I've always been a bit suspicious of those who seem to have God's planning diary in their back pocket. It often means that they have no real need of prayer or discernment - they already know what God's wants and how God will act in the future. They would never admit that prayer was unnecessary, of course, that would be close to blasphemy. But their times of prayer/devotion are for speaking, not listening.
For those who already 'know' God's will, prayer become nothing more than the spiritual icing that makes the mission cake taste that little bit sweeter. This leads churches from all parts of the theological and denomination spectrum into activity based on past successes and easy wins. When I worked for a scholarship programme for young Israelis and Palestinians, I got fed up of well-meaning outsiders beginning their analyses and solution to the conflict with the phrase: 'Well, it's all very simple ....' It never occurred to them that, if it were that simple, it might have already been tried. It also implied that the people of the region were either stupid or intransigent.
Mission-thinking is full of people offering the 'simple' solutions to church communities under pressure. In an age of deepening institutional anxiety, the temptation to grasp at attractive straws becomes almost irresistible. But it should be resisted. My colleague at the Susanna Wesley Foundation, Keith Elford, sums up our current dilemma thus:
the challenge for the Church today is to rediscover its identity/ies
in a much-changed and changing context.
It is important to recognise the fear with which we constantly live, even if we try to ignore it. And the fear-filled question that we need to wrestle with is: in the new landscape, will there be a place for us?
Theologians, especially those from the Established Church, talk about their current predicament as 'exile'. Another Methodist colleague, Rachel Deigh, has rejected that metaphor and feels that a better one for Free Churches is 'exodus'. This is a profound insight and one that bears more exploration. For many in our churches (including many Anglicans), the past is not something to which they wish to return. Ask those faithful Christians who came to our shores in the Windrush generation and found many congregations openly hostile to their presence. The past is not only a foreign country, but sometimes a place of pain, suffering and exclusion, even from other Christians.
Exile is a longing to return; exodus is a willingness to be open to a new and unknown future. Exile is static, waiting for rescue; exodus is a journey, often hard and unpleasant, but with every step building a hopeful tomorrow. Exodus asks us to make difficult decisions about travelling light and girding up our loins. It demands we never forget where we have been as we press on to the future. And most of us, it insists that we rely on the God who is among and within us, but also goes before us.
Our identity must therefore be shaped, in part, by the journey itself, as well as by our past and future. And our prayer must be deep and authentic, struggling to discern what God is calling us to be and holding tightly to the belief that God is generous and active.