that too! It’s no secret that I’d love us to have a permanent base in Balham. There are things that I think we could do that we can’t do at the moment. For example, I imagine ‘Boppers‘ would be easier with our own space in which to store the toys and a kitchen from which to serve an arresting array of homemade baking options! But I strongly suspect that one of the things that we’d continually have to fight against is the building-centric dynamic that would very quickly become the norm. I fear that we’d fall into a pattern of centring everything on getting people to come to our building rather jettisoning people out into the community. Our challenge is to continually remind ourselves that we’re meant to be a centrifugal church rather than a centripetal one (see diagram above for Physics lesson). In other words not merely sucking non-Christians into our building and church life but spitting Christians out from our building and church life. We must never become a holy huddle that retreat to the safety of our bunker to escape from the hostility of ‘the world’. If we ever have a building it’ll be nothing more than a base camp from which we strike out to explore the community around us and hit them with the good news of the gospel of peace.

There are implications to not having a building, of course. We’re unlikely to reach those who are keen for church to take place in church buildings. Obviously. And that’s ok. We can’t do everything. There are churches near us that can provide for people like that. St Nicholas’ Church in Tooting is a Church of England one that I wholeheartedly recommend. And Trinity Road Chapel is an FIEC alternative. But CCB can reach people who wouldn’t normally darken the door of a church building.

And that’s our challenge.

Dear Boris

The following letter was something I recently sent to our esteemed London Mayor, the incomparable Boris Johnson. Boris had just come out in support of gay ‘marriage’ in an article in the Independent. I got an e-mail from the Coalition for Marriage asking me to respond to Boris’ remarks. I’m sure I was one of thousands to whom Colin Hart wrote. But it felt personal! And so I thought I should write. I did so in support of C4M and because I thought that Boris was off beam in his remarks. And so I fired an e-mail off almost immediately. It’s not the best crafted e-mail he’ll ever receive.

If you want to chase up the reasons for my opposition to gay ‘marriage’ you can find some of them them here and here. It’s not the only thing I want to campaign on. It’s not the main thing I want to campaign on. But it’s something that I want to campaign on. I’d far rather be known for being for the gospel than being for marriage. But I’m not going to duck the social implications of biblical truth on this important ethical issue of our time. I may end up on the ‘losing’ side eventfully but I’m going to fight until it’s over because I think it matters.

Anyway, here’s the letter (I’ve corrected the original spelling mistakes and grammatical howlers – I said I wrote it in a rush!)

I voted for you at the last two mayoral elections. I encouraged others to do the same. But if you carry on canvassing for gay marriage it’ll make me think again. I’m hugely disappointed by your position on this issue. It puts you out of kilter with what most Londoners think.

Let me briefly have a stab at explaining why I’m making such a fuss and I’m unlikely to ‘get over it’ when it comes to this issue.

Marriage has traditionally been understood to exist between one man and one woman. That’s marriage. And everyone understands that.

Gay marriage isn’t marriage. It needs the adjective ‘gay’ to describe what kind of ‘marriage’ it is because the word ‘marriage’ doesn’t! Gay marriage is also an oxymoron; like a two story bungalow. The word means two people of the opposite gender in a public and exclusive commitment to one another.

Why do we need to redefine marriage? Why can’t we call a long term exclusive relationship that exists between two people of the same gender something like, say a ‘civil partnership’. It’s not discriminatory to deny something like this to gay couples who want it. They’re simply disqualified on the basis that they don’t fulfil the definition of the word.

I like it most when you concentrate on improving our public services and don’t wander ‘off piste’ into social policy.

with every best wish


You could write too if you were so minded.

Back to Church Sunday – A Washup

Two weeks’ ago a team of 14 volunteers from CCB spent a Saturday morning outside Sainsbury’s. We were there to make first contact with people and conduct a questionnaire. We were well received, which was great because none of us were quite sure how we’d go down. We were infinitely more popular than the ‘chuggers’. In the end we had a number of encouraging conversations with a variety of people. We were out between 11am and 1pm. And the total number of completed questionnaires was 247, which was fewer than the 300 we were aiming for. A couple of wonderful CCB church members did the data entry and spreadsheet analysis. I’m indebted to them.

We asked four questions

1.       Would you say that you believe in God?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

2.       How often, if ever, do you attend church?

  • Frequently
  • Occassionally
  • Rarely
  • Never

3.       Which of the following best expresses your reasons for not attending?

  • I’m busy doing other things on a Sunday
  • I don’t believe that God exists
  • I’ve been put off by my previous experience
  • I don’t think it would make a difference to my life
  • I belong to another faith
  • I would go but I don’t know what to expect

4.       What’s the one thing that churches could do to make your more likely to attend?

The age breakdown of those questionned looked like this.

Therefore almost 50% of those questionned were aged under 35.

I wasn’t expecting that. I thought that amongst a young urban crowd the levels of atheism would be much higher. Of course, this question doesn’t say which God that they believe in. But it’s clear that Balham isn’t as secular as we might have thought. We found that these figures were approximately the same regardless of gender.

Of the total number of those questioned, 60% do not attend a church.

We found that among those who express belief in God 60% attend church.

Therefore 2 out of every 5  people who say that they believe in God do not attend a church.

Amongst the 60% of those questioned who do not attend church these were the most common reasons

Amongst those who don’t believe in God their atheism is the single biggest reason that they don’t attend church.

What do we make of these results?

  • 6 out of 10 people say that they believe in God.
  • 4 out of 10 people who say that they believe in God don’t go to a church
  • 3 out of 10 people say that they don’t go to church because they’re busy on a Sunday

Anecdotally, it was a terrific time. We wore our new CCB t-shirts and imade our presence felt, in a positive way! We have a good web presence but locally we’re not well known. This is one of those things that will help to address that. We lack a building, we’re in a school and so fliering and first contact through street questionnaires could help to raise our profile.

The one thing that really bugged me was people pretending that they’d not heard me and completely avoiding eye contact. It’s fine if people don’t want to spend 30 seconds filling in a survey but there’s no need to be rude. Apart from that minor irritating bugbear, it was all good! We’ll be back out again before Christmas, that’s for sure.

Streatham Hustings

A missed opportunity. That’s what it felt like.

Last Wednesday evening I went to the Election Hustings in the Streatham Parliamentary Constituency. It was hosted by Streatham Baptist on behalf of the organisation ‘Love Streatham’. I was thrilled that they’d decided to host the event and I appreciated the chance to get near to the candidates and to hear what they had to say. It was a gilt edged opportunity to speak face to face with the Parliamentary candidates about the issues that concern us as Christians. But we dropped the ball.

The four main candidates had pitched up.

One of them was late. They didn’t let on which one. Whilst we waited for them to arrive it left me thinking, should I vote for someone who can’t be trusted to pitch up on time? I put that to one side once things got under way.

There were eight questions from the floor in the 90 minute meeting. Three of them could have come straight out of the interview section (if there is one) of Hello Magazine. I’m all for an enjoyable warm up. But this was ridiculous. We had one question asking what prayer they’d like to see God answer for Streatham. Good to have a Christian shape to the evening. We had one on the candidates own assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, which I guess was fair enough. And we had one on one thing that they’d done in the last month outside politics of which they felt proud. On their own they would have made interesting introductory questions. But this is a nation facing big decisions about environmental issues, foreign policy, religious tolerance and the national debt and we wanted to know what they liked on their toast!

The other questions had a little more substance.

  • What strategies have you got to tackle the 20% of children that live in poverty?
  • Do you think that the 24 week limit for abortion should be reduced? It’s like asking ‘should we kill a few less babies than we are the moment?’ It doesn’t really help us find out their view on abortion, which is what I need to know.
  • If the Equality Bill is reintroduced to Parliament will you remove the Waddington Amendment? This was too specific and the candidates got lost in the detail. It was a shame because I’m right with the questionner on this one. But we need a more general ‘will your preserve religious liberty?’ sort of a question with the possibility of follow up.
  • Do you think that petrol price increases should be borne by the consumer? Rather unsurprisingly the people voted ‘no’.
  • What will you do to deal with gang crime? Some good points were made by Chuka Umanna about absence of family and sense of identity.

The answers tended to be long and the light touch from the Hustings Chair didn’t help with that. It would have been good to have had more questions and robust interaction with the floor.

I submitted a question but it wasn’t asked. I like to think it had substance! I think it’s the issue that’ll most trouble evangelicals in the next Parliament. I phrased it like this ‘What guarantee can you give that in the next Parliament civil liberty will not be further eroded so that Christians can be investigated and prosecuted for holding to and teaching in a public context the orthodox Christian position?’ This is the issue that most concerns me going forward. Are Christians going to be prosecuted for publicly disagreeing with the mainstream view?

After the end of the formal proceedings I managed to chat to Chris Nicholson. I like him. He’s an impressive character. Anyone who adopts four siblings from social care and brings them up with his wife is worthy of great respect. That’s not something that I think that I could manage. But he has, and that’s impressive. But I wanted to talk to him about policy because that’s what concerns me most about the Liberal Democrats. In the past their manifesto promiises have scared me. I didn’t like where they’re going and I didn’t like how they want to get there. But he’s made me revisit them as an option.

I picked up on the question about Lord Waddington’s free speech amendment in the Equality Bill. Labour has apparently said that they’ll get rid of it. That makes me nervous. I want to live in a society where people are free to say what others may find offensive otherwise we end up in a tyrannical world where dissent from the majority is outlawed. Without legal protection on free speech it’s quite possible that I could be investigated and prosecuted for teaching traditional Christian views in a public context. Christian Concern for our Nation and The Christian Institute frequently highlight cases where it is becoming normal for the Police to instigate criminal proceedings against people who have ‘trespassed’ what’s deemed to be acceptable behaviour.

I pushed him further. I asked him ‘Will you defend my right to believe and teach traditional Christian truth even if I cause offence?’ He wouldn’t give me a cast iron reassurance. He was concerned that I wouldn’t discriminate in the provision of goods and services. But that’s already law. This is going to bite if we evangelicals want to retain our prophetic voice on moral issues, perhaps especially though not exclusively in the area of sexual ethics. If we just want to keep quiet and our heads down we’l be alright. But if we love others enough to suggest that what they’re doing is destructive and against God’s will then it’d be nice to have some legal protection!

Streatham is effectively a two horse race. It’s Labour or the Liberal Democrats here. That was reinforced by the performance of the Conservative candidate, who was hugely disappointing and, for me, the admission by Rebecca Findlay that she’s the Press and Campaigns Manager of the Family Planning Association. They don’t get much more pro-choice than that and I’m not sure that I could vote for a pro-choice candidate. The questions didn’t really help me make up my mind. I’m left with two viable options; Chris Nicholson and Chuka Umanna. I need to e-mail them my questions. And I need to know where Chuka stands on abortion.

New Bus Route

Transport for London are proposing a new bus route round Telferscot School.

This is what they’ve said

We are working with London Boroughs of Lambeth and Wandsworth to consider extending bus route 255 from Streatham Hill to Balham station.

This would provide a bus service to the Hyde Farm, Weir and Molly Huggins Estates, providing residents with connections to Balham High Street, Balham and Streatham Stations, Streatham Hill and Pollards Hill.

We propose to extend route 255 to go both ways from Streatham Hill along Sternhold Avenue, Thornton Avenue, Emmanuel Road, Radbourne Road, Weir Road, Old Devonshire Road, Balham High Road, ending at Balham Station.

The route would provide a bus service to as many members of the community as possible, but it does involve some parking controls to allow the bus service safe and easy access.

Single deck buses would run every 10-12 minutes on Mondays to Saturdays, and every 20 minutes in the evenings and on Sundays. The service would operate between around 0600 and 0100.

Radbourne Road is a quiet residential street. There are no white lines on the roads. TFL are proposing a 10-12 minute service with a single decker bus. Turning into Emmanuel Road from Radbourne Road requires restructuring the parking. The area gets enjoyably busy at either end of the school day. There’s a hubub of noise from excitable school kids and their parents.I’m not in favour and have said so.

TFL are looking for feedback here. If you feel stongly on this issue you could make your voice heard. There’s a consultation meeting this Thursday 11 June at 1700-1930 in the Weir Centre, 33 Weir Road.