David goes through the need for real and relevant churches, whilst talking about the history of St. Andrews Chorleywood, New Wine and Soul Survivor.
I decided to join the army because I wanted to live in an environment where being a Christian wasn’t easy. Up the age of seventeen I had a wonderful but somewhat easy life. My Family had been clerics for many generations; I went to a school in which a fifteen minute devotional quiet time was actually timetabled. As a family we read the Bible each day and prayed. And feeling called to the ministry myself when I was quite young, I had gone away to theological college in Bristol. Christianity for me was easy…until I joined the army in 1948 – that came as a real shock.
I remember being appalled by the language that used to swirl around in my head at night.
The challenge was to live out my Christianity among people who made no allowances for one’s faith or even its lapses. To show my fellow-soldiers truth I had to refuse to divide my life into its Christian and its secular part. I remember being appalled by the language that used to swirl around in my head at night.
After two years in the army I did a degree course in theology after which I began my first curacy at St. Ebbe’s, Oxford. It was there that I met and married my wife, Mary. At the time St Ebbe’s was a slum area where the local community was being moved out against its will into highrise flats on the outskirts of town. The inhabitants were unhappy about coming to church because it was full of undergraduates. Mary and I found that we didn’t speak the same language as those kids and people. My models were my teachers at theological college and my influencers were thinkers such as John Stott. But this, albeit excellent, was no help in getting across the message to ordinary people. Consequently I felt that I had rather failed in my task. During my second curacy in Wallington, Mary and I began to feel called to missionary work. We were reluctant because we were English but willing because we were God’s.
In 1959 we went to Chile to work among Aricanian Indians. I was fascinated to find out if the Gospel message was relevant in another culture. For me, Jesus was an Englishman with a white face, He spoke English and listened to me pray in English. And yet these Indians had a remarkable commitment to Jesus. The church expanded rapidly and this tied in with what I read in the New Testament about the spontaneous expansion of the church. However, I had real difficulties with the church concerning issues such as training and control. Due to my upbringing in the Church of England system with its very structured procedures when it came to church development, I found the natural, rapid and tremendous growth of our church in Chile intriguing. There were some big things going on. The Spirit of God touched Mary in 1969 and this began a renewal of the church.
After seventeen years in Chile, I returned to England on account of my daughters’ education. Having been away in Chile for seventeen years and for the whole of the 1960s, the England I returned to was not the England I had left. I was appalled by the change and, I suppose, I suffered from reverse culture shock. I could also see that church attendance was sharply declining and began to ask serious questions about the relevancy of church to the changing culture.
In 1977 we were posted to St. Andrews church in Chorleywood. This particular church had a name for being charismatic and I wanted to build on this. The model I began to look at was the one of spontaneous growth that had developed in the church in Chile. It was around this time that a friend of mine told me about a man called John Wimber who had some significant things to say to the church about the church. So, I invited Wimber to come to St Andrew’s. He accepted and brought with him twenty nine other people in his so-called ‘ministry team’. What they modelled was that ordinary, young, lay people could pray for older people; that the gifts of the Spirit could be practised by anyone who professed a Christian faith and had a pulse.
there was so much interest in what John Wimber was modelling and teaching
John’s life was so intermingled with the many and varied colours of the gospel. He taught us to walk in the spirit, to listen to God constantly, to pick up what God was saying – he had a gift for analyzing what was going on -and to realize significance in everything. He made me aware that things that catch your attention could be God speaking to you. He added a whole new dimension to church, ministry and living. He made us aware that God speaks everywhere and it made ordinary people think ‘Gosh, God even speaks to me!’ In fact, there was so much interest in what John Wimber was modelling and teaching that more and more people began to visit St Andrew’s. Even the youth group burgeoned, eventually to be taken in hand by a very gifted young man with a real heart for kids, Mike Pilavachi.
The first New Wine was held in the summer of 1989. The festival grew from a desire to have whole churches come to an event that would teach what Wimber taught. The idea was to have congregations camp together in villages, to provide a full, interactive and fun kids programme and to put on a whole range of workshops. There was nothing ingenious in what we set up – I simply obeyed what God was calling me to do. The team, which was, and still is, marvellous, prayed every day and from that the work grew. One of the many things I love about New Wine is its relaxed, fun emphasis on fellowship and from that comes a sincere desire to love others and see beyond one’s own circumstances. My hope is that this will translate into the wider Church and religion will give way to a sincere hope and belief in the real message of Christ – love your neighbour as you would want them to love you.
Four years after New Wine began it was becoming clear that the youth side of the festival was growing. This group of under-20-some-things needed their own festival and so, under the leadership of Mike Pilavachi, Soul Survivor was established. Mike is a unique leader who is willing to take risks. I have to say that for the first few years Soul Survivor didn’t pay for itself but, with perseverance, it grew and grew to the extent that it is now an internationally recognised ministry. When Mike first voiced the idea, I teased him and said ‘What a mad idea’ but I knew it was going to be good because I knew Mike was obeying God’s call.
unless we try new things, we’ll simply stagnate.
I cite the above examples because I saw that we needed to take risks and allow others to do so. One of John Wimber’s oft used phrases was ‘Faith is spelt R-l-S-K’. So often in the church we see a mistrust of lay people – we mustn’t make mistakes or risk giving away control to those who aren’t formally trained. Often, we’re critical of new things because we can quickly see flaws in it. Wimber challenged that view – he brought encouragement and one of the very noticeable aspects of the Vineyard church is its emphasis on grace through giving people a chance to try new things and not rejecting them if they fail. That is OK because, unless we try new things, we’ll simply stagnate.
When I think of this whole topic of cultural relevancy, I see how much the church has been shaped and affected by Greek culture and thinking. As gentiles, we adapted the Christian gospel to Greek culture and then we tried to take on Greek culture with our Christianity. This formed our current worldview that acts as a lens through which we filter and interpret what we experience. Our worldview colours, clarifies, classifies, warps or excludes and its power lies in being taken for granted.
This has consequently shaped and defined Christianity into the religion it has become today – an unforgiving, over-structured, divided and, in many respects, a negative icon. Jesus constantly sought to challenge this aspect of the church – He wined and dined with sinners; He used ignorant people to further his ministry; He performed miracles; He displayed emotion; He was humble; He occasionally caused chaos. And, even today, Jesus still challenges the same issues. What do you think Wimber and the Vineyard taught about holistic Hebrew Christianity?
John loved the whole church and he made that very clear. At his memorial service in 1997, prominent church leaders from many denominations stood side by side and testified that before John visited the UK, most of them wouldn’t have spoken to each other. The same, I am sure, happened the world over.
In conclusion, though that sounds too final a phrase for such an on-going issue as this, I believe that we should constantly be aware of how our cultural norms can affect the power of the gospel in cultures very different from our own (hundreds of cultures co-exist in Britain alone). I tried to apply an English cultural perspective to the gospel in South America and failed miserably to communicate the gospel through that cultural perspective. We have to remember that unity is holistic. One of the things I loved about John Wimber was that he had such a relaxed approach to things that we got so uptight about. In his words he was ‘Just a fat man trying to get to heaven’. Even his admission of failure was humorous – ‘Why won’t you write a book?’ ‘I’m not ready, I might change my mind in six months time!’ I’m not putting John Wimber on a pedestal – he was a flawed human being like the rest of us. His only concern was that our hero is Jesus.