Team's blog 

Here you will find the latest thoughts from our vicar Mark and other members of the staff team

 

How we do vision at church

Vicar Mark writes:
As we navigate a season of change at church, one thing I’m being asked is how we’re formulating our vision. Having talked about this at our annual church meeting, here are some thoughts.
 
When I first started here in 2017, the church had done a lot of work on vision, to write a thorough Parish Profile and Statement of Needs, to explain what the church was like and what they wanted from their new Vicar. So my job was to work out how we would begin to fulfil the vision we had. During that first year, as I worked with the team, I had to face the fact that the role of Worship Minister wasn’t really working any more. This was something I noticed and worked on for some months before we made the post redundant. In that case the vision was something which came out of my own work and prayer, beginning to get to grips with the implications of the vision formulated by the church community during the vacancy.
 
Since then, we’ve revisited our vision twice to formulate a new two-year plan, most recently in March this year. Each time, this vision process has involved more people, more closely. This time, vision was discussed among the staff team, the Leadership Vision Team and the PCC (church council), and then we consulted the congregation on the idea of having a set of SMOB values.
 
The current review of our children’s and youth work has been a corporate process. It came out of extensive discussion at PCC and a small group tasked by them has been praying, talking to people both inside and outside the church and moving forward with ideas and plans. One way the Holy Spirit works is by putting wisdom in his people – we receive this wisdom by talking and listening prayerfully to each other.
 
For myself, the vision process is rooted in my own spirituality; an ongoing conversation with God in my daily quiet times and my monthly quiet days, in prayer with colleagues inside and outside the church. When I pray, I always set aside time to be silent and listen to God. I’ve often felt some anxiety about not knowing where our final destination for this work will be; what God says to me consistently is to keep putting one foot in front of the other and he’ll show us the way forward. I think God is telling us that he is in the process, showing us the way together. There is immense wisdom in the church family and those in the Diocese and wider Christian community whom we speak to. He also wants to give confidence to those who are feeling uncomfortable or uncertain.
 
So vision is rooted in staying close to God and seeking his voice expressed in the Bible, in personal prayer and in the wisdom of the church. As all of us are part of this work, I would ask you to pray and seek his wisdom in our vision for St Mary of Bethany going forward. We continue our review of young people’s work, and will be beginning to consult with the staff and wider ministry team and the wider church about specific plans in the next few weeks.
 
One of our church members had a picture in worship a couple of weeks ago. In it, rose petals were descending from the sky on to people, with the words, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.’ This speaks for itself: God is in this time and our work.
 


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Our plans for children's and youth work

Change is in the air for our work with families, children and young people. Our Young Families Minister Tina Thomas retires in May after twelve years at the helm of this fantastic ministry. We now have plans for the immediate future of our work at Bethany Babes and we are also developing a new vision for the whole of this ministry.
 
Our parent and toddler group Bethany Babes has been a mainstay of our work with young families for 40 years. Staff will continue to lead the group through the summer until we have someone permanent in place. Vicar Mark will lead the Tuesday group and Associate Vicar Bekah the Wednesday group, both assisted by Curate Sarah. Our clergy are really excited to be doing this frontline work for a season and we hope the families and teams involved will see this as a vote of confidence. We will also continue to support the BBs community online, part of the work which has become increasingly important. Both teams could do with one or two more helpers; if this might be you, even just for this season, please contact Mark, Bekah, Sarah or Tina.
 
We have also been busy reviewing our vision for work with families, children and young people. We aim to develop a truly ‘intergenerational’ community, where children are fully part of our church life, contributing to the body of the church and being supported along with their families. Children and families will be at the centre of our work, rather than being taken away from much of church life always to be dealt with in separate groups. Our first priority will be to retool our Sundays, developing new ways of being together – perhaps sometimes all together, sometimes in groups, sometimes with families. Then we will build out to focus on discipleship, thinking about groups for each age and new ways of supporting families.  
 
We want to ensure that all this work happens in the body of the church family, supported by the whole staff team and visible to everyone. There will be less of a ‘siloed’ approach to this ministry, where groups happen in their own bubble, out of sight and away from many church members. This vision is part of the wider vision for St Mary of Bethany, so will be shared across the staff team and the whole of our church life. We aim to work together much more effectively to deliver it. Just as you will see our clergy helping with Bethany Babes this summer, you can expect to see the whole team pitching in across our work with children, young people and families going forward.
 
It’s important to face up to the challenge: even before Covid our work with children and young people had not grown for several years. There are new ways of doing this ministry which are proving highly effective in other local settings. Making change happen is challenging. We will need to let go of some established ministries and ways of being which have served us well over the years, but which have reached their sell-by date. The shape of our teams is likely to change, to enable more people to take responsibility for the work. As leaders we encounter a fair amount of fear of change in our church family. We want our ministry to bring many families from the fringe of church life into the centre. We have many of those connections already; just look at the number who attended February’s SMOB Chill. There are plenty of families, children and young people in our area who would think of themselves as members of St Mary’s, but for whom Sundays and many of our groups don’t connect. If we can get the vital building blocks in the right place, we can deliver work which is really compelling.
 
Please pray for all our leaders, families and young people as we continue to work out our vision and plan as a church.


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Justice matters in Kyiv, Dover and Hackney

I am really enjoying reading our Lent book, Embracing Justice by Isabelle Hamley. This week it could hardly be more obvious how important justice is.
 
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine violated the long-established principle of international law, that nation states are entitled to peaceful coexistence within their agreed borders. The massive international outcry is motivated by a strong sense of the injustice of the situation. Ordinary people have been well ahead of their governments in wanting to offer help in whatever way they can – this is true here in the UK, but Ukraine’s nearer neighbours, notably Poland, have acted with admirable speed and humanity after many years of anti-immigrant sentiment from some of their leaders.
 
P&O’s sacking of 800 workers has shocked many people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has spoken out against it on behalf of the Church of England. Employment laws appear to have been ignored entirely and employees treated shockingly badly. The law demands that employers treat their employees fairly and reasonably when they make changes. P&O has agreements in place with unions to avoid exactly this kind of scenario. If major multinational companies can do things so badly, we have to pray that they will put things right quickly or be made to by the courts.
 
In the face of these major news stories, you could be forgiven for missing the scandalous story of Child Q, a 15-year-old black schoolgirl from Hackney, who was taken out of a school exam and strip-searched for cannabis by two female police officers, without her parents being informed. When nothing was found, Q was returned to complete her exam without any contact from a teacher. Unsurprisingly, she was traumatised by the experience. Schools are at the forefront of educating children about their rights; how can things have gone so badly wrong for this vulnerable child?
 
The Bible puts justice at the very centre of God’s heart for people. Time and time again, God expresses his concern for the most vulnerable in society: typically referred to as the poor, widows, orphans – those who would have been unable to support themselves in the ancient world. Christians care about fairness, whether for a whole nation, a set of employees or a single child. We care because we believe that every human being is made in the image of God; when one is harmed, it impacts on all. When we allow, enable or ignore injustice, we diminish God’s image in us and become dehumanised.
 
If you’re not already reading Embracing Justice, I recommend it heartily, along with the urgent need to pray and stand up for justice whenever you see wrongdoing.

Our Lent course on Embracing Justice continues on Thursdays at 1pm on Zoom via the link emailed with our notices.

Churches Together in Woking are praying for Ukraine in Jubilee Square, 7pm Wednesday 23 March.

 


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Some thoughts on the shape of church services    

With worshippers at our services now able to decide whether or not to wear a mask, we continue to encourage everyone back to worshipping in person. We will continue to live stream services to include those who can’t get to us on Sunday, and this also provides an excellent way for people to check us out – this has become the norm for newcomers now. Live-streaming is no substitute for being fully part of our church family though. Church is best experienced in person, where you can more easily build relationships and grow in faith together with others.
 
As part of our new two-year plan, we’re going to have a ‘service pattern review’, to think about whether the shape of our services meets our needs and those of people who would like to join us. Our current pattern does not suit everyone. Some of our older people struggle to get to our 9.15am service, because it’s early. Many families have sporting or other commitments on a Sunday morning. We used to run Messy Church on a Sunday afternoon at Barnsbury School; maybe it’s time to revisit it in our own building? It was hard work back then; other churches are seeing real fruit from using a more sustainable model. At our Chill last month we saw 100 people in church on a Sunday afternoon, many of them families we have connections with, but who don’t normally come to church.
 
With all of this said, our current pattern has a lot to recommend it. It is much easier to cater for worshippers who connect best with a liturgical service and those who thrive on contemporary worship in two different services. We do not have strong boundaries between our services; most St Mary of Bethany members identify as church members rather than attendees at whichever service they go to, and there’s a lot of crossover. On a busy week pre-Covid, we would struggle to fit all our worshippers into a single service.
 
There was something really significant about us gathering at a single service through Covid. This is our usual pattern through the summer and over the Sundays around Christmas. To make it a slightly more regular event, we’ve decided to have a single 10.30am service where there is a fifth Sunday in the month, roughly four times a year. Our next ones are on 29 May, then 31 July (and throughout August as usual) and 30 October. These all have the advantage of falling within school holidays this year.
 
Over the last few weeks I’ve been so encouraged by being in a band with different people, some I haven’t played with for many months; others who are serving this way for the first time. It’s been wonderful to see people coming back week by week. If you’ve yet to come back, can I encourage you? We miss you! You will bless others by being here, and you will be blessed yourself. So many people have said things like, ‘I wasn’t sure how I’d feel after being away; it was better than I thought.’ If you’ve stepped back from serving, now is a good moment to step into something new as well. We’re planning to have at least one opportunity to socialise every month from now through the summer – here are the dates:
14 April 6pm Maundy Thursday Community Meal
15 May Tina Thomas’s leaving do
5 June 1pm Platinum Jubilee celebration
10 July Tea at the Vicarage
 
Spread the word: we’re here in person every week and we hope you’ll join us.
 


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Pray for Ukraine

The events of the last few days in Ukraine have appalled the world. The invasion of a democratic country by its powerful neighbour is a violation of the United Nations Charter and every international norm. Christians of every denomination stand together in condemning Russia’s aggression and praying for the people of Ukraine. We pray too for all those Ukrainians and Russians living in Britain, particularly those here in Woking, understanding that, for many Russians, these actions are not being done in their name.
 
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have called on us to set aside tomorrow as a day of prayer, and this will be the focus of our services at 9.15 and 11am. They have also joined with Pope Francis in supporting a global day of prayer and fasting this Ash Wednesday, 2 March. We have a Holy Communion service at 10am that morning, and resources have been sent to small groups meeting that evening.

In a statement, our Archbishops wrote, ‘This attack is an act of evil, imperilling as it does the relative peace and security that Europe has enjoyed for so long.

‘The attack by one nation on a free, democratic country has rightly provoked outrage, sanctions, and condemnation.  

‘We lament with the people of Ukraine, and we pray for the innocent, the frightened and those who have lost loved ones, homes, and family.  

‘We continue to call for a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Russian forces as well as wide-ranging efforts to ensure peace, stability and security.’

The Church of England’s Bishop in Europe, Robert Innes, whose sister worships at St Mary’s, spoke of the congregation of Christ Church, Kyiv, Ukraine. ‘Our little church in Kyiv are right at the centre of this crisis,’ he explained. 

‘Some of them have fled the city by car, others are still there. 

‘These are our people, our brothers and sisters, and of course we are very concerned for their wellbeing and safety. 

‘In the face of military action and aggression, we feel powerless. What can we do? One thing that we can all do is pray.’

We pray with our Archbishops:
God of peace and justice,
we pray for the people of Ukraine today.
We pray for peace and the laying down of weapons.
We pray for all those who fear for tomorrow,
that your Spirit of comfort would draw near to them.
We pray for those with power over war or peace,
for wisdom, discernment and compassion
to guide their decisions.
Above all, we pray for all your precious children, at risk and in fear,
that you would hold and protect them.
We pray in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Amen.


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Live-streaming our services: an update


Before Christmas we surveyed our congregations to find out how people are using our live-streamed services. Thank you to the 33 people who responded. Using YouTube means we have no way of knowing exactly who is watching our services at any given time, other than the overall number. We continue to have 20-30 devices connected each Sunday; if you take a rough estimate that each one has 1.5 people watching it, then perhaps we have 40 extra people present, plus more who watch the service (or part of it) back afterwards. That’s a substantial number of people.
 
The results of our survey are not scientific, but they are informative. Our of our 33 responses:

  • 11 live-streamed one service in the last four weeks. (33%)
  • 11 live-streamed two. (33%)
  • 6 live-streamed three. (18%)
  • 3 live-streamed four. (10%)
  • 2 did not say how many they streamed. 


Asked what their main reason for joining was:

  • 15 said, ‘I couldn’t go to physical church that week but can normally.’ (45%)
  • 5 said, ‘I enjoy worshipping from home rather than going to physical church.’ (15%)
  • 4 said, ‘I can’t go to physical church for reasons of disability, etc.’ (12%) 
  • 31 of our responders have joined us at physical church (94%); 2 have not (6%).

 
We asked for comments about the live-stream.

  • 9 people (27%) said something about live-streaming giving them the option to attend when they’re unwell or unable to attend physically for another reason.
  • 4 people (12%) commented negatively on the sound quality of the music on live-streamed services, with one (3%) arguing that we should stop live-streaming and insist people attend in person.
  • 4 people (12%) said that live-streamed services help them to feel part of the church community.
  • 2 people (6%) argued for a single 10.30am service rather than our two current services.
  • 1 person (3%) said they had just moved to the area and really enjoyed finding out what our services offer. 


What next for live-streaming?
(1) For now, we’re going to continue live-streaming one service per week. With the Covid pandemic continuing, we recognise that not everyone can get to church every week. We’ll continue with our current pattern of streaming the 11am service except for the second Sunday of the month, when it will be the 9.15am.

(2) We need to recognise that there are people on our live-stream who can’t get to physical church. Some of these people have felt much more included in our church life since we started live-streaming. We will exclude them if we stop live-streaming.

(3) We need to recognise the difficulty of getting a good sound balance both in the building and on a live-stream. Other local churches are finding just the same tension. To do this well, you need a separate sound desk in another room. We are exploring other ways to improve the sound and are in conversation with other churches on this. It’s interesting that only 12% of our respondents mentioned this; it is a tension which is harder to resolve than you might think. (It also doesn’t necessarily follow that people visiting our church via live-stream don’t like the sound of our music; we need to be careful before we assume what visitors notice about us.)

(4) We’re going to have a ‘Service Pattern Review’ as part of our plan for the next two years. As a team we’ve heard strong views in favour of the traditional 9.15am service, the united 10.30am service and the contemporary 11am service. Our current service pattern has stood the test of time, but this ‘rebuilding’ season is a good time to review and think about our options. (And this is, of course, nothing to do with live-streaming!)

(5) None of this is set in stone. We’re in a brave new world, church-wise. We will continue to keep our live-streaming under review. Do talk to any of the clergy about this at any time.
 


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Archbishop Tutu and dealing with difference

The recent death of one of my heroes, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has made me think about how we handle difference in the church. Tutu was a man of uncommon gifts. He had an infectious sense of humour and an instinctive ability to bring people together. He was able to connect with people with whom he disagreed strongly on all sorts of issues. During apartheid he was an unstinting campaigner against its injustices in South Africa. As the country emerged into democracy, he made his brainchild, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, work. He managed this through his partnership with President Nelson Mandela, but also his insistence that all of us share a common humanity; that we are made in the image of God and can find grace and forgiveness in him and each other, no matter who we are or what we’ve done.
 
Most of you will know that the Church of England is thinking about issues of identity and sexuality through its project Living in Love and Faith (LLF). I’ve been working as the Guildford Diocese Advocate for the project as it’s been rolled out to parishes. Desmond Tutu and I would have disagreed about some of these issues; he was theologically liberal and wanted to revise the church’s teaching, whereas I take a conservative view theologically. Yet I have no doubt that, if we had ever met and talked about it all, we would have laughed a lot, enjoyed the discussion and departed as friends. Dealing with difference depends on the character and choices of the people involved: you need to choose to love the person and engage with the tension you feel.
 
At its heart LLF is a project about how we handle difference better as a church. As anyone who has done the LLF course will know, the issues it covers touch each of us very personally. Being British, many of us find it very difficult to talk openly about identity and sexuality. But when we do allow ourselves to be vulnerable, listen to each other without judgement and accept that we won’t be able to change the other person’s mind, we can find a richness in our diversity. It’s been very moving to hear about so many people within the Church of England going miles out of their comfort zone to engage with these issues; it’s also been a costly exercise for many, especially those dealing with past hurts done at the hands of fellow Christians.
 
No one agrees with anyone else about everything one hundred per cent of the time. What a boring world it would be if we did! We know that we can love and appreciate people who are very different from us. At St Mary of Bethany I have heard a full range of political views expressed on the issues of the day. We can only engage with each other properly if we take the time and trouble to listen to and understand views different from our own. This is why churches stand up for freedom of religion and expression: we may find some people’s views abhorrent, but we recognise that any curb on freedom of speech will impact on our ability to say things which might offend some people. In my role as LLF Advocate, one of the most dispiriting things I've heard from church leaders is, 'I know what my church thinks about this' (said by someone who has had no recent conversations on these issues). Every church contains a wide range of views, life experiences and people who have never shared their stories, because they don't feel safe to do so. Who would be bold enough to claim that we are all of one mind on such personal issues?
 
The gospel is good news for our world, but it can be hard to take. Jesus was not afraid to challenge and often caused offence, particularly to those in power. He met people just where they were, but encouraged them not to stay there. His parting shot to the woman caught in adultery, whose life he had just saved, was, ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’ (John 8:11) In public he forced her accusers to look at themselves (‘If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her’ John 8:7b); when they were alone, he refused to condemn her, but told her to change her ways.
 
I spent a few weeks in South Africa after its first democratic election in 1994. What united all the South Africans I met was their deep love for their country and their hope for a better, fairer future. In Desmond Tutu they had a leader who could hold their differences well, without denying the pain of their experiences or the strength of their feelings. Too often Christians have been determined to hold a stance on an issue, ignoring the human beings in the picture. We have valued truth over grace; in our faith, both are necessary, but one cannot survive in isolation from the other. Without truth, we affirm anything and everything, and our faith becomes meaningless. Without grace, we fail to look at our own sins before zeroing in on those of others, and we fail to love our neighbours as ourselves.
 
As we near the end of the LLF process (as your Advocate I am obliged to tell you that the deadline for feedback via the website is 30 April and then it will be over to General Synod in July), pray with me that we will continue to learn how to handle our differences better.
 
God of grace and truth,
give us both these gifts in their full measure,
that we may be the hands and feet of Jesus to everyone we meet.
Help us to be more like Desmond Tutu:
people who embrace others and love across the divides.
In the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, Amen.

 


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New Year, new spiritual regime?


As a former book publisher, I am always entertained by the selection of ‘New Year – new you’ books which hit the shelves immediately after Christmas. Which celebrities will help you be more mindful, eat more healthily or start a new exercise regime this January?
 
Now that I’m a church leader, it’s my role to call you to something even more lasting: to go deeper in your relationship with Jesus in 2022. For Christians everywhere, a daily discipline of Bible reading and prayer is foundational. Today there are more resources than ever to help you. Here are some ideas for you, whether you are just getting started or would like to try something new in '22!
 
The best piece of advice if you’re not doing anything yet is to do something – be realistic and start where you are. One of my favourite promises in scripture is ‘Come near to God and he will come near to you.’ (James 4:8a) God will meet you in whatever time you give to him. You can meet God in your room, in your car, on the train, out for a walk...don't feel guilty that your spiritual pathway isn't the same as someone else's.
 
If you decide to use an app, make sure you won’t be distracted by notifications or other things on your phone. God deserves your full attention! As ever, we can't take responsibility for all the content we mention here.
 
The Bible App
A wealth of free resources, including various versions of the Bible and a wide range of Bible reading plans. Whether you’re looking for something to help you with particular issues or a plan for the whole year, you’ll find lots of options here.
 
Pray as you go

A 10-13 minute daily prayer framework you can listen to. Ideal if you want to get into a simple rhythm of praying every day.
 
Lectio 365
From the 24/7 prayer stable, a fantastic app which will help you pray morning and evening, and will speak truth over you.
 
Bible in One Year
From the Alpha stable, a very accessible way to read the whole Bible in a year. Nicky Gumbel gives you a reflection every day (and you can listen to the whole thing).
 
For the love of God by D.A. Carson
An excellent two-volume set to help you read the whole Bible in two years, if one year feels a bit too much of an undertaking.
 
Through the Bible through the year and Through the year with John Stott by John Stott
Want to get to know the Bible better but not ready to read the whole thing? You can’t do better than Stott.
 
Explore Bible reading notes
Available on paper on app, an excellent resource to get you into the Bible every day.
 
Every Day with Jesus Bible reading notes
Generations have turned to these to build a stronger relationship with God.
 


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Help for Christmas crises

If you find yourself supporting someone in crisis this Christmas, here are some helpful resources.
 
Mental health
https://www.emmascrivener.net/2015/12/christmas-tactics/ - help from someone who’s been there.
 
https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/christmas-and-mental-health/christmas-and-mental-health/
- help from the experts, including emergency contacts.
 
Eating disorders
https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/your-stories/top-tips-supporting-loved-one-christmas/ - help for those supporting people with eating disorders.
 
Abuse
https://www.yoursanctuary.org.uk/ - resources include a helpline and online help.
 


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Podcast corner: What to listen to over the holidays

Podcasts have exploded in popularity since Covid. You can listen to high-quality content via your device anytime – what’s not to like? However, it took me ages to find Christian podcasts I like, so to save you a lot of time and trouble searching, here are some recommendations from the St Mary of Bethany team.
 
As always with external content, a recommendation is not an endorsement of all their content, nor do we take any responsibility for them.
 
Dare to Lead and Unlocking Us
Recommended by Youth Minister Dave.
Not specifically Christian (although Brown herself is), Brown is an excellent voice on leadership and vulnerability in our modern cultural setting.
 
Faith with Haith
Recommended by Children’s Minister Kate.
Conversations with a variety of interesting Christians.
 
Speak Life
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
You may recognise Glen Scrivener from his fantastic video ministry, which we’ve used in church. This podcast thinks about the news with an evangelistic hat on. Fun fact: Mark trained with Glen and his wife Emma!
 
Unbelievable
Recommended by Vicar Mark and Associate Vicar Bekah.
Premier Radio and the United Reformed Church Woking’s own Justin Brierley hosts this thought-provoking weekly look at all things Christian.
 
Being Human
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
Aims to inspire and equip everyday Christians to understand, articulate and participate in the Biblical vision of humanity, from the Evangelical Alliance.
 
Godpod
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
A monthly podcast from the HTB/Alpha stable - Theologians Graham Tomlin, Mike Lloyd, Jane Williams, and the occasional guest speaker get together to discuss burning issues of God, theology, life, and much more.
 
The Bible Project Podcast
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
Big questions tackled in a very accessible way – ideal for people exploring faith or walking alongside someone who is.
 
Together
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
Fortnightly conversations from TearFund, focusing on pursuing justice and ending extreme poverty.
 
Fight Hustle, End Hurry
Recommended by Associate Vicar Bekah.
John Mark Comer’s limited series thinking about rest and Sabbath.
 
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill
Recommended by Vicar Mark.
As listened to by every church leader this year, the story of the rise and fall of a US megachurch is highly relevant in our UK setting, with toxic leadership being a powerful connection.
 
Quantum: the Wee Flea Podcast
Recommended by Vicar Mark.
From Scottish conservative evangelical Anglican David Robertson, who casts an often challenging, Christian apologist’s eye over world events from his base in Australia. You won’t agree with some of what he says, but he is always thought-provoking.
 
Ian Wright’s Everyday People
Recommended by Vicar Mark.
Not a Christian podcast, but a fantastic set of life-affirming stories, which are an antidote to all the dismal news that’s out there. Warning: you will cry!

Do let our team know what you're listening to!
 


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What's on your Christmas list?

One thing I love about this time of year is the Christmas gift ideas in newspapers and magazines.

  • A Christmas pudding outfit for your dog? Check.
  • A stupidly expensive handmade mug? Check.
  • A fabulous checked shirt for the Christmas party which might well be cancelled at the last minute? (I'll just check.) Check.

 
‘What about Christian Christmas gift ideas?’ I hear you cry. Well, the St Mary of Bethany staff team can help! Here are some of our recommendations to make your festive season a bit more edifying. Don't forget our top eco tips: avoid 24-hour delivery (which is highly resource intensive) and wrap your gifts in recycled paper. (Links are for information and do not imply endorsement of any particular website; Christian books and materials can be ordered at Origin at Christ Church Woking.)
 
Books
Reliably good authors

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard – when I read this book, I wanted to grab every Christian I knew who’d read it before me and ask why they hadn’t made me read it! Beware – if you take Willard seriously, this book will change your life.
 
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown – this book will help you to engage with the gifts of vulnerability, honesty and authenticity in a world where it can feel like presentation is everything.
 
The Word Made Flesh: The language of Jesus in his stories and prayers by Eugene Peterson – a brilliant rediscovery of the way Jesus prayed.
 
Heaven by Paula Gooder – what does the Bible really say about heaven? An excellent, eye-opening read from a superb, accessible Bible scholar. (Our bishop says a lot of books are good, but Paula's are gooder!)
 
How to Pray: a simple guide for normal people by Pete Greig – Guildford author Greig’s book does exactly what it says on the tin in a positive and accessible way.
 
A Meal with Jesus: Discovering grace, community and mission round the table by Tim Chester – if your idea of hospitality is a fancy three-course meal with all your best crockery in your immaculate house, you need to read this book and change tack!
 
Fruitfulness on the Frontline: Making a difference where you are by Mark Greene – God has put you just where he wants you. Greene will help you to engage with your frontline in new and transformative ways.
 
The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer – this book challenges the busy-ness of modern life. Written before Covid but even more relevant now.

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy – last year’s bestseller – a great, warm-hearted read for adults and children alike, a multi-layered, visual treat.
  
Chewing on big issues
Ghost Ship by A.D.A. France-Williams – an arresting book from a unique voice, on the Church of England’s problem with race and racial justice. If you think that churches are generally safe and wonderful places for people of colour, you definitely need to read this and wake up.
 
Waiting on God by Andrew Murray – 31 daily reflections on waiting and why it’s fundamental to the Christian life. Not in any way new, but a great read.
 
Sabbath: The hidden heartbeat of our lives by Nicola Slee – an unusual read which points towards the find God’s pattern of rest and work.
 
Dominion: The making of the western mind by Tom Holland – a brilliant read which will help you to understand the culture we live in and the effect of the last 3,000 years of history in shaping it, in particular the role Christianity has played.
 
Entitled: How male privilege hurts women by Kate Manne – not specifically a Christian read, but a modern take on feminism and patriarchy from which many in the church can benefit.
 
Frequencies of God: Walking through Advent with R S Thomas by Carys Walsh – a book of reflections on poetry – moving and engaging whether or not poetry is your thing.
 
Slow Down, Show Up and Pray: Simple Shared Habits to Renew Wellbeing in Our Local Communities by Ruth Rice – The inspiring story of a Nottingham church which has stepped out in faith and seen God at work.
 
Magazine subscriptions
Woman Alive  – brilliant Christian articles every month.
 
Premier Christianity – always interesting and worthwhile.
 
Sorted – equally good, aimed at men.
 
For children and families
Family Advent Box – a great resource for this time of year – it’s not too late to get it!
 
Youthscape bricks and What If…? excellent resources to start conversations with young people.
 
Would you rather? by Doug Fields – hundreds of good questions to get young people talking. Sure to get your Christmas dinner table zinging!
 
Good News Bible: Family Edition – great for reading as a family, with space (and permission!) to scribble and resources to help you read and pray. 


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It's (not always) the most wonderful time of the year

As I write this, a wonderful friend and colleague of mine is hovering between life and death after a terrible car accident last week. This morning I was talking to a resident in our local sheltered housing, who faces his second Christmas without his wife of over forty years. Yesterday I listened to Mark Russell, the Chief Executive of the Children’s Society, who described dishing up Christmas lunch for a teenager who had never had that meal before. Contrary to what the mainstream media tells you, Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year for everyone.
 
Churches understand this very well. After all, we are immersed in the mess of people’s lives. We are alongside people who were bereaved in the last two years, many of whom didn’t get the funeral they had in mind. We know where many of the pockets of deprivation are on our patch – people who can’t afford to heat their homes, let alone buy a turkey. We understand that many of the shiny homes in our suburban Woking parish contain people who are prisoners of addiction or abuse. You won’t have a happy Christmas if your dad’s a violent drunk. Many of us face familiar conundrums at Christmas: which set of parents to see; who gets the ‘difficult’ relative this year? Christmas can be a tipping point in relationships: family solicitors report a sharp spike in contacts every January from couples seeking to divorce. If you suffer from alcoholism or an eating disorder, the barrage of seasonal food and drink can be a terrifying ordeal.
 
I don’t have any special wisdom on how to navigate the Christmas season if you face any of these challenges. I grew up in a home where a very tricky relative spent a week with us every Christmas; we got through this by laughing a lot and enjoying it all as best we could. Can I encourage you to have a good eye out for people who might be struggling this year? In this busy season, take a moment to imagine prayerfully how people you know might experience things differently from you. Could there be an extra chair at your Christmas dinner table for someone who will otherwise be on their own that day? Who do you know who would be encouraged by a quick WhatsApp message just to say you’ve remembered them? As you prayer walk your local streets, who does God want you to notice? As a church we seek to be a safe place for people with messy lives. Let’s pray that we can live up to this vision as individuals and as a body, and that God will use us to be his transforming presence in the mess we encounter.


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Are our two Sunday services what we really need?

This might be an odd question to ask, in the week we relaunch our two Sunday services. The question has been coming up since Covid hit though, and it’s a good one. As a church family, we’re used to a more traditional Holy Communion service at 9.15am and a more contemporary worship service at 11am, with our children’s and youth groups in the latter slot. We also have our monthly 8am Book of Common Prayer Communion. Before Covid we were having a youth cell at 6.30pm on a Sunday too; we hope to restart this very soon. Over the years we’ve had Messy Church too. Since Covid, we’ve been all together at 10.30am, and many people have appreciated the sense of unity this has instilled; some love these services and don't want to move away from them. Now that we have more leadership capacity with a full-time Associate Minister, is the Holy Spirit prompting us to look at new services, or to move our existing services to different times?
 
Well, Sunday mornings don’t work for everybody. Lots of family activities and sports happen then. Younger people often prefer Sunday evenings for worship. There are another six days in the week too. Patterns of church attendance have changed over time; a generation ago, it was normal for some regular attenders to go to more than one Sunday service per week. Now, many of our regulars make it to one service a month. Post-Covid, we are still working out who our ‘regulars’ are, with many committed church members yet to attend a service in person post-Covid.
 
On the other hand, it must be right for us to be focusing on St Mary’s as a community rather than a set of services. I’m not sure it was ever true to say, ‘If you run it, they will come’, as though putting on more services or activities will lead necessarily to newcomers finding us. We are an activist community – since Bekah joined us, a question she’s heard a lot is, ‘What can we do about this?’ We make no apology for listening to and waiting on God before acting. As we’re about to see in our Advent sermon series, people are generally in a hurry, but God wants us to wait for him.
 
In 2019 around 2,000 people came to one of our physical services, a little under a third of those living in our parish (of course, some of them will have been from outside). If the others were just about to drop round, the minute we put on something designed to appeal to them, they would be with us by now. The painful fact is that many of our friends and neighbours are fifth or sixth generation unchurched. In the 1990s most English people would have had some idea of what a church community looked like; not so now. Most people have no idea; they don’t even know that we do weddings and funerals. We need to continue to put our energy into being an authentic, intergenerational family of faith, where we listen to and affirm the youngest child, the most senior adult, and everyone in between. It’s this transformational community which will prove magnetic, not just our compelling services or events. Relationships take time and work. Many of us know our neighbours better after Covid; these connections may contain the seeds of something new for us as a church.
 
Equally, we must also recognise that God’s people worshipping him authentically is a hugely powerful thing. Our services and events are not just our shop window; they are where the Holy Spirit works in us as a body. Along with the Leadership Vision Team, the staff team and PCC, I’m beginning work on a new two-year plan for life at St Mary’s. One thing we’re praying into is the idea of a ‘service pattern review’, with help from outside, to assess what we have and whether the Spirit is calling us towards new possibilities. This rebuilding phase of life feels like a good time to revisit this subject. Do pray about this and talk to any of us about it.
 
Good news corner 1
Eagle-eyed users of our building may have spotted our fantastic new, green chairs. These are used mainly in the hall; they are far easier to stack and store than our old, red ones, with their notorious, heavy trolley. You may be wondering what’s happened to the red chairs: we have sold them on eBay to a community village hall in Northamptonshire and they were collected by a Christian volunteer. We pray that they will bless those who use them, as they blessed us for many years.
 
Good news corner 2
I am reeling from the life-changing revelation that Cadbury’s Crème Eggs are now available in the weeks leading up to Halloween, rebranded as ‘Goo Heads’, with different foil but the same product inside. Tragically I realised this only on 30 October. Fortunately this traumatic story has a happy ending; from 1 November Goo Heads were available at many good high street shops at a knock-down price, so there’s no need to wait until Boxing Day for your Crème Egg fix! (I always get a laugh on social media when someone posts a Crème Egg picture on Boxing Day.)
 


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A time to remember

The annual St Mary of Bethany Memorial Service happens at 3pm Sunday 7 November. Covid has meant a long gap since our last one, and has given us the opportunity to move it to the All Saints/All Hallows season, where it is traditional to remember before God and give thanks for those who have gone before us. The service is a quiet, meditative one, with readings, music and space to reflect, as well as an opportunity to light a candle as a prayer in memory of a loved one. We’ll serve tea and cake afterwards, with a chance to catch up with others who are on similar journeys and those who have ministered to them. Do join us if you can and spread the word.
 
This year it feels particularly important that we make available spaces to remember and mourn together. For everyone who died of Covid, there are many others who died from other causes. Since March 2020 no death has gone according to plan and every funeral has been subject to uncomfortable restrictions. For many months families were not even allowed to meet together, have a drink, hug and exchange stories – surely the basics of British mourning. It will take many years to come to terms with the true cost of Covid on our society and the wider world. We will only emerge in an emotionally healthy way if we can acknowledge the pain we feel as we mourn and lament what we have lost and what might have been. The church is in a unique position here; we have 2,000 years of experience of helping people on their journeys towards death, and being alongside those who remain. Grieving well is not ‘getting over’ a death or being ‘back to normal’; it is finding a new normal where the pain of loss is a dull ache rather than an open wound; where it occurs to you from time to time rather than being ever present.
 
Now, as always, I am observing many in our church family grieving well: women widowed close together who go for walks each week, people taking intentional time out from busy routines to make space for themselves. In wider British society death remains a taboo subject. Our media sanitises it and we wish it wasn’t there. You rarely see a realistic portrayal of grief on television (soap opera being a serial offender – the writers forget that someone will still be grieving years after a death); a little more often in cinema (Casey Affleck’s Oscar-winning turn in 2016’s Manchester by the Sea being a stellar, but gruelling, example) and more frequently in literature. Somehow many people feel immortal – as if I ignore death for long enough, it will leave me alone. Church ministers regularly encounter families where a loved one failed to make a will or have any conversations about what to do after their death. This makes it so much harder for those who remain, particularly where there is unfinished business, things left unsaid or unresolved. Thoughtful preparation for your own death can leave an important legacy. It remains, however, the ultimate statistic: that one in every one person dies.
 
I would argue that, if you want to process grief well, you could do worse than to hang around with faithful Christians, or people of peace from other faiths. When you finish reading this, why not message someone you know who is grieving, just to check in or remember someone they’ve lost? And if you’re within easy reach of Woking, please join us on 7 November and spread the word. This year more than ever, it feels important to be together.


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Are you getting warmer or colder?

Winter draws on, as my grandmother used to say; the days are getting shorter and the mornings crisper. This autumn is a strange season! As a church leader, Sunday by Sunday I’m used to knowing where everyone is. In pre-Covid times, I worked from the assumption that around two thirds of our regular Sunday congregations would be in church each week. Now, since we reopened for in-person services in the spring, we continue to see people drifting back into our building to worship together. But there’s a pattern emerging across English churches, and St Mary of Bethany is no exception: some of our most faithful members have yet to appear in person. While we see people returning every Sunday, it’s proving to be a slow process.
 
Having returned to church life myself recently, I’d like to offer a few potential reasons people might give for staying at home, and give some gentle encouragements or challenges along the way.
 
‘I like watching church on my telly, in my jammies, with a coffee.’
Indeed, who doesn’t? Some people have found that arrangements which were ‘needs must’ during lockdown are actually quite appealing. Why would I sit in a chilly building, with the risk of Covid it entails, when I can stay cosily tucked up at home? The danger is that Covid has made us passive receivers of worship rather than active participants. Just as lockdowns have isolated us from one another and focused us narrowly on our own felt needs, some may have forgotten that worship services are not only a setting where you receive something from God and other people. No: worship services are places where you can bless and encourage God and others by your participation and presence. Also, much of the friction present in our national and community life at the moment is simply a result of people not being in the same room talking to each other. We don’t know how people are doing, because we haven’t caught up with them in a quick conversation over coffee or a quiet moment. Mature Christians ask what they will bring to a worship service and how God will use them in it, not just what they will receive from it.
 
Should we, then, stop live-streaming and prioritise everybody being in the building? I don’t think so. We committed very early in the first lockdown to continue to live-stream services indefinitely, and we made it clear that we regard online and offline participation as equally valid. Live-streaming kept weekly worship alive for most of our church family in lockdown, but it also opened up our church. Those who cannot get to physical church for health or mobility reasons have felt much more a part of our community. Our fringe has grown, as family members or former members who do not live locally have joined us online. Our ‘shop window’ has changed: before Covid, newcomers would check our website before trying us in person; now they join us online first. We have recently booked in a number of weddings and baptisms from people who first joined us online. All these people are on a journey nearer to God with us. Some people argue that live-streaming discourages people from participation in physical church; the evidence across the wider church is mounting that, in fact, live-streaming encourages people to be part of our vibrant faith community. This is all part of the picture which has been emerging in the last few years of a church without walls.
 
One thing I’ve heard a number of people say after they return to physical church for the first time is, ‘I was really moved – it was better than I expected.’ Watching a live-stream cannot give you the full experience of being in the building. It’s the same difference as watching ballet, theatre or opera on a screen; it’s a fantastic way to bring it to people who cannot always get to a live event, it opens up accessibility and opportunity, but it isn’t a match for being there. Don’t underestimate what the Holy Spirit will do when you are with your Christian brothers and sisters in person. If you’re holding back from coming to the building, but you’re out and about at the pub, seeing friends and family, at groups, work, school or whatever, can I warmly invite you to return? We would love to see you and it will really bless us to have you here.
 
‘I’ll come back when the 9.15/11am/children’s/youth etc. restarts.’
It’s fantastic to be able to welcome back families, and meet new ones, now that our Sunday children’s and youth programme has restarted. We continue to follow Covid protocols and this is going well.
 
You may be getting bored of hearing us say that we plan to move to two services when we have the resources. At the moment that feels like it may be some way off – none of our teams, from welcoming and stewarding to hospitality, audio-visual, music or prayer ministry is anywhere near having enough people to sustain two services every week. You can of course be part of the solution to this, by offering to help with one of our teams. However, we want to acknowledge that, for some in our church family, coming into a large gathering of people in an enclosed space feels very difficult at the moment. As we minister to each other, it’s OK to be exactly where you are, whether that’s confident, anxious or whatever. It’s important to be understanding of each other and recognise that you don’t know how others are doing if you haven’t spoken to them.
 
Just now we are regathering in one place at 10.30am, and this feels significant. The simple act of worshipping all together has been important since the first lockdown. We have learned to accommodate the full range of worshipping preferences in our church family, without the service feeling like a ‘lowest common denominator’. In this period of rebuilding, I think it’s important that we regather together before we split things up. At the same time, I understand some people feel the need for weekly Communion and a slightly more traditional service, and others who enjoy something more informal. If you’re holding out for the right style of service, consider joining us at 10.30 every now and then, for some of the reasons above.
 
‘I don’t want to wear a mask’ or, on the other hand, ‘I don’t feel safe.’
Hands up everyone who loves masks? Sorry, I can’t see a thing – my glasses have steamed up! We are constantly reviewing our Covid protocols in dialogue with other churches locally and nationally. At the moment we are at the more restrictive end of what churches are doing about mask-wearing. This is under review and we hope to move to something less restrictive soon. Bear in mind, though, that we want to include in our services people who are anxious and feel vulnerable. I’ve had conversations with people who will not come to a service where everyone is unmasked, and others with people who won’t come if they have to wear a mask. Again, the key is bearing with each other.
 
So, then, are you getting warmer or colder?
Are you getting closer to God or further away? Nearer to being a full part of our church family or is this more remote? If you haven’t yet dipped your toe in the water of a physical church service, but you could, come on in: the water’s lovely!


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