Friday, 28 December 2007

If The Label Sticks, Wear It!

clipped from
Not sure that any of those who responded to my earlier post on evangelism, liberals and conservatives were quite making this point, but many people do seem to have an almost seething resentment of labels.

Certainly a young friend of mine recently insisted that his mates just didn’t like labels and would prefer not to be labeled by others or to apply them to themselves. Guess that makes them anti-labelists!

Whatever the pros and cons of labels I’m not sure we can or indeed should live without them. I do however sympathise with my friend to a certain extent. Labels can be used in ways that are very unhelpful.

It’s not good to fly labels like colours behind which we ride into battle against others with different labels.

It’s not good to use labels to limit, tie down and dismiss others.

It’s not good to use labels flatten difference, obscure the peculiar and oversimplify reality.

Antipathy towards labeling is part of the postmodern turn. According to Zygmunt Baumann’s excellent Modernity and Ambilvelance a certain approach to labeling is deeply characteristic of modernity's obsession with classifying all of reality and its deep unease with the ambivalent. The postmodern critique is to be welcomed, reality is not susceptible to neat, Dewi-decimal-type classification and we do violence to reality, including the reality of people and their bodies, when we insist on fitting everything into our predetermined categories. But we needn’t use labels in such a way and I reckon we can’t and shouldn’t live without labels at all.

We need labels to denote collectives who share common characteristics, commitments, convictions and associations.

They also come in handy to locate people.

And those who would deny our need for labels are surely also in denial of the inescapable and indeed immensely valuable corporate dimension of human identity.

So I vote for labels, I thank God for labels, labels help give clarity to my identity. As long that is you don’t use my labels for the negative purposes outlined above and as long you recognise that labels are not fixed but fluid and living, with meanings on the move, then I really don’t mind, go ahead, label me.

Liberals and Evangelicals: the Coy and the Cocky

Tiny Sign
Originally uploaded by probationboy
This is the first of three posts arising from reactions to my recent poll which asked if evangelical/conservative Christians are better at evangelism than liberal/radical Christians.

Tim suggested that this was a strange poll and Jody is clearly unimpressed by what passes for making disciples in evangelical circles. This first post then relates to some of my concerns about evangelism and explains some of the reasons behind the poll.

My own recent experience and reading has persuaded me that the missiologist David Bosch was onto something back in the 90’s when he suggested the possibility of a coming together between the evangelical and liberal movements. (1) If this is right it is a good thing. Each movement has distinctive strengths that are lacking in the other. In relation to evangelism liberalism tends to be much less formulaic and dogmatic than evangelicalism and much better at humble, respectful dialogue but evangelicalism evidences much more enthusiasm and is much more likely to actually get on with sharing the faith.

What I long to see is an expression of protestant Christianity which combines the best of both these approaches. Many seem to think at that the two sets of qualities are incompatible. I cannot accept this. For example I can’t see why it isn’t possible to enter into genuinely open dialogue with an enthusiastic hope that the other will come to follow Christ. I think it was David Bosch again who spoke of the need for a bold humility.

My fear though is that we will end up running away so fast from the more distasteful approaches to evangelism to be found in some forms of conservative Christianity that we will end up being coy about verbal faith sharing and luke warm when it comes to helping others to become disciples. Certainly recent expressions of classic liberalism, most forms of post-evangelicalism/emerging church are depressingly diffident when it comes to telling people about Jesus. The former is declining at a rate approaching the speed of sound and the latter is patently failing to make significant impression upon postmodern generations.

Sure evangelism is about far more than telling, Jesus didn’t call us to be gobs on legs, but why oh, why do we find it so hard to embrace a genuinely holistic form of witness holding together being, doing, showing AND TELLING?

1. This coming together, if it is to happen, is unlikely to embrace the whole of evangelicalism. I suspect that the future of evangelicalism will see a bifurcation between those who become ever more entrenched in reactionary forms of neo-fundamentalism and those on the left wing of the movement who recognise the need for significant change.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

This Week's Poll

If you want to do more than just click, comment on this post.

Last week’s poll: Compared to conservative/evangelical Christians, liberal/radical Christians are rubbish at leading people to faith in Christ. 10 votes, 6 agree, 4 disagree. More more vote: I agree.

Last week’s poll prompted one or two interesting observations about the use of labels and the labels conservative, evangelical, liberal and radical in particular hence this week’s poll and hopefully a new post on labels soon.

A Bit Of A Dust Up?

Originally uploaded by apremorca
Just finished a bit of a conversation with a friend on Facebook.

I said I'd quite enjoyed The Golden Compass

Here's what he said:

is this the book or the film - I had heard that the script/production excised most of the Pulman theology so what is left is a ripping yarn. Not sure if that is good or bad - if they had succeeded in taking the Christianity out of the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe when they filmed it I would have been very upset. I don't agree with Pulman but if his original concept got nobbled to present to a mass audience I would feel shortchanged

Here's what I said back:

Film - and everyone I know has slated it for the reasons you give. But ... although it's a long time since I read the book I reckon Pulman's philosophy is still pretty clear (so far anyway ... if remember the trilogy correctly it doesn't become THAT clear in the books till after book one). I realise that it may only be clear to me BECAUSE I have read the book but if someone hasn't read the books they aren't going to care anyway are they? (It is just about possible that I'm mistaken here - I may have forgotten just how much the original sin/ anti-ecclesiastical stuff there was in Northern Lights. If I had the time I'd re-read the book. My Son who saw it with us insists I'm wrong ... but that's par for the course, whatever the issue!) Either way I enjoyed the film for the most part.

As a ripping yarn it works pretty well especially in the second half - I cared about the characters; Lyra was really well acted as was Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) and the big polar bear fight scene tugged at my heart strings as did the daemon separation / child abuse scene.

The problems with it arise mainly from the decision to aim for a PG cert and a younger audience which leads to an overly short film, which then leads to some very clunky potting with far too many "let's spell it out for the kids" lines of dialogue.

Go see it and let me know what you think.

Also - is this a sad thing to be doing on boxing day? Shouldn't I be fighting with my family and complaining about the ref at this afternoon's match?

PS - was a bit disappointed with the Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe - the film that is.

What do you say?

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Mainstream Miracle

Go here for a BBC report on healing
at last years Mainstream conference.

This Week's poll 13/12/07

If you want to do more than just click you can comment on this post.

Last week's poll: Opposing women in ministry is as bad as opposing black people in ministry? 18 votes, agree 18, disagree 0. One more vote I vote agree.

Friday, 7 December 2007

How I Finally Got Into The MCC (C)

Bit late getting round to this but I wanted to record one or two reflections arising from last Sunday’s visit to Manchester Chinese Christian Church. Since meeting Pastor Kim a number of years ago we’ve been trying to fix up for me to preach to “his people”. It was a delight finally to do so. What follows is not so much processed thinking as a list of impressions and half baked musings.

GREAT TO BE IN A CONGREGATION THAT WAS SO YOUNG. Not that there’s anything wrong with being in elderly congregations. It’s just that this made a refreshing change. Well actually no, I’m not being entirely honest; I’m trying too hard not to be offensive to older people. Truth is that unless we do something about the age profile of many congregations in this country then in about ten to twenty years we are going to see a precipitous drop off in the number of church-goers and congregations.

DISAPPONTING THAT THE EXPERIENCE AS A WHOLE WASN’T MORE CHINESE. Apart from the black tea after the service, the script on some of the notices around the building and the sense of quiet politeness that pervaded the whole morning, it really was just like being in so many other just-about-charismatic-but-not-as-charismatic-as-we-used-to-be-back-in-the-70’s-and-80’s congregations. Don’t get me wrong this says far more about me and my expectations (prejudices?) than it does about the people with whom I was worshipping. There is no reason whatsoever that they should be anything other than just what they are – certainly no reason that has anything to do with my yen for the exotic. Except that is that we do need fresh and imaginative ways of being church and I do still nurture a fond hope that some of the ethnic minority congregations in our country just might just have something distinctive to offer. If all that’s going to happen is that such congregations take on the form and feel of past-its-best-tired-Spring-Harvest approach to liturgy then in all likelihood my hope will be forlorn. It should be noted though that this was the English speaking (therefore by definition the most anglicised) congregation. Must fix up with Kim to visit the Cantonese and Mandarin speaking congregations.

GREAT TO BE IN A DECENT SIZED CONGREGATION. Not that there’s anything indecent about small congregations. (I am more than happy to belong to a church where we get the church growth equivalent of vertigo if 30 people show up on Sunday morning.) It’s just that now that I go around preaching at and visiting other churches as a matter of routine I can’t help noticing just how many titchy gatherings of people there are out there. Of course I already knew that in a statistical-matter-of-fact-sort-of-a-way. But seeing it for yourself and feeling it in your water does bring home just how fragile and vulnerable many congregations and indeed some whole denominations are. Now before you go and get all theological on me, I too could wax lyrical about how appropriate it is for followers of Christ to be in a precarious place and how dangerous it is when we start flexing our ecclesial muscles in the posing mirror. But I also reckon that when it comes to talking about numbers there’s an awful lot of special pleading going on and that to most ministers, and indeed non-professional Christians, out there numbers do matter for all kind of reasons – some good, some bad. [Note from the little editor who sits in the back of my head: stop waffling and save what you were going to say for a separate post about numbers, size, church growth, success and failure. OK ed.]

GREAT TO BE IN A CONGREGATION THAT INVITED VISITORS BRIEFLY TO INTRODUCE THEMSELVES. A familiar pattern this in some traditions and a number of countries but one that doesn’t seem to have taken off in the circles I move in. Of course I understand the let’s-not-embarrass-people-by-putting-them-on-the-spot-when-they-would-rather-sit-at-the-back-of-church-and-observe-unharrassed thing, but I actually quite like this way of doing things and I’ve never yet seen it cause any awkwardness. On the contrary it always seems to be entirely natural and appropriate. Isn’t it just a matter of courtesy and hospitality? Isn’t it entirely fitting for a small group of people acting corporately to say a hello and offer a polite, formal, public welcome to visitors. In such a grouping pretending that newcomers aren’t there, not acknowledging them, seems a bit odd.


DISAPPOINTING TO WRECK THE WHOLE THING BY BUMPING INTO THE CAR NEXT TO ME WHILE TRYING TO GET MY VAN OUT OF THE UNDERSIZE CAR PARK. “That’s a shame” he said without any sense of irony, “and I quite enjoyed your sermon this morning.”

WORRYING THAT SINCE SUNDAY I SEEM TO HAVE DEVELOPED A CAN’T-WRITE-WITHOUT-USING-LOTS-HYPHENS ADDICTION. Can drinking tasty black tea rather than the usual English-church-stewed-for-especially-for-you variety do that to you?

Thursday, 6 December 2007

This Week's poll 6/12/07

Last week's poll: would you like Jose Mourinho to be the next England Manager? 6 votes, yes 5, no, 1; one more vote, I vote yes.

OK so it looks like not many as interested in football as the other stuff. This weeks poll back on familiar ground. If you want to do more than just click, comment on this post.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

So how much of a monophysite are you?

OK so you are all getting geared up to celebrate the incarnation but have you got your theology straightened out? Can you tell your homoousios from your homoiousios? Might not be a bad idea to try a little Chalcedonian work out just to make sure your orthodoxy muscle is in good shape for the big day. Start by depressing your mouse finger here. Thanks to Ashley Hardingham for tipping me off just before the inquisition arrived for an advent visit.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Christmas Bore

For those preparing for their umpteenth Christmas talk who have reached desperation stage, you could always go here for some statistical padding.

Thursday, 29 November 2007


I like pithy sayings. Especially when they play with words. Tim Dearborn’s “It is not the Church of God that has a mission in the world, but the God of mission who has a church in the world” is a well known favourite.

In an introduction to missiology class yesterday one my students came out with another good ‘un.

We were studying Alan [sorry John - see comments] Hull’s theological critique of the influential Mission-Shaped Church. I asked if anyone could summarise Hull’s argument. The answer came quick as a flash, “If the church misses the point, what’s point of planting more churches?” Nice, neat, sharp and spot-on accurate. So much so that I plan to nick it and use it whenever I can.

The problem is I don’t entirely agree with Hull.

He does have a point. A very important point. If churches are self-serving rather than kingdom-seeking they live in a way that denies the gospel. Absolutely. Preach it Alan! [sorry again John - see comments] But are such churches utterly pointless, a waste of time? I think not.

To assert, as Hull does, that church exists to be an agent of God’s mission is of course correct. But when he goes on to add that church is not a fruit of God’s mission he goes too far. Hull overlooks or denies the importance of individual salvation.

Church is very definitely fruit as well as agent of the mission of God. The reign of God isn’t only about justice peace and liberation of the oppressed through the transformation of society. It is also about the justification, peace and liberation of individuals as they are born from above becoming followers of Christ and part of God’s missional community, the church.

So nice line, great summary of Hull’s argument but not true enough to be used without qualification.

This week's poll 29/11/07

Last week's poll: Was the Baptist Union council right to apologise for the involvement of Baptists in slavery? 11 votes, 7 yes, 4 no, one more vote - I vote yes, absolutely yes.

If you want to do more than click for this week's poll you can always comment on this post.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Stop Bullying

Met a remarkable young man this weekend who is seeking to serve God by redeeming his own experience of being bullied. Stephen has developed his own anti-bullying website. I told him I'd publicise the site through my blog. I am more than happy to do so. Visit the site by clicking here

This Week's Poll 21/11/07

If you want to do more than just vote you can comment on this post.

Last week's poll:" Does formal, academic theological education make it more difficult for ministers to communicate with working class people?" 15 votes, 9 yes, 6 no. One more vote: I vote yes.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Sax for the Soul

Went to hear the Jan Garbarek quartet at the Royal Northern College of Music. Wow! Lyrical, plaintive, hard swinging, Norwegian folk-jazz with liberal doses of latin colour.

If you like music, any kind of music and if you are prepared to listen, check out the clips on YouTube here and here If you want more don't start with his best known Officium try Twelve Moons.

Now what would it take for worship to move people like this?

[For those who read the last post and who have also spotted the strap line under the photo of Garbarek, this is not ironic. This an entirely appropriate use of the word!]

Thursday, 15 November 2007


Cram in the clichés
Originally uploaded by Mike of Surrey
This post is not about mission or ministry. It’s one of those miscellaneous mind leeks mentioned up there in the top right hand corner. In fact, to be honest, it’s not so much a post as whinge.

The thing is I’m utterly fed up with all this talk about passion.

It was the CCLI website that finally made me snap. “At CCLI we have a passion for serving the church in worship”. I know it’s a perfectly innocent site. I know, it’s entirely admirable that people should want to serve the church. I know I ought to show more self control but I’m sick to the back teeth of everyone being passionate about everything.

“I’m absolutely passionate about working with young people.”
“Oh no, gardening’s not my hobby … it’s my passion.”
“Please don’t vote me off tonight, cooking/dancing/singing/playing the flugel horn/appearing on T.V. even though I’m utterly talentless is my passion.”
“You see Jeremy I’ve always been passionate about collecting beermats.”

Don’ get me wrong. I’m not against passion. In fact quite like a bit myself now and again. My problem is word inflation.

We are wearing out one of our precious words by giving it too much work to do when there are lots of other perfectly good words lying around more suited to the task. If we are perpetually passionate and never keen or enthusiastic or interested we cheapen the very notion of passion. If we use the word to cover everything from passing curiosity to a long term hobby it will end up being utterly useless. Then what will we do when we actually need it? When we actually are passionate, in blazingly obsessive, “let me at now or I die”, sort of way the word just won’t be up to the job. It’ll be tired, floppy, sitting in a corner wheezing, knackered by over use.


Yours .... in a really quite miffed sort of a way.


Wednesday, 14 November 2007

This Week's Poll 14/11/07

If you want to do more than just click, comment on this post.

Last week's poll: Should we be putting more time and effort into working ecumenically? 13 Votes, 10, yes, 3, no. One more vote: I vote no.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Mindless Worship? Yes Please!

Originally uploaded by ShanniD
My default mode for worship is still the charismatic. At its best it can’t be licked. However I have over the years developed a taste for liturgy. But only if it’s done properly … and doing it properly means doing it mindlessly. Or at least it means knowing the words you are using so well that you don’t have to wonder how to pronounce them, what they mean and whether you agree with them. Set prayers and the like don’t really work unless you repeat them time and time again. It’s a bit like playing music, you don’t have a prayer of playing it to your best, expressively, with heart, if you are concentrating on getting the notes right.

I discovered this during my first spell at Northern Baptist College as a postgrad student in the 80’s. We had morning prayer each day and we used the same prayer day in day out. I started off hating it, resenting it, convinced it was a just another sign that the place was spiritually dead. I ended up really appreciating the liberty that those repeated words gave me to put my heart and soul into connecting with God. A bit like repeating a chorus in sung worship.

I had this conviction confirmed when I was introduced to the Northumbrian Community’s daily office. This too became a part of me. So I was able to use it to really pray. The oft repeated words carry their own meaning of course but the familiarity means that I have the liberty to weave in and out of the words other less than fully articulated yearnings, moods and gropings after God. A bit like speaking in tongues.

This is why I get hot under the collar with the way free churches tend to do written congregational prayers. Why do we have to come up with something different every time? It might be smart. It might be profound. It might pack our liturgy with fresh meaning week on week. But the novelty gets in the way. It is an overly rational approach to worship. Too analytical. Too much mind. No chance to put your guts into it. We end up falling clean as a whistle between the stools of folksy spontaneity and truly effective poetry. Typical, and deeply frustrating.

Monday, 29 October 2007

This Week's Poll 6/11/07

If you want to do more than just click you can comment on this post.

Last week's poll: "Should we be planting more churches?" 7 votes: yes 4; no 3. One more vote: I vote yes

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Mother God?

Mother and Child
Originally uploaded by tomswift46
THE other day while setting up for a lecture I came across copies of a prayer by Desmond Tutu left over from a prayer meeting. It addressed God as Father and Mother. This raised again for me the issue of whether we should be calling God 'Mother'. I decided we probably should.

Our language goes a long way to constructing the world we inhabit in our heads. If our talk is dominated by the masculine, our worldview becomes definitively male. This is the norm, the mainstream, the proper, and by implication the feminine is secondary, derivative, deviant. If this logic holds good for the way we speak about people, why not apply it also to the way we speak about God?

True, some attempts to address this issue don't quite work. Many prefer to use gender-neutral language, 'Creator, redeemer, sustainer' for example, or the increasingly common, 'loving God' or 'gracious God' and other variants.

Trouble is, if we become too thoroughly gender-neutral we will end up neutering God. While God is neither a man nor a woman God is personal and indeed more than personal - but certainly not less.

Also, while using such descriptive forms of address certainly allows for a rich and varied focus on different aspects of God's character, they are less intimate, more distant and formal. Family language has a lot going for it when it comes to expressing relationship.

So I'm not entirely comfortable with going too far down the gender-neutral road. It makes more sense to call God 'Mother'. However, such a proposal causes strong feelings. Why is that?

Some are suspicious that others are merely being trendy, following the latest fashion in an unthinking way. I have to say that talking to those who use such language more readily than I do, the last thing they are is unthinking.

For others the issue is different. Because it has tended to be the less orthodox among us who have been quickest to adopt feminine language for the divine, the practice is seen as tainted. This is silly. I've never been a big fan of guilt by association.

Some believe that we are only allowed to do, think and say that which the Bible explicitly sanctions. And of course while there is some feminine imagery for God in the scriptures, nowhere is God addressed as 'Mother'. But this is far too restrictive a way to use the Bible. Surely we are meant to be consistent with God's Word rather than slavishly copying the details of its speech forms?

Other reservations include a reluctance to abandon classic language that has become a part of who we are. Formulations such as 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' and 'the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ' help tie us to other Christians in other places and other times. But there is absolutely no reason such language shouldn't be enriched by also using feminine forms.

A significant part of my own hesitation has been a matter of instinct rather than theology. It just feels odd. It's unusual. I'm uncomfortable. Mind you, I used to feel that way about women preachers, drums in church and, if I'm honest, meeting black people. In other words, discomfort is no reason for not doing the right thing.

A final reason for this being such a hot potato is the fear of offending others. This ought not to be ignored, but neither should we keep silent for fear of causing upset. What we need is an open, charitable conversation. Aren't we Baptists supposed to be good at that kind of thing?

So while I think I understand people's reasons for being opposed to calling God 'Mother' I'm not convinced those reasons stack up.
I reckon we ought to include feminine forms of address in our God-talk as part of a varied language to help us speak more effectively of our wonderful and fascinating God. Time, I think, for some of us to get over our discomfort.

[My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. I don't reckon I'm up to both a weekly newspaper article and a weekly blog post so I'm copping out. With the agreement of the editor I'm going double up and post my BT article. This means that the blog will have a slightly different feel. To chek out the Baptist times as a whole click here

The weekly poll will continue as usual.]

Monday, 22 October 2007

This week's poll 22/10/07

If you want to do more than click, comment on this post.

Last week's poll: Has the charismatic movement had its day? 9 votes: 6 yes, 3 no. One more vote: I vote yes.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Holy, holy, holy?

secular oats
Originally uploaded by tchemgrrl
I'M thinking of becoming a bit more Roman Catholic. I quite fancy the idea of crossing myself. You know, like Brazilian footballers or Robbie Coltrane in Nuns on the Run. In fact, come to think of it, like last year's BU president, Roy Searle.

I fancy it because it seems like a good antidote to a problem that we have unwittingly created for ourselves; a problem that makes God a bit less real, a bit less significant. Let me explain.

One of the really good things that has happened in our bit of the Church over the past 20 years or so is that more and more of us have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of a sacred/secular divide.

We no longer like the idea that there are religious bits of the world that have to do with God and non-religious bits that don't. We've recovered something approaching a proper doctrine of creation.

I myself have argued repeatedly that we are just as likely to stumble across the divine at the multiplex as we are at the prayer meeting; that the world - every bit of it, including the human bits and not just pretty birds and big mountains - is God's world, not the devil's.

To the extent that we have moved away from a God who prefers hanging out at meetings to one who turns up all over the place we have become more biblical. Discipleship is indeed about living life differently, not living a different life.

However, I'm beginning to worry that we might have shot ourselves in the foot. The idea was that by ditching the sacred/secular divide we would see the world as more full of God. I fear that it might have had the opposite effect. Because we have fought shy of the explicitly religious, we just might have emptied life of God. In theory we find God everywhere. In practice, I wonder if we remember to make the effort.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we attempt to re-establish the old unhelpful, unbiblical dualism. No, my inclination is to start a campaign consciously and deliberately to do what we can to re-sacralise as much of our world as possible.

When the mainstream of society is more thoroughly secular than at most times in history, when the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is being driven from public life by the powers that be, the last thing we need is for Christians to collude in the process.

Hence my idea of crossing myself at significant moments during the day. But that's only one tactic. Let's get imaginative and find as many ways as we can to remember, express and embody our conviction that God is everywhere.

For instance, what about reintroducing explicitly Christian salutations in our letters? Why not greet each other in the name of Christ and bid farewell by commending one another to the care of God? Why not pray before car journeys? Why not stop talking about nature and start to speak of creation?

Why not get back to saying grace a bit more? Why not pray quietly as a matter of course before the start of our day's work? Why not extend the rather limited practice of the evangelical quiet time into a three times daily office?

Don't get me wrong: it's not that I think God isn't there if we don't invite him; it's not that God will not watch over us if we don't ask. It's rather that unless we pepper our waking lives with explicitly religious language and practices we are more likely to forget; more likely to act, and indeed think, in categories that leave God out.

In other words we might end up replacing a world divided into the sacred and the secular with one that is simply more secular.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. I don't reckon I'm up to both a weekly newspaper article and a weekly blog post so I'm copping out. With the agreement of the editor I'm going double up and post my BT article. This means that the blog will have a slightly different feel. To chek out the Baptist times as a whole click here

The weekly poll will continue as usual.

Friday, 12 October 2007

A Little more conversation?

Originally uploaded by Elif Sanem Karakoc
My next job after writing this article is to prepare for a church weekend. They gave me a choice of subjects so I opted straight away for 'Telling People About Jesus'. For the past eighteen months every time I've been given a say I've picked the same topic.

(I've even used this column to bang on about it before but that was quite a while ago so I'm hoping the editor won't notice.)

It strikes me that as our society becomes less and less Christian, there is more and more of an onus on all of us to find appropriate ways to give voice to our faith. The idea that we can bear witness to Christ without actually piping up is dangerously misguided.

I know St. Francis of Assisi is a bit of a hero, even among Protestants, but I wish someone had sat on him quick and heavy before he managed to utter, 'Go and preach the gospel. And if you must, use words.' Sure it's a nice line and yes, I get the sentiment behind it - communicating the good news involves far more than being a gob on legs. But these days most of us need little encouragement to clam up when it comes sharing our faith.

In fact I'm rapidly coming to the conclusion that a worrying number of Christians are not only shy about breaking the sound barrier with those who don't share their faith.

In 2005 the Methodist Church published a study book called Time to Talk of God. It seeks to get Methodists talking to each other about God. Apparently it's not a thing that many of them like doing. Perhaps they should consider handing out WWWS wristbands, What Would Wesley Say?

And it's not just Methodists. Earlier this year I led a training session on faith-sharing with a Baptist Church. I used the well-worn exercise of getting the participants to tell each other the story of how they had come to faith.

Normally it's good to get appreciative feedback after speaking at a church. This time however I found myself wishing they hadn't been quite so enthusiastic. 'You know we really enjoyed that. It's the first time we've talked about such things,' they said. I ask you.

What makes it worse is that some of the most innovative and interesting younger Christians are just as hopeless at telling others.

Those involved in the emerging church movement might be pretty hot on incarnating the gospel, seeking to be a gospel community, getting alongside people and showing them (all really, really, really good things) but they don't seem to be at all sure about actually telling people.

This summer I finally got round to reading Velvet Elvis by American emerging church guru Rob Bell. This otherwise excellent volume is decidedly diffident about verbal evangelism.

I know that some evangelists give the good news a bad name. I know that some evangelistic techniques would have Jesus turning in his grave - if he were still in it. But I'm pretty sure the Holy Spirit wasn't sent to make disciples hesitant.

If others have taken witnessing and screwed it up, straighten it out. If some have got it badly wrong, find ways to get it right. For God's sake don't just stop!

No wonder our wonderful new Christian neighbours from places like Nigeria are bemused by what they see in this country. For them speaking of God is second nature and the importance of telling others is taken for granted.

I'm not suggesting we duplicate their methods or adopt their way of speaking. I am suggesting that they've got something that we've lost. Something precious.

It is probable, humanly speaking, that some of us will live to see the death of more than one historic denomination. Parts of the British church are dying fast. The reasons of course are complex. But this much at least seems obvious: talking a bit more about God ought to help.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. I don't reckon I'm up to both a weekly newspaper article and a weekly blog post so I'm copping out. With the agreement of the editor I'm going double up and post my BT article. This means that the blog will have a slightly different feel. To chek out the Baptist times as a whole click here

The weekly poll will continue as usual.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Sex in the pulpit?

'What do you think about sex on the telly?'
'Well I don't mind, but my wife keeps knocking the set top box on the floor.'
Boom boom.

Would you be happy to tell a joke like that? Are you comfortable reading such a joke in The Baptist Times? (1) I do hope so. Although I must confess that the first time I heard it I was a bit taken aback. The reason it got to me is that it was told from the pulpit by a visiting preacher at my church. Those sitting around me clearly found it funny. Some were equally clearly embarrassed and not at all sure that they should have found it funny. The noise that went round the congregation was half-laugh and half-splutter. But what got under my skin was the fact that I felt uncomfortable. I was annoyed that I felt awkward.

Thinking about it later I was convinced that there was nothing wrong with the joke - it wasn't gratuitous, it fitted in with what the preacher was saying and I could think of no reason why we shouldn't be able to tell such jokes from the pulpit. After all, sex for many (though not all) of us is an important part of life and, let's face it, sex can be really funny. So why not have a laugh about it in church?

I have long been convinced that there needs to be a third way (nearly said position ... snigger) when it comes sex, one that avoids the false alternatives of the voyeuristic obsession which is shot through so much of our culture and the uptight embarrassment which is still far too common in our churches. But we will never be able to find that third way until we learn to talk about sex, and laugh about sex in an open, frank and, yes, far more earthy way. The alternative to prurience and prissiness is not a buttoned-down, matter-of-fact, coldly clinical approach to sex talk. (The last thing that sex should be is cold and clinical.) No, the alternative is being real, being honest, being human. And that, at least in part, means having a laugh.

I suspect that, as with many of our attitudes in church, when we think we are being Christian by avoiding talking and laughing about sex we are in fact conforming to certain middle-class conventions which often have very little to do with holiness. This confusion of the holy with what is 'proper' can leave us with some skewed values. We end up being more concerned if someone swears than if they are greedy; we are more vigilant about dress codes than about the abuse of power; we are offended by the depiction of sex in film and on TV, but we are blasŽ about the portrayal of violence. Odd.

And we also end up being far too tentative about sex being on the agenda of our sermons, our Bible studies, our prayer meetings and our fellowship with Christian friends. Sex is far too potent a force - both to damage and to delight - for us not to be talking about it. The commodification of bodies, the promotion of sex as mere recreation and the sexualisation of children are all serious causes for concern. It is far too important for us not to be modelling a much healthier and holier approach than we often have to date. But that alternative is not conventional middle class morality with a supposedly Christian veneer.

So despite my initial discomfort I'm glad the preacher told the joke. So glad that I've nicked it and told it myself from a couple of carefully chosen pulpits. Not to get a cheap laugh and not for the sake of causing offence, but in the hope breaking what seems to me to be a decidedly unhelpful and unjustified taboo.

(1) My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. I don't reckon I'm up to both a weekly newspaper article and a weekly blog post so I'm copping out. With the agreement of the editor I'm going double up and post my BT article. This means that the blog will have a slightly different feel. To chek out the Baptist times as a whole click here

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Not a Post

A busy week this - so not so much a post as an excuse for not posting. And a heads up for the next few weeks. My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. I don't reckon I'm up to both a weekly newspaper article and a weekly blog post so I'm copping out. With the agreement of the editor I'm going double up and post my BT article. This means that the blog will have a slightly different feel. To chek out the Baptist times as a whole click here

The weekly poll will continue as usual.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

10 Commandments for Preachers

This week I’m going to be shouting my mouth off about preaching again. We have a bunch of newly accredited ministers at Luther King House and I’m doing some stuff with them. This set me thinking: what would be my ten commandments for preachers? Here’s what I came up with.

1. Eyeball people - really, really eyeball them. If preaching is anything it’s personal.
2. Never leave them asking, “Say’s who?” A preacher is called to minister God’s word, not to act as a guru.
3. Always raise the question, “So what?” Sermons should have implications. This doesn’t mean that you always have to spell out the answer.
4. Be yourself. There’s no need to hide who you are. When God called you to preach he called YOU to preach.
5. Put your heart into it. If it doesn’t clearly matter to you, why should it matter to them?
6. Free yourself from notes as much as possible. A sermon is meant to be an event; a manuscript is a report on an event that happened last week in the study.
7. Love words. Words are a preacher’s tool. If you can’t use words – with flair, with creativity - find something else to do.
8. Forget the adage, “Tell ‘em what you are going to tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em what you’ve told ‘em.” Sure you’ll be clear … and boring as hell.
9. Make sure you preach to the people in front of you. You may not have many advantages over the apostle Paul but you are here and now and he’s not.
10. Remember you are not shutting down a conversation. If you are lucky you though you might start one. You are only a preacher after all.

Let’s be clear these make no pretension to be THE ten commandments for preachers. They are not even all mine – Clyde Fant deserves a credit for at least two of them. They may not still be the ten I’d chose in a few years time. But they’ll do for now.

I’d be interested to know what you make of them, Any other suggestions? I’d be particularly keen to hear from any who listen to sermons more often than preaching them; what would be your ten commandments for preachers?

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Kaleidoscopes, Denominations, Urinals and Emerging Church

Isn’t it difficult not to compare sizes?

Last week I was in Oxford meeting with members of staff from Baptist colleges across the country. This week we’ve been inducting the new batch of ministerial students here at Luther-King House as well as starting the foundation module for all new students – Baptist, Methodist, URC, Unitarian, Pentecostal and few others - on our BA and MA programmes. In both settings it became apparent that size does matter. At least we found ourselves talking about it quite a bit.

It looks like all the Baptist colleges have reasonably healthy intakes of new students (ours is particularly big – for us anyway) but while peering over the urinal wall here in Manchester it became apparent that one of our partners is not especially well endowed. We only have one URC ministerial student starting training this year.

In fact it turns out that Nationally the URC have only six new ministerial students (four in England and two in Scotland). Now – and I know this is a big jump – this set me thinking about the viability of some of our historic denominations and indeed the desirability of a denominational future for the Church in this country.

How do emergent types feel about denominations? There would appear to be a bit of a tension here. On the one hand it almost goes without saying that there is a (sometimes naïve) anti-institutional stripe to most emergent attitudes to church. This would seem to put denominations beyond the pale. On the other hand a big part of the emergent psyche is an antipathy towards all things Modern. This comes with an attendant desire to reach back to the pre-modern and mine (or skim the surface more likely) the wisdom, resources and practices to be found in pre-enlightenment Christianity. However, it is precisely the denominations that have been the custodians of these treasures. How is this tension to likely be resolved?

It seems to me probable that emergent Anglicans will become more and more Anglican (as did many Evangelical Anglicans did in the last quarter of the 20C). But will they be able to negotiate their relationship with the denomination in a way that keeps the institutional feel to minimum so as not to alienate pm’s? Also will people continue to confuse the Fresh Expressions movement with the genuinely emergent so that many an Anglican feels they are being much more radical than in fact they are, resulting in a veneer of reform on a fundamentally modernist substructure?

Then what about Baptists? How significant is the (relatively) recently reawakened interest in things Anabaptist likely to be for the future shape of churches in the BUGB? Are there resources/wisdom/practices here that genuinely have the potential to help renew (or whatever re word you prefer) the denomination as a whole or is this likely to remain a rather weird interest for an unrepresentative and rather geeky section of the denomination? Are Baptists so thoroughly subdivided into either baby-boomer-modern or 1950’s-Isle-of-White-nostalgic-modern as to be beyond hope of anything other than a late modern surge and an ultimate post-modern demise?

Or are denominations as we have known them destined for such a fierce twist of the kaleidoscope that what emerges will be utterly unrecognisable? If so, what realignments and new births might we anticipate? Which pieces of the picture are likely to disappear altogether? And how will the mix of newly-minted and freshly-alloyed wisdom/values/practices be carried from generation to generation? (There surely has to be some institutional framework for values to survive beyond the generation of the charismatic pioneers. Or this just a hopelessly modernist way of seeing things?)

One final question: am I starting to ramble or is there something here that anyone fancies having their own two penn’worth on?

Monday, 10 September 2007

Edinburgh Archives

Any students of mission out there who have'nt yet heard should note that the Boston University School of Theology has now completed digitising the volumes of the 1910 Edinburgh mission conference. Find them here

Monday, 3 September 2007

Preaching and Stand Up

Been saying it for years but no one wanted to listen. Stand up comedy is one of the best analogies for preaching in today's culture. At least Sean Lock agrees with me ... sort of.

"Every year, more people go to stand up, more people enjoy stand up because they don’t go to church anymore, they don’t go to political meetings and they don’t have union meetings. And I think people like being told stuff, by people they consider to have an interesting or imaginative take on things."

Sean Lock Independent on Sunday - 5th August (Thanks to Ashley Hardingham for the tip off.)

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Stephen Fry and Evangelism

Are Christians too opinionated? Let me tell you what I think.

I’ve been reading my way through the first three volumes of IVP’s "A History of Evangelicalism" at the same time as reading Stephen Fry’s autobiography "Moab is my Washpot". Evangelicalism at heart has always been a populist movement. Stephen Fry is at his most engaging when he is at his most opinionated. His outbursts on music, sport and sex are hugely entertaining.

It tends to be true that the most popular, most arresting communicators are the most forthright. Consider Alan Green’s football commentaries, Geoffrey Boycott’s observations on English Cricket and Mark Kermode’s film reviews. (I listen to Radio 5 Live more than I should.)

Similarly the most effective at reaching the masses with the gospel have been straight talking. Consider John Wesley, George Whitfield, Charles Finney, Hannah More, Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham. Like Green, Boycott and Kermode they were also controversial.

Trouble is lots of us are understandably uncomfortable with some expressions of Christianity (and forms of evangelicalism in particular) because they so easily shade over from being opinionated to being stridently dogmatic (consider for instance some of the pronouncements of the deeply unattractive organisation Christian Voice) and because they quickly descend from seeking to be accessible to becoming cheaply populist (consider the kind of evangelistic campaigns of the likes of Morris Cerrullo).

However, I fear that in reacting (quite rightly) against such expressions of the faith we run the risk of being far too diffident about speaking up for The Way. Many of the emergent types who get so much else right are too half-hearted when it comes to seeking to persuade others to follow Jesus. While on holiday I also got round at last to reading Rob Bell’s "Velvet Elvis". Bell is no mean populist himself and Velvet Elvis is full of straightforward, good sense and it presents an attractive picture of Christian faith. But like many of those singing from the same hymn sheet he is less than enthusiastic when it comes to (verbal) evangelism.

Are we capable of being popular with out being populist?
Can we be appropriately opinionated or is it a choice between cock-sure arrogance and mealy-mouthed equivocating?

This is where Stephen Fry gives me hope. There’s no doubt about it, he is both opinionated and popular. But, it seems to me, he’s also very attractive. He pulls this off because as well as being forthright he is vulnerable; as well as being straight-talking he is self-critical; as well as being passionate he is well-informed. Some important lessons here I reckon.

The clear expression of passionately held opinions is an effective way of provoking reaction and opening up debate which is a good thing … as long as we welcome that debate and are ready to engage in a well informed generous and open-minded manner.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

This week's poll 02/09/07

I plan to do a new poll each week. If just clicking a button is not enough and you would like to make an observation on the subject of the poll you can do so by commenting on the this post.

Last week's poll - Is there still a place for door to door evangelism - 12 votes, 4 yes, 8 no. I vote no.

Preaching rhetoric and poetry

I am at Northern Light, a Bible week come holiday week in North Yorkshire. I’m here to do some preaching and to lead a couple of seminars on what it means to be prophetic. I’ve done stuff at Northern Light a couple of times before but not for about five or six years. It’s good to be back. The main thing I like about the week is its relaxed, down to earth feel.

The preach is at the evening celebration and I’m tackling Isaiah six. Preparing has reminded me again about why I like this kind of passage. It’s a text that positively demands that you let your imagination run wild – the hem of his robe filled the temple! I will be spending a fair bit of the sermon trying to get people to picture the scene with its blazing seraphs flying and shouting, smoke filling the temple (which is already filled, don’t forget, with God’s turn ups) and the very foundations trembling and indeed melting away. What was Isaiah on?

Hope I can pull it off. It will take careful, creative use of words and a fair bit of imagination from me and the congregation. These are two of the skills of preaching that we don’t make nearly enough of: imagination and the creative use of words. In the recent past we’ve tended to flatten preaching down to doctrinal point making. We have valued being clear over being evocative. We’ve forgotten that preaching at its best is not just the craft of getting ideas across it’s also the art of opening people’s eyes; opening them to the reality of God and helping them to picture what life in this world would be like if we took this God seriously.

So here’s my suggestion: preaching should be much less prosaic much more evocative. Instead of spending all our time learning how to use PowerPoint let’s put some effort into learning how to use the spoken word. I vote for more poetry and more rhetoric from our pulpits. Otherwise we’ll never ever do justice to passages like Isaiah chapter six.

Monday, 30 July 2007

Wedding Writes

Just got back from a weekend in Yorkshire joining in a wedding. It was a good un. It also sparked off some half-baked thoughts for the blog. I’ve been needing them in my head for the past 24 hrs and now’s the time to stick them somewhere cosy to see if they will rise. It would be good if you could spare the time to lift the corner of the tea towel, take a peak and let me know what you think. Here they come.

Wedding Rites

One of the challenges of putting this particular wedding together must have been the different stances that the bride and groom take towards Jesus. She is a dedicated follower of Christ, the kind that gives Christians a good name; he is a number of steps removed from the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy but the kind of bloke who contributes far more to the richness and rightness of life than many a full blown true believer. The service had to reflect this difference. Clearly a lot of thought went into this and I think it worked really well … but I’m not sure.

Take the songs for instance. They were neither the all-stops-out, full-blooded organ type nor the worship-band, isn’t-Jesus-lovely type. Alongside the overtly Christian Day by Day and Go Peaceful we had Carole King’s You’ve Got A Friend (listen to the soloist and all join in on the chorus) and Bill Withers’ Lean On Me (again cantor and congregational participation). At one level all of this made perfect sense. The groom is a pretty nifty musician, in fact he accompanied the singing on what, from where I was standing, looked like a ukulele, which is also why, alongside the Bible readings, we had snippets of lyrics from classic pop songs.

As I say this made sense but it also felt a bit weird. I’m not used to belting out folk/rock anthems together with a congregation of people in two piece suits or fancy hats. No doubt though it would have been just as weird and slightly less honest for some of the guests to have had to sing full on Songs of Fellowship love songs to Jesus. I’m still trying to get my head and my gut to line upon this one. It does raise an some interesting questions though, questions that many engaged in missional thinking, doing and being would do well to address.

How far do we go in making the Christian faith accessible and amenable to those whom we would like to step inside? How many of the things we do can we strip away while still being true to ourselves? Is this approach genuinely hospitable or does it smack of trying just a bit too hard? Is there a sense in which if we translate our ways of addressing and speaking about God into another language we will no longer be able to speak authentically about God – or at least about our God?

The momentum behind much contemporary mission thinking is undoubtedly towards translating the faith and making it accessible. There are good reasons why this is right and proper, not least the incarnation. But there is a problem with this kind of move: Christian truth is not just distinctively true it is also a distinctive kind of truth and as such depends for its articulation and appropriation on a distinctive kind of language and a peculiar set of practices. To translate is to change and while such change can enrich our appreciation of truth it also runs the risk of irretrievable loss. No doubt unnecessary jargon can get in the way but we just can’t do without our own technical, insider-language.

While it behoves us to reflect on what we mean by terms such as redemption, salvation, sin, discipleship and church but I think we would be wise not to ditch them entirely. Explaining what we mean when we speak and why we do what we do is important but abandoning our native tongue and ditching practices that have always shaped us is not a smart move. We will end up with an accessible but drearily thin form of the faith that may well be instantly palatable but ultimately not very nourishing. Perhaps we ought to give more attention to teaching those who are interested how to speak our language and carefully initiating them into our distinctive ways. But, I hear you say, all this is a long way from the wedding, so to conclude, ladies and gentlemen, I give you … the best man.

On this occasion the groom’s side-kick performed his major part in the British wedding rite with great aplomb. The speech was a cracker - definitely one of the top five I’ve ever heard. (There’s an idea for my side bar.) What made it interesting was that he was - I think - from the none-church going bunch. I don’t know if the bride was at all nervous about the tone of the speech. Some best man speeches I’ve heard would definitely make a vicar blush. This guy got away with it though (at least this particular “vicar” didn’t blush). No doubt some were offended by one of the gags – the funniest of all. He might have got away with even this joke if he’d used the word Onanism instead. But then only the Bible readers in the audience would have got it – and it wouldn't have been nearly as funny. Thing is he was careful enough with his language but not so careful that it became flat or inauthentic.

Wedding Rights

As I’ve said the wedding was good ‘un. One of the crucial ingredients was definitely friendship. The bride and groom are, to differing degrees, part of a truly remarkable network of friends that has been sustained and matured over the past fifteen years. It has been fascinating to observe and to a certain extent participate in this network of friends. It is marked by great openness, remarkable hospitality, genuine care; an ever shifting, labyrinth of relationships, a kind of This Life with added Jesus.

It was the friends and the way they mucked in with admirable commitment and genuine skill that made this wedding so right. And it was reconnecting with this network that brought to mind an important lesson about church: it’s impossible to make church work well unless you grow real friendship.

In my table of key indicators of a healthy church, friendship would be pretty close to the top. People enjoy church and stay there when they find friends. Fostering friendship has to be one of the most important skills a church leader can develop. If we aspire to a flourishing church community we ought to treasure and encourage those who have the spiritual gift of parties, the born (again) conveners of conviviality.

One more thing, the kind of friendship I have in mind is very rarely based on attending meetings. In my experience it is far more likely to grow out of drinking wine or beer together, playing risk together, eating cheap and nasty curries together, playing golf together, watching films together, playing poker together, walking together, playing football together, arguing together, playing music together, camping out at Greenbelt together and mucking in to arrange a friend's wedding.

(Out of interest does anyone out there know of any decent theologies of friendship or any substantial work on friendship and church growth?)

Wedding Wrights

OK so this last post on Saturday’s wedding is a bit contrived and yes it does overlap with the last one but the obsessive compulsive in me couldn't resist completing my list of matrimonial homonyms.

The wedding was a good ‘un because it was by and large a D.I.Y. job rather than a more up tight, glitzy and obscenely expensive effort. This is what made it. The video, the dress, the cake, the photographers (all four of them) the decoration of the church, the bar staff, the desserts, the (admittedly rather grand) back garden were all so good because they were so amateur. Amateur in the best possible sense of the word – done for love not money. Hope my daughter reads this.

Wednesday, 25 July 2007

Hello cyber-world!

I’ve succumbed and started blogging.

– It’s been good fun reading the blogs of various friends and acquaintances and it seems churlish not to join in. Doing it is nearly always better than looking on while others do it.
– I hate the feeling of being left out.
– Maybe it will help me try out and straighten out some of my ideas.
– Perhaps it will give me a chance to be a bit creative.
– Undoubtedly I’m enough of an exhibitionist to enjoy having an audience.

Why it’s probably a mistake:
- Another tempting device added to my procrastinator’s tool kit.
- I will probably be the world’s least regular blogger – I’ve always been better at starting than finishing.
- If I do stick at it I will almost certainly end up revealing more of myself than is good for me. Or even worse revealing just how little of me there is to reveal.
- Undoubtedly I’m enough of an exhibitionist to enjoy having an audience.

So once again insecurity and the urge to show off win out over caution and good sense.

Why nah then?

It’s friendly – nah then is a form of greeting where I come from: “Nah then Bill, fancy a pint?” Hopefully this will be a friendly place to visit. Pronunciation guide – when used in this sense accent the second word.

It indicates logical progression – as such it became my first ever homiletical mannerism. As a teenage preacher whenever I wanted to make a link between one block of a sermon and the next I would pause, and say, "Nah then" before continuing. Hopefully the entries on this blog might have a whiff of the logical about them. They will also from time to time touch on preaching.  Pronunciation guide – when used in this sense accent the first word.

It’s northern – a useful reminder that roots matter and of course there are no better roots than northern roots; after all Jesus himself was a northerner. More pompously, as a northern expression it is a useful reminder that the eternal Word must always speak with a local accent. Abstract universal truth that never touches earth in a particular place at a particular time is not a lot of use to anyone.

Just in case you aren’t as blessed as me n’ Jesus, nah then translates as “now then”.