After leading New Wine through tough times, including financial difficulty following the Covid-19 pandemic, Paul Harcourt is stepping aside and passing the baton on to Rich Johnson. Here, Paul reflects on the past seven years and looks ahead to what God might be doing in the UK Church
At the beginning of this month, many of us made the pilgrimage to Harrogate for the New Wine National Leadership Conference. Almost 1,800 were present for what was New Wine’s largest ever gathering of leaders.
With so much going on in the nation and in the Church, many came with a desperate need to meet with God, and we were not disappointed. The three days together were marked by a deep sense of encounter with God. More personally, for me they were marked by the announcement that I will step aside as New Wine’s National Leader at the end of April, with Rich Johnson of All Saints’ Worcester taking on the mantle from then.
Not surprisingly, I’ve been reflecting on my time in leadership over almost seven years. My season began after the sudden and unexpected resignation of my predecessor. We quickly became aware that the financial model of summer conferences providing sufficient income to cover operational costs through the year was no longer realistic. Proposed developments on the showground meant moving from Shepton Mallet to a more central venue in Peterborough. And then the pandemic, and the continuing after-effects…
The time that is given to us
Recently, I was listening to The Lord of the Rings audiobook and was reminded of a conversation between Frodo and his mentor, Gandalf the Wizard. On learning that he was now responsible for The One Ring, Frodo wistfully says, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”. In response, Gandalf replies, “And so do all who live to see such times. But it is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”
coming to the end of our own resources is the best thing that could ever happen to us
I’m sure many leaders have felt like Frodo in the past few years! I should also make it clear that leading New Wine has been an incredible joy, full of unexpected blessing and with scarcely a day going by when I didn’t get a privileged view of what God was doing in the Church. Perhaps the backdrop of challenge and uncertainty is part of life still and always will. But can we look forward? I have begun to sense that God is indeed on the move, and there is a growing momentum in New Wine and the wider Church.
Why God works in seasons
As the saying has it, “Seasons come, Seasons go…” Or should that be the other way round? Are we highlighting the impermanence of each season (which could be a comfort in hard times) or raising hope that there will be a new and potentially better day?
Why does God even work in seasons? Surely he is unchanging? Yes, but we have a need for different emphases at different times. We can’t receive everything that God needs to do in us all at once. He patiently teaches us specific lessons, looks for us to rise to particular challenges. We might even say that seasons change because God doesn’t! That means that we need to be responsive to his leading and learn to align ourselves with what he’s doing in any one season.
Ecclesiastes 3 (“a time for everything”) is a favourite chapter for many - I was surprised to find that my mother had chosen it for her own funeral - but it could be read as fatalism. Rather than suggesting we should respond with resignation, the point appears to be that we should find what God is doing in each season. And, of course, ultimately, we should look beyond circumstances to eternity, as verse 11 so memorably says: “he has set eternity in the human heart”. Each season has its own lessons, each leads to the next. We get to position ourselves to build on the previous season and receive the invitation to discover more of God in the next.
Letting go of expectations
Just before the leadership conference, I was able to join with a church in Bridlington for a local renewal conference. The title for our time together was drawn from Isaiah 46: “Remember the former things”. Quite an important corrective after several years when the word from the prophets seemed to consistently be from chapter 43, “do not remember the former things”! Of course, the two sayings hold together. We are to let go of our expectations of how God will move and allow him to surprise us as he does new things. But we are also to remember that his character is unchanging, that he is faithful and that he is holy.
In a time of great change, holding on to the unchanging nature of God is a sure anchor for our lives. It is also the source of joy. One thing that seemed to be on God’s agenda for our New Wine leadership conference was a call to complete surrender, with confession and repentance before a release of the fresh joy in salvation. This carried echoes of what has been taking place in Asbury College in Kentucky, in other American college campuses, and even in some of our UK churches where there are large numbers of students and young adults. Simple worship services but characterised by deep repentance and passion for God. No names exalted but the name of Jesus. A determination not to let anyone take the glory that is God’s alone. Nothing was manipulated or marketed. It seemed to be a sovereign move of God on a generation that knew they had no other hope.
Coming back to God
Could it be that the new thing for which we all long is simply an old thing? The season that the Church is heading into will inevitably have its challenges, inevitably call us to let go of some familiar forms and structures. Yet it could be that coming to the end of our own resources is the best thing that could ever happen to us. The new season will be about rediscovering God’s sufficiency. It’s remembering some things that might have been neglected for a season – God’s holiness, his faithfulness, his glory and majesty.
We might again tremble at his word, be pierced by the awareness of our own sin, and be moved to genuine and sacrificial love.
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