Thursday, 30 October 2008

Church As Argument

Just got my new copy of Bryan Stone's excellent Evangelism After Christendom. (See the
"Stuff I reccomend" panel on the right.) Had to buy a new copy as I seem to have lost or loaned out my old one. It's been missing now for a few months. I was hoping it would turn up as it has lots of lovely scribblings and underlinings in, but no joy. Frustrating not to have access to my original reactions but I'm going to enjoy rereading it.

Opening the new package from amazon reminded me that Stone's discussion of being an evangelistic church in a pluralistic, post-modern society includes reference to Kathryn Tanner's observation in her Theories of Culture: a new agenda for theology that Christian identity is constituted "by a community of argument concerning the meaning of true discipleship."

That struck me at the time as a very helpful way to conceive of the church. The thought has stuck with me, and grown on me. Here's why I like it:
  1. It's realistic about the divergence of opinions and interpretations within the church.
  2. It takes a centered set approach to church rather than a bounded set approach.
  3. It speaks of commitment and conviction - without these you wouldn't bother arguing.
  4. It implies a notion of church as a process extended through space and time with all the continuities and discontinuities that implies.
  5. It takes seriously the notion that not only does the church have to relate to wider culture but is also itself a culture in its own right.
Tanner's now on my wish list. If you want an assessment of how she fits in with trends in postliberal theology try this religion religion online article by Gary Dorrien. If you've not read Stone yet I would recommend it very highly indeed see here for my initial response to the book.

Great Misquotes of History

Theologian In Residence

I want to suggest that you change what you call your minister. No, not their name, there’s no need to look
up the number of the UK deed poll service. What I have in mind is a change of title, how you describe her and what she does.

There’s already a wide range of labels in use: pastor, minister of the gospel, full time elder, pastoral leader, minister of the word/word and sacrament. I reckon, if pushed I could make a case each one of those. What I’d rather do though is recommend a new option.

I’ve just finished reading Ann Carter Florence’s recent book, Preaching As Testimony. Florence suggests that we should think of our ministers as Theologians In Residence.

What do you reckon? No? Somehow I didn’t think you’d like it. It’s hard to get excited about theologians isn’t it? Theology is one of those perfectly serviceable words that seems to have gotten into trouble of late.

You know the kind of words I mean: preaching – “don’t preach at me!”; missionary - cultural imperialism, colonial expansion and bad dress sense; evangelism – overbearing and insensitive attempts to foist religious views upon the unwilling; membership – a pointless institutional formality that bears no relationship to the reality of one’s commitment to Christ.

And theology? Well doesn’t that make you think dry, remote, irrelevant, tedious? Thought so. Who in their right mind wants their minister to be first and foremost a theologian? No we’d rather have a dynamic leader or a caring pastor. But getting things done or being cared for is not really what its all about, is it?

And any way who says theology has to be remote, speculative or arid? At heart theology is about knowing, thinking and speaking about God and doing so well, appropriately, faithfully. Isn’t that what we are meant to be about? Don’t we want to set aside people to help us to get a handle on what it means to live as if the God we see in Christ is quite simply the most wonderful, important and urgent of all realities?

In a pluralistic country where the church no longer calls the shots for the rest of society and where identity is likely to be shaped by whoever shouts loudest, isn’t it of the utmost importance that we don’t forget who we are, who we are called to be? Don’t we need people well-schooled in our story, the story of Abraham and Sarah, Rahab and Joshua, Priscilla and Aquilla, Julian and Spurgeon to help us work out what it might mean for us to continue that story here and now, faithfully to act out the episode in which we have been cast?

That’s what being a theologian is meant to be about. You see theology at its best is theology done with the world in your face. Theology like Paul did it and Luther and Bonhoeffer. That’s what we try to help our students to do.

I reckon Theologian In Residence is a good title. I reckon we need people who know, think and speak about God while residing in a particular place as part of a particular community seeking to engage with a particular bit of God’s world. I reckon we should reclaim the word Theology. I reckon we should learn to love the word Theologian – and then stick it our minister’s door.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm posting my BT article here. This is the last of the current series. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Christian? Ministry

Last Sunday I think God spoke to me just when I wasn’t listening. I should have been paying
more attention, after all I was in the middle of a church service. Trouble was it was nearly time for the sermon and I was checking my notes.

The service to which I refer was the last of this year’s welcome services for students beginning placements. These are always occasions that ripple with hope so it’s good to be involved.

What got my attention was a collision between two sentences. Neither of the sentences was particularly noteworthy in its own right. However, they must have been whizzing around somewhere in my head because all of sudden they bumped into each other and the noise they made sounded like God.

Sentence one came from the church’s moderator who was leading worship. He observed that the large council estate on which the church is set is, according to all the indexes, one the most deprived parts of the country. I knew this. I used to live down the road. The reputation matched the statistics.

Sentence two came from the church secretary as she told the story of God leading them to invite one of our students to become their minister-in-training: “It’s never easy to find someone to minister in an area like this.” True, indeed a commonplace observation.

But throw those two sentences together and what an indictment! What an utterly irreconcilable and damning contradiction! After all this is supposed to be Christian ministry that we are talking about. You know ministry in the name of Christ, for the sake of Christ and according to the example of Christ.

Just how Christian is a ministry that shies away from the most needy areas? Isn’t that what the incarnation is all about? You know, God seeing our need and plunging into the thick of it rather than shouting at us from a distance or commuting in now and again?

To the extent that Baptist ministry as a whole joins the queue into the suburbs or goes looking for the chance to escape to the country (or our fond-imagined picture of the country), to the extent that it rushes to put its name down for a church in Pleasantville, to that extent it ceases to be worthy of the label Christian.

Indeed such a state of affairs is a denial of Christ; it is a ministry that speaks his name while repudiating his way of life. If our ministry were truly Christian then the neediest areas would find it easiest to attract a minister.

I know all the justifications of this unGodly perversion – you’d be surprised how many people tried them out on me to in an attempt to persuade me not to move from my first ministry in a large suburban church to lead a small congregation in a former mining area.

Some might say, “We are all simply following the Lord’s call.” If that’s true, why has God stopped calling people to minister to the most needy? Has there been a divine change of mind about the poor that has passed me by?

Some might point to church growth theory and urge that we continue to exert our evangelistic efforts in those areas where we seem to get the best response. But since when has it been OK to pursue mission in a way that denies the very heart of the gospel, sacrificing faithfulness to the way of Christ on the altar of easily measurable “success”?

None of this is to point the finger at any particular minister in any particular church. There is human need everywhere and we are called to minister to that need. But it is most definitely to point the finger at our Baptist ministry as a whole.

Whatever the justifications they aren’t worth tuppence as long as the collective reality denies the way of Christ. Until things change perhaps we should stop calling our ministry Christian.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here.

Friday, 17 October 2008

mission mission mission yada yada yada

Shit talking
Originally uploaded by david johanson
All this talk about mission is beginning to worry me. You know what I mean, mission shaped church, missionary disciples,
missionary congregations, missional leadership. The language is everywhere you turn. Mission is now unquestionably in.

You’d think I’d be pleased. After all it’s my job to teach mission. More than that, I’ve long been an advocate of the need for a major shift in the church’s outlook from maintenance to mission. You might even have heard me banging on from pulpits and at conferences about the fact that our country is our mission field and our culture our missionary assignment.

At one level of course I am pleased. It’s far better to be talking about mission than not. But I’m still worried.

I’m worried that talking about it might become a cover for not doing anything about it. You know how it goes. We confuse defending the Bible with actually taking it seriously in practice. Or we bandy about the word radical as if merely repeating it often enough makes us serious, edgy and committed to the heart of our faith. In the same way if the talk of mission becomes loud enough that alone will probably suffice to convince some that real change has actually happened.

Having mission back on the agenda is a good thing, having it on the action list is even better but doing something about is what really counts. It has been said that the 1990’s was not so much the decade of evangelism as the decade of talking about evangelism.

I’m worried that because it has now become received orthodoxy that we should prioritise mission in the life of the local church, this could so easily become an excuse for devaluing other aspects of church life. Regularly I hear ministers and other church leaders venting their frustration at the failure of their churches to take mission seriously.

I know exactly what they mean. There have been periods in my own ministry when I have felt the same. But from time to time this frustration spills over into talk that verges on writing off the church and devaluing the pastoral calling to care for those who are part of the church family, even when they seem to stand in the way of mission.

I’m worried that we might become so focussed on such aspects of mission as church growth, so caught up with programmes such as Alpha and approaches such purpose-driven church that pragmatic strategies that work become more important than bearing faithful witness whether or not it works.

I’m worried that if we become too wrapped up in getting more people to join the church we just might lose any sense of what it is we are getting them to join in the first place. Being church precedes growing church. The first challenge of church in a largely secular and ever more pluralistic society is to remember who we are; to maintain our distinctive identity.

It won’ matter two hoots that we reverse the decline in numbers if the price we pay is the neglect of the biblical story shapes us and the devaluing of those practices that give meaning to who we are.

As the Old testament scholar Walter Brueggemann never tires of reminding his readers, Israel has to remember who she is, remember her God, remember how she came into being because if she forgets she will cease to be a living alternative to the ways of Egypt, Canaan and all the other nations.

Of course none of my anxiety will be allayed if we stop talking about mission. I will only be comforted if we manage to avoid turning our interest in mission into nothing more than the latest mindless trend; in today but out tomorrow; all the rage but not or long; the thing to do just because it’s the thing to do. Mission, writ large as it is on the heart of God, is far too important for that.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here for the next four weeks. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here

Friday, 10 October 2008

Ramadan, Advent, Hospitality and Mission

So how was Ramadan for you this year? Mine was a good ‘un.

One of the hi-lights was a meal at a favourite, local, Asian restaurant to celebrate my wife’s birthday. We accidentally timed our visit to coincide with the breaking of the fast.

Even though the Nawab is a huge converted cinema which must be capable of seating at least 200 people, the place was heaving and we had to queue for ages to get to the buffet. Not that we minded. This place is always a great venue for people-watching and on this occasion the hustle and bustle, the noise, the aromas, the sheer sense of life would have made queuing even twice as long a treat rather than a chore.

My other Ramadan hi-light also included food. This one made me think. One of the people who lives on our street rang our door bell at tea time. Now, since leaving the pastorate I’ve gotten out of the habit of having meals interrupted by unexpected callers. However, this particular interruption was more than welcome.

“Hello, I live round the corner – I think we’ve said ‘hi’ once or twice. I wonder if you would like to receive this gift? It’s part of our custom to share food with our neighbours when we break our fast during Ramadan. There’s some chicken curry, rice, and dhal. Hope you enjoy it.”
And very good it was too. What struck me though wasn’t the free meal but the simple act of neighbourly kindness and community-building done for unashamedly religious reasons. It gave me an idea.

I was reminded of a custom to which my colleague, Paul Beasley-Murray, introduced me when I was assistant minister at Altrincham Baptist Church back in the 80’s. Paul and his family used to host special teas on the Sundays of Advent. Members of the church were invited round to a candle-lit manse for generous portions of cinnamon toast and other seasonal goodies.
“What if”, I thought, “we were to revive this custom and give it a bit of tweak? What if, instead of inviting friends from church we were to invite people from up the street, the ones we nod at or with whom we exchange smiles but without ever becoming neighbours in the proper sense of the word? We could ply them with goodies, light up the joint like a German Christmas market and have some suitably seasonal music on in the background.”

At the very least it would make for a series interesting social occasions. It would be great fun trying to mix up the guests: our Muslim visitor from round the corner with the Hindu family from across the road and the hard-partying students from two doors down – we could even ask the Baptists from next door.

It might help to make our little corner of Manchester a bit more neighbourly; a bit more than just a place where we sleep and form where we travel to work; a bit more of a community. And who knows, this being Advent and all, the conversation might even turn to Jesus.

But what really struck me following our neighbour’s visit was not so much the idea of engaging in a spot of community-building and perhaps a bit of evangelism on the side but the importance of the lost art of hospitality.

If I read my Bible aright, especially the Old Testament, being the people of God is meant to include a commitment to hospitality, hospitality which is all about being yourself, celebrating your heritage and identity while making space for others to join in. It strikes me that rediscovering the practice of hospitality would be an important way of helping us get back to being a genuinely Christian witness.

What do you reckon? Fancy having a go? Should I warn Tesco’s to stock up on cinnamon and candles?

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here for the next four weeks. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism

Thanks to Sean for alerting me to this. Looks interesting. Just booked in.

Enough With The Written Prayers Already

Power prayer (332/365)
Originally uploaded by labspics
I rarely seethe my way through meetings with colleagues and friends, but every now and then ….

Take last month for example. I spent a big chunk of two weeks in meetings with other Baptist ministers. First of all it was our turn at Luther-King House to host the biennial conference for Baptists doing theological research. The week after it was the annual meeting of staff from the British Baptist colleges.

While I recognise that not everyone would queue to attend such events, both gatherings had much about them that I enjoy: meeting old friends, getting my brain stretched and talking more than is good for me. But this time round I spent too much time chuntering under my breath. You see the whole thing was somewhat spoiled by prayer.

It goes with out saying that meetings devoted to theological reflection or to discussing ministerial formation should be punctuated regularly by prayer. Amen to that. What I found so frustrating was the extent to which those times of prayer were dominated by written prayers, responsive readings and the like.

Don’t get me wrong, ever since I discovered the value of a daily office when I was a student here in Manchester back in the eighties I’ve appreciated and enjoyed using written liturgies along with the best of them. Carefully crafted prayers with nicely turned phrases and a thoughtful structure definitely have their place. It’s just that too much of the written stuff leaves no room for good old-fashioned extemporary prayer.

Similarly there are times when having a candle to focus on, an aria to listen to or pebble to hold really does it for me. But last month I found myself longing for someone, at least once, to open up the time set aside for prayer by simply saying, “Ok let’s talk to God – off you go, let the free-for-all begin.” I began to wonder if it is still possible to pray without first handing stuff out.

I reckon there’s a lot to be said for making it up on the spot with everyone chipping in when they fancy. I like the notion of prayer as a jam session rather than a carefully rehearsed recital. What’s wrong with the liturgical equivalent of skiffle or punk; no need to be highly skilled or self-consciously careful – just have a go, let rip. Ill-formed but heartfelt prayers do the job just fine.

I realise, of course, that sometimes open prayer can be an awkward, forced, thin and routine. But it needn’t be. It can also be relaxed, spontaneous, honest, natural, stimulating.

In the rush to enrich our prayer times with a range of approaches from a variety of traditions, we should be careful lest we lose the knack of prayer as the equivalent of banter around the kitchen table. I would hate to be left with nothing other than prayer as the polite conversation of the parlour.

I also realise that the meetings to which I refer are hardly typical of most Baptist gatherings. But if the way in which we prayed time and again at those events has become the default mode for those of us studying and teaching theology and if we’ve lost the art of shared, extempore prayer or, God forbid, if we are tempted to regard it as somehow less worthy, then there’s a serious problem. Not only are we missing what can be prayer at its best but we are also badly disconnected from the way that many in our churches are inclined to conduct their prayer meetings.

Having got that off my chest I thought I’d feel lot better. I don’t. Instead I’m worried that the next time I see my colleagues they might beat me to death with copies of Gathering for Worship or Celtic Daily Prayer. Perhaps, dear reader, you would pray for me, free-form, you know, the good, old-fashioned, Baptist way.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here for the next four weeks. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here