When I was 19, I came to Sheffield as a student. I didn’t know anyone. That was kind of the point, because I needed a fresh start.
As a Christian I gravitated towards the Christian Union and found that it was defined by a number of blocs – these were the hall of residence Christian Unions. I wasn’t in a hall of residence, I was in a university flat. I was invited to my local hall group, but it felt a bit weird. From the start I felt like I was on the back foot, an outsider.
I worked hard to penetrate the hall-based friendship groups to make some friends (with some success) and to find girls who were interested in me (with no success).
At the end of my second year of university, I took a bit of a personal gamble. Rather than going to help with the summer camp I usually went to in Bristol, I went to a European evangelism event called Love Europe. The idea was, you spent a week training and then two weeks evangelising confused Europeans – in my case, confused Danes.
During the training I had the opportunity to get some counselling and I grabbed it – ready as usual, to explain my history and neuroses to new willing victims. I was presented with an American and a German, both lovely and wise. Before I could summarise my life history, the American looked at me and said: “Your problem is, you don’t trust God because you’ve never trusted anyone.” Flippin’ heck, talk about prophetic.
God had massively got my attention and the scales started to lift from my eyes. I was a Christian, but I wasn’t trusting God. I was too busy trying to get God to agree to my plans.
All of a sudden I saw this in me and I saw it all around me. I saw that the CU was, to a large degree, a Christian bubble where people found their security in their Christian sub-culture, and not in Christ. I would have loved to do that too – I just wasn’t let in!
God started to reveal grace to me – that following Him was about trusting that He had what I needed, not about Him rubber-stamping my plans, and not about Christian escapism.
You can read Christian books, listen to Christian radio, go on Christian holidays, etc, and these things are not bad, but we can end up living Christian lives parallel to mainstream culture. We can be so busy not being of the world, that we fail to be in it.
This, my friends, is not the gospel. The gospel is yeast, where we permeate and transform our society (Matthew 13:33). The gospel is salt and light (Matthew 5:13-16). It’s tough. It’s supposed to be. We’re here to make a difference and we’re blessed in order to be a blessing.
These days, more than 20 years later, my wife Louise and I lead a cluster that consists of four cell groups at our church, St Thomas’ Crookes in Sheffield. We call it Red Carpet because everyone is invited. We want people on the edge of Church to find a home and become an active, supported part of the body and we want to make a bridge for friends without faith to connect with the Church and the gospel in down-to-earth ways.
Here’s the constant challenge: to welcome others into the centre of a community of hope and love, we need to be on the edge, in order to see the people who need the invitation. We need to resist the temptation to slip into the bubble by choosing to look beyond what is familiar and comfortable.
Jesus made it clear that everyone was welcome. He frequently scandalised the religious leaders with the people he was prepared to mix with. If we are serious about offering the same welcome, we need to find ways of making this kind of inclusiveness ‘business as usual’. The shape of the church, its priorities and programmes, must be about us making time and space to be on the cutting edge, looking like the father in the story of the prodigal son, waiting for those who need to be welcomed home.
That means looking out for people in church who are on the fringe, just like the cluster leaders who invited us to a barbecue when we were the new ones at church, six years ago.
That means choosing to spend time with people who aren’t Christians and building that time into the routine of our church communities.
Ultimately it means obeying God’s call to be productive disciples, not religious consumers.
It’s a challenge and an adventure – but God promises that His grace is sufficient.