Thinking Anew – Ministry begins with Jesus

“The church, clergy especially, need to learn again the command to go and be where people are, spending time with those wanting or needing to hear a message of hope in a troubled world.”

“The church, clergy especially, need to learn again the command to go and be where people are, spending time with those wanting or needing to hear a message of hope in a troubled world.”

 
Earlier this year I came across an unusual photographic exhibition while walking on London’s South Bank with my daughter. It was a “photo-essay” entitled Of Things Not Seen, a series of photographs taken by award-winning photographer Jim Grover, who had spent a year accompanying the Rev Kit Gunasekera, a Church of England priest at work in Clapham, South London. The website ofthingsnotseen.com tells us it was a journey of discovery: “The joys and rewards of having a vocation with a strong calling and a higher purpose are juxtaposed with the everyday challenges of running a church, ministering to a very diverse group of parishioners, and a mission to increase the congregation.”

Challenges

Jim Grover says he learned a lot: “At that time I was seeing so many challenges for Kit: a small church congregation that wasn’t growing; a ‘full on’ job with almost no time off; issues the Church of England was wrestling with; financial losses for Kit’s church; a big Christmas campaign that failed to attract any newcomers and a Christmas Day congregation of only 41. It would not have been difficult to focus on the multitude of challenges that a priest, with a small and low-income congregation, faces today in a place like South London. But as I experienced more of Kit and his life, of his very diverse congregation, of the people he connects with in his Parish, of the fellow priests that he works with in the community . . . bigger and more powerful themes became clear. Of spiritual strength . . . of the energy-giving properties of belief . . . of service and commitment . . . of the many kindnesses alive in the church today . . . of the value of community . . . and of the power of faith.”

Ministry

Tomorrow’s gospel reading has important things to say about ministry. It emphasises that mission and ministry begin with Jesus, who sends 70 disciples out in pairs to places where he wants to be present and known. They are told they will be welcomed by some but not by others. The key message is get out there and take risks.

When I was first appointed a rector I was full of ideas about how to run a parish “efficiently”. Noting my enthusiasm for technology and systems, an old priest wisely said to me: “You cannot run a parish from a typewriter.”

The church, clergy especially, need to learn again the command to go and be where people are, spending time with those wanting or needing to hear a message of hope in a troubled world.

Jesus also told the disciples to travel lightly – “no purse, no bag, no sandals”. That’s a feature of mission not much evident in churches today, overburdened as they are with buildings and administrative structures that no longer work.

That is shown in the exhibition photographs – a large church and a large hall – costly to maintain and too big for what is required.

But the photos also tell us the work goes on: foot-slogging on a wet autumn day delivering leaflets; preparing meals for sharing; at the altar celebrating the active and real presence of Jesus Christ in that community. And importantly the unseen work of a faithful priest reminding us what Jesus’ presence means- ministering by a hospital bed; alone in prayer; tenderly blessing a bedridden old lady called Floris.

Falling numbers of priests and ageing and declining congregations are confronting the churches here in Ireland with uncomfortable truths but this exhibition and its commentary draws our attention to things worth remembering.

Radiance

In his book God and Man, Archbishop Anthony Bloom said: “If truly you have come nearer the truth, how can you keep it to yourself? If truly something has been kindled in your life are you going to allow anyone not to have a spark of that life? Go into the world with a radiance, with a joy, with an intensity that will make everyone look at you and say, ‘He has something he never had before and which I do not possess. Where can I get it?’”
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