The last few months I have been struck again about how the purposes of God advance most effectively through a mass of small happenings rather than through large monoliths. This has been brought to the front of my mind by work I have been doing with my friend Andy Peck on a book about making Christian disciples. More of that later. Right now I need to start somewhere else : prayer walking!
I am a regular prayer walker. Sometimes this turns into larger week long or day long prayer and prophecy walks with groups of Christians who are seeking the Lord’s heart and mind for a particular place or time. The first of these we organised started in the late 1990s. It was an annual 7 day prayer walk along the footpaths around the edge of Greater London. We called it Walk the Walls. We did it every year for 7 years – 1997 to 2003. The first year was mostly our close friends and church members from around High Barnet, where we had planted and led a church called The Stable. The idea caught in so many imaginations that the subsequent walks had 50+ people walking and a series of prayer events with churches along the route.
The tale I need to tell happened on the second Walk the Walls in 1998.
As we walked we prayed. Not often together as a group of 50. Normally in 2s and 3s which spontaneously happened. Sometimes an individual would walk alone, just between two groups, and then there would be a road junction or style and groups would break up and reform the other side of the obstacle in a different combination. In this way, without specific organisation, people would share what they were praying previously and the whole would remain a combination of a variety of parts. At reasonably regular intervals we would take a break – either when we came to a church where we had a prayer gathering planned or just came to the minibus (that always traveled with us to provide refreshments and a way for slow walkers to catch up – allowing us to make prayer the priority rather than any macho need to compete on speed). At these breaks the whole group would gather and whoever was leading would ask people to share what they had been praying about or feeling. Often these times of sharing demonstrated a clear unity and a sense of what the Holy Spirit was saying to us all. I often started a day wondering privately whether the Lord would do it again today, turn up, let us know his mind, bring about a series of objective co-incidents that gave the whole group a certainty that only He could have done it. A provable and convincing experiencing of God being with us, going ahead of us and behind us, leading us in how to pray and what he wanted our prayers to achieve. Then, as the day went along, it would happen again. And again. I should have trusted more because he was always faithful. Always turned up.
1998 was no exception. Every day the same message was reinforced. A combination of happenings, the people on the walk, the people we met, the church and community situations shared with us, they all pointed to the same idea. The Lord wanted his church in London to concentrate on building “the wall”, not a series of large “towers”. (Please think metaphorically now or you will miss the point!)
I cannot remember when the idea (of the contrast between building walls and building towers) first surfaced on that Walk the Walls. I think it was near Cobham. A church leader of a very successful church there had felt a calling to bless all the smaller churches in that section of South West London. After a few months the Lord had shown him how the growth of his big church had been at the expense of the many small churches and that had also been bad for the discipleship of the people involved because now less were active (in smaller less cool places) and more were inactive pew fillers (in his much cooler, creative and better resourced big church). Many of the people were culturally happier with what they were doing now but they were no longer making disciples nor laying down their lives for others and with others to the same degree as they would have been if they had been working out their Christianity closer to home. So there were now less disciples (quantity) and lesser disciples (quality).
As we walked on from Cobham this theme repeated. We would gather for prayer with local Christians and ask what the big prayer needs were and without fail one of the first would be something similar to what I have just described. Once shared I would explain this had been a theme the Holy Spirit seemed to be highlighting and two reactions happened. Firstly there would a strongly negative reaction by some who are best designated as those who were either leading or had recently moved to a “tower” church – those who enjoyed being part of the big or had angry reasons why they had ended up there even though it was not what they had hoped for. Then an equally strong response which was a mixture of joy and a strange conviction and repentant joy which spread through the room starting with those who were already committed to the “lots of wall” multiple smaller, local congregations. But it was not only those doing it already who rejoiced. The Holy Spirit came on one after another stirring them and convincing them that this was his word for now. People started to pray, confessing sin, committing themselves to a change of direction, praying for those who had been abandoned and now felt isolated, praying for those stuck in the pews of the big places and longing to find a place to serve again.
Now… I write this with a strong sense that this word has not gone away. But that does not mean I know how to live in its truth. I simply believe that the Lord wants us building his wall in the communities we live in…. not just hiding and licking our wounds in towers. With that conviction in mind I am praying. For myself, my family, my brother and sister Christians, for local congregations throughout our land, those I know personally and those who I know are out there, wondering why they feel so stuck, in every part of the UK.
Years later I was part of another prayer walk. This time I was in Farnham, the town where I now live in the South of England. A group, mostly student age, lead by my friend Phil Kingham from n:flame (a Christian youth agency serving young people in North London) came over to have an experience of prayer walking. We went for a long walk – too long for some of the young people. We prayed and sought the Lord’s word for the churches in Farnham – with whom I was serving by helping structure some schools work and community projects. I knew what was going on in the town but the visiting young people did not. So I was fascinated to see what they would feel and hear as we walked and prayed.
The breakthrough came while we were walking down a beautiful footpath near Waverley Abbey. The path went down the side of a valley of water meadows near a great manor – stayed in by many famous people from the past. A formerly elegant place which had included a impressive formal garden and in those days had been managed and cultivated by a massive team of groundsmen. But these days, apart from the country footpaths, most had been allowed to return to its natural state.
Along the side of this footpath were a series of very oddly shaped trees. They were of different sizes but coming up of the ground in the shape of circles. Quite a few were broken and tearing the ground up and breaking the stems or trunks of the trees next to them. It was a right mess. Apparently quite a bit of life but something seriously wrong. What could it be?
“Coppicing!” said one of the prayer walkers. “These trees used to be coppiced. The circle around which the stems are growing was the old coppice root. In the past the groundsmen or gardeners would have regularly cut the stems just as the grew to the size of poles. These poles would have been very useful. But now the poles have been allowed to grows to the size of trees and there are no gardeners caring for the root or cutting the stems. So some have grown enormous, others got crushed by the large ones, all have a weak root and so a breath of wind breaks them and tears at the root leaving it exposed to disease. Such a mess. It would have been beautiful and productive down here in the old days when mankind was working closely with these tree roots and tending the crop as it grew.”
Do I need to say more or is the parable strong enough?
Lots of small is beautiful. It will not happen by accident. We need to work with God and cultivate the multiple small model. Even if we have a very big root, we need to keep the stems small. If a few of those small stems grow far larger, get out of control, win the competition for space/nutrition and get all the limelight, it does not mean you have a better situation and you should honour the big. No. That will only lead to a root that becomes more and more fragile and so diseased that it is in danger of rotting.
Remind you of anything?