Monday, April 21, 2008

An Event God would like to come to...

This is an article that Rob Frost wrote before he died. It's long, but you have to read it if you have anything to do with church events, worship or evangelism

"I landed in Los Angeles and managed to locate my car rental centre, a bus ride across the huge airport complex. A twelve hour flight, together with all the check-in security hassles at Heathrow and the usual immigration process at my ‘port of entry’ in the USA, had taken their toll. I was grateful that a representative of the convention I was speaking at was there to meet me, and even more relieved when she offered to sit beside me and navigate me through the complex network of Californian highways until at last I reached the country roads in the forests outside San Jose.

By the time I reached my log cabin deep in the midst of the redwood forest at the conference centre, I was absolutely exhausted. I didn’t even unpack, but fell onto the bed and sank into a deep and satisfying sleep. This was, of course, a big mistake. I should have stayed awake and gently acclimatised to the local time zone, but when you’re as tired as I was, nothing is sweeter than sleep. I knew I would pay for it the following night, and of course I did.

It must have been 4am when I woke with a start. It was very, very dark. Owls were hooting, and there was the eerie cry of a wild coyote somewhere in the distance. I was ravenous, and very much awake, so I opted for an ‘early breakfast.’ I rooted around the kitchen to find the generous supplies my hosts had left for me, and I sat out on the veranda of my cabin with hot coffee and toast, and stared out at the moonlit outlines of the trees all around me.

It was as I sat there, in this rather bewildered state of ‘jet-lag’ that I felt that God spoke to me. Not as an audible voice, admittedly, but through a jolt of Holy Presence. The words came very clearly, almost as if they were sprayed onto the wall of my consciousness graffiti-style. “Why not organise an event that I’d like to come to?” he said. It shook me to the core.
Was this my imagining? Perhaps. Was it make-believe? Possibly. Could it have been real? It certainly felt real. And it certainly had a powerful effect on me. It was as if a surge of power had shot through my entire being. As if the things I had been struggling to come to terms with during the previous few months were now blindingly obvious. I felt that some kind of struggle was over, and some different course had been set for my future.

Of course, in order to understand the significance of this pre-dawn experience you’d need to know the context. I’d been the director of an event called Easter People since its launch twenty years previously, and I had recently announced that the next conference would be the last. There’d been a lot of consultation, a plethora of ‘forward planning papers’, and a lot of discussion with my trustees and board. It wasn’t a decision that we’d arrived at lightly; it had certainly been prayerfully submitted to the will of God.

The reasons for the closure were manifold. After peaking numerically in the year 2000, with 12,000 plus participants, the event had been in gentle decline ever since. The changes in school holiday dates were bound to have a detrimental effect on numbers over future years. The transfer of conference centre management from town councils to large entertainment corporations had meant that rental prices had more than quadrupled. The event had become less and less cost effective.

Above all, however, those of us organising it were feeling that it had passed its sell by date. We knew that it would be hard to ‘re-launch’ because so many wanted to keep it just the way it was! It was haemorrhaging money and staff resources from the rest of my ministry. This grew so serious that I began to feel as if I was raising large sums of money each year for mission, only to spend it on sustaining a loss-making Christian conference. But, above all, those of us at the centre of it were bored with the twenty-year merry-go-round of planning and preparation! A process which dominated the passing seasons of every year.
Having reached the point of ‘laying down’ Easter People, I was not looking for some other event to take its place! On the contrary, I was looking forward to developing a new style of ministry which gave me more time to speak and write, and which demanded far less ‘organisation’ throughout the year!

On the long twelve hour journey to California I had re-visited the future of my ministry again. Would anything ever replace Easter People, and if so, did I have a part to play in launching it? I submitted it all to Christ again, and as the carpet of white cloud slipped slowly past beneath us, I gave my ministry back to God as I had done so often down the years. God’s faithfulness had been an undeniable experience throughout my life and I had no difficulty in recognising that he would work his purposes out in the future, too.

On the veranda I chewed on my toast, and wondered what diverse manner of animal life was scurrying about in the shadowy forest ahead of me. The words wouldn’t go away. “Why not organise an event that I’d like to come to?” Had God actually spoken to me, or was this some subconscious echo from my prayers on the flight. I sincerely felt it was the former, but couldn’t rule out the latter! But, whatever, the phrase intrigued me. What would an event that Jesus wanted to attend really look like?

I ambled back into the wooden cabin and picked up my airline carry-on case. I pulled out the biro and notepad that I always carry on long-haul flights. I sank back into the veranda chair, and the warmth of the summer’s night enveloped me. What would an event like this look like? What would make Jesus want to show up?

I knew in an instant what it didn’t look like. And that shook me. I felt for sure that it wouldn’t look ‘religious’. It wouldn’t be full of ‘meetings’ or ‘seminars’ … and it wouldn’t be full of stressed out Christians running from lecture to lecture eager to mop up the latest teaching from the newest ‘guru’ on the block. It wouldn’t just be lots of worship events, with a stream of eager praise bands each seemingly trying to outdo the other. And it wouldn’t feature strutting preachers, some of whom seemed to be more intent on ‘playing to the gallery’ than prophetically challenging their hearers to the core.

Other negative images streamed across my mind. Long appeals for money. Uniformed guards stopping people from coming in. Fifteen foot high walls designed to keep out those not wearing the right wristband, badge or day-glow hand stamp! And a great cloud of earnestness, of ‘good intent’ and glowing self-satisfaction – a kind of contemporary pietism that says to the world “I paid £1000 to bring my family to this and we deserve a medal.” (They do, actually, because they could all have had a nice beach holiday in Tenerife for less!) No, I really couldn’t see Jesus feeling comfortable here!

Would he turn up for an event with barely a black face in sight? Would he like it if the children were safely boxed into one space and the teens in another? Twenties in a trendy venue and the middle aged in one with more comfortable seats, but all the ages never coming together? With the elderly made welcome only as long as they sang the latest songs? A middle-class constituency of decent people filling every seat, but no sign of the poor, the marginalised, the hurting or the down right peculiar?
And would he show up if there was no room for atheists, agnostics, cons, pimps, addicts, gays, divorcees, single mums, asylum seekers, Catholics, Muslims, Sikhs, sex workers and very lapsed Christians? I don’t think so.

I finished my toast, took a last swig of coffee and began to write. The following three and a half hours flew by. I barely noticed the shadows receding and the orange glow of dawn filling the sky high above the tree tops. It was a time of ‘inspiration’, when the flow of ideas moved so quickly that my pen could hardly keep up. The exercise book was practically full by the end of it.
I saw the event so clearly that it was as if I was there. It was as if the Body of Christ had woken up after a long sleep, and had discovered what fun it was to be alive in God.
I saw artists of every kind filling the streets. Big graffiti style creations and fine oils on canvas. Great tapestries, and projects with lots of ordinary people ‘having a go.’ Telling God’s story in pictures and symbols that anyone could understand.
I heard musicians, bands playing on the street corner, classical ensembles in shady city squares, and people singing. Gospel, barbershop, choirs and soloists, and young people rappin’ in shop doorways. Praising God in a cacophony of beautiful harmony.
I smelt hot food drawing me towards a square filled with delicious tastings from all over the world. Rice and peas, curry, French fries, and big steaming silver bowls of Chinese food. The cultures of the world offering free food in celebration of the One who gave it. And in among it all there was dance, from ballet to contemporary, from liturgical to Latin, Salsa, Ballroom, street and hip-hop. A long conga was winding its way through the crowd. All celebrating the One who is Lord of the Dance of Life.

Somewhere in the distance church bells rang out the grandeur of God, and the roar of a crowd indicated that there was a football competition or sports tournament for inner city kids not far away. Floating in on the gentle breeze was the sound of a theatre company in full swing with laughter in the air. Round the corner a lorry appeared with a jazz band rockin’ on its long trailer decking.

I passed a pub, and inside a crowd of people were hearing eminent scientists debating the mysteries of the universe. In an up-market wine bar three Christian politicians were debating the great challenges of the day in front of an audience who’d never seen anything like it. In a restaurant people were ‘eating simply’ as they discussed the ravages of world hunger. In a bookshop an audience was applauding a lecture on climate change.

People were streaming into a cinema to see a movie which told the greatest story. In a coffee shop a Christian poet held the crowded tables in rapt attention. The sound of children laughing was emanating from a church schoolroom where puppets performed.
And there were churches with doors flung wide open. And inside quiet spaces filled with flowers and beautiful music. A labyrinth of different things to see and do which were woven together into a liturgy of worship. And people from the street receiving bread and wine. And angelic faces, with the flow of fine oil running down their cheeks as they received faith-filled prayers for healing.

The most breathtaking aspect of this festival was its size. Everywhere I went the streets were full of life, and colour and action and sound. And whatever I saw expressed something of the wonder, and the power and the majesty of the Lord. It was more diverse than the Edinburgh Festival, culturally richer than Notting Hill Carnival, more cerebral than Malvern literature week, louder than Reading and more spiritual than Glastonbury. The sheer scale of it, the power of it, the joy of it, the wonder of it and the spirituality of it overwhelmed me.
But how could this be? I knew in an instant! It was just so obvious. This was the sleeping giant, the Church of Christ, slowly waking from its slumbers. If all the Christians in all the towns came together, just once, just for a day… and took to the streets to celebrate their God, what a difference they could make. If we all lay down our denominational differences, put aside our theological squabbles, leave behind our different brands of churchmanship, and all do something together… what a sound we could make and what fun we could have!
And if every Christian agency stopped trying to sell us something, but instead, gave away their ministry for free. And if every denomination stopped their eternal conferencing and took to the streets to celebrate. And if the Pentecostals danced with the Reformed, and the Catholics sang with the Brethren, and the black churches prayed with the white, what a difference we could make.

I saw much more than this in my vision. Vast halls filled to capacity with crowds seeing all the very best that Christendom has to offer. Orchestras, and choirs, and bands, and theatre. And stadiums filled with prayer and praise. And worship that is truly a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

And everywhere the ordinary people were saying “Is this Christianity? Is this Church? Are these believers?” For they had thought the Church was dead. That Christianity was nothing more than the BBC’s Songs of Praise. That belief had nothing to do with changing society. That Christians had nothing to give, and nothing to say. And in my heart I was seeing another Pentecost.

I closed my exercise book and went into my wooden cabin to shave. Soon I had to drive to San Jose airport to pick up my son, Andy, who was speaking at the youth meetings at the same convention as me. And when, finally, I met him striding through the arrivals area with his surf board I could see that, he, too was jet-lagged and exhausted.
The next morning at about 4am I woke with a start. I could smell the aroma of fresh coffee, and someone in the kitchen was making toast. I felt very hungry, so I got up. My son Andy turned to me; “care for an early breakfast, Dad?” Just as I had done the previous morning, we sat on the veranda together and looked out at the shadows among the trees.
“I’ve been thinking, Dad,” he said, “about a new kind of event. Not a bit like Easter People. Something right outside the box. A place where everyone took part and not just the big name speakers…”

I ambled back to my room, picked up my exercise book, and returned to the veranda. “Does it look anything like this?” I asked, and I started to read the outline I’d written twenty-four hours earlier. “Yep. We’re pretty much in the same ball-park, but where are you going to hold it?”
“That’s the problem” I replied. All day my mind had been turning over a list of market towns throughout the UK which might host such an event but somehow nowhere felt right! I couldn’t see how such an event would ever fit in somewhere small, and if it was in a bigger city, I couldn’t figure out how people would move from one location to another without getting exhausted along the way.

Andy smiled. “It’s got to be London. Right at the centre. Christians engaging with the arts, politics, science and entertainment where the action is. And people moving from location to location on the London Underground… the Northern Line. No problem!”
And so the journey to the Pentecost Festival began. It began with Andy and me, but already we have hundreds of fellow-travellers. I don’t know if it’s a journey we’ll all complete! Since all this happened I’ve had a scary tryst with cancer which took my eye off the project for months, and we’ve met a fair few friends along the way who’ve poured cold water on the whole idea and told us how sure they are it’ll never work!

But there have been others, many others, whose encouragement has been unstinting. In meetings with some of the most well known church leaders in the country we have felt deeply affirmed. They’ve assured us that Christians in the UK need to re-engage with society in a completely new way; that there’s a desperate need for a ‘signature event’ which will show that Christianity is far from ‘written off.’ So far, twelve major Christian organisations have offered to co-sponsor the event, seeking to serve the ‘greater good’ rather than just the agenda of their own board. And what’s surprised me most has been the encouragement of senior police officers, council officials, tourist board project managers and transport representatives who’ve all said “this is just what London needs.”

The phrase “what would Jesus want to come to?” lives with me still. It is the mantra repeated at all our planning meetings; and it keeps us focussed on the vision in hand. For, ultimately, the Person we want most to turn up is Jesus himself. We want to build something for him, and for his glory alone.

When the Spirit came at the first Pentecost he did two things. First, he empowered the very ordinary, scared and hesitant followers of Jesus with the fullness of God’s Spirit. It was intensely personal, life transforming and enabling. The Spirit turned them around, gave them gifts for service, and a personal experience of intimacy with God which showed them that what they believed was true. We need some more of that, for sure! And in many places throughout this Pentecost Festival I hope that people will discover this fresh touch of God.

Secondly, he drove them out into the city square. He put them at the heart of a multi-faith and multi-cultural market-place, and gave them the power to speak in the language of the people. He gifted them to communicate in ways they could understand, and in a manner that made them want a slice of the action themselves! Little wonder that 3,000 new believers were added to the church that day!

The vivid reality of my two veranda breakfasts is still fresh in my mind. Whatever happens at the Pentecost Festival in London, I feel that it’s a powerful Word to the Church that is far more significant than just a couple of days in central London. It’s a Word that says that we have played the games of Christian conferencing for too long, we’ve built our little empires and developed our Christian sub-cultures. And I speak as one who has played my part in it, and who knows the game better than most.

But now God is calling us to receive the Spirit afresh and to do something different. It’s a call to find a God-empowerment for all the people called Christian, and not just the ‘big name’ talent. It’s a call to move out of our buildings, marquees, convention centres and ‘conference facilities.’ A call to take the action back into the multi-cultural market place, a call to celebrate what God has done in ways that shine with love and service.
This is not ‘evangelism’, with preachers shouting condemnation down loudspeaker horns. No, this is celebration! Let the party begin… and whoever wants to come is invited. Let’s re-discover Pentecost."

The Pentecost Festival is on from the 9th to the 11th of May 2008 in London.

1 comment:

  1. I got sent some stuff about this a while ago... looks amazing. Even more so with the story behind it!