Monthly Letter – November 2020

Dear Friends,

When I was growing up cameras meant Kodak. In the world of photography Kodak was clearly king.

No longer. Whether they missed a trick or lost the plot or simply got stuck in a rut, Kodak today is history. As the technology of the future became the world of today, Kodak remained in the past. Beaten, broken, bankrupt. Almost overnight.

How are the mighty fallen! Well, yes. But, more to the point, how on earth did the mighty fall? How did it happen? How could a business which 50 years back had 85% of the market in terms of camera sales, and 90% of the market when it came to the sale of spools of film (those were the ancient days of analogue, remember!) – how could such a dominant firm so quickly decline and die?

At the risk of over-simplifying the thing, it’s usually said that there were behind this sudden demise three primary and significant factors.

Number one: the company failed to reinvent itself in the face of major ‘disruptive changes’. Like it or not, such disruptive changes happen; companies learn to reckon with that and develop alongside their on-going work a sequence of new business models. Kodak didn’t do that.

Number two: complacency was, it seems, pervasive in the company. The easy, long-term dominance which the company knew had bred a certain laxity as well: something akin to presumption. Like Belshazzar of old, Kodak, the king of the camera world, failed to see the writing on the wall until it was too late. Complacency had left them with a fatal lack of urgency.

Number three: they lacked strategic creativity. A fundamental shift was taking place, from analogue to digital, and Kodak lacked the needed flexibility: reluctant to embrace what might turn out in the end to be risky, the policies adopted were all geared towards maintaining what was then the status quo.

Neither Kodak nor kings are immune from the threat of collapse. Nor even the kirk of Christ.

Of course, the church is emphatically not a business. And ‘strategy’ is often a dirty word when it comes to following Christ.

So let me be clear from the outset. We’ve lost the plot when we think that adopting better methods will secure for us ‘results’, or when we formulate great strategies for bringing people in and seeing our numbers grow, as if somehow our ‘programmes’ were the crucial thing. Totally lost the plot.

There’s a little book by E M Bounds (it used to be well known, but I’m not so sure it’s known or read at all these days) called ‘Power through Prayer’ which puts it well; almost as his starting point, the author declares – “The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men and women. .. What the Church needs to-day is not more machinery or better;  not new organizations or more and novel methods; but men and women whom the Holy Ghost can use – men and women of prayer, men and women mighty in prayer.” Not methods, manifestos, or any sort of great ecclesiastical machinery, but men and women who are keeping in step with the Spirit, saints through whom the Spirit of God can carry forward His work.

But … We’ve equally lost the plot if we fail to see that the Lord Himself is strategic. ‘Random acts of kindness’ are anathema to Christ: Jesus simply doesn’t do random at all. Not in the work of creation. Not in the work of salvation. He has a plan. He knows where the story will end. And He knows how to get from where things are now to where He intends they should be. He’s the ultimate master of strategy.

But strategy is His business, not ours. Our task and our calling is simply to walk with our God, to keep in step with the Spirit, to learn from Him what His strategy is – and then to go and implement the thing. That’s what the famous ‘men of Issachar’ basically did. They ‘understood the times’ and ‘knew what they should do’. They discerned what the Lord was effecting back then in those days, and saw the implications for themselves. They were keeping in step with the Spirit of God, discerning His will and His ways, and .. well, ‘doing the maths’ as they say.

That’s where Kodak can come into play as we seek to discern the mind of our Lord and the movings of His Spirit in these days. For the reasons why Kodak spiralled down simply highlight, by means of the contrast, the ways in which, from the day of Pentecost onwards, our Lord has been growing His church.

Major ‘disruptive changes’ were the catalyst for Kodak’s rapid demise. They failed to cope with the crisis of far-reaching change. Their monolithic mindset saw them fall back on their history, presume upon their dominance, and focus on their ‘Kodak’ way of doing things. Put simply, they shut their eyes to the great ‘disruptive changes’ which were taking place and failed to adapt to the very different rhythms of the world in which, like everyone else, they were now obliged to live.

We do well to learn some lessons. For ‘major disruptive changes’ were the catalyst as well for the first remarkable expansion of the early church. And great ‘disruptive changes’ have been taking place today across our land – indeed across the globe. These are changes over which we’ve had little or no control: but they’ve been changes which have altered profoundly the landscape of our living and have largely uprooted the old and familiar parameters of how as the followers of Jesus we have sought to be serving the King.

We may not like such changes. But they happen.

We’ve been all too aware of such change across these recent months, as the pandemic has incurred for us all a whole new palette of restrictions. Major practical changes have been the result of all the governments’ guidelines, rules and requirements.

Our economy’s taken a hit: and the impact on our local urban eco-culture is, and will be, immense.

Our activity here as a church (like that of so many another) has taken a hit – think of the things we no longer are able to do: and even the things we’re still able to do are severely reduced and constrained.

And our cohesion as a society’s taken a hit: the rule of law is built on consent, and the threads of consent are now frayed and wearing thin – we’re teetering now near the brink of a civil unrest.

But those are merely the practical ways in which we’ve been hit by great disruptive change. There are other dimensions of change today, more far-reaching by far in their scope and in their consequence.

There’s been a huge, and subtle ideological change as well: a shift from a basic Judaeo-Christian worldview to the ‘cancel-culture’ tenets of a top-down cultural Marxism. Our history’s getting re-written. Our morality’s being given a make-over. Our values are being turned on their head.

Great ‘disruptive forces’. The cause of Kodak’s crumbling. The kings of the camera world of their day, who for so many years had held such remarkable sway – they presumed upon pre-eminence: their presumption bred complacency; their complacency bred inertia: and their inertia left them powerless, penniless, pointless.

The church has had a similar ‘pre-eminence’ across the years throughout our land. Not merely decades’ worth, but centuries’ worth of ‘holding sway’. For that, indeed, we’re truly grateful to the Lord, thankful for that heritage of faith which has informed, defined and rooted all the basic institutions of our nation’s life in the fertile soil of God’s unchanging truth.

But those days, it seems, are past. And if that be the case, so be it. We’re taught in the Scriptures just how to respond as we rest in our sovereign God. We resort neither to presumption – where we hunker down till the dust starts to settle and then presume to resume our normal service (this is the way we’ve always done it, after all); nor to depression – resigning ourselves to decline and defeat and engaging in great nostalgic waves of irrelevant reminiscing.

Instead we learn to adapt.

We rejoice in our God as the One who is Creator, and who’s marked by creativity: the One who’s so wonderfully able to pick up every circumstance and make it work for good, exalting the Name of His Son, extending the bounds of His kingdom, fulfilling the plans He has formed from all eternity. He’s not ‘fazed’ at all by any of the great disruptive changes which His people have to face.

Crucify the Saviour whom God sent into the world, and hope thereby to thwart the living God? Why, thank you very much, says God – you haven’t foiled My plans at all, He laughs, you’ve actually fulfilled them!

Stone His potent preacher to his death and persecute His embryonic church, and hope thereby to stop the gospel taking wings before it’s left the ground? Why, thank you very much, says God – you haven’t foiled My plans at all, you’ve only served to further them remarkably!

That’s always our basic starting point. Our Saviour and God is enthroned on high, and our King is now working His purposes out – and bids His people simply step on out behind Him and then follow where He leads.

That’s the perspective which those of the tribe of Issachar always adopt. They understand the changing times. They know what now they need to do. The early church learned to live like that. They, too, faced great disruptive changes in the persecution which was consequent on Stephen’s death. They, too, knew all about tough economic hardship, political upheaval, and the pressures of competing ideologies.

What they didn’t do was simply hunker down complacently and sit it out until the storms abated and life at last returned to what they’d always known as ‘normal’ up till then. They adapted. And the ways in which they adapted back then are instructive for us now.

1. The whole ‘direction’ of their living was reversed. For countless generations their life of faith had always seen them gravitate in towards the centre, the temple in Jerusalem. The great disruptive change which persecution brought was God’s great change of gear. Centripetal became centrifugal. No longer a people whose life was defined by their always coming in to the building: but a people whose living had an outward momentum and view.

That’s a lesson in living we, too, are now needing to learn. Our latent default instinct, our natural gravitation, is always towards that in-to-the-building ‘direction’: a people who gather to worship and learn, and who draw others in as well, of course – in to the faith and in to the Lord and in to a newness of life. That’s no doubt an aspect of our living. But not the essence. Whatever may have characterized our life of faith in the past, the great disruptive changes of these days require of us an outward-going momentum. No longer bringing the people out there to the Lord, so much as bringing the Lord to the people.

2. Their whole conception of ministry underwent a minor revolution. Their long, rich heritage of faith had centred round the ministry of ‘professionals’. Prophets. Priests. Kings. They’d been the ones who did the business, so far as the kingdom of God was concerned. There was always the danger that just that ministry mentality would spill over lock, stock and barrel, into the life of the early church – the apostles (the new ‘professionals’) being the ones now through whom the work of God was done.

The great disruptive change which persecution brought blew that view of ministry clean out of the water. The Spirit of God now rested on and did His work through each and every believer: and the cause of the kingdom would be furthered henceforth by ordinary, unnamed people. In their homes and at their work and on their streets and wherever they happened to be.

For ourselves as well, the great disruptive changes of these days will mean a radical shift in where the weight of ministry, going forward, surely falls. Not on those who are Ministers (capital ‘M’), but on all of us as ministers: individual believers – men and women, girls and boys, trusting in Jesus, indwelt by the Spirit – who are now the Holy Spirit’s mouthpiece in the marketplace. Go do, says the Lord: ‘I will help you speak and will teach you what to say’ (Ex.4.12).

3. The whole constituency they were now called to serve saw them sailing in uncharted waters. The great disruptive change, which persecution brought, threw them right out into the Gentile world. People with no ‘church’ background at all: people unacquainted with the truths and perspective of Scripture: people whose attitudes, outlooks and conduct were a million miles different from what these early Christians had known and been familiar with. They didn’t have a manual for this (apart from the book of Jonah). The book of Acts is the story of that learning curve, which proved to be more vertical than steep: but learn they did – they learned to adapt; and adapting thus they advanced.

And so it will prove for ourselves. Our task has always been to proclaim and portray the Lord Jesus Christ, He who is ‘the image of the invisible God’. That hasn’t changed. But the great disruptive changes of these recent days now mean that it’s before our own, contemporary ‘Gentile’ world, at odds and at war with the Lord, that we seek to proclaim the King.

The terrain is altogether different: tougher, steeper, more rugged, unpredictable. We’re still in the business of driving God’s purposes forward now, but our Jags must be swapped for some Jeeps. Where Kodak stayed put in the ‘showroom’, we’re heading out and off-road – and a bumpy ride’s in prospect!

Yours in the service of Christ,

Jeremy Middleton