Monday, January 15, 2018

to equip the saints for the work of service

The local churches we read about in the New Testament were economic households. In Philippi, one household dealt in fine cloth—literally, a fashion house—and another was responsible for law and order. In Ephesus, the church was rooted in a philosophy debating hall, broadly-speaking the social equivalent of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century London coffee houses, where people gathered in their leisure time (the long break in the middle of the day) to put the world to rights.

Distanced from the Jewish diaspora community, and cut-off from the pagan religious practices on which the conducting of business depended, these churches needed to be economically viable, not so that the building didn’t close but so that the believers didn’t starve. The account of the church in Ephesus recorded in Acts tells us that the Christians became so effective in operating an alternative economy that they had an impact on the old, temple-based, economy so significant that it resulted in social uproar.

This is the context in which we ought to understand Paul’s insight into apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers, who are given ‘to equip the saints for the work of ministry [service], for building up the body of Christ…’ (Ephesians 4:12; see also the teaching on economic households that takes up much of the second half of Paul’s letter, as well as featuring in other letters, and which include the likelihood of being married to or employed by someone who is not a believer).

Our churches today are not primarily understood as economic households (though they have budgets to balance) and this may skew our view of ‘ministry’. Nonetheless, our congregations are made up of households (whether one or more members of the household identify with the church) who work (paid or voluntary, or in need of work). In some contexts that might be in the same business, where the local economy is dependent on one or two employers; in other contexts, this is increasingly not the case. Still, the life of faith remains intimately connected with the work we do.

Let us then (re)imagine what APEST might look like in the context of a (fictional, but plausible) local Church of England congregation, seeking to be a faithful presence:

Alison’s primary vocation is to be an apostle, with a well-developed secondary gifting as a teacher. This is expressed in her working role as the executive headteacher of two schools. She no longer spends much time in the classroom, but oversees the whole environment, attending to the many and potentially-conflicting demands, and to embedding a culture that will best enable the two communities to flourish. Alison has been on the PCC of her church, but her term on the PCC is coming to an end and she does not intend to re-stand in April. The church appreciates that her focus is in the workplace, and prays for her regularly. With Alison’s support, members of the congregation go into one of the schools with ‘Open the Book’. Even though she does not have capacity, at present, to be part of a church-based working-group, the vicar knows that he can run certain things by her (within reason) and values her insight.

Peter’s primary vocation is to be a prophet. Peter is a local artist, who took early retirement and who volunteers two days a week at the food bank that runs out of the local Baptist church. Keenly aware of the problem of social isolation, and the attending de-skilling, in the community, Peter started running art classes in the (parish) church hall, advertised through the voluntary network. Recently the group put on an exhibition of work recording the (post)industrial identity of the community where they live. The PCC sees Peter’s art classes as a ministry of the church (covering room hire, heating & lighting), and two other members of the congregation have joined, to support that work.

Emma’s primary vocation is to be an evangelist. Her infectious personality makes her a natural recruiter to whatever she is involved in. She does the local parkrun, and has persuaded several of the other school-gate mums to take up running too. She’s also roped half-a-dozen of them into coming along to the monthly Messy Church. The PCC is planning a series of events in the church diary over the coming 12 months. Everybody knows that Emma is great at bringing other people along, but also at enthusing everyone else about what is going on—so important when some get discouraged by the scale of need or seemingly endless stream of bad news.

Sarah’s primary vocation is to be a shepherd, or pastor. She works in the local pharmacy, where she knows many of her customers. Even at busy times, she makes them feel that they matter. About four years ago, Sarah was invited by the vicar to join the pastoral care team, who visit people in their homes. Then, about a year ago, Sarah found she needed to step back from her involvement while she cared for a family member; but they have made a good recovery and Sarah is really enjoying being involved in the team again. Knowing that at times Sarah feels taken for granted by her employer, and that at times she takes on too much, the vicar and church wardens felt it important to release her, and, also, to regularly ask after her over those months (they didn’t always remember!) but they are happy that she is back.

Tim’s primary vocation is to be a teacher. He is a secondary school science teacher. To be honest, it can be hard motivating the kids to learn; and then there is the endless interference by the government. Sometimes, Tim feels like quitting, and retraining for something else. But Tim is married to Emma (you remember Emma?) who is taking time out from being a dental hygienist while their own children are young, and so when Tim feels like quitting, he also feels trapped. Emma is wonderfully supportive, but sometimes even that makes him feel worse. The monthly men’s curry night with church friends has been a place where Tim has found real support; a conversation with Alison, also a teacher though not at his school, was helpful too. Wanting to encourage Tim to remain in teaching, but also to make good use of his gift within the life of the gathered church, the vicar supported Tim through Reader training (a licensed—that is, recognised by the wider Church—lay ministry). The congregation follows the lectionary readings at their main Sunday service, but Tim is part of a group that helps put together study series at certain times throughout the year. This Lent, they are running weekly afternoon and evening groups in parallel, and Tim will lead the evening group.

Alison, Peter, Emma, Sarah and Tim are fictional; but each is an amalgamation of several real people I know, some of whom would describe themselves as Christian and others, not. Likewise, the church they are part of is fictional; but the range of activities described does not seem to me to be unrealistic for many, though not all, churches. Though not an actual place, the wider community should also be recognisable. Lastly, while the vicar is also fictional, he may be recognised in any number of vicars, male and female, seeking to invest in the people-gifts God has sent to them.

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