Sunday, May 2, 2010

A Church that thinks of itself as a learning community

For the first twenty-five years of my ministry I was immensely involved in the committee work of the Congregational Federation. For the whole time we lived in Shropshire I would go to and fro to Nottingham to Council meetings, Christian Ministries Committee, Pastoral Care Committee and to meetings of the Training Board.

It has been good over the last six years to have handed the reins over to others.

I miss the car journeys I used to make to Nottingham from Shropshire. As often as not I found myself in the company of one of our senior ministers, Norman Sedgeman. What was good was to sit at the feet of a senior minister and learn from his wisdom.

It would have been fun to have done such a journey around about now in the lead-up to a General Election. In one direction we would discuss theology, and we would not see eye to eye on everything. And in the other direction we would discuss politics a subject on which we saw eye to eye on even less.

On each journey he would ask what I was reading, and I would ask likewise of him. He may have been in his 80’s but he was passionate to learn more about any and every subject under the sun. He would always have some book or other on the go. On the return journey he would ask, so what have you learned today? Friend Norman was always on the lookout for something new to learn. Not a day should pass without learning something new!

It made for stimulating conversation. And a profound impression on me.

If I sense the gift I have in ministry is that of a teacher and a pastor, I have throughout my ministry been very much involved in the business of teaching and learning.

I am passionate about teaching and equally passionate about learning.

It is exciting on Saturday afternoon at the Congregational Federation’s annual assembly we shall be celebrating 30 years of our training course. There will be a cake to cut, a book telling the story to buy, insights into our new Foundation Degree and the launch of our new initiative, Growing Disciples. It promises to be an exciting day … and still time to come along if you would like to join in the celebrations.

It excited me to see John Pritchard, the Bishop of Reading, say in his book Going to Church - A User’s Guide, that one of the ten things he would go to the stake for in any church that was worth joining was this …

A church that sees itself as a learning community.

A learning church, he says, is on the move. It isn’t satisfied; it knows that the kingdom of God has not arrived in its midst, but that, as in nature, growth is the only sign of life.

I once listened, John Prtichard goes on to say, “at the start of a conference to an African who had been a bishop since he was 30. Now over 60 and hugely respected all over Africa and beyond, he said he had come to the conference to learn about being a bishop. Such humility becomes us all.

How can we be ‘a church that sees itself as a learning community’?

I find myself coming back once again to Ephesians, and to a passage that follows on from what we read last week, and leads into what we read two or three weeks ago.

14We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul takes the analogy once again of the body. This time, however, he thinks of the way the body grows. He marvels at the way a babe learns and grows into a chid, and the way the child grows up. The body is something that grows. That is the thrill of the analogy. So, when Paul uses the analogy of the body in order to understand the nature of the church. He doesn’t simply use it to speak of the way all the different parts of the body are different and contribute to the whole. He also uses the analogy to challenge us to think that the church is not a static organisation, but a growing organism.

For Paul that growth is a growth that happens in a particular direction. He speaks of growing towards maturity, but the maturity he thinks of is a maturity that is in Christ.

We must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.

For Paul we learn and grow as we see the truth in Christ … but we seek the truth only as we speak the truth in love.

Working together as a body with all its different parts growing into that maturity in Christ is a wonderful, dynamic, growing process that promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

For Paul the learning that is at the heart of church life is shaped by Christ, expressed in love, and involves growth.

So where does that learning take place in our church?

It starts in the hearts of each one of us. We each must ask whether we have the humility of that African bishop and the openness of our friend, Norman Sedgeman. Learning then happens in our own reflections. Praying, reading the Bible, reflecting on it.

You can just squeeze in Songs of Praise with our evening service – or tape it if you want. It is one that our David Waters, who grew up in church here, and spent a year with us as a volunteer was working on around the time of Mark and Denise’s wedding. It’s very much his baby as it marks the 250th anniversary of the Royal Society and explores faith and science.

Are we open to learning in the way we reflect on what we see?

Then we learn in our conversations in the church family. Learning is something that goes on. But then we have a particular focus for our learning. At the heart of our worship is a place for teaching – that goes right back to Acts 2 when from the outset the church met to listen to the Apostles’ teaching. If teaching is at the heart of our worship in the sermon, then learning needs to in the hearts of all of us. Open the Book, our House Groups, Prayer Groups, Hyper-space, Junior Church, Hy-Tec, Transformers, - so many specific places where the focus is on learning. Learning from each other, learning from God.

But we must not imagine that the kind of ‘learning’ Paul had in mind was something simply cerebral. Just head learning – learning of information, ideas, thinking.

The kind of learning Paul had in mind was the kind of learning that actually shapes the way we lead our lives.

17 Now this I affirm and insist on in the Lord: you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. 18They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of their ignorance and hardness of heart. 19They have lost all sensitivity and have abandoned themselves to licentiousness, greedy to practise every kind of impurity. That is not the way you learned Christ!

Paul lived in a world of conflicting life-styles. Ephesus was a sea-port and significant centre of Roman culture and life. Hosting one of the seven wonders of the world, the temple to Diana, Artemis, was a focal point of one of the great fertility cults of the Roman empire.

Paul was passionate that the Christian way was not just something to learn about, it was something to live. He was passionate about that set of values that would make a world of difference only if people took those values to heart. That was the way of life that he saw in Christ, and drew from Christ. And it is such a different way of life from the excesses of that Roman world in Ephesus.

He is adamant …

Where is that alternative way of life to be learned?

Paul comes back to Christ, to Jesus.

20That is not the way you learned Christ! 21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus.

This is where we reach the crux of the matter for me.

We must constantly return to Christ. It is in Jesus, his teaching, his ministry, his healing, his suffering, his death and his resurrection, that we have the measure of the teaching and learning that is at the heart of the life of the church.

Look to Christ and you will see the shape of what church should be, the shape of what our own Christian life should be.

21For surely you have heard about him and were taught in him, as truth is in Jesus. 22You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, 3and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Renewed in the spirit of your minds, clothed with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in Christ Jesus, in true righteousness or justice, and holiness.

John Pritchard concludes by saying, “If a church thinks it has arrived, that’s a sure sign that it’s dying. I long ago realised that one of the great joys of ignorance (of which I have huge expanses) is that there’s always so much to learn.

“So it is in a learning church.

“Its members are committed to deepening their faith, their knowledge, their skills, their spirituality.

“They’re being shaped into the community of God’s growing people.”

I would add, “they’re being shaped into the community of God’s growing people” and into nothing less than the body of Christ.

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