My colleagues are always wary of me returning from sabbatical. That may simply be that they have enjoyed a working environment that features a bit less of me. But I guess it is also reflective of the fact that I tend to return with ideas. (“Hey- let’s plant a church!”).
This time has been different. I returned with no new ideas and it has been interesting trying to process that. In part I think it reflects that already we are a church operating at close to full capacity. One of the interesting aspects of life at Woody Road is that we are at the intersection of different communities. So we are on the edge of university life in Oxford and pick up a handful of students. We are opposite an estate with a variety of social backgrounds. There are a range of nationalities in the local area. And the church has always had a fair number travelling to us from a few miles away. That has resulted in us having a range of ministries- a weekly café with community meal and Bible study attached, a full night of youth work, a morning for toddlers and carers, a meal for seniors with events put on in a local home, a church plant of our own (Grace Church Kidlington) plus a number of members joining Wheatley Community Church in the last few years, providing training and mentoring for those with leadership gifts, praying for and financially supporting those sent from the church around the world, seeking to provide events to aid witness to friends before we do the normal stuff of seeking to grow each other to maturity. With a congregation of about 130-140 that leaves us pretty busy. You can see why my colleagues were relieved that I didn’t come back with a load of new ideas.
But there is a wider reason why “no ideas” may be good. I have always been struck by the comment of Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “People now, instead of thinking of instinctively turning to God and praying for revival…decide rather to call a committee, to organise a…campaign.”
There is something in that. I don’t think that takes you to a situation where you do nothing. The New Testament is more activist than that. But there is a pride in assuming that we have the power to convert people through our activism or to turn back the forces of secularism with a cunning plan. Over the last few months I have had the encouragement of talking to a handful of people who have become Christians- both here and at other churches. My favourite quote of the year came from a couple elsewhere- “If you had told us at the beginning of the year that we would become Christians we would never have believed you.” In each case my overwhelming sense is of being an observer of the Lord at work. That is to say- they didn’t follow the nice path we had designed for people to become Christians. Rather there was a whole lot of unforeseen occurrences that could only be put down to the Spirit of God.
All of that encourages not so much new ideas as deep dependence. It is why my one idea from the sabbatical was seeking to make the church prayer meeting a vital and central part of the life of the church. And over the last few weeks my hero has become Jehoshaphat- the patron saint of people with no ideas. In 2 Chronicles 20 we see an attack on God’s people from the Moabites and Ammonites. It is quite clear that the attackers have greater military strength. What can be done? You have to love Jehoshaphat’s prayer to God- “We don’t know what to do but our eyes are on you.”
I wonder whether I have been guilty of pride in the past- I know what to do! But as we do face the rise of secularism, the impossibility of us being able to convert anybody, stretched resources in our case as a church then there may be worse places to land than in increased dependence on the Lord. We don’t have lots of new ideas but our eyes are on you.