We've had Jim Belcher with us in London for the past few days. If you're not familiar with Jim, I'm happy to introduce you. Jim is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA, and the author of Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (http://www.thedeepchurch.com/). Jim and I were at Fuller Seminary in the late 80s, and have gotten to know each other better over this past year. He's taking a writing sabbatical over this next year, and we were happy to host him while he was scouting a place for his family to live. Jim preached at the American Church in London on Pentecost Sunday, and the next day sat in on two conversations among church planters and other leaders here in my part of the world.
If you've read this blog over the last few years you know that London is a challenging place to do ministry. Without devaluing in any way my own seminary and practical training, it's safe to say that in order to be effective here, I had to learn a new set of skills to go alongside what I brought with me. It's the church planters who are teaching me what I need to know.
In my role as the pastor of a local church, some of the challenges to doing ministry come from within the congregation itself. It's a largely transient group; many of our families are here for 2-3 years and then are reposted to another country or back to the US. Our congregation is also made up of different denominational traditions--there isn't much shared knowledge or understanding of how to think about (or govern) a local church. Mostly, though, London itself can often pose the most daunting challenges to leading an effective, growing congregation.
In Southern California you often hear about the growing sense of secularization in the culture, made worse by the way church members move around. It's hard to say this without sounding dismissive, but in comparison London can make LA look like a stable community of unified Christian believers. (I'll pause to let that sink in.)
Here's an example of what I'm talking about. A church planter from Camden Town, an under-churched, poly-cultural, bohemian part of London with a tiny fraction of residents identifying themselves as Christians, said that many of the people in his area move every 12 months. Why? Because the standard length of a lease for a flat is one year, and after that many people move in search of more affordable housing. How do you do ministry in a community like that? The need is there, to be sure, but there is little chance to get a foothold.
Partly our conversations focused on staying theologically healthy as we reached out to our various communities. The rest became a free and wide-ranging discussion of what might work in some places (or, as it turned out, not in others), to share the gospel in a way that draws people into healthy relationships with God, with themselves, with each other and with the earth. There weren't any miracles or magic conclusions reached, but it was good to hear where people were struggling and, in some cases, seeing fruit in their ministries.
For me this past week has revealed a new and unexpected part of my own ministry here. My church is relatively stable organizationally, and that allows me to offer a gathering place for those who are out on the front lines. Just today another young church planter (from LA, no less) came by for a chat and we ended up making some tentative plans to offer space for one of their projects, and also to get together from time to time for prayer and conversation.
This convening and supporting of missionaries and church planters is becoming a part of my ministry beyond my work with ACL. It occurs to me today that I couldn't be more surprised...or happier about it.