I had no energy for yet another debate on philosophical arguments for the existence of God. So I backed slowly away and went to play cards instead.
At 17 years old, and having been among the same school friends for most of my life, I’d reached a dead-end in my evangelistic efforts. Over my school years at a proudly non-religious comprehensive, I’d written and performed assemblies on the Christmas story, I’d run schemes like “Text A Christian”, I’d invited friends to youth events at church, and I’d read all the apologetics books I could lay my hands on. I’d set up a prayer group, shared my testimony, answered questions, and generally done all I could to introduce my school friends to Jesus.
Most of them had been curious at some point – many had come to Christian Union for a little while, or read the books I’d given them, or even come to church a few times. For a couple of years, a group of us went to Greenbelt, and a school trip to Iona had also opened up spiritual exploration for some.
But by the end of my school days, I was flagging. Conversations had all been had. I was out of new invitations. Those who’d been interested had mostly become uninterested again. The only people who still wanted to talk about Christianity with me were the mostly-male, mostly-atheist debating types who enjoyed a good argument for the sake of it. I didn’t have the energy for that.
One thought kept me excited though. I knew that in just a couple of years time, I’d see mission that really worked.
The ‘University Mission Week’ was the time I’d really see God in action. I’d heard the stories – at universities there were thousands of young people, and among them hundreds who were searching for God. An annual week full of evangelistic talks and events would bring crowds to hear about Jesus, and I would have the sheer joy of seeing friends respond to the gospel. Simple!
Of course, university did not turn out to be a factory of ready-to-convert spiritual seekers.
Over my three-year journey from an enthusiastic but naive fresher, to hardy college Christian Union leader, to cynical finalist, there was a lot to learn about mission. There were 8am prayer meetings, then there were weeks of guilt. There were fruitful conversations late into the night, then there were dismissive rejections. There were curious friends who were glad to receive the first event invitation, but after the 28th, would run when they saw us coming. There were training sessions on how to read the Bible with friends, and role plays to practice asking them to – we’d rehearse our gospel elevator pitches to one another, trying not to forget any essential element in a 60-second explanation.
For the most part, we had a narrow view of what success meant – numbers at events were important, numbers of response cards filled in were more important. ‘Good’ conversations were people asking sincere questions about Christianity, and a really good conversation was one where a summary of the gospel could be presented. There were moments of celebration when someone eventually prayed ‘the sinner’s prayer’, but many more people who never said those magic words.
I have no doubt that our hearts were in the right place – we just wanted people to know Jesus.
God was kind, and often used our efforts for good. But we made mistakes, we offended almost everyone, and we often paid more attention to our own agendas than to where and how God might have been at work before we arrived on the scene. And by the end of it, I had once again lost all motivation for anything that I’d previously thought of as ‘mission’.
I hope God sympathised. I think he understood. I know he forgave.
And he spent the next three years expanding my perception of mission far beyond getting people to swallow the gospel-medicine off a spoon and receiving their ticket to heaven. Working with Christian Aid, joining movements against poverty and for the planet, challenging unjust structures in society, and practicing everyday kindness, forgiveness and generosity – all these were part of how God taught me to join in his mission during the stage of life I spent in London.
Surprisingly, it’s here in Pennywell that I’m finding fruit of all those many trials, errors and lessons.
Having had a rest from relentlessly presenting the Four Points or Two Ways to Live, I’ve rediscovered that enthusiasm for sharing in simple terms the good news with people who haven’t heard it. And with the fire of justice still burning in belly, I’m glad of the opportunities to serve people in practical ways, with no agenda but to love those God loves.
There’s something different here – a new ingredient that’s made mission make sense. It’s being small group of people who love Jesus living very ordinary lives among people who haven’t really thought much about Jesus. Not a sensational ingredient, granted, but the focus on ordinary life has made all the difference for me.
As a student, I sometimes considered myself a missionary on three-year placement; the Christian Union were, we were told, the missionary branch of the local church. And so a frantic urgency was what drove my evangelistic attempts – a single-minded focus on speaking the gospel to everyone I came into contact with.
As a young professional in London, my participation in mission was at arm’s length – lobbying my MP, raising money for partners in the poorest parts of the world, marching for the climate, were all activities that could make some small impact on the whole planet, yet not touch my personal relationships.
But here, the only plan is to live an ordinary life as someone who loves Jesus.
The grand plan is… to make tea. Eat biscuits. Go to the shops. Take the car to the garage. Visit people. Weed the garden (very occasionally). Walk. Write. Pray in the morning. Sit on the wall. Pray in the evening. Open the church. Listen.
It’s freed me up to listen to God’s plans, to look around and see what he’s already doing. It usually takes me by surprise, like the small boy who turned up on my doorstep a few months ago and asked “What’s the best thing about God?”
I’ve not once felt compelled to awkwardly shoe-horn an explanation of the gospel message into a conversation, but I’ve lost count of the times it’s naturally come up, as local children ask questions about our faith and begin to explore their own.
And there’s no shortage of ways to put love for people into action, from picking up litter on the streets, to carrying the neighbour’s shopping back from Asda, to organising half-term activity days for families. There’s usually no distinction between the two: gospel word and gospel action both seem to bubble up in ordinary life.
I don’t have a snappy conclusion, but if I’m honest, that seems fitting.
The conclusions I’m drawing about mission are not dramatic – it’s about the mundane. This week, we baptise two girls from across the road, the first two children who chatted to me on the street here. God’s mission in their lives, and in the life of this community, is surely much bigger than me or our churches.
And for the brief time that I’m here, it’s a privilege to join in with it.