Sunday, 28 November 2010

Bifurcating Evangelicals!

This from Roger Olsen on why it might not be a bad idea for evangelicals to stop kidding themselves that they are still one coherent movement.  (HT Jonathan Robinson)

Been thinking of spouting off about this myself.  Not sure I'm entirely convinced by Olson's analysis but I do reckon there may well be potentially terminal tensions in the movement.  Maybe I'll fling some thoughts together later this week.  For now I'd be interested to hear what you make of Olsen's piece.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

ConDem Politics and Christian Hypocrisy

All together now:

I will speak out for those who have no voices

I will stand up for the rights of all the oppressed

I will speak truth and justice

I'll defend the poor and the needy

I will lift up the weak in Jesus' name

Or if you prefer:

I, the Lord of wind and flame,

I will tend the poor and lame.

I will set a feast for them.

My hand will save.

I wonder if you ever sing either of these hymns.  If so I do hope you won’t allow David Cameron and Nick Clegg to turn you into a hypocrite.

You see it looks like we are in for a period when the attention of the media will be, as ever, on the antics of the rich and famous (not least, following last week’s announcement, the royally rich and famous).  Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of the not nearly so rich and the nowhere near famous will, largely unnoticed, be struggling to cope as their jobs are snatched away and their benefits slashed.

“Oh dear” I hear you say, “this is getting a bit political.”  Well, yes, but my purpose in raising this is not to debate the minutiae of government fiscal policy.  I’m not sure that an economics A level from 1978 is sufficient qualification to pronounce on the relative merits of Keynes and Friedman as gurus for hard times.  Instead I’m going to stick to what I know. 

I reckon I’m on safe ground when I tell you that thirty five years of reading the Bible has lead me to the conclusion that Jesus is not very fond of hypocrisy.  And make no mistake it will be the rankest of rank hypocrisy if in coming years the church in this country continues to sing its hymns of solidarity and preach its sermons on God’s care for poor while keeping stum about the impact of legislation on the lives of the most vulnerable.   It would also be somewhat less than satisfactory for us to follow the all too familiar path of sticking to escapist praise songs and ignoring awkward Bible passages.

For the purposes of this column whether you voted Tory, Labour, Lib Dem or Monster Raving Looney is not really my concern.  My point is that as Christians we all belong to a political party that has as one of the main planks of its platform a policy that is set firmly against passing by on the other side.  Ever since the good Samaritan did his stuff we have declared care-less neglect of the battered and the bruised to be a bad thing.  And those who shoot their mouths off about how the world should be run really ought to try and muster up at least an ounce or two of consistency.

We can agree on that can’t we?  That the church ought to be speaking out on behalf of those whom the majority of society would rather ignore?  That we should be trying to wrestle the spotlight away from princes and prima donnas, nudging it instead towards those upon whom God’s eye rests?

If not, perhaps it’s time to call an end to the party.  At the very least we should take our scissors to our Bibles and attack our hymn projection software with the delete button.  The Magnificat for instance, and all those songs based upon it, should be left on the cutting room floor this Christmas.  True, the bland and anaemic version of Christianity with which we would be left is a rather distasteful thing, but not nearly as nauseating a full blown hypocrisy.

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion 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. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Church Meetings - How to Fight Nicely?

There can hardly be a parent alive who hasn’t said to their children, “Now I want you to learn how to play together nicely.”  The other day it occurred to me that it would probably serve the next generation better if we helped them to learn how to fight with each other nicely.  I was sitting in a church meeting at the time.

Church meetings eh?  Don’t you just love ‘em?  Get a group of Baptists together and it won’t be long before someone pokes fun at, moans about or openly despairs of church meetings.  Fact is though I think church meetings are brilliant, or at least I think they could be.

I didn’t always think this.  I became a Baptist because I was convinced about believers’ baptism and because I was prepared to put up with church meetings.  I was prepared to put up with them despite the clogging of agendas with trivia; despite the way they were dominated by the same few people (my wife kept a tally once – 80 present, 12 spoke of whom ten were middle-aged men including her husband).  I put up with them despite not knowing how to deal with the high emotion that so often bubbled to the surface and despite the fact that I sat through a couple were there were threats of violence.

But now I’m well passed just putting up with them, I’m convinced that if only we learned how to do church meetings they could be a very taste of heaven, an example of the church acting its age, the post-Pentecost age of the democratisation of the Spirit, you know old and young, male and female all getting a good sloshing of the third person of the trinity so that everyone can join in finding out what God wants.

But for this to happen we do need to learn how to fight nicely.  Because fight we will – if by fighting we mean expressing deeply held and widely differing opinions.  Pretending otherwise is daft.  But what does it mean to fight nicely?  Well, I can’t claim to have it sussed but I reckon that at last I’ve begun to learn a handful of lessons.  Here’s just three.

Learn to listen.  If this is about finding out what God wants and not fighting for what I want then I need to remember that God has a habit of speaking through those I least expect.  If we really believe that the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh then we need to find ways to listen to those who find it difficult to speak in public.  Small groups can help here as can a skilled chair.

Learnt to trust.  Trust others to decide on details recognising that they aren’t necessarily going to do it your way.  Trust the membership to raise issues and initiate discussions; the leadership don’t have a monopoly on spotting the leading of the Spirit.  Trust God.  Being God is God’s job not the church’s job; we don’t have to obsess about getting it right because even when we get it wrong God’s good at sorting us out.  Relax a bit.

Learn to wait.  A good deal of our failure to fight nicely comes from rushing decisions.  It usually makes sense to separate listening to each other from making up our minds.  Have listening meetings first and deciding meetings later.

You may say that I’m a dreamer, and yes, perhaps I am the only one, but if I’m not and like me you still believe in church meetings, I’d love hear what lessons you think we need to learn.

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion 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. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

Saturday, 20 November 2010

This is what I'm going to be doing on Saturday.  I know I've told you already.  Thought I'd tell you again though cos if you are planning on joining us you really ought to book in by Wednesday.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Manchester City Centre Spirit Walk

Those who've been following my stuff on City Centre retreating might be interested in this from Ben Edson.


The opening session of a first year mission course that I teach here in Manchester always stirs up a vigorous debate.  I ask the students to fill in a questionnaire entitled, “Is It Mission?”  They are given a list of activities ranging from the overtly evangelistic (planting a church) through the clearly political (joining a march to campaign against a war) to the distinctly ecclesial (playing piano in church).  I then ask them to decide if the activity counts as mission or not.  Without fail a major part of the ensuing discussion focuses on one activity in particular, the one that speaks about persuading a friend to become a Christian.

It seems that many people, or at least many of my students, are not persuaded about the validity of persuasion.  Some seem to have a gut-level reaction against the very notion. In their minds the word “persuasion” hangs out with words like “pressurise”, “manipulate”, “brow-beat”.  This worries me.  Especially when they try to persuade me that I should join them in their rejection of persuasion!  It worries me not just because of the inherent contradiction.  No, it worries me far more because it is yet another sign of the way in which the church’s confidence in evangelism is evaporating. 

When I was a teenager my best friend worked hard to persuade me that my objections to Christianity weren’t as well founded as I thought they were.  If he hadn’t I would never have come to faith.  I am really glad that he persuaded me.  If antipathy towards persuasion takes root then many of today’s Christians will never even attempt to persuade their friends to join them in following Christ.

What makes it difficult for me though is that as well as worrying about the reactions of my students I also sympathise with them.  They do have a point you know.  Too many of our attempts to persuade have indeed bordered on the hectoring, the underhand, the dishonest.  I still wince at the memory of the closing night of one fortnight-long town-wide mission in which I was involved.  It had not gone well.  At least when measured by the number of “decisions”.  The evangelist who was heading up the mission and preaching at the nightly rallies in the town’s theatre was also disappointed.  He didn’t say so, but you could tell.  You could tell because on the last night of the mission when it came to the appeal he tried a novel tactic: “OK I’d like everyone here to raise their hand in the air.  Now, if you don’t want to become a Christian please put your hand down.”  I ask you!

As those committed to the way of Christ, committed to truth, committed to the dignity of all people we ought to run a million miles from any attempt  to persuade by bullying, by trickery, by dishonesty.  An underhand presentation of the gospel is a contradiction in terms.  More than that, it’s a monstrosity.  But that does not mean that we should give up seeking to persuade.

Yes, persuasion alone is inadequate.  Yes, conversion nearly always comes about through far more than logical argument alone.  Yes, being good news and acting good-newsily is just as important as debating the issues.  But we have to recognise that in this world of many stories, this time of multiple worldviews, seeking gently, confidently and respectfully to persuade our friends to repent and believe the good news is not only legitimate, it’s crucial.  If we don’t, we fail in our calling.  We fail our Lord.  We fail the world for which he died.


My turn to do a month's worth of opinion 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. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Retreat Cineman Retreat Cinema Retreat Cineman Retreat Cinema

OK I admit it, some of these Outside Edge columns have failed to persuade my readers.  When I suggested that watching 18 certificate films is good for us it quickly became apparent that some of you see things differently.  When I advocated city-centre retreats as a much needed alternative to seeking God in the rural not everyone was convinced. 

What’s a man to do?  I know!  Why not combine the two ideas?  This week, dear reader, I would like to suggest that watching films is a great form of retreat.  Forget drafty prayer cells, knock those expensive Laura Ashley-fied country house conference centres on the head; head instead for the multiplex.

This the place to step out of your routine.  This is the place where time runs differently.  This is the place to switch off and tune in.  This is the place to immerse yourself in big ideas.  This is the place to learn to see things from a whole new perspective.

Here’s the deal: in exchange for seven quid you get three hours away from it all, alone with others in the dark and the chance to contemplate issues of beauty, morality, truth and character.  And, if my experience is anything to go by, you may well find yourself bumping into God.  All this and popcorn too!  Can’t be bad.

If you are tempted to object that clearly it can be bad, that film often plunges us into the dark side, then dear reader, I have to reply that you seem to have a limited knowledge and a shallow experience of retreating.  To retreat is often to confront darkness, the darkness of our world and the darkness of our own soul.

If you are tempted to object that what I describe is not retreat but escapism, then dear reader, I have to reply that these are very closely related.  Retreating begins by escaping.  What’s important is that it doesn’t end there.  To retreat is to escape from busyness and routine so as to attend to God, God’s world and our own inner life; to attend to these things that we might gain insight, grow in wisdom, and then re-engage the every day - fresher, deeper.

I recently lead a church away day.  We talked a lot (or at least I did), we sang, we prayed.  It was good.  But for those of us who chose not to spend the afternoon shopping, walking or playing football the most potent part of the day was watching the film, Whale Rider, a moving exploration of identity, spirituality, tradition, renewal and the survival of a distinctive way of life in the face of an indifferent society.  We cried.  We were uplifted.

Consider this too dear reader, even if you are not persuaded by my impeccable logic and subtle rhetoric it seems that many millions of others are.  According to a recent survey in America over twenty percent of the population now turn to media, arts and culture as their primary means of spiritual experience and expression. 

Cinema is a foundry of world views, a forging place of  moral opinion and spiritual perspective, it is a potent expression of the creativity with which the Creator imbues creatures.  It is an arena where the spirituality of inherently spiritual humanity bubbles to the surface and pops right in your face.  And no, of course, it’s not all Godly but neither is it Godless.  The Spirit wafts across these sometimes dark, chaotic waters and hatches life.  But only those who take the time, only those who look and listen, will notice.

(To explore these ideas further read Craig Detweiler’s Into the Dark or Robert Johnston's Reel Spirituality both published by Baker - you can go get them by clicking over there on the right, in the sidebar, the Stuff I Reccomend bit.)

My turn to do a month's worth of opinion 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. To check out the Baptist Times as a whole click here.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Minister As Missionary 6

Conclusion - ministerial by calling

This reorientation, this reimagining of what it means to be a minister is both important and urgent.  However, it is not without dangers.  One such danger is that of missionally-motivated ministerial sheep-beating.   I detect an emerging and distressing phenomenon, angry missionary-ministers, ministers whose anger is kindled by their congregation’s failure to get with the missionary programme.  These are ministers who feel held back by their congregations.  It is as if their people are getting in the way of their own missionary-ministry.  And it makes them mad.  I sympathise.  I think I understand.  But I am also alarmed.

God did not call us to into ministry that we might become our congregation’s accuser. That position is already taken.  Yes, learning to see ourselves as missionary-ministers matters a lot.  But as we start to realise that aim it is also vital that we don’t forget that we are also missionary-ministers,  servants of our people, people who are themselves called to serve the world that the world in turn might learn to serve God.

Back in May I gave the Baptist Ministers' Fellowship annual lecture at the Baptist Assembly in Plymouth.  This month a version of the talk was published in the Baptist Minsters' Journal.  With the kind permission of the editorial board I will be reproducing a slightly modified version of the BMJ article here.  To keep things down to regular post length I'm going to stick it up in a series of bite size chunks.