Bishop’s Letter: The harvest is plentiful
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus appoints seventy of his disciples and ‘sends them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he intends to go’ (Luke 9:1). As they leave, Jesus says ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’ (Luke 9: 2).
I wonder how you react to reading Jesus’ words? As I visit churches, I often learn that just a few people seem to be doing most of the work – the labourers indeed are few. And for many of us, communicating the Gospel to the culture around is a big challenge. It’s not immediately apparent that there’s a plentiful harvest out there, just waiting to be gathered in.
But there are encouragements that we can find ways to live out Jesus’ words in our generation. I’ve seen two of these in the last month – our work with Fresh Expressions and our work with the course ‘Leading Your Church into Growth’.
What is a Fresh Expression? The Church of England says, ‘A Fresh Expression of church serves those outside the church, listens to people and enters their culture, makes discipleship a priority and forms church.’ Here in our Diocese, many churches (up to 180 at the last count) are seeking to put these words into action through activities such as Messy Church, Café Congregations and Church for particular age groups such as the 20s-30s. We’re supporting this work through the project ‘Reaching new People in New Ways’ (for which we were awarded Church Commissioners Strategic Development Funding earlier this year). What strikes me when I encounter Fresh Expressions is that when we offer people ways to encounter God very different to our usual offering, a whole range of folk seem to turn up who we’ve never met before. There is a spiritual hunger around us; the harvest indeed is plentiful. But Fresh Expressions suggest that we may need to find different ways to gather it in. In this we’ve been encouraged this last month by the start of ‘Mission Shaped Ministry’ – a one-year, part-time course which takes people on a learning journey as part of a supportive community, training them for ministry in Fresh Expressions of church. Here in St Albans, around 40 people, lay and ordained, have stepped up to take part in this training; labourers for the harvest.
This might all sound as if we can only reach out to new people by offering experiences of church that are very different to the ways we’ve done things in the past. By no means! The other encouragement of the last month was to see around 90 people, made up of lay and ordained members of 26 benefices, take part in the four-day residential course ‘Leading Your Church into Growth’. The course helped those who took part to enable and plan for the growth of our parish churches and to find ways to turn these plans into actions that help churches grow. We were inspired and learnt a lot. In the coming months we look forward to seeing how what we learned is being translated into practice around our diocese. Again our hope is to see more harvest brought in by more people. How will any of this work out in practice? We don’t ultimately know. But what is clear on reading Jesus’ words in Luke 9 is that seeing this turned into action demands faith and trust in Jesus’ provision. Jesus sends his disciples out into the unknown and uncomfortable, and tells them that they must rely on him, not on their own strengths or resources. If we do that, Jesus says, ‘You will know that the kingdom of God has come near’ (Luke 9: 11). And that, of course, is what all that is happening needs to be about – a plentiful harvest indeed.
Rt Revd Michael Beasley, Bishop of Hertford