A couple of days ago I went for a walk in the Kent countryside. My favourite walk: starting at Ide Hill, then East along the Greensand ridge before plunging into the woods to the North. I often find a walk in the woods brings peace, an opportunity to reflect, time for God and me to communicate with each other, sometimes through spoken prayers, but more often through just being together.
Walking along the ridge and catching glimpses of Kent stretching away South through the gaps in the trees, I stopped for a rest and closed my eyes. As I did I saw in my mind a very clear picture of fairly dense woodland with very thick undergrowth. The undergrowth was mostly brambles, tangled and twisted together.
The place I was walking does not have undergrowth like this: the woods are much more open. So it was interesting that the picture in my mind was quite different to what I’d been looking at.
Over the course of my walk God spoke to me about the woodland picture and how it related to the way that we, as Christians and as Churches, relate to our communities.
Around the edge of the woodland was a fairly broad, muddy path. People were walking along the path, some hurriedly, some more slowly; individually and in groups. The people were jostling and pushing each other: there wasn’t really enough space for everyone.
In some places the undergrowth at the edge of the woodland had been worn away by the crowd, opening up the trees a little. In other places the brambles had begun to push into the path: some of the hurrying crowd got snared in the brambles and tripped up.
This is a picture of what the Church usually does: follows the same path, the well-worn, muddy path, that most other groups of Christians are following. Pushing and jostling and arguing over the same small piece of territory. It has virtually no impact on the woodland as a whole (the community).
What Churches do best is reach the people on the fringe of the Church: they are not yet Christians, but come along to the odd Sunday morning service, or an event in our religious building. They may or may not identify themselves as Christian in some way. What they have is religion. We’re fairly good at helping these people to understand that being a Christian is not about religion, but about having a relationship with Jesus.
But once the “fringe” is exhausted, in many cases our “evangelism” is exhausted too.
Only a very very few people were trying to get into the heart of the woodland. There were no paths, at all. Not even a faint track used by deer, badgers or foxes. Just those nasty, snagging, tangled brambles.
It was impossible to make headway into the heart of the woodland by just forcing a route through the undergrowth: all that would happen is that the person would get snarled in the brambles, fall over and have an awful time trying to escape. Some did not escape. Some pushed further, by sheer individual determination, but then got hopelessly lost.
The only way to make progress was to decide a direction and then patiently snip away at the brambles with secateurs to clear a pathway. Everyone in the group took brief turns at the front, snipping away, whilst others carried the bramble cuttings away, and others kept checking that the pathway was still going in the right direction.
Little by little, light came into the dark centre of the wood. Little by little the brambles were cleared. Little by little, more and more trees had an opportunity to grow properly, without being choked by the brambles.
The rest of the people on the muddy path at the edge of the woodland never really noticed what was going on in the middle.
So, what about us, our group, our Church? Are we rushing along that muddy path, jostling and pushing and arguing for position? Or are we patiently clearing a path through the brambles into the heart of the woodland; bringing real light, real hope, real change, where before there was only darkness and chaos?