Our Calling Introduction
When we had the debate in Conference I asked four rhetorical questions about vision. I ask them again and offer a personal view.
1. HOW DO I KNOW THAT THE VISION IS HOLY SPIRIT VISION?
'My Master's will'
Hopes, dreams and visions are God's promise to the sons and daughters of Pentecost. But how can we distinguish this from our own clever ideas? It is a key question. It makes the difference between success and failure (John 15:5). If we get it right we can avoid getting lost down a blind alley. I share with you a few of my own thoughts to test the vision.
(a) Is my life really committed to God? We are told that if our bodies are living sacrifices and our minds are renewed, we shall know what God's will is (Rom 12:2). Conversely if today I am out of step with God, I may well be mistaken about His will.
(b) Am I listening for His voice? Jesus told us that those who listen will hear His voice. Thomas a Kempis said, "Blessed indeed are those ears which listen not after the voice which soundeth without, but for the truth and teaching within". Hear the dialogue in Bernard Shaw's "Saint Joan": Robert: How do you mean? Voices? Joan of Arc: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God. Robert: They come from your imagination. Joan: Of course. That is how messages of God come to us.
(c) Is the vision supported by scripture? God's word is "a lamp to our feet" (Psalm 119: 105). We believe that He will not lead us in a way contrary to the Bible.
(d) Is it supported by common sense? We have been given a mind to use under God, and pray with Charles Wesley "Lay my reasonings at Thy feet".
(e) Should I sometimes disregard common sense? Paul was hard put to give a rational explanation why he should not go through Phrygia and Galatia, but he was "Forbidden by the Holy Spirit". Then after much thought it then seemed sensible to go into Bithynia, a rich province to the northeast, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow it. So although he could not give a logical reason why, Paul journeyed down to Troas. Then the vision came, and against reason he was beckoned over into Macedonia.
(f) Is the vision shared by the fellowship? Every physical eye has a blind spot, and that's true of our spiritual eye. One of the great blessings of intimate Christian fellowship is the opportunity to test our plans. It will help us to test everything (1 Thes 5:21). The private word from a loving friend can keep us on the right track
2. WHAT IF OTHERS DO NOT SHARE THE SAME VISION
This is a real problem for many Churches. The shepherd may know the way to greener pastures, but the sheep are reluctant to move. Or the sheep think it is better further on, and they think the shepherd is asleep. Who is right? Are there any guidelines?
(a) Share the vision openly with the whole fellowship. If there is abundant love, we shall respect each other, and believe that even if we do not have the same vision, we have enough grace to believe that the other view may be right. We present our view, what we think God is saying to us, the logic of why we need to change, how that change will further the work of the Kingdom. What is the time scale? Can we return to where we were before, if it does not work out?
(b) Spend much time in prayer together. Oswald Chambers said "The real reason for prayer is intimacy with our Father". When we pray together we shall find the Father's will (Acts 13:3).
(c) Respect the right of the others to exercise episcope (oversight). Methodism is a democratic Church with both pastor and flock exercising episcope. We believe that in this balance we find the mind of God for the local Church. When there is no common mind, and even when we think we are right, provided we have explained our own position and have prayed together about it, is good to bow to the view of others. We hope that there will be times when others too will have the grace to go with us in love, even if reluctantly.
(d) Keep the peace and unity. We cannot divide the fellowship over a vision or a dream, however passionately we believe it to be the way forward. We must keep the unity in love. Jesus prayed for it (John 17:23), the early church experienced it (Acts 2:44), Paul commanded it (Rom.12:16). And unity brings its own blessing (Psalm 133:1). There are times to wait. There will be another opportunity, and maybe others will see and share the vision in time.
3. HOW CAN WE PUT FLESH ON THE VISION?
'O may it all my powers engage?'
A vision is only the start. If is not followed by action is dead. It is like Ezekiel's dry bones without the breath of life. Many of us see a vision of God's way forward, but fail to respond. We are like the steward who buried his one talent. Visions mean taking risks and without knowing for sure that it will work, investing time and energy as a matter of faith. The ambitious stewards were commended for their faith. How are we going to respond to the vision?
(a) Preparation and planning. A vision will not become a reality without good preparation and a planning. Do we have a realistic timescale? Who is going to be affected? Have they been consulted and what do they think? What will it cost? What if it fails?
(b) Partnership. There is no such thing as an isolated Christian, nor an isolated Church. Thank God for Methodism's connexionalism. The authors of "Our Calling to fulfil" have promised that resources will come cascading down to help make our visions work. That is the value of national Church. Look at the web page www.methodist.org.uk
Partnership is also about sharing resources with other local Churches. They go rippling out. Headway can link local churches through the web page, www.headway.org Have you looked at it? It means that if my Church has started a new work, (and we have learned the hard way,) we can share our experience with an other church through the web page. For example a Church that changed the times and number of Sunday services may have learnt some useful lessons. What were the problems? What were the results? Or a Church that wants to start an ex-offender's home may wish to talk to another that has learnt by their mistakes. Log on to the web page and share your dreams.
(c) Progress - check. Have a regular audit - this is one advantage of keeping minutes at sometimes boring business meetings! At least we can see if we are moving on. Perhaps we are becalmed not for lack of vision, but for lack of planning or of knowing where to find resources.
4. WHEN DO WE RESPOND TO OUR CULTURE AND WHEN DO WE SEEK TO CHANGE IT?
'to serve the present age'
There is always a tension between changing to be relevant to our culture, and working to change our culture. Where are the boundaries?
(a) What has to change? There are areas where we must keep in step with our culture. Young people and visitors may not relate to our worship. And when we have not caught up with the mind set of our generation we can't communicate and make more followers of Jesus Christ. We may need the vision and the courage to radically change our style of worship and our witness or we will be lost in a time warp. We must make the gospel relevant to our generation.
(b) What will never change? The paradox is that we have received a treasure that can never be changed. We are entrusted with a changeless truth - the nature of God - His power in Creation - His matchless love- the teachings and example of Jesus Christ - His sovereignty - the centrality of the cross - the power of His resurrection - the miracle of Pentecost. Neither does human nature change with its bias to sin and eternal consequences, nor the promise of forgiveness through faith, and the work of the Spirit in new birth. The number one call to share this message will never change.
(c) Can society be changed? The story of the evangelical revival in the eighteenth century, and the contemporary witness in South Korea says quite clearly - yes. It happens when the Christian works and prays. Their social conscience conflicts with the spirit of the age. Today battle lines are drawn against injustice to the poor - suspicion of the stranger - racism, sexism, ageism - cruelty to the unborn - the rape of the planet. Here we may have to be in conflict with our culture. But to quote an American Methodist Bishop we are to be "Healthy churches, working in unity, to change our culture".
We believe that there can be a new day for Methodism if we have ears to hear what God is saying to our Church and together the determination to follow it through.
"To serve the present age, my calling to fulfil -
O may it all my powers engage
to do my Master's will"