Monday, November 28, 2005

My Journey of Faith and Calling


Here's the piece I wrote for my vocations adviser to tell him my story.

Background

I was born into a Christian family in 1974. My paternal Grandma was a lifelong Anglican and my maternal Grandparents were Methodists. Upon moving to Nuneaton after their marriage, my parents joined Manor Court Baptist church which was the church that I grew up in. Although I cannot remember a time when I didn’t believe, I made a prayer of commitment, ‘giving my life to the Lord’, at the age of nine. I had a quiet but serious, childlike faith, being fully involved in Sunday school, bible studies and the young peoples’ fellowship. I was baptised at Manor Court Baptist shortly after my fifteenth birthday.

In my later teens however, and especially upon going to university, I allowed my faith to take a bit of a slide. I found the Christian Union to be cliquey and never really settled into a church. Although I never stopped believing, my lifestyle didn’t really match up to what I claimed to believe. I had a lot of ‘fun’ during this period, but on the inside I was hurting. I felt hypocritical and directionless.


Coming home

A major turning point came in 1997. During this year I had the opportunity to take two trips which were to be very significant. The first was to Israel. As I visited the various holy sites, staying in the old city of Jerusalem and spending time in the Galilee, I was reminded of the reality of the historical events upon which our faith is based. I began to think seriously again about my own life and beliefs. The second trip was to California. My uncle had invited me and (my then girlfriend) Su to go and stay with him in Simi Valley, Los Angeles. He had one condition on us staying with him – that we attended his church while we were there. Bearing in mind that Su wasn’t a Christian at this point, and had never been to church, I was not exactly enamoured with the prospect of going to a 4000 strong, American Pentecostal church. Not only that, but I knew that my Uncle was involved in the ‘healing and deliverance’ ministry of his church, what I at the time considered to be the lunatic fringe. I feared that this visit could put Su off Christianity for the rest of her life!

I needn’t have worried. We visited several meetings, and sure enough, weird and wonderful things happened. We experienced powerful times of worship, heard people praying in tongues, testimonies of healings and were given words of personal prophecy which hit home. But rather than being put off, Su was intrigued and wanted to know more. Over the period of 3 weeks we both felt God speaking to us in various different ways. I knew I had some serious repenting to do, and Su began to take an interest in the claims of Christ and the things of God for the first time.

When we got back to England I knew that the first thing we had to do was find a church to become a part of. The following week I was walking on the University of Birmingham campus when up walked some strangers offering me a free chocolate bar as a small token of God’s love for me. Never one to turn down free chocolate I accepted their gift and a card which explained that they belonged to South Birmingham Vineyard church. We visited the church the following Sunday and have never really looked back. The next week Su heard the gospel preached and made a commitment to Christ. We were both incredibly excited at what God was doing in our lives.

At the time the Vineyard church was exactly what I needed. The times of sung worship were heartfelt and intimate, with a strong sense of God’s presence. Here was a group of young people, all around my age, who were passionate about Jesus and real with each other. They were down to earth, non-religious and didn’t take themselves too seriously. They also believed in ‘doing the stuff’ and that ‘everybody gets to play’ to use two of John Wimber’s phrases. These people didn’t just talk about healing the sick, they prayed for people and expected God to heal. They didn’t just talk about God speaking to us today, they listened to Him and attempted to follow what they heard him saying. They went out onto the streets of Birmingham and befriended the poor and helped to feed and clothe them. They literally ‘practiced’ what they preached. We got fully involved with the life of the church, joining a ‘kinship’ group, helping to lead an Alpha course and serving on the church’s ministry to homeless people.

My coming back to God was so powerful and life changing. I truly felt like I had been given a second chance, a fresh start. I vowed that I would serve God for the rest of my life, going wherever he wanted me to go and doing whatever he wanted me to do. It was at this time that I began to feel that perhaps God was calling me to serve Him vocationally and that this wouldn’t necessarily be within the electronic and software engineering field that I had trained for.
I also felt I had some catching up to do in terms of my knowledge of the bible and theology. Being an avid reader I explored the theology of the Vineyard movement thoroughly. Amongst other aspects, I found their understanding of the ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ of the Kingdom of God, as espoused by George Eldon Ladd to be incredibly helpful.

Church Planting

When Su and I got married in 1999, we were faced with a decision – to remain in Birmingham as a part of the large and established South Birmingham Vineyard church or to move to Coventry, where I was working, to get involved with a new church plant. Although we were not too keen on the idea of moving to Coventry to start with, God spoke to us both in a number of ways over several months leading us here. As part of a new church plant it was a case of ‘all hands on deck’, and we soon got involved in various forms of ministry within the church including leading worship, leading small groups, running Alpha courses, servant evangelism, preaching, teaching and being part of the core leadership team. Church planting has had its ups and downs, its joys and frustrations, with many mistakes made and lessons learnt. Over the course of the last 6 years the church has grown from a core of around 6 (of whom we were 2) to around 75 people.

After 2 or 3 years of working as a software engineer I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with my job. At first I was able to cope with it by seeing my real purpose as church planting and my day job as a kind of ‘tent-making’ role, which paid the bills and enabled me to do the church stuff. It became clear over time though that I couldn’t see myself being a software engineer for the rest of my life.

When the company’s fortunes took a downturn and they started to offer voluntary redundancy I thought this might be an opportunity to explore a different direction. We initially looked into doing some short-term overseas mission for a year or so. I applied for redundancy but was turned down as I was considered to have a key role in the project I was working on. Frustratingly, all of the doors I pushed on in terms of going away turned out to be closed. I persevered at work for another year or so, all the time thinking and praying about what God might want me to do. I eventually realised that what I wanted to do more than anything was to go and spend some time at bible college to get a deeper theological grounding. I applied for voluntary redundancy and to Birmingham Christian College and this time was successful with both applications. The idea was to go and do a year studying theology and use this year as an opportunity to explore my calling.

Calling

I loved my first year at bible college. Not only was it an immense privilege to be able to immerse oneself in God’s word, I found the academic study of theology to be intellectually and spiritually stimulating. During this year I had an increasing sense that God might be calling me into a full time ministry along the lines of a pastor/teacher. I guess at first I was waiting for a ‘bolt out of the blue’ voice from God to confirm my calling, but rather than receiving this I just had a growing desire to spend my life ministering the word of God and the love of God to people, helping them to grow as disciples of Jesus. I remember being struck once as I read 1 Timothy 3:1, ‘If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer he desires a noble task’. I realised that I was setting my heart on that task and that this itself could be God’s way of calling me, rather than waiting around for ‘Road to Damascus’ type experience. I also remember sitting in the canteen one time and being moved to tears as I considered what an amazing privilege it was to serve God and people in this way. I had some initial reservations about ‘ordained’ ministry, however. Being a firm believer in the priesthood of all believers and ‘every member’ ministry, I was concerned that having paid, ordained ministers could perpetuate a divide between clergy and laity whereby the clergy are expected to do the ‘proper’ ministry and the laity becomes increasingly inactive and nominal. Nevertheless, I saw that both Christ and Paul taught that ‘a worker deserves his wages’ and I came to see that an ordained minister could be a symbol of what the whole people of God should be.

One year of bible college became two, which then became a full three year degree. I really enjoyed my college work, especially New Testament studies, which has become something of a passion. I managed to attain a 1st class honours degree, something which I trust will stand me in good stead for my future ministry.

Church of England

Upon telling people that I am joining the Church of England and pursuing ordained ministry within that church I have received puzzled looks from some people. Why would someone leave a growing, exciting church that is full of young people to join an institution that is (in their opinion) staid, outdated, formal, bloated and tearing itself apart (and some of these voices have been from members of the CofE!)?

It began around 4 years ago when I started to read Tom Wright, who is now Bishop of Durham. As well as being one of the most exciting New Testament scholars in the world, he is also one of the best apologists for the Church of England. Time and time again, when he has said ‘in the tradition to which I belong we…’ he has gone on to say something which has made such a lot of sense and has really resonated with me. I began to notice certain things that had perhaps been overlooked or thrown out of some of the newer churches including the Vineyard movement.

I have felt an increasing sense of wanting to feel connected to both the historical church and the wider body of Christ, what might be called the communion of the saints. As Protestantism has become increasingly fragmented, with more and more denominations, movements and splinter groups, it is easy to lose sight of the wider church and to feel somewhat isolated and free-floating. My understanding of the Church of England is that, whilst obviously having a significant point of departure in the post-reformation period of Tudor England, it had no creeds of its own, only those of the united Church of the first five centuries.

Another area where I have felt drawn towards certain aspects of the CofE is in worship. Whilst I have loved the songs of the Vineyard, there comes a point when one is left wanting more within a worship gathering. Informality can become an idol just as much as ritualism can, and the pressure to be spontaneous can end up feeling restrictive. Paradoxically, I have found the use of liturgy to be freeing and powerful. I have seen how the use of the church calendar and the lectionary can be used to find one’s place within the Christian story, helping a community to look at the different aspects of Christ’s life and the whole biblical story rather than focusing on a few key texts. I have also had an increasing sense of the importance of the eucharist within worship and have found this to be celebrated in a profoundly meaningful way within several CofE settings.


I believe that the public nature of the Church of England, being the state church, whilst obviously presenting it’s own problems, also presents huge opportunities for the mission of God. Whether through local schools, community events or rites of passage it would seem to have outward-facing possibilities that many churches don’t have. I used to be concerned about the ‘establishment’ aspect of the CofE but have noticed that it hasn’t stopped Archbishop Williams from speaking out on the Iraq war and that it may present opportunities to speak out on matters of social justice that smaller ‘independent’ churches don’t have.

The Vineyard movement in the UK actually has some strong links with parts of the Church of England. When Wimber first came over in the 1980’s it was largely with Anglicans that he hit it off e.g. David Watson and David Pytches. In some ways I see parallels with the Methodist movement, like Wesley (the lifelong Anglican), Wimber never intended to start a new denomination in this country but believed in renewing the existing church. Whilst many Anglicans left and joined new Vineyard fellowships there were many that stayed and are now involved in some of the most thriving CofE congregations e.g. St. Andrews, Chorleywood, St. Thomas Crookes, Sheffield, Holy Trinity Brompton, St. Aldates, Oxford etc etc. The New Wine network and conferences, Soul Survivor and Alpha are all examples of the relationship between the Church of England and Vineyard theology and praxis.

On the other hand, many within what gets called ‘the emerging church’ are dissatisfied with certain aspects of the modern church and are looking to explore older spiritualities whether Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Celtic. I believe the Anglican church may be ideally placed to provide the deeper spirituality and holistic worship that people are hungry for.

There is much more I could say about my journey towards Anglicanism and my desire to pursue ordination. I am not one for moving churches, let alone denominations, on a whim and have given this move significant thought and prayer. Obviously there is only so much one can appreciate from the outside and I look forward to continuing this process within the Church of England.
I am not unaware of the tensions and challenges that the Anglican communion faces, but I actually believe this may be an exciting time for the church, and with people like Rowan Williams, Tom Wright and John Sentamu around I am hopeful for the future.

11 comments:

Michael Pahl said...

Jon, this is great, thanks for posting it. It's good to hear more about your (and Su's) background. And this is also an excellent description (and even apology) of the good aspects of both the Vineyard/charismatic churches and Anglican/traditional churches.

Jon said...

Wow! I can't believe you actually read all of that. I realised after I posted it that I probably could have got about 5 blog posts out of it. Glad you liked it.

Jacqueline said...

Hey Jon. Hayley came to visit me tonight and recommended that I read your latest blog ... and I have, and I'm so glad I did! I found it really interesting/encouraging/revealing ... actually I don't really know what word to use! I, too, really appreciated reading about the differences and/or similarities between the church movements ... and was praticularly intrigued when you talked about the 'freedom in worship' paradox. Anyway, looking forward to chatting more about stuff in the lake district! Thanks!

Jon said...

thanks Jacks (jacqs?....jacques? ....jax? :) ). I'm glad you liked it. I'll try and get some more thoughts up on the whole thing as I go through the process.

Really excited about the weekend now!

Michael said...

Hi Jon,
I appreciate it any time you post stuff you have written. This one was really great because it filled some of the gaps I'd been wondering about but never got around to asking you.

And, seriously, your statement -"Informality can become an idol just as much as ritualism can, and the pressure to be spontaneous can end up feeling restrictive" - is profound. Working and worshipping with college students, I appreciate this more now than I used to.

Jon said...

Thanks Michael. You are too kind. I think I was very much influenced by Tom Wright on the whole spontinaety/structure thing. If you haven't heard it already, I would recommend his lecture Freedom and Framework - Recovering biblical worship. I especially relate to his "Jack and Jill" story (quite near the start), where he talks about campus ministry.

Barnabas said...

Wow thanks for sharing this, I'm sure God is calling you to ordained ministry!

I'll be praying for you.

Jon said...

Thanks for your encouraging comment, Barnabas, and for your prayers. I'll try and blog my progress, and I'll be sure to read your blog.

Tiffer said...

Fantastic stuff - strangely similar to my story (at least the moving from charismatic church into anglican ordination part) and it feels great to feel I'm not the only one with a similar story. I think your openness has been astounding, and it is great to see God working in your life so clearly.

Jess said...

Hello Jon, I came upon your postings as a result of searching for 'vocations advisor' :-)
I just wanted to give you a word of warning .. more than two thirds of those who go to a selection conference in the CofE are 'not-recommended for training' in some form or another. The majority of those will have had the backing of their friends, local church, and incumbents. They will also have 'heard' only encouragment from the Vocations Advisors because it is hard to hear what we don't want to hear, and hard for the Advisors to be ruthlessly honest?
The whole process leads you apparently ever onwards and upwards without really exploring what God's Holy Irritation in your life is really about .. and it is very important that you do spend a lot of time and prayer on finding out yourself .. remember that a lay person holding the treasure of profound faith in their hands can do far more in a local congregation than any of us priests? Priests are just saying what is expected of them, but a committed lay person is seen to be speaking out of conviction. So God may just be calling you to a deeper and more profound walk with Himself? Don't close the mental/spiritual doors on the possibilities.
The process of dealing with non-selection is one of bereavement, loss of all that you thought God was calling you too, loss of so many future plans, loss of the ministry you would have done, loss of the chance to learn and explore your faith with others, and loss of face .. this process is made all the worse when a lot of people know you are trying to go forward for ordination. No-one that I know who has gone through the process of 'non-selection’ has been anything other than devastated because they, like you, knew God was calling them, and they had laid their lives open for scrutiny and then (as they see it) been rejected. Women have said that it is like carrying a baby to term and then having it still-born. The more people you share the sense of calling with, the more people you have to share your non-selection with? Many of them will have encouraged you and they, too, will feel angry with the Church for not selecting you?
What I am trying to say is .. genuinely try to use the Selection process as a major part of your own discernment as to whether God is calling you to ordination. Do not think of it as something you have to get through or over (like a hurdle) but as God's way of telling you whether he wants you to go forward for ordination at this moment or not? It will be the Church’s way of telling you and they are trying to discern God’s will in all this as well as your suitability? Keep your mind open .. remember that for all those one third non-selectees there must have been something God was calling them to? And here they are in a terrible dark place as they try to make sense of what has happened to them. Some of them will go on to be selected for training in years to come but some of them won't and they have to live with that for the rest of their lives.
There is a Yahoo group where some non-selectees have been sharing what it is like, it might be an idea for you have a look at it (http://uk.groups.yahoo.com/group/TheChurchSaidNo/), so that you can make a stab a preparing yourself in the event of non-selection. The people who have been posting on there would probably have written in much the same way as you before their non-selection?
May the Lord bless you in your search.

Jess said...

oops! got my thirds muddled .. I should have said 'more than one third of those who go to a selection conference in the CofE are 'not-recommended for training' in some form or another.