Reflections on 12 weeks in the UK…

Posted by on Jun 28, 2018 in Blog | 13 comments

I’m writing this while sitting in the Qantas lounge in London. Having heard that the flight back to Perth has been delayed 2 hours (which as they initially said it would be 3, is actually good news), I thought it better to jot down some of my thoughts from the time away, than to spend the time making constant trips to the food counter – tempting though the latter option is.

For those who are not aware, Rosemary and I have just completed a 12 week Sabbatical in the UK where we were largely based at Spurgeon’s College in London, where I served as a visiting international scholar. It’s been a fabulous time – my expectations far exceeded on all fronts. Spurgeon’s has been astonishingly good to us. I gave a few lectures, led a couple of seminars, and assisted with the supervion of a few of their reasearch students, but overall Spurgeon’s requirements from me were light and I think I came away with the better end of the deal. I also preached 5 times and led two workshops for church leaders – nothing too onerous, and people were remarkably appreciative. In fact, I’d have to rate the UK as one of the nicest places to speak – people are extraordinarily polite and affirming, which made speaking an absolute pleasure. I’d taken some of my books to sell, and they all went in the first few weeks, which always leaves me heartened.

I was surprised by how much life I found in the churches. Now to be clear, the church in the UK is statistically challenged, attendance rates having been in decline for several decades, though this trend does now seem to be bottoming out. I know this because I’ve seen the stats and heard them repeated over and over again. But I wouldn’t have guessed that from the churches I attended. True, we attended some large and lively churches – including All Souls Langham Place, Holy Trinity Brompton and Hillsong London. All three are doing well – the latter two positively booming with standing room only. But we also attended some smaller churches and I preached at a few medium sized services. While the average age was tilted towards the older end, all generations were represented in every service – and most also included a wide cultural mix. More interesting, though people often comment on how many churches have been sold and turned into pubs, or theatres or whatever, what they don’t tell you is how many remain. My, you bump into church buildings everywhere – most of them appearing to be in good order and advertising an array of worship services and activities. Something must be going on there.

Spurgeon’s housed us in a one bedroom flat in Croydon – an ethnically diverse area. There were signs of new church plants on all main streets – usually of the Pentecostal variety and often bearing exotic names. Even more heartening, I heard faith being expressed on the streets over and over. In Croydon, people often start to sing – and it’s not unusual for the choice to be a Christian worship song. People just sing along to themselves as they walk along, making it clear to passers by that they are trusting Jesus to take care of the troubles they face. In addition, I overheard so much incidental God talk – the woman stepping out the car warmly wishing the remaining passengers a blessed day (“have a blessed day brothers and sisters, God is so good”), another reporting that she was still praying about a matter, whilst I once thought I might have stumbled upon a domestic argument but then realised it was a very enthusiastic discussion on the pre conditions of God’s guidance.

London really isn’t a secular city – it’s pretty obvious as you watch what is happening in its many ethnic communities, where faith is clearly alive and dominates the lives of many.

Overall I was impressed by the calibre of the faith I saw. True, there are concerns about some incidents of false teaching of the health, wealth and prosperity variety, but if you judge the calibre of faith by the calibre of love displayed (a test Jesus endorsed in his “they will know you are my disciples by your love”), I’d score the UK church in the distinction range. The churches I had contact with weren’t talking about the problems faced by homeless people – they were hands on working with some homeless people. They weren’t talking about the injustices done to people seeking refuge – they were directly working with them – actual, real people who I met and who were being tangibly helped. And it wasn’t only that.

I will long remember a conversation with an 87 year old widow at the smallest of the churches I attended. She told me the reason she gets up each day is because two of her neighbors have a drinking problem, and if she doesn’t rally around them, listen to them and mother them, she is very worried they will relapse again. She has no children of her own, but as she said, “God is keeping me alive for their sake. Someone has to be there to help them. They won’t make it otherwise.”

Most impacting was a conversation I had with a young man who attended one of the leadership seminars I led. He had stood out during the question time as being very articulate and highly intelligent. I asked him about himself when the seminar ended, thinking him a likely recruit for theological studies. “Actually, I’m homeless,” he said. I struggled to take it in. He didn’t fit my picture of a homeless person at all. He went on to speak a little about his drug problem. He is really hoping the problem is past tense, but as he’s only been clear about a month, he can’t be sure. He had contact with the church because they provide a meal for homeless people once a week. It led to him attending the service and someone suggested he come along to the seminar. I preached at the church the next day. He was there, but looked less well than he had the day before. I spoke to him again – he seemed to be struggling. Will he make it through? I really don’t know. Sometimes you can only pray for people – but as I pray I’m glad that the good folk of that local church will continue on the journey with him – whatever turns there may be.

Truth to tell, that calibre of love and commitment to marginalized people really impressed me. I think that through it the church will slowly but surely regain the moral credibility she has lost. Not that this is the reason to do this (we do it because it is right – a Jesus kind of thing to do) – but it does have a positive spin off, and helps you evaluate your own life differently.

On the theological scene, things were as lively as I expected. Naturally I experienced much of it through the lens of Spurgeon’s, but had contact with a few other providers as well. Spurgeon’s is certainly in good heart – having contact with about a thousand different students each year. Most are part time and not all are on a degree path, but all want to serve Jesus more effectively, and are asking a wide array of questions as they look to the future.

I could say much more about my time away, and probably will over time, but boarding is now not too far away, and I better at least get some of the food currently available, lest the inflight fare disappoints…

As always, nice chatting…

13 Comments

  1. Encouraging post. Safe flight home.

  2. So glad you had a blessed and fruitful time over in the UK, Brian. As you return home, Sue flies out there for a month (another grandchild). Welcome back to Oz.

  3. Enjoyed the read. I trust that Perth will be all the richer for your insights.

  4. Very heartening to hear that the church is so active and vibrant in London, and that people are living their faith. Thought provoking too – do our comfortable and easy lives reflect John 13:35? I was very touched by your story of the elderly widow, reminded me of my grandma. But the young addict is what remains with me after reading your post. Will pray for him, and for those supporting him.
    Safe travels! see you and Rosemary soon.

  5. Thanks for these reflections, Brian. Looking forward to seeing you later in the year.

    • Thanks John. Yes, it will be good to catch up again.

  6. You have a ministry of encouragement, Brian, and bless you for it. Though iur home is a few miles from London, I could echo much of what you speak of. The UK church is in good health – smaller but leaner for now – but the impact in people’s lives across the land is noticeable. Bless you as you return.

    • Thanks David. Yes, so much depends on what we notice, and we can be so obsessed with numbers that we miss what God is doing in our midst.

  7. Welcome home Brian. It was heartening to read what you have experienced in the churches and the neighbourhood. I look forward to a discussion or two about what we can learn for here.

  8. Thanks Brian, I really enjoyed thus update. As a Baptist refugee in another country I appreciated your awareness that God is working in unsuspecting places. When we read the stats about declining numbers in Churches (statistics and damn statistics) it is a welcome reminder that our God is not confined to our traditional pews.

  9. Thanks for the initial reflections Brian, sounds like a wonderful time Greg

  10. G’day, Brian! Thanks for this inspiring reflection. It was such a blessing for us to have had you and Rosemary with us at Spurgeon’s these past few months. It’s encouraging to hear about your positive impression of the churches you visited in London. The Holy Spirit is moving in London and I’m convinced that God has great things planned for this city. What an awesome privilege it is for us at Spurgeon’s College to be involved in the formation and equipping of the next generation of evangelists, apostles and prophets, who are helping to make the Kingdom of God a visible reality in this remarkable city.

    Thanks again for the encouragement. Please keep in touch with Spurgeon’s!

    Joshua

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