A Tale of Two Churches

I don’t often read Charles Dickens.  I’ve only ever got through two of his books; Bleak House (which took me the best part of three years to read) and Oliver Twist -and I had to read that for O Level English Literature.  I have attempted Great Expectations, but gave up shortly before I lost the will to live.   However, those books aside, I shall be shamelessly borrowing the great man’s superlative opening line from A Tale of Two Cities for this blog and on the strength of it, I might have to go and read the whole book.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way–in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

As you may know from my previous blogs; my church, Ampthill Baptist Church is currently in an interregnum.  That means that we’re technically without a Pastor.

I can use the phrase the wonderful Stephen Plummer about our former Pastor, because he was and still is a very lovely person. He, after nearly sixteen years of faithful service in Bedfordshire has decided to seek challenges afresh on the Isle of Wight.  He left us at the end of July amid tears, gifts and promises to Facebook.  And he’s kept his word, he is on Facebook – and possibly some indication of the fact his workload’s gone down – rather a lot more than he used to be! *grin* 😉

I say we’re technically without a Pastor, we have two Associate Pastors and are tripping over people who can lead, but we don’t have a… I can’t find the right word.  I don’t want to say ‘person in charge’ because that’s not how Baptist churches work.  Perhaps I should say that at the moment we don’t have a chief Cat-Herder. Pastoring a church is very much like herding cats.

Our Associate Pastor Martin has stepped up to be Acting Team Leader and I, as Church Administrator will be shouting Go Team! at regular intervals to spur everyone on.  It’s what they pay me for.  That and faffing around with the paperwork.

But we don’t get a new Pastor in a parcel from the Baptist Union, Baptist Churches don’t work like that, we have to go off and do some serious praying and listening.

As a congregation – and everyone can be involved in this process, although the final decision will come down to the 130+ voting members – we are now charged with the task of praying and listening for God’s leading for how he wants our Leadership Team to look in the future.  We also need to discern the direction God wants our church to go in.  How can we, in Ampthill, to use a Star Trek analogy, best fulfil the Christian Church Prime Directive?

When you strip everything away, the nuts and bolts of a church of any denomination, is laid out in two verses of the Bible.  Regardless of how any church does it, this is what it’s all about:

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, [Jesus] that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  John 3:16-17 (NIV)

And at the end of his time on Earth, Jesus gave this final command to his disciples:

19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (NIV).

That’s the job we’re here to do.  No, it’s not to be a comfortable club of nice people sat in a beautifully appointed church, it’s to be out there, wherever God wants our out there to be.  It’s a challenge, it’s an adventure!  It might be dangerous and overseas or it might be dangerous and the local pub, but it will never be boring or full of quiche – that’s just what we’ve settled into, because we’re big British wusses.

“It’s a dangerous business Frodo going out of your door, you step onto the Road and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  Lord of the Rings

But you’re never going to know what adventure God wants you on if you won’t take the trouble to listen for instructions and that means engaging in a very radical activity:

Prayer

We have some serious people of prayer in our church and we also listen very carefully to what people are saying to us in sermons – especially visiting preachers, because sometimes it’s easier for God to get a message through a guest speaker than it is through your own Pastor.  It’s not a case of familiarity breeding contempt, but sometimes, a fresh voice makes you sit up and take notice.

Immediately before Stephen announced that he was leaving, we had a word from God. Derek Tidball came to preach at our Anniversary service in March and effectively gave us the warning shot across the bows.  He preached on Ephesians 6: 10-18

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.” (NIV)

I wrote a blog entry at the time outlining why I found this passage to be particularly significant.  It was our call to arms, our rallying cry.  God knew we were going to be in for a tough time; Stephen was just about to announce his departure and he sent Derek Tidball with a clear message for Ampthill Baptist Church. Lock and load guys, you’ve got incoming.

The devil likes nothing better than to get in and cause discouragement and discord wherever he can.  You give him an inch and he’ll take the proverbial mile.  The passage in Ephesians outlines how you can protect yourself against the attacks and we have done nothing but pray since. Right now we’re engaged in a 40 Days of Prayer initiative, to pray about the way forward for the church. But constantly, going on in the background are those prayers of protection, that through everything we will remain united.  The last thing we want is someone going off in a huff, because that’s the devil’s entry point.

You may think this is far fetched, me spouting on about the devil getting in if you don’t arm yourself against his schemes; but I can point to a church going through a similar interregnum, where I believe the devil has got in and he’s got a foothold.

Where our Pastor left showered with gifts and more send-off parties than is decent, the minister of a particular Anglican church in Lancashire left about the same time in an altogether different way. To be honest, the manner and circumstances of his departure remain unclear, as the Diocese and the Churchwardens appear to have instigated some sort of lock-down.  Two camps have sprung up; Team Against: Those who are against the departing Minister and want nothing more to do with him and Team For: Those who are for him and think he’s been treated appallingly.

Team Against have made the early running, by orchestrating a campaign of removing every means of communication open to Team For. The editor of the parish magazine has been removed from her position, the two services she led each week have been pulled and her invitation to preach at an upcoming service had been revoked.  They are essentially scared of what she’s going to say.  Furthermore, there is no ability granted to address the church without first clearing what you’re going to say with a Churchwardens – and as both Churchwardens are Team Against you’re not getting anywhere near the microphone if you’re Team For.  Nice!

Nobody is saying anything about what exactly has happened and the reasons why the Minister is no longer in charge.  As you might expect there is now a circulating plethora of half-truths which only serves to make every single person deeply unhappy.  Questions have been asked at the highest level, but no one is willing to come over from Blackburn to address the congregation as a whole and give answers.

There is no point beating around the bush, it’s a bloody mess and it has the devil’s sticky fingerprints all over it.  Discord, strife, lies, rumours and division are his calling card and it will be interesting to see, at the end of their interregnum, if there is still a church for the new guy to lead. Oh and it will be a guy, they have voted against allowing a woman to lead them and please don’t get me started on why that’s biblically incorrect, I’ll be here all night.

So, if we get back to the nuts and bolts of the point of the Christian church  – those two passages above – the devil has now got this church in a place where not only is it completely ineffective in the local area, but it’s not even showing God’s love to itself and tearing itself apart.  Everyone drifts away, church closes, devil’s job done and off he goes to find another church to work on.  You see his overall tactics?  He doesn’t want the people of this place to hear the gospel message and he’s got his feet well and truly under the table now, it’s only a matter of time…

…Or is it?

Let’s look again at the passage of Ephesians.  This is where this church can really fight back against what’s happening to them.

First of all ‘take your stand against the devil’s schemes’.  You know what he’s doing, he’s looking to take you out, so this is where you dig your heels in and DO NOT BUDGE!  You are not giving up this church, it’s God’s church and he is waaaay more powerful than the devil.  Skip forward to Revelation where the devil gets the knock-out blow.

Secondly, put on your armour, there are six bits of it:

Belt of truth – Two things here:  Firstly, read your Bibles, get into God’s word, I can’t emphasise that enough.  That maxim was first told to me by one of your own and it’s been invaluable.  Secondly, arm yourself with the truth, don’t get fobbed off with lies and rumours.  Keep banging on until they get sick of you.  The persistent widow in Luke 18 is your role model!

Breastplate of righteousness – This protects your heart.  Notice there is no shielding for your back, you are to be facing the direction of battle, not running away from it!

Shoes of Peace – You are to be peacemakers.  Discord is of the devil.

Shield of faith – believe that God will bring you out victorious! (Read Romans 8:28)

Helmet of Salvation – Know that if you have accepted Jesus as your saviour that you are saved, no one can take that away from you.  Also, protect your mind from lies and other rot that circulates at a time like this.  Also Emmerdale, that’s rubbish, you don’t want to be feeding that to your brain 😉

Sword of the spirit – The spirit’s sword cuts through any amount of nonsense going and it’s also a call to (here I go again),  GET TO KNOW YOUR BIBLE.  Read it, ingest it, it’s your Handbook to Life, a Bible if you… no, wait. :)

Thirdly, the real knock-out punch for the devil:
Pray at all times and on every occasion.  Get on your knees (or metaphorically if they’re dodgy) and pray until something happens.

I am serious! Meet together in a prayer group and start taking action to repel the devil that has clearly got in.  Whatever your objections to the slightly wavy-davy brand of Christianity, let me tell you this one thing after (nearly)10 years in wavy-davy land.

IT WORKS.

Ampthill Baptist Church prays like stink and is going through its time of interregnum in one solid group.  Yes we worry, yes we have wobbles but we don’t let them get a hold.  To the church in Lancashire take heart and take note, prayer and the armour of God is the key to this.

I’m no theologian, but I am very sensitive to the call of the spirit to say things or give encouragement. I really feel that God has called me to write this blog and he wants me to do what Derek Tidball did to us.  To fire the warning shot across your bows but also to send you encouragement YOU CAN TAKE ACTION, ALL IS NOT LOST.  The incoming may have landed and is in there making a big old mess of God’s church in your village, but you can turn it around if you will pray and let God use you.  God wants the best for your church, Jeremiah 29 spells it out very well.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart”.  Jeremiah 29: 11-13 (NIV)

Speaking as one of your former congregation members, it breaks my heart to see you going through these trials and I want to send you this encouragement to stand firm.  I will faithfully pray that God will do a great work in your place, that you will come out of this better and stronger and really on fire for God.  Don’t let the fire go out in your village, kindle it, nurture it and I KNOW that God will make it blaze once again.

Now will you faithfully pray?  Come on, no excuses now…  On your knees.

Rachel xx

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