Thursday, 26 February 2009

Let's Hear It For Activism

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.

One of the hazards of ministry is the risk of being misunderstood. Ask any preacher. There are of course things one can do to reduce the risk. But sometimes you just have to go for it. So here goes.

The main secret of church growth is to want to grow and then to do something about it. I prescribe a good, old fashioned dose of evangelical activism.

Of course it’s not quite that simple. If it were I’d be out of a job. I spend a lot of time and energy helping students to identify cultural trends and to consider how to respond. We look at a whole range of approaches to evangelism and church growth from missionary congregations to personal faith sharing; from fresh expressions to healthy church growth thinking. We ask all kinds of important theological questions about such things as the relationship between our mission and God’s mission or the place of evangelism in our pursuit of the kingdom.

It’s encouraging that reflection on evangelism and other forms of mission is becoming more nuanced, theologically more robust. But it remains true that the three most important steps for those who would like to see growth are to want to grow, to plan to grow and then to do something about it.

Not that these things alone are enough. Church growth theory has always stressed that there are factors way beyond how a local congregation goes about things which have a huge influence on how likely they are to see an increase in numbers. It could well be, for instance, that the arrest of numerical decline detected in both the 2005 English Churches Census and the recent figures published by TEAR Fund is largely down to the culture-wide resurgence of interest in spirituality and the re-entry of religion onto the public stage since 9/11 and 7/7. Not a lot your local church can do about such things.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t take a census or a survey to tell you that churches that try to grow tend grow faster than those who aren’t interested in growth or won’t work at it. We need to be intentional and active.

Activism however has recently fallen out of favour. You must know the old joke about the patron saint of evangelicals being St. Vitus. Much of the criticism is indeed neccessary. Mere busyness is soul destroying. Prayerless reliance on human effort is faithless. We ought not to live as if we believe in justification by results. On the other hand it would be a gross denial of our evangelical heritage and a huge loss to the Church universal if we were to swap activism for quietism.

I wouldn’t want to go as far as the remark attributed to 19C evangelist Dwight Moody who respond to a critic by telling her that he preferred his method of doing evangelism to her method of not doing it. I am not commending mere activism or heedless hard work. What’s called for is faithful, imaginative engagement.

Nor do I want to simplify to the point simplicity. “For every problem there is a solution that is simple, straightforward …. and wrong!” Amen. But neither do I want to see the church paralysed by complexity or bewildered into impotence.

We might only understand in part but that doesn’t mean we know nothing. We might not have it within our power to transform our own fortunes but that doesn’t mean we can do nothing. So let’s hear it for activism. Gospel faithful activism? Theologically savvy activism? Prayerfully reflective activism? Spirit inspired activism? Yes! Yes! Yes! Yes! But for all that, still activism.

Baptist Christians in a Multi-Faith World

Here's details of a forthcoming day organised by the mission department at the BUGB

Monday, 23 February 2009

Cliff College Seek Postgraduate Mission Tutor

Said I'd pass this on.

Postgraduate Tutor

Cliff College offers undergraduate and postgraduate theology degrees, focused on evangelism in contemporary culture, emerging church, leadership and renewal, biblical theology, children’s and youth ministry. Our courses are validated by the University of Manchester and our student body is both diverse and international.

Postgraduate Tutor. To be part of a team teaching at postgraduate level in the general area of mission. To offer leadership to the taught MA in Mission programme. To supervise research students. Ability to teach in one or more of the following areas: leadership, renewal, emerging church, youth and children’s ministry.

You will have a PhD in theology or related area, or near to completion. You can be lay or ordained. For a ministerial appointment (in the Methodist Church or another denomination in communion with the Methodist Church), the Methodist stipend and allowances will apply. A lay appointment will be in the region of £33,000.

The Next Steps. To find out more about the College go to For information on the post and an application form contact Helen Phipps on 01246 584216 or

Applications must be received by 19 March and interviews take place at the College on 27 March.

Cliff College, Calver, Hope Valley, Derbyshire S32 3XG

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Billy Cobham at Ronnie Scott's

Just got back from a weekend in London which included a great night out at Ronnie Scott’s.
The headline act, The Billy Cobham Band, were fantastic. Hadn’t come across Billy Cobham before even though he’s been around since the 60’s, but then, Weather Report aside, I’m not a huge fan of the fusion/funk end of the Jazz spectrum. I confess to being a bit disappointed when I noticed that the line up didn’t include a sax and more than a little worried when I noticed it did include a steel pan. So much for my prejudices. Junior Gill was superb and fitted in seamlessly.

The band as whole were tighter than whatever it is ducks themselves use as a simile for being tight. And talk about presence! Like a nuclear submarine deep below the polar ice-cap: thrumming with energy and effortlessly cool at the same time. This was live music as it’s surely supposed to be, an event, of the moment, a happening.

I’m not sure I’ll be buying any Billy Cobham albums. There’s other stuff I’d rather give my time and money to. But as a live set this will take some beating. It’s good to go out for a night and to walk back excited by what you’ve just heard.

Full line up: Billy Cobham – drums; Jean-Marie Ecay – guitar; Fifi Chayeb – bass; Junior Gill - steel pan; Christophe Cravero – keyboards and violin(!); Marco Lobo – percussions.

Here's a clip of Billy doing his stuff back in 1987.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Conversion and Pluraism

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.

It’s not often the BBC quotes scripture. Last week however, Mtt 28 featured prominently in its report of the Church of England’s general synod. The established church has been debating a proposal that it should make explicit its intention to seek the conversion of people to Christ.

I am not in a position to comment on the reporter’s opinion that the proposal was a covert attempt to arrest a “liberal drift”. The reaction in the media though does raise some interesting questions about evangelism in a society of many faiths.

Commentators have weighed in on both sides. “To fail to seek conversions is a denial of the gospel.” “Aggressive proselytising is disrespectful and runs the risk of destabilising inter-faith relations.”
I reckon both sides of the argument are right. And wrong.

The out and out evangelisers, the proclaimers, the converters need to think carefully about their understanding of evangelism. Yes, we should resist the notion that evangelism need be crass and insensitive. But we should also acknowledge that it can be, and often has been.

I recall with embarrassment the street preachers in Wakefield who so vigorously harangued passers by, launching bible verses like projectiles, that they were arrested for conduct likely to cause a breach of the peace. Jesus wept.

Seeking the conversion of others ought not to be controversial but it is truly a sensitive issue. It becomes particularly sensitive when we, the Christian majority, seek the conversion of a distinct, minority group who feel beleaguered, misrepresented and under suspicion. It is one thing to witness to Christ in our weakness, another thing entirely to do so from a position of power.

Yes, sharing Christ is in itself an act of love and compassion. How important then that we do all we can to make sure that the way in which we speak of him does not deny the very message we seek to convey.

On the other hand those who imagine that respecting others requires us to abandon all attempts to persuade them of the truth of our convictions are surely misguided. A commitment to social pluralism – the view that other faiths, cultures and world views have every right to share fully in society, indeed that they are welcome to do so - is not incompatible with seeking conversions.

Yes, dialogue is a vital dimension of Christ-like evangelism. Yes, true dialogue must include a readiness to listen and learn, recognition that we do not have a monopoly on truth. But no, persuasion is not a dirty word. It’s what happens in mature relationships, in adult conversations. The best forms of dialogue include, but go beyond, the mere gathering of information or the acquisition of insight. If truth counts for anything then all parties have to speak from a position of conviction and commitment and with an openness to conversion. There are many out there, the BBC included who would seek to impale us on the horns of false dilemmas. We must resist the pressure to choose between closed-minded, fundamentalist certainty and timid, liberal relativism.

To participate in God’s mission in today’s multi-faith Britain is to pray and to sweat till we see justice, peace and a welcome for all. It also to speak whenever we can, to do whatever we can and at all times to live in such a way as to persuade as many as we can to follow the one who is the source of existence, the key to life and the destiny of all creation. These callings are not and must never be allowed to become incompatible, indeed they are one.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

"Homiletic" Free Online Journal

Homiletic, the journal of the American Academy of Homiletics, is now freely available online right here.

It has good articles, usually one or two per edition and lots of good book reviews. The American Academy is where it's at when it comes to homiletics.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Smells Like Holy Spirit

Nostrils after
Originally uploaded by jeffandmandyg
In my last post I said that I was all for the use of incense in worship. Tim F commented saying he wasn't so sure.
Set me thinking.

How have / would you use smell in worship? And what smells in particular?

Not what does worship smell like - for me that's definitely wood varnish and dusty books with distinct undertones of old lady. No, what I'm interested in is not those evocative olfactory inspired memories but rather the deliberate, intentional use of scent as an aid to worship.

What do you reckon?

Friday, 13 February 2009

Baptists, Status and Clerical Trappings

What is it with Baptists, clerical garb, dog collars, the title reverend and our fascination with the trappings of priestly office?

I was moved to write by two pictures in last week’s Baptist Times. One showed a Baptist minister taking part in an ecclesiastical haute couture fashion show and another at an ecumenical act of worship, wildly underdressed in comparison with the lovely Gary on page three, but still in a special vicar get-up. Surely something’s gone wrong.

Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m not some kind of traditionalist free church reactionary. I’m all for being nice to the C of E. Some of my best friends are vicars. I approve of written liturgy – up to a point. I would vote in favour of the weekly celebration of the eucharist (see, I even called it eucharist). I really like the idea of incense in worship - just love that smell.

Nor do I have a problem with symbolism, we are fools if we think we can do church without it, so let’s make sure we know what we are doing and that we do it well. I like the idea of more colour, drama and theatre in church - we worship God as whole beings, bodily beings, sensuous beings, so if it’s colour we’re after let’s all dress up - party frocks for everyone!

Also, while we are at it, let’s recognise the low church versions of this kind of ministerial one-upmanship. These are often to be found at conferences and more widely in Pentecostal, New Church and too many Baptist circles. You know the kind of thing, consider for instance the platform party, “We might dress like you but we’re stuck up here like lemons all through the service because we’re special”. Preachers should step forward from the congregation rather than rising from the line up of dignitaries or emerging from the vestry for that matter. Consider also the fondness for using the word, “pastor” as a title. No one calls my wife “teacher Kathy” or my son “engineer Steve”, so please, just call me “Glen”.

It’s not that I’m questioning the conscious motivation of some of my friends. (Unconscious motivation is a different matter.) I do worry though about the unintended messages we transmit about the ecclesiastical caste system. Ministers have an important representative role with regard to the church and they are unquestionably seen in such a way by those beyond the church. So do we really want our titles and our dress code to reinforce stereotypes about establishment and the love of status? Surely we should be doing all we can to subvert the tendency towards hierarchy and deference. Apparently dog collars and the title, reverend, “help us slide under the red tape when visiting hospitals” (though in 25 years of ministry I’ve never found it necessary) but they also put us at a distance from, in a different category to, the very people for whom we are seeking to care. It’s not worth it.

I thought we were supposed to be nonconformists. Offering a different way of doing community to the still class-ridden, status-hungry society around us and standing out against those parts of the church who seek to introduce such worldly posturing into the body of Christ.

I worry above all though about the underlying theology. At heart the problem is that playing these ecclesiastical status games runs counter to the ethos of Jesus, the teaching of Jesus and the incarnation itself which is all about God setting aside privilege and position and becoming one of us. So as well as being unhelpful and misleading, it’s just not right.

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, 11 February 2009

Breaking News

This just in from The Provisional BBC.


Gordon Brown is "very angry" about proposed bank bonuses, according to his press team. He said executives should "think of the children" and reconsider whether they really wanted more money.

The Prime Minister's spokesperson warned Brown could get "even angrier" if executives do not heed his advice, and risks getting "monumentally peeved" if they award themselves higher bonuses than last year. It is not known at what point the Prime Minister might burst. Brown said "We are leading the world in criticising the bankers, and in making them think very hard about the consequences of their actions." He refused to rule out putting bankers on the naughty step.

David Cameron denounced Brown for taking no real action, and said that Conservatives would have taken no action much earlier than Labour. He also suggested nationalising the top 100 UK companies and putting the banks in the hands of workers' communes. However, a report by the Daily Mirror later showed his butler was following him all day with his fingers crossed.

Can't give a proper hat tip to the author as it is crucial that the provisional BBC maintains the anonymity of its reporters so as to protect it from scurrilous accusations of political bias. Suffice it to say that the hack in question used belong to the youth fellowship at my former church. Makes you proud to have been a pastor!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Mack the Knife (Ella Fitzgerald)

Been listening to this a lot recently. Object lesson in how to screw it up and at the same time get it so, so, right. Pure genius! If you can listen to this without smiling, get a shovel, go into the garden and bury yourself ... cos you're dead already. OK so the visuals aren't much to write home about! But who cares.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Biblical Studies Tutor

Here's the new ad for a job at our place. Just imagine, you'd get to work with me!

(a member of the ecumenical Partnership for Theological Education in Manchester)

intends to appoint a

Full-Time Tutor in Biblical Studies

with particular experience and skills for the development of education and training within black and minority ethnic groups

Requests for information can be made to the Principal, Revd Dr Richard Kidd

(Applications must arrive by 16th March 2009)

[Northern Baptist College has adopted an Equal Opportunities Policy]

Too Many Ministers?

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.

Will God respond to the economic crisis by calling more people into ministry?

A strange question? Well, I’m lead to believe that there is a discernable pattern. During past recessions we saw a marked increase the number seeking recognition and training. If this happens again how should we respond? It’s not straightforward.

Last year, well before the credit went crunch, our colleges enjoyed a boost in the number of students. As for this year, it’s a bit early to say but if the trend continues we will face a number of interesting questions.

To start with, should we put a quota on the numbers we are prepared to accept? Two considerations might lead us in this direction. First there is the potentially painful prospect of a surfeit of people seeking pastorates three or four years into the future. Those who train to be Baptist ministers make great sacrifices in order to test and pursue the call of God. What if, after such sacrifice, there is no invitation to a specific church, which in our Baptist polity is the ultimate test of call? What about the personal cost?

Secondly there’s the quality of ministerial formation. Even Spurgeon’s, the largest of our colleges, is by no means a big institution. All the Baptist colleges are able to take a personal and flexible approach to our work with ministers-in-training. This way of operating relies on a high staff to student ratio. Increasing student numbers would put us under great pressure.
If training Baptist ministers were a money making venture there would be no problem. As numbers increased income would increase and we could employ more staff. Would that it were that simple. The enterprise isn’t set up to maximise per captia profit!

Perhaps it’s time to reconsider the question of centrally funding ministerial training? But doesn’t such an approach run against the Baptist grain? And anyway where would Home Mission raise the extra funding at a time of financial hardship?

Maybe it’s time to get serious about rationalising our ministerial training resources by merging some of our colleges. But the very strength of the current set-up is the close links that colleges have developed in their own regions. We may well release funds but much would also be put at risk.

As well as the practical, personal, educational and financial challenges that an increase in people training for ministry would bring there are bigger strategic questions.

Surely an increase in people hearing the call of God to ordained ministry is reason for rejoicing. If we are to limit access to training how are we to determine who gets in and who doesn’t? Are some more called than others?

Maybe our whole conception of ministry needs an overhaul. What if the blockage is our assumption that we are primarily training pastors to lead churches? At the moment all those who leave colleges have to receive a call to a church.

God knows the release of more experienced, educated and equipped people into the mission field of modern day Britain would be an exciting development. What if God is hollering some into other forms of ministry? Maybe we are being prompted to equip and release more pioneer planters, community ministers and chaplains. Perhaps we a need a shift in our terminology. What if we thought not of being called to a church but being called by a church – and then released into, let loose upon the wider world?

Of course this still leaves the question of who would pay these people to exercise their ministry. Perhaps that notion too needs to be revisited. Could it be time to look again a bi-vocational ministry? Or what about new patterns of communal living with a sharing of resources to release people for ministry?

As I said, lots of questions. And yes, the situation may never come to pass. But surely now is the time prayerfully to consider the issues.