This time last year, I was standing here telling you a couple of stories about tent pegs, and about how I felt that God might be encouraging us as a church to enlarge the place of our tent, to spread out, to lengthen the cords. I had no idea that this would mean enlarging out onto the internet, spreading out physically, or that it would include working with other community groups to provide food and support to our communities, in the way that it did, but there is no doubting the fact that we have been stretched, and are now a different shape to what we were 12 months ago.
As well as the stretching and enlarging, I believe that we have to be real and acknowledge that there have been losses, and areas in which we’ve shrunk as well. Our Toddler Groups and Oasis have not been able to meet for nine months, and the sheltering, meeting place tent we used to provide through those has gone. Many of our small groups have struggled to continue meeting, even on Zoom, and whilst there has been good mutual support and care for each other, the habits of regular meeting together to pray and study the Bible have taken a hit. Our Sunday services have changed, and are now particularly challenging for families with children to engage with, and our Young Church doesn’t really exist in the same way.
As we go into the New Year, not much is certain. With the new variant of Covid it looks like things might get worse before they get better. On my positive days I hope that with the vaccine roll outs we might be able to get things back to something approaching normality, in terms of meeting together by Easter. More realistic might be September.
One thing that doesn’t change, that is certain, is the character of God. God continues to love us, to call us, to be trustworthy and reliable. The light that came at Christmas, and which was revealed to the Wise Ones at Epiphany still shines to show us the way. The true light that gives light to everyone came into the world, and to all who receive him, he has given the right to be children of God. And that is what we are – sealed by the Holy Spirit. That cannot be taken away from us. It is the light of Christ that helps us to see, even when all else is dark.
As we look around us, and see the world and our lives, in Christ’s light, we are reminded of the vision and values that we have as a church, that I believe have helped us to navigate the last difficult year, and will help us to navigate what is coming towards us in the new one.
Our vision is seen in these three key images.
This first one reminds us of all those things that God has poured into our lives, as individuals and as a church. A church that has experienced and is experiencing the generosity of God in so many ways cannot be hidden. It has to shine out, it has to spread out. In this image of our vision we see the generous riches of God pouring into this church, a beacon of light, overflowing to the community around us. I believe that we, as a church, have been this beacon of hope in so many ways this year, and believe that we can continue to be.
Here we have a representation of a meal in a house in Bethany. Jesus is seated in the middle. Mary is worshipping with abandon at Jesus’ feet. Martha is serving faithfully in the kitchen and Lazarus is leaning, in friendship against Jesus. All three are coming closer to Jesus, who is our Lord, our God, and our friend. In this image of our vision we see a Christ centred church of faithful service, intimate worship, and friendship with God. This year our worship has often been in the domestic setting of this meal – our living rooms and dining rooms.
Thirdly we have a strawberry plant, spreading by sending out runners. On these runners are tiny baby strawberry plants that have the opportunity to take root and to grow to become plants themselves, and to bear fruit. In this image of our vision we see a connected community of fruitful congregations, sharing the same DNA, growing in a variety of contexts. This year we have seen new runners start – in Shift Church and other online expressions, but we have also seen others wither, or go into hibernation.
As we work towards this vision, we do so in a way that expresses our core values of Loving God, Loving Each Other, Loving Our Neighbours, Celebrating, and Exploring.
At times this year it has been difficult to find things to Celebrate, but there has been no shortage of opportunities to Explore new ways of doing things, and to love our neighbours, each other, and God. And actually, on reflection I do think the fact that we value Celebrating has encouraged us to find things to celebrate and be creative about doing so, even when things have been difficult.
With these in mind, how do we look at the coming year? There is a lot of uncertainty, but there a few things that I’m fairly sure about.
At some point we are going to have decisions to make about what we start doing again, and when. The reality is that some of our activities, like Toddler groups (both in the parish centre and at the Orbit) and Oasis, were run by people who are Clinically vulnerable or have taken the opportunity afforded by this break to decide to step down from the team, having served faithfully for many years. When it becomes safe to offer these activities, or something like them again, we will only be able to do so if there are people who are willing to step up to make them happen.
Whilst the paid staff can support some of this, we are not able to do it all, and as the economic outlook is not great, the likelihood is that there will be fewer paid staff on the team, doing fewer hours.
Towards the end of last year I wrote to the congregations outlining some of the financial challenges we are going to face this year, and the possible associated staffing changes. I received a few responses, which intrigued me. One theme that stood out was from people who didn’t realise that we paid someone to clean the church building. This was mostly expressed by people who have moved here from smaller churches. In a numerically small church, there is no option to pay someone to do the cleaning, and the congregation just divvy it up amongst themselves and get on with it.
It seems to me that in some ways All Saints is just the wrong size. There are so many of us, that we can fall into the trap of assuming that somebody will do what needs to be done, because there are plenty of people to do it. We’re also well off enough to pay for some staff, but then I do occasionally pick up a hint of “can’t the paid staff do it”.
I do hesitate a bit, sharing this, because I don’t want it to come across as a guilt trip. I’m also aware that it does tend to be the folk who are already doing loads who think that they should do more when they hear me say things like this, and those who aren’t doing much who let it wash over them.
Despite that hesitancy, I do feel that it is important to name this and to put it out there as we go into this year, of all years. We are not likely to have enough money coming in to maintain our current level of staffing. We do not currently have enough people volunteering to keep our buildings safely clean, or to restart all the things that we stopped doing last year. This isn’t me having a moan, honestly, it’s just me telling it how it is.
It may be that God is not calling us to restart some things, and we will have the opportunity to listen to the Holy Spirit and discern that together. One of the signs of that might be that the resources just aren’t there, and that’s OK. For there to be space for new things to grow, sometimes old things have to be pruned or allowed to die.
One of the new things that is going to happen this year is a cross Telford mission project called #doyouknowhim. After Easter and into the summer we are going to be asking as many people, in different ways, “Do You Know Him?” as possible. There will be a sermon series in our morning services exploring different aspects of who Jesus is. There will be small group material supporting this. I hope that small groups will be up and running again by then, and I will be working with small group leaders to encourage this, and to support people to join in virtual meetings if that is still the only way it is possible to meet. The Mission and Discipleship Action Group will be working with the other churches in the area to develop training and events that will enable us to ask those around us at work, school, college, our street, “Do you know him?” As we hope that life begins to return to normal, we want to introduce people to Jesus, and to encourage them to get to know him for themselves.
As we go into this new year, I continue to see All Saints as a shining beacon, a place of encounter with Jesus, and a growing, fruitful expression of God’s Kingdom. We are a people of love, of exploration and celebration. I look forward to what God is going to do in, through, and with us. I invite you to step into the new year with me, in faith and hope, ready to follow the call of God to be the church he is creating us to be.