Festival of the Local Church

Usually at this time of year, there would be a number of Christian festivals and holiday conventions happening. All have had to be cancelled. It looks like this will apply to summer conventions too. Personally I’m a little disappointed, we were looking forward to joining the Keswick Convention having had a few years away. We look forward to the opportunity for a holiday, pray for some dry days and set off excited to hear new songs, listen to great teaching and particularly for us the joy of renewing fellowship with old friends and hearing stories about their experience of mission in their context. 

For me personally, these conventions have played an important role in my life, faith and calling. We went annually as a family to the old Filey Crusade, a kind of trendsetter, pace marker for Spring Harvest and Word Alive.  It was at Keswick that God moved me to pursue a calling into pastoral ministry. I’ve heard some incredible teaching from the likes of Steve brady, John Stott, Jonathan Lamb and Peter Maiden. Our sung worship at Bearwood has been enriched by the music we’ve brought back from the likes of Stuart Townend, EMU and Colin Webster.  I’m sure that I am not aloje in having this kind of story to tell.

However, Christian conventions are not essential. They are a wonderful bonus but they are not the local church. Nor are they perfect. There are challenges to them. Some of them are costly to attend and that also affects the diversity we see of attendees and platform speakers – members of our multi-ethnic congregation often stand out like a sore thumb at wider Christian events from our particular theological constituency. Sometimes the teaching is a bit hit and miss. We can assume that the platform speakers are the uber elite, the crème de la crème … even that attitude is perhaps something to watch. One risk is that you end up with people, prominent within Evangelical culture but whose experience of local church pastoral ministry is a little distant. I remember one painful conference where a preacher’s central application for the entire week seemed to be about handling worship wars, it was like being transported back to the challenges of the 1980s! Again I want to commend the Keswick crew who have been open and responsive to feedback and I think have worked particularly hard in recent years to put together a good team of platform and seminar speakers.

If I’m honest I also see some challenges around the timing of events. I’m particularly not keen on events that take people away from the local church at Easter time. This is a fantastic time for mission in the local community and celebrating joyfully with the local church. There again there is probably not a great time. In the summer we al disappear off to camps and holidays vacating our churches and communities and those who cannot go away and need the local church most of all are left alone missing us.

This is all lead up to talking about these events in the context of COVID-19. As I said, the main events have all been cancelled. Even summer events have had to decide to cancel now rather than continuing with uncertainty about if they will be allowed to go ahead once the main lockdown is over.  So, what do you do if you are a convention/festival organiser?  Here’s my tip. The best thing you can do is to say:

We are sorry that this year’s event cannot go ahead. This is a genuine disappointment. We were looking forward to it and we know you were too. However, we know that God is sovereign. We know that the key thing right now is the work of the local church. We are excited to see how local churches around the country and the world are responding and the amazing sense of body ministry and local community mission we are seeing. So we are going to take a well earned break this year. Do prioritise your local church and also use the opportunity to tune in and see what others are doing as we partner as the wider body of Christ together. God willing we will see you next year.

However, what I’ve seen from a number (not all) quarters is two things. First of all events were very quick to tell us about the financial impact on them. A number (not all) letting us know that this put their future events at risk.  Then, they’ve tried to work out how to still do something – a kind of online event.

Here are my concerns with this.

  • There was a little bit of tone deafness to the situation for others in the way that some straight to talking about their finances. Up and down the country there are individuals, families, small business and little local churches facing immediate concern about their financial situation.
  • It feels a little bit as though there is an anxiety about how we keep the show on the road and this suggests a forgetfulness that the local church is the primary means of Gospel witness and discipleship.  These conventions are wonderful events but they are not essential and none of them permanent. I mentioned the Filey Crusade growing up, it closed in 1988, we were sad when it finished (partly because events like Spring Harvest were taking over). It is not the only big event to come and go, from different traditions there have been the FIEC Caister week, Dales Week, Stoneleigh and Soul Survivor. Events will come and go.  Christ will never change.

However, my main concern is that they have missed an opportunity to see, encourage and be part of something going on at this time. The risk for people like me is that we can be defensive and want to protect the numbers of people linking in with what we are doing – though actually I don’t think the online conventions are having a big effect.  You see, what I have been seeing is something absolutely amazing. People in local churches have been renewing their commitment to body ministry. They have been connecting together to encourage each other at this time, to spur one another on to holiness, to love their communities and to share the Gospel. This is so encouraging. At the same time, we have had a great opportunity to connect wider.  As well as taking part in my church’s zoom call, I can take time to participate in or watch back later teaching and fellowship events from other churches. And that gives opportunities for fellowship and for teaching from a much larger and more culturally diverse range of people. 

This is what I have referred to as a “Festival of the Local Church” -an opportunity to both benefit and to support our own local church whilst enjoying that interconnectedness with others. It’s this that I don’t want the convention organisers to miss out on. 

Now another little word of caution for people like me. We can be talking up the place of the local church against para-ministries and events and fall into idolatry. We can confuse the key role of the church and the local church with ourselves and our ministries. Christ will build his church, not my kingdom, a local gathering of believers is a vital witness but that does not guarantee the permanence of any specific local church. We need to be alert to that and pray that God will keep us from idols.

Finally, whilst this has started with a challenge to the festivals and conventions, the big picture is this. We have a great opportunity at the moment. Let’s not miss it, let’s also use this opportunity to look at the long term implications and learn. I hope you are enjoying the Festival of the Local Church. See you next … week (and every week).

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