I enjoy preaching and leading services at Woody Road- but I am always thrilled when I simply get to listen to God’s Word and the wisdom of God’s people without having to think about how to introduce the next song! I’ve had two opportunities to do this recently- at the FIEC Leaders’ Conference and the gathering of former OICCU members entitled OICCU for Life. One required a four hour journey and one required me to walk downstairs but both were deeply encouraging- and I thought I would seek to pass this on.

I am delighted that we as a church are part of the FIEC. I’m conscious that too often it seems simply to be a label that we have. But the FIEC is far more than that: it really is a movement of churches seeking to bring the Gospel to the UK. Of the various initiatives announced at the conference, the most interesting was the research that the FIEC has conducted to find the least reached fifty towns and cities in the UK. The plan is to use this as a basis for prayer and the encouragement of church planting initiatives. This could have implications for us as a church. Oxford is a place that people come to for a brief period and then leave- it may be that, when any of us move on, we consider the possibility of living in a place of real Gospel need. It is great to see the FIEC reflecting on this issue and being proactive in terms of church planting. It should change our perspective on the Fellowship- when we see money going to the FIEC in our budget, we should see this as supporting mission in the UK rather than as a subscription we have to pay.

As well as enjoying the opportunity to catch up with people, there were three particular highlights from the conference.

Glynn Harrison, a retired Christian psychiatrist, gave us three seminars on living in the light of the sexual revolution that has happened in our country. He covered issues such as guarding our own hearts and responding to the growing problem of pornography. It was particularly helpful in view of our current evening sermon series. It was a comment that he made about Christian young people that struck me most and made me reflect that the current sermon series can’t be the only time that we touch on these issues. He observed that Christian teenagers often feel a double shame when it comes to sexuality. Because the church doesn’t often speak on the issue, they feel secretly ashamed of the fact that they are developing sexual desires and don’t know what to do with them. At the same time they feel ashamed at school because they are not acting on their sexual desires as many of their contemporaries are. That means they feel as though they don’t fit anywhere. He therefore issued a strong plea for churches to keep articulating that sexuality is part of God’s plan in making us human and that God’s design for it is wonderful. It was a useful reminder- perhaps I should have another crack at Song of Songs before too long.

Richard Underwood, who spoke at a church weekend for us a number of years ago, gave us a very helpful sermon on prayer from Luke 18. You can find it here. There were a couple of comments that I found very helpful. The reality is that we don’t see ourselves as desperate unlike the persistent widow. We should be praying from a position where we have come to see our real need. But perhaps most strikingly of all, Jesus regards prayerfulness and faith as virtually synonymous at the end of the parable. So when the Lord returns, will He find faith in Woody Road? That is a searching question for us to ponder.

The evening meetings were devoted to three sermons on various “I AM” sayings from John’s Gospel. Given that most of the congregation will probably have preached on these passages, that was no easy task for the three speakers. Truth be told, there wasn’t a great deal that was new- but that wasn’t the point. It was great just to sit and listen to descriptions of the beauty and glory of Jesus. Perhaps the most moving moment of the conference for me was reflecting that the Lord has indeed been a Good Shepherd throughout my life and will continue to be so.

OICCU for Life was simply an afternoon as opposed to the three days of the FIEC Conference. Woody Road doesn’t aspire to be a large student church but we do seek to equip and encourage students who join us and a number of our members, including me, have been significantly impacted by OICCU. Therefore, it was thrilling to see a range of former OICCU members in Woody Road, from those who arrived in Oxford in 1940s to recent graduates. There was an overwhelming sense of the Lord’s great faithfulness and many gave great thanks to God’s goodness in using the weakness of a Christian Union led by students to great effect in our lives. It was tremendous to hear the testimony of a current student who has come to know the Lord in the past year. Lindsay Brown ended with an encouraging talk from Hebrews 2, simply picking up the phrase “Such a great salvation!” He noted that one of the dangers for us as we get older is not that we doubt the truth of the Gospel but we lose a sense of wonder at it. It was good to be reminder that the Gospel truly is wonderful in God initiating a plan to save sinners for adoption as His children.

As part of the afternoon, Andrew Atherstone spoke with great warmth on the history of OICCU missions. Mercifully, he omitted reference to the mini-mission that my exec was responsible for. Having hooded tops bearing the message “I AM…”- JESUS was a great idea if you failed to consider how they would look from a distance! But it was striking to hear Andrew observe that through all the stylistic changes that have happened in missions, confidence in the proclamation of the Gospel backed by fervent prayer has remained consistent. With that in mind, it would be good for us as a church to support the OICCU in prayer ahead of its mission with Tim Keller next February.

Both conferences were useful reminders then of the greatness of the Gospel. We have a task- to take that Gospel to the nation and to be fervent in prayer as we do so.