Possibly the hardest thing to do as a disciple is to go against the collective expectations of the Church. Whichever church we are part of, there are always expectations laid upon us by fellow disciples. Treading our way carefully between what we want to do, what we suspect God might want us to do and what other people want us to do can take considerable skill. It often calls for courage to challenge the prevailing narrative.
In the first week of this new year, I have found myself being reminded again of Jesus’ words in John 15: 1 – 2:
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit, he prunes so that it will be more fruitful.’
Will this year see the closure of more churches and the ending of more ministries? Probably. Should we be concerned? Perhaps, but it’s dependent on why these closures and endings happen.
For a long time, closures and endings have been portrayed as failures, branches that are not bearing fruit so have become worthless in God’s sight, ministries that have ‘failed’. Such an attitude has condemned armies of the faithful to keep going, often expending a lot of energy in doing so, for decades. Some of the blame could be put on the leadership of the mainline denominations for encouraging a spirit of 'limping on' without facing the hard questions of stopping. It continues to be one of the narratives that some senior leaders are still perpetuating, and its arguably bad theology to imply there are no endings in God’s kingdom. An ending can lead to an opening for other forms of witness. We know that where there is the opportunity, new ministries often emerge and grow that are peculiarly relevant to the context of our society in the 21st Century. And an ending can merely be a ‘pruning’ to enable more fruit to emerge in the future.
The way some disciples are made to feel they’ve failed when they have to close a church or end a ministry is truly disappointing. If more disciples had been encouraged not to be afraid of ending or hard pruning 30 years ago we might even have a lot more to end and prune now! It takes courage to allow God to prune us as it’s often a painful process and we don’t know what the end result will be, but if we want to be fruitful in the future then sometimes we must grit our teeth and let Him have His way in 2023. And if we are called to lay something down, then that too takes courage, but it helps to remember that it is not OUR church or ministry but the Lord’s and He’s rather good at new beginnings. Trust Him!
Finally, on our first weekly reflection of 2023, I wish you all a very happy, peaceful, and encouraging New Year as I too lay things down. It’s been a fascinating four years and I am very grateful to the trustees of RM for giving me this opportunity to serve the wider rural Church, but it’s now time for me to move on, to be open to my own ‘pruning’ if you will.
I have learnt a great deal, been inspired more times than I can count, found new friendships where I did not expect to and have been continually heartened and encouraged by seeing how the Holy Spirit is working in and through so many of you and in such diverse ways. I will also miss the fellowship of the staff team going forward. Please do pray for much joy as well as wisdom and protection for Simon, Ali and Nick as they continue to serve God through RM in 2023. You hear the worst as well as the best when you’re in ministry and I know how much they value your prayers as have I.
I leave you with a suitably rural meditation from the Northumbria Community. As rural ministry can feel rather irrelevant to the wider world and underwhelming, many of us will relate to this farmer’s feelings as he worked his farm. It’s a good one to pray when you feel rather fed up which I hope won’t happen to you in 2023 but it’s as well to be prepared and reminded that, however we might be feeling, what we do IS significant in the eyes of the One who called us and the only One who matters:
‘Seven times a day, as I work upon this hungry farm, I say to Thee, ‘Lord, why am I here? What is there here to stir my gifts to growth? What great thing can I do for others – I who am captive to this dreary toil?’
And seven times a day Thou answerest, ‘I cannot do without thee. Once did My Son live thy life, and by His faithfulness did show My mind, My kindness, and My truth to men. But now He is come to My side and thou must take His place.’ Amen
From Hebridean Altars, Celtic Daily Prayer Book 1
Director: South-West England & Wales
We wish Alison and Ian all the best following their recent move to mid-Wales, and we are sure this is not the last we will all hear from her. Do pray for us as a trust board and staff team as we begin to discern the ‘who and the what’ to replace Alison with. Especially pray that we would hear from God in this time of opportunity and possibility. Simon Mattholie, CEO Rural Ministries