Friday, 17 December 2010

BMS and Urban Expression Announce New Partnership

News just released of an exciting new partnership for cross cultural mission in British cities.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Church of Jazz

Cannonball Adderly Quintet lead worship on the theme of adversity.  The Spirit seems to be moving on the congregation.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Advent Readings and Prayers

My turn this week to contribute thoughts and prayer suggestions to Northern Baptist Learning Community's advent cycle.  Go read and pray.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Book Launch: Ancient Faith Future Mission: New Monasticism as Fresh Expressions of The Church

Those who came along to the prophetic voices day here at Luther King House in October when we looked at new monastic communities might interested in this book launch:
The combination of Fresh Expressions of Church and the explosion of interest in monastic spirituality is resulting in the emergence of new monastic communities inspired by historic patterns of religious life, but reframed for the contemporary world.  In this book, leaders of traditional religious communities and emerging 'new monastic' communities tell their stories and reflect on how an ancient expression of being church is inspiring and shaping a very new one.
Thursday 3rd Feb.  18:00 - 21:00 
Location: Church House, 90 Deansgate, Manchester.
Free Tickets: Event Bright
Panel for the Manchester Book Launch
(Chair) Ben Edson, DIocesan Fresh Expressions Missioner & Associate Missioner of the National Fresh Expressions Team
Philip Roderick, Spirituality Advisor to the Bp of Sheffield and Leader for Contemplative Fire Community
Mark Berry, Safe Space Community Telford
Ian Mobsby, Moot Community

Monday, 6 December 2010

"Exploring The Story" An Introduction to Reading the Bible

Some of my colleagues here at NBLC are teaching a short course which introduces the Bible and explores ways of reading the different types of literature that it contains.  Aimed at anyone at all who might be interested, this is just one expression of our mission to serve as "... a widely accessible resource for mission through theological education, equally available to the whole people of God."  It's happening in South Manchester on three Saturday mornings in January.

For more info, including details of how to book a place, go here.

(BTW you don't need to be able to read Heberw, or have a pointy thing with a brass hand on the end.)

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Of Gods and Men

Just got back from seeing the best film of the year, Of Gods and Men.  I learned lots of stuff.  I learned that it snows in Algeria.  I learned that old men have beautiful faces.  I learned that monks can be heroic.  I learned that multiple endings can be done better than in Return of the King.  I learned that intelligence, emotion and good theology can hang out together.  I learned that a film can be a brilliant sermon - without being at all preachy.  I learned you CAN do simple and profound.  I learned that this particular film does what it says on the can - it's deeply human and utterly divine.

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.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

The Minister As Missionary 5

3. The Missionary-Minister As Host.  Mission as Hospitality

In a rapidly changing, rootless society, mission is also about generating communities of hospitality, providing for strangers a nourishing and wholesome place to be while they decide if they would like to belong. 

This is not unrelated to my previous point.  One of the things that is essential for true hospitality is knowing who we are, being comfortable in our own corporate skin.  It really isn’t about being on our best behaviour, nervously minding our P’s and Q’s lest we offend.   Too many attempts at hospitality fail because they are uptight.  Good hospitality is about unashamedly being who we are while creating space for others to be with us, without them feeling that they have to be anything other than who they are.  It's about the standing invitation to all and sundry to enter into our domestic life, to be at home in our home.   It's not about offering a formal seat in the parlour, it's about keeping a place by the fire in the kitchen.

This, I fear, is where the seeker-centred approach to church and evangelism led us down a blind alley.  It really isn't helpful to gather up all that is peculiar about the Christian way of being and hide it behind the sofa for fear that guests might find it off-putting.   Let's face the facts, we are unquestionably odd.  But as society becomes more and more pluralistic so is everyone else.  It's normal to be odd.  Being embarrassed about our oddity just makes everyone nervous.

Becoming hospitable also requires us to embrace the invitational dimension of Christian mission.  Yes, we must attend to the rightfully insistent voices reminding us that mission is about going.  Yes, The Field of Dreams approach to mission (“If you build it they will come”) is indeed inadequate.  Inadequate, but not entirely misguided.  The debate between centripetal and centrifugal approaches to mission is ultimately sterile.  We need both.

Even as ministers work to grow churches that are eager to go, we must also be home-makers, nurturing communities to which it is worth returning.  Missionary-ministers will give themselves to fostering a community ethos that is generous towards those who lodge with us, at ease with visitors, appropriately, curious about newcomers and always ready with a patient explanation should anyone enquire about our peculiar ways.

And no, once again, I am not saying that fostering such an ethos is the sole responsibility of the minister.  Of course it isn't.  But ministers ought not to be blind to the influence they have for good or ill on the feel of the communities they lead.  Let's deploy that influence intentionally.  Let's seek to be home-makers and home-sharers.  Let's recover, practice and promote the lost art of hospitality.

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.

Horror For Halloween

My friend Rob's been reviewing horror films as a run up to halloween.  The reviews are very good and this post is just in time so you might want to take your lap top behind the sofa and read 'em.

Monday, 25 October 2010

The Minister As Missionary 4

2. The Missionary-Minister as Theologian in Residence.  Mission as Faithful Witness

In the hands of unreflective activists mission is so easily hijacked by alien values and subordinated to unexamined cultural presuppositions.  Stories of how this happened in the massive Victorian colonial, missionary expansion abound.  But you don’t have to set foot beyond your own culture to fall prey to such a disease.  Our missionary methods at home have, for instance, become chronically instrumentalised.  Too often we get too close to ends justifying means.  We forget that the form of mission matters just as much as the fruit of mission. Having a mission-shaped church is fine as long as we also have a gospel-shaped mission.

When it comes to our fearful lusting after church growth we have not always been as vigilant as we might.  Measurable growth, numerical success, numbers coming through the door have, in line with our culture’s obsession with the countable, become almost unqualified measures of  ministerial success.  And while I would be the first to criticise a neglectful indifference toward to results, I am also convinced that our feverish concern with the response to our missionary endeavours often leads us astray from the way of Christ. 

Billy Sunday, the old time evangelist, once calculated the price of a soul by dividing the total cost of his missions by the number of converts.  I myself recall one preacher at the end of a disappointing week of mission making an appeal with an interesting twist:  “I’d like everyone here to raise a hand in the air.  Ok, now if you don’t want to become a Christian, put your hand down.”  This kind of thing is not effective evangelism, it’s false witness. 

Of course few take it quite so far.  But I do think we need to ask if we have been guilty of purveying “gospel light” because in our desire to see results we have emptied our “gospel message” of all substantial ethical content.  Too much evangelism sounds too little like a call to join a radical community committed to sacrificial living for the sake of peace and justice, and too much like just another manifestation of our culture’s obsession with the therapeutic quick fix.

The truest measure of Christian of witness is not effectiveness but faithfulness to the person and the way of Christ.  This is of course much harder to measure, but it is also much more important.  This means making sure that our churches embody our tradition, that we know our language, are familiar with our stories, and keep alive our distinctive, defining practices. 

That is why a missionary-minister has to be a theologian, a local theologian, a theologian in residence.   The missionary re-orientation for which I’m calling , the turning out to the world rather than in on our selves, must not become a mere pragmatism, an unthinking rush to adopt whatever method promises to “work”.  It is the missionary-minister’s job, to help ensure that mission is rooted in our identity as a gospel people.

Now of course it’s not all down to the minister.  Baptist congregations of all congregations should be congregations of all the talents.  But there is a particular expertise that we as ministers must bring – an expertise in the scriptures and their significance for shaping congregational life.  We have a deposit that we are charged to keep, guard, renew and make available to our people, in the hope that they will never, ever trade in the blessing of authentic Christian identity for a mess of institutional success.

This is especially important  in our pluralistic society with its tournament of narratives, its bewildering white noise of competing ideologies and identities. Perhaps the greatest danger for an enthusiastically missionary church in our glorious, fascinating, diverse culture is that we forget who we are.  We must not allow that to happen.  It is the missionary-minster’s job to make sure that the church doesn’t go native.  We do this by learning to see ourselves as theologians - an unapologetic, insistent theological presence and resource rooted in our communities, not ivory tower fancifiers, but theologians in residence.

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.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

The Minister As Missionary 3

In the previous post I suggested that If we are to nurture genuinely missionary disciples, and genuinely missionary congregations we have to have genuinely missionary ministers, ministers who are oriented towards the beyond church, who see their calling as helping God’s church prayerfully to pursue God’s purpose for God’s world.

This will mean reimagining what it means to be a minister. I want to suggest that this will require the development of new images of ministry to sit alongside, or in some cases to supersede, the traditional images such as the pastor-teacher.

I would like to share with you three such images in the hope that they might help to fund such a reimagining.  Each image is fashioned in relation to a particular missional challenge facing the church in  twenty-first century Britain.

1. The Missionary-Minister as Conversationalist.  Mission as Dialogue
Cross-cultural missionaries discovered long ago the vital place of dialogue when working beyond the bounds of Christendom.  We too in this country are now ministering beyond Christendom.   The Church is an eccentric minority.  Our society is religiously plural.   Sadly the response of Christians to this situation has often been either hostility or indifference.  What is called for instead is ministerial initiatives in friendly engagement with those with whom we share our post-christian country. 

One of my regrets about my last pastorate is that I did not give nearly enough attention to discussion with the Muslim community on my doorstep.  In the current climate of brittle co-existence between different faith communities in the midst of a functionally atheist culture, it has to be a priority that we ministers work to show that diversity of religion in our society needn’t be a problem, and still less an excuse for violence.  If mission isn’t about reaching out in friendly embrace to those who are different, if it isn't about intentional peace-making then I don’t know that it is about.

In our relationships with those of other faiths neither crass conversionism nor timid opposition to conversionism will do.  What we need is mature, open, generous, humble, committed dialogue.  If our churches are to be oriented toward the beyond church, not turning our backs on our neighbours but turning toward them that we might first listen and then speak of our faith in Christ, we need missionary-ministers who will reach out in friendship and strike up as many conversations as possible.  Yes of course this is a calling for the whole church but ministers represent the church in particular way, ministers set the tone and give a lead.  It is our responsibility to initiate conversations, sustain conversations and draw church members into such conversations.

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.

Friday, 22 October 2010

God At The Movies?

More shameless self publicity.  This is one of our Luther King House Church Saturdays.  I think the flyer's self explanatory.  If you're in the Manchester area, why not come and join us?  Click on the image below to mail us with your booking.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The Minister As Missionary 2

Introduction - Missionary by Orientation 
Talk of mission is fast becoming the twenty-first century ecclesiastical equivalent of bind weed.  It gets everywhere.  Nor is it just  talk about mission that is expanding, our understanding of what qualifies as mission has grown and grown and grown.  So much so that we run the risk of sticking the label “missionary” on everything that moves and, this being church, quite few things that have long since lost the power of movement. 

On the one hand, this is clearly a good thing. I wouldn’t want to go back to the idea that unless it involves giving out tracts or making an appeal it doesn’t count as mission.  On the other hand though, there is a problem.  What exactly does count as mission and what ought not to count?  Where do we draw the line?  Which activities qualify?

I do an exercise with our students called Is it mission?  They conduct a questionnaire with their congregation.  The questionnaire lists a range of activities – everything from church planting through political campaigning to discussing religion with a Hindu neighbour.  The interviewees have to decide which activities qualify as mission.  We soon discover that if you try hard enough you can make a case for virtually anything to count as mission. 

The problem of course lies in our attempt to define mission in terms of what we do.  Becoming missional is not about doing a different thing, a new thing, an additional thing, it’s about doing all that we do with a different view in mind.  Mission is not one thing in particular it is everything seen from a particular perspective.  In the end I don’t think it’s helpful to think about which activities count and which don’t.  Our focus should be on our orientation.  Not “What are we doing?” but, “What is our motivation?”  Not, “What is occupying us?” but, “What are we intending?”  Is our concern, the furthering of God’s purposes for the world?  Then in my book it’s mission.

To get theological for a moment, it’s a matter of learning to see our place in the grand flow of the divine purpose, the Genesis to Revelation movement of God.  Creation itself is an act of mission, an act of divine outreach, bringing into being that which is both other than God and beloved by God.  Similarly, God’s determined commitment to the world despite its sin and brokenness is the missionary ground of the reality in which we live.  And of course the vision of the consummation of all things when the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah is our missiological lodestar.

The people of God have their being and find their identity as part of this reality.  We exist for God and for God’s ultimate purpose, the restoration of all things.  To the extent that Christians live contrary to this reality, pursuing self-interest and neglecting the divine project, we live against the grain of reality and in denial of our identity.  We also live in contradiction of the very heart of the gospel.  Whether you look to the incarnation, ministry or crucifixion of Christ what you see is the most profound orientation to the other, a living and a dying for the sake of the world, a radical refusal of self-absorption.

If you want an illustration of my point consider the second of this year’s televised prime-ministerial debates.  Supposedly this focused on foreign policy.  The questions however were all about national self-interest. Nothing on international justice, nothing on the global poor, nothing on international development.  Little-Englandism at its worst.  And the kind of attitude that is sadly too often found, transposed into a religious key, within our churches.

If all the talking, writing, conferencing, posturing and assembling on the theme of mission is to amount to anything, then we need a radical reorientation of the life of our  churches.  And if our churches are to experience this reorientation then our concept of ministry also needs a shake up.  If we are to nurture genuinely missionary disciples, and genuinely missionary congregations we have to have genuinely missionary ministers, ministers who are oriented towards the beyond church, who see their calling as helping God’s church prayerfully to pursue God’s purpose for God’s world.

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.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Minister As Missionary 1

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 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.  I may add further posts to the series so that I can expand on some of the ideas beyond the word limit that was possible in the article.  We'll see if I run out of energy.  

I'd love to hear what you think of the proposals.

The talk and the article explored what it means to think of the minister as a missionary.  My concern was to address the majority of (Baptist) ministers who will devote their lives to serving regular congregations rather than those whose calling takes them into more pioneering ministries such as church planting.  Much has been written about the need for such cutting edge ministries in Britain today.  I agree wholeheartedly.  However, if the church as a whole is to evolve into new missional forms and mentalities it is important that we consider what this might mean for those caring for and reaching out from mainstream congregations, those who for the foreseeable future will continue to comprise the majority of ministers.

The approach that I take is to offer a number of models for how we might envisage the role of the missionary minister.  I relate these models to some of the challenges of mission in post-Christian Britain.  More of that later though.  The first post proper (which will follow soon) is an extended introduction where I explore the idea that mission is best understood not as an activity or a set of activities but as a particular orientation.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Africa United

A friend of mine was producer on this new film.  This is me doing my bit to promote it. 

The film has been well received on the festival circuit.  The Guardian/Observer seemed to like it.  All that's needed now is for people to go see it.  It's  on general release on October 22nd.  Here's a trailer.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Urban Expression - Manchester Open Day

If you are interested in urban church planting in particular and urban mission/ministry in general it would be great to see at the Urban Experssion Open Day - we kick off in the Asda staff canteen, how can you resist?

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Winter's Bone - Chillingly Good

Once again it's taken a film to kick my bum back into blogging.  (The advert that was my last post doesn't really count.)  Said film?  Winter's Bone (Directed by Debra Granik; starring Jenifer Lawrence) A very good film indeed. 

A teenage girl searches for her missing father while caring for her mentally ill mother and her young brother and sister.  Dad's due in court and the family house and small holding will be forfeit if he fails to show.  There's your narrative mainspring which is wound up just tight enough to move the film along.  But it's stuff other than the story that do it for me.  This stuff:
  • It is thoroughly human in ambition and scale.  This is a film a bout people.
  • It handles its setting, the bleak back-woods of the Ozark Mountains, in way that breathes mood and atmosphere into the story from start to finish.  Place matters here; it's Hardyesque.
  • It is utterly menacing without being remotely spooky.  Menacing but mundane.
  • It is concerned with both human evil and human good and skilfully renders both facets of our shared condition.
  • It knows that individual human qualities matter, but so do family, community and wider society.  Deprivation and neglect grip people and squeeze them into often ugly moulds but personal virtue can still be potent.
  • Its heroine, around whom the entire film revolves, is utterly engaging and superbly rendered. 
  • It has an unexpected centre-piece scene that has a Shakespearian air of horror.
  • Its child actors are good enough not to spoil the show.
  • It includes what I reckon is the best bit of chain saw action in any film I've seen.
  • It knows full well that when it comes to terror, less is more.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Tension Mounts As Prophetic Voices Day Conference Draws Near

Re-posting this cos August happened.  Bookings coming in steadily.  Get yours now.

Advance notice of a tasty-looking day conference.  Northern Baptist Learning Community and Luther King House are jointly sponsoring the Northern leg of the Voices From The Margins national tour.  Roy Searle and Stuart Murray Williams will lead us as we look at what today's church can learn from the prophetic voices of three radical church groups: Celtic Missionary Monasticism, Anabaptism and the contemporary movement known as New Monasticism.  It promises to be a stimulating event.  Click here to book.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

A post in which I am rude about the Church of England

First of all let me say that some of my best friends are Anglicans … and now you know straight away that this week’s offering is going to be slagging off the Church of England.  Nonetheless that first sentence is not just a formality.  I really mean it.  We even have one of them on the staff here at NBLC.  Nope, I definitely like Anglicans.  As a matter of fact my wife was thinking of becoming an Anglican nun until we met.  Seriously.

What’s more not only are some of my best friends Anglicans but there are all manner of things about the established church that I really admire: things like their habit of reading big dollops of scripture in their services; things like their commitment to serve the entire country, every community and every square inch, as best they can;  things like the way they do communion and things like their bishops, well some of them anyway.

But then there’s the other stuff.  The stuff that gets up my nose and makes me want to tear my hair out.  The stuff that means that even if I wanted to become an Anglican (and there have been moments) I simply couldn’t bring my self to do it.

The stuff I have in mind is the priestly stuff, the deferential stuff, the hierarchical stuff.  Take the way they do church leadership for example. I mean to say, “My Lord Bishop”; “Lambeth Palace”.  Did I miss something the last time I read the gospels? Am I being simplistic?  Is it just me?

Then there’s the  whole clerical caste system thing.   “We get to dress up because we are special.”  Yes I know that’s not what they intend to say but it is what the fancy togs and the rest of the paraphernalia of the priesthood actually communicates, intentionally or otherwise.  And don’t get me wrong here, it’s not that I object to dressing up, but why can’t everyone join in?  Chasubles all round!

But hang on a minute why bang on about this in a newspaper aimed at Baptists?  Preaching to the converted?  A cheap and easy way of winning back a bit of approval after upsetting people with the last three columns?  Not really, more a concern that we as Baptists don’t become blind to similar tendencies in our own midst. 

You see, there’s much about Baptist church culture that irks me (as you might have spotted) but our avowed commitment to the priesthood of all believers and our anti-establishment, anti-hierarchical, inclusive, congregational ethos are not among them.  But how easily we forget these things. When we venerate pastors because of the position they hold, when we lust after ministries because of the power and status they will afford us, when we fail to do everything we can to mitigate the inherent tendency of fallen humanity to fall in love with status and position, then we betray our own heritage. 

We also fail in our ecumenical responsibility to serve the wider body of Christ by holding firm and holding out to others one of the treasures of our tradition.  You see this C of E bashing is really a way of being a good ecumenical.  No, really.  If relationships between different branches of the family are going to count for anything we’ve got to go on  sharpening our distinctives and using them to help each other to identify our blind spots.

Now, where’s my Church Times?  I wonder if it has an article on how to screw up the gospel … Baptist style.

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.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Why we should ban evangelism

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.
I’m really pleased that Chris Duffet is going to become president of the Baptist Union.  Chris is an evangelist.  His love for Jesus and his love for other people are truly infectious. He’s also an innovative thinker and a bold practitioner.  Those of you who know him will agree that he doesn’t need any advice from me when it comes to evangelism.  Those of you who know me won’t be surprised that I’m going to give him some anyway.

I think Chris should use his presidential year to promote a total ban on evangelism, a moratorium of at least five years. Let’s see if he can’t get us to cancel our Alpha courses, tear up our Back to Church Sunday leaflets, forget all about friendship evangelism (please God let’s forget about friendship evangelism) and call off the search for the next Billy Graham immediately – there isn’t one.

Evangelising is so central to following Christ that we have to ban evangelism.  Unless we do we will never learn what it’s all about.  You see we have a problem.  Evangelism has become something it was never meant to be.  It’s become a thing.  Worse than that it’s become a particular thing. A special thing.  Something that requires a method (preferably one that “works”) and ideally a programme (the very latest if at all possible).

Over the years since big Billy Graham style rallies became unfashionable and unworkable I’ve lost count of the various projects and schemes that have been heralded as the next big thing: JiM, Minus to Plus, Power Evangelism, Challenge 2000, Alpha, Fresh Expressions.  Each one was seen as the answer. None of them “worked” – not really.  And in the process we’ve lost sight of something truly precious:  the idea that all of us are called to bear witness to the good news every day of our lives. 

Evangelism has come to be seen (first and foremost) as the domain of the specialist organisation and the uniquely gifted individual.  Something they do and which from time to time the enthusiastic among us get to join in, for a while.  It’s nothing of the sort. 

Each and every follower of Christ is called to bear witness.  The things we say, the stuff we do and the way we are, these are the beating heart of goodnewsing, helping people to hear, see and experience gospel for themselves.  It’s meant to be a part of who are, our very identity: witnesses of Christ.

We could learn a thing or two here from our cousins, Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Not only is the word in their name, it’s how they see themselves, it’s written right through their sense of who they are, it’s why they draw breath.

As Baptists with our rightful insistence on the Priesthood Of All Believers we should be the first to champion that  other great reformation doctrine, the Evangelisthood Of All Believers. 

OK, so I made that last bit up.  And yes, it will never catch on as a title.  But I still think I’m right.  This is too important to be left to the experts.  It’s a job for amateurs – literally those who do it out of love, even if they are not especially skilful.

And no, of course evangelistic programmes and special events are not ultimately incompatible with personal witness but I am serious in my belief that our obsession with method has ripped the heart out of goodnewsing.  And my tongue is poised but certainly not fully planted in my cheek when I suggest that a moratorium would be good for us.

So, how about it Mr. President?

Monday, 19 July 2010


Inception is a very good film but it's not a great film.  Inception could have been a truly awful film. 

You can easily imagine the production process setting out to tick as many boxes as possible.  Love story? Tick.  Car chase? Tick  Cool special effects? Tick.  Psychological drama? Tick?  Dash of James Bond?  Tick.  Leading man who can be relied upon to provide a solid performance?  Tick.  Cameo from loveable old English actor for added likeability? Tick.  Cameo from much respected senior English actor for a bit of added gravitas?  Tick.  Sexy female lead?  Tick.  Youthful central character for the younger audience to identify with?  Tick.

The astounding thing is that despite this, the film worked on so many levels (no pun intended) all at once.  It could have been a complete mess.  I could so easily have been left wondering, "Why on earth didn't you make your mind up what kind of film you want to be."  Could have, but wasn't.  Thriller, action movie, special effects fest, love story.  Yes, yes, yes and yes.  All of these in one very effective and coherent package just148 minutes long.  Top notch directing. 

So why not great?  The central theme of the subconscious. 

While the film plays around with dreams and the virtually inaccessible depths of the human mind in an intriguing way it doesn't seem to me to present any particularly new big ideas.  Some people have made comparisons with the Matrix.  The Matrix was better.  Whereas both films examine issues of perception and reality the Matrix was far more zeitgeisty.  The notion of the subconscious has indeed been a world view shifter.  But it's a concept that's been around for yonks and has probably already done most of the shifting it's going to do.  Artificial intelligence and the relationship between humanity technology, truth and reality on the other hand; loads more mileage.

Then there's the film's particular vision of the subconscious.  Seems to me that most people's mental nether regions are probably considerably darker and weirder than the film allows.  It's nowhere near as dark as The Dark Night.  Perhaps Terry Gilliam should be given the sequel - and told to forget the 12A rating.

So, while I found the film entertaining, moving and intriguing - not quite the full five stars.  Still the best film I've seen this year though.

Friday, 16 July 2010

A really short post on the mission of the church

Etre is not our raison d'etre.

Piccadilly Gardens and Christ the Windhover

While I'm going on about urban retreats I thought I'd share this with you.  The week before our little experiment I was chatting with my daughter about the idea of seeking the presence of God in the City.  She got a bit excited.  She reached into her bag and pulled out her sketch book to show me the picture that accompanies this post.

It's a quick sketch she'd done a few weeks earlier while she was in Piccadilly Gardens in the heart of Manchester when everything went "quiet".  A police helicopter was hovering right over the gardens.  Everything stopped.  Everyone looked up.  Including her.  She noticed that the helicopter was kind of cruciform, so, as she is wont to do, she scribbled down a quick sketch to catch the image.

What my daughter didn't know was that there's a Christian tradition of seeing the Kestrel as an image of Christ.  Another cruciform hoverer on high.  To accompany the sketch here's Gerard Manley Hopkins' poem The Windhover.

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: sheer plod makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

City Centre Retreat

I posted recently about an encounter with God in the heart of Manchester city centre.  The experience prompted me to suggest that it would be good if we put a bit of effort into encouraging organising and resourcing urban retreats.  For once instead of just shooting off my mouth I did something about it.  Last week as part of our Summer School at Luther King House I taught a session on Urban Spirituality and I organised an afternoon's city centre retreat.  Not much I know but hopefully a beginning.  Here's an extract from the introductory hand-out.

This afternoon’s field trip is an experiment in urban spirituality.  You will spend  a couple of hours in Manchester city centre following a particular spiritual exercise.  The aim is to see if and how the urban setting might become a doorway to spiritual insight.

At the heart of each of the exercises is the need to attend, in other words to became aware by giving yourself to a particular aspect of life in the city.  The art of attending is a core element of classic spirituality.  This applies whether we are thinking of one of the Christian spiritual traditions, the traditions of other faiths, or more broadly spirituality by way of aesthetic experience.

To discern we must attend, give ourselves to the object of our attention.  The question that you will each be asked to carry with you at all times throughout the experiment is, “What am I experiencing?”

In other words the retreat was essentially an exercise in meditation.  We sought to attend to various aspects of city-centre life - the artefacts, the built environment, the people.  Judging by the feedback most of the participants appreciated it.

I'm blogging about this as a way of offering the resources that I developed for the retreat to any who might be interested.  If you happen to live in the Manchester area they will provide you with all you need for a semi-structured afternoon of urban meditation.  If you are not fortunate enough to live round here they might provide a template for doing something similar in your own neck of the woods.  Just drop me a line.

Others offering urban retreats include The Church Urban Fund and their Retreat on the Street.  Sounds well worth checking out.

Let's Be Generous

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.
Am I the only person who thinks that evangelicalism could do with a generosity transfusion?  Well, actually, no, I’m not.  I know I’m not because I’ve read Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy and I remember Nigel Wright’s splendid chapter on the subject in his.  The Radical Evangelical  Also I know I’m not because I recently read a blog post form Krish Kandiah on the same theme.

Krish speaks of his experience of meeting with church leaders while travelling the country on behalf of the Evangelical Alliance.  What struck me was Krish’s description of how he often feels when he is introduced to a new group: guilty until proven innocent.  I know exactly what he means.  We evangelicals can be a suspicious, defensive bunch. And it’s not pretty.

It wasn’t pretty when a fellow church leader with whom I had worked closely for a number of years came to see me because he had heard that I held a different point of view to him on what he regarded as a key evangelical shibboleth.   “If that’s what you believe and teach then I can no longer be your friend.”  It would seem that loving your enemies is one thing but loving your brother who has suddenly become non-kosher is a different matter.

Now, in part, I think I know where this attitude comes from.  One of the strengths of the evangelical movement is its refusal to capitulate too quickly to pressure to conform to the spirit of the age.  I like this.  What’s more I realise that maintaining a minority world view takes a good deal of effort but the trouble is, if we are not careful, it can also make us pretty mean spirited not unlike the kind of Pharisee we meet in the gospels.

To view truth and holiness as delicate things, brittle, in need of our protection is profoundly unhealthy.  Militantly patrolling of the border fence of evangelical orthodoxy is less a sign of concern for the truth and more an evidence of profound insecurity, or, in other words, a lack of faith.

It seems to me that it would do both us and our witness to the gospel a power of good if we asked the Holy Spirit of our prodigal God to bless us with a lavish does of generosity. You know the kind of attitude that gives people the benefit of the doubt that makes us more likely to welcome them in than to rule them out; the sort of good grace that enables us to embrace those with whom disagree.

One of my United Reformed Church colleagues here at Luther King House doesn’t hover over the same patch of theological territory as I do.  Just yesterday he introduced me to one of our external examiners.  “This is Glen, he’s an evangelical, but we are praying for him.”  To which I replied, “But you’re a liberal which means there’s no chance your prayers will be answered.”  The external examiner only hesitated briefly before joining in the laughter. It’s one of the things I like about this place.  I get to work with people with whom I disagree quite profoundly but we somehow seem to manage to like each other. 

Now of course I’m not saying that either my colleague or I have got this thing sussed.  But I am saying that on those occasions that I stumble upon generous acceptance on the part of those who see things differently it does feel an awful lot closer to stumbling across Jesus than it does when I bump into the mean spirited orthodoxy of some of my fellow evangelicals.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Prophetic Voices Day Conference With Roy Searle and Stuart Murray Williams

Advance notice of a tasty-looking day conference.  Northern Baptist Learning Community and Luther King House are jointly sponsoring the Northern leg of the Voices From The Margins national tour.  Roy Searle and Stuart Murray Williams will lead us as we look at what today's church can learn from the prophetic voices of three radical church groups: Celtic Missionary Monasticism, Anabaptism and the contemporary movement known as New Monasticism.  It promises to be a stimulating event.  Click here to book.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


Morris dancers 1
Originally uploaded by frscspd
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.
I got quite a shock last week. A regional minister asked to look at my body. Recently quite a few people have made similar requests: friends in the pub; a woman at a ninetieth birthday party; most of the Mainstream North leadership team during a meeting and my aunty round her house. You see word’s out that I’ve got myself a tattoo.

Now why would I want to share this with you dear reader? Well, it’s not the tattoo that interests me but people’s reactions and the assumptions that these reactions betray. More than one person has put it down to mid-life crisis. They might have a point, but I don’t think so. Others are convinced that it’s just the latest manifestation of my exhibitionist tendencies – first preaching, now this! Once again, wide of the mark – not that I’m entirely free of such tendencies, but the tattoo just happens to be hidden away under my shirt sleeve.

For what it’s worth the motivation (or at least the part of it of which I am aware) was to celebrate my 30th wedding anniversary. It’s a big red heart with my wife’s name in a banner being trailed by a bluebird. Corny can be good don’t you think?

The comment that really grabbed my attention though was when someone told me that her friend also had a tattoo. He likes it because it reminds him of the time before he became a Christian. When he sees it he gives thanks to God for turning his life round. The implication was as plain as the ink on David Beckham: tattoo’s are pre-christian, sub-christian. Interesting.

So interesting I decided to write about it. You see this is not about me and my tattoo. It’s about the tendency of too many Christians to assume that certain innocent forms of cultural expression aren’t appropriate. I still remember the shock on the faces of one suburban congregation back in the 80’s when one of the young people walked in having had a very striking punk makeover. How out of place! How unsuitable! How odd!

How embarrassing. No, not the safety pins and the green Mohican, the attitude of the congregation. That kind of thing is a shame. I choose my words carefully. Not only does it show how blind we are, confusing Christianity with respectability and church culture with middle class propriety, it also means we have a much poorer, blander, duller, church.

At a time when our society is more varied, more fascinating than at any time in its history, most of our congregations still look like gatherings of refugees from a Christian Endeavour holiday home, the very incarnation of M&S-standard smart casual. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things. I’m hardly that colourful myself. It’s just that it’s not enough, there’s more out there, far more but not in our churches.

Where’s the beauty of Indian saris or the vibrancy traditional African dress or bikers in their leathers? For goodness sake I’d even welcome the odd hairy morris dancer with bells on just to brighten the place up. And yes I know there are congregations that are exceptions, but there aren’t enough.

You see Christ died for all manner of people and until we break out of our cultural captivity, examine our assumptions and tear up our hand-me-down Daily Mail stereotypes; until we start to reach, welcome and integrate the wonderful spectrum of human life on our doorsteps we are showing the world a pale shadow of the new humanity that God seems to have in mind for us. And that is a shame, a real shame.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Why Swearing Is Funny

Incest warning.  No, not real incest.  Just the "you link my post and I'll link yours" kind.

Rob Reed is my friend.  Rob Reed is a very entertaining man.  Rob Reed knows stuff about film and media.  Rob Reed writes an interesting blog.  Rob Reed has just learned how to insert hyperlinks in his posts.  Bless. 

Rob Reed was prompted by my recent post on 18 rated films to share his thoughts on why swearing is funny.  Don't blame me.  Some of you will be interested.  Some of you won't like it.  Some of you who won't like it will still be interested and read it anyway. 

Just thought I should let you know.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Blue Like Jazz

Just spent most of the weekend sitting by a river at the foot of Wales' highest waterfall reading Don Miller's Blue Like Jazz.  I'm writing this because I can't make my mind up about the book.

Miller can clearly write.  I found myself laughing out loud more than once.  I think this opener to his chapter, Magic gives you the flavour,
When I was a child my mother took me to see David Copperfield the Magician.  I think she had a crush on him.  It was the same year he made the Statue of Liberty disappear on national television.  Later he made a plane disappear and later still he got engaged to Claudia Schiffer.
On the other hand he's a bit too fond of certain stylistic cliches.  Like the one where you start a chapter with a seemingly insignificant anecdote as a way into your subject then complete the circle at the very end of the chapter by coming back to some aspect of the anecdote as neat closer.

Miller's insights on human nature and Christian spirituality are often spot on.  Trouble is most of these arise out of rather too much petty introspection for my liking.  Is he self-aware or self-obsessed?  Not sure.

The chapter on evangelism, where Miller and his mates turn the idea of confessing your sins on its head, is sheer genius.  The one on marriage though struck me as pretentious faux intellectualism.  A bit like using the worked faux.

I loved his liberal cultural attitudes.  Couldn't help wondering though why his basic theology is quite so unreconstructed-conservative-evangelical.  Way too sin-centered to my mind.  Also he keeps banging on about the Devil.  The whole book bounces back and forth between a refreshing world-affirming perspective and good old-fashioned fundamentalist dualism.  Also, too much time spent slagging off the Republican party.  Not that the Republicans under Bush didn't need slagging off, but it did get boring.  Too many of the people he describes are cute or beautiful.  And way too much about smoking pipes.

There are lots of  good stories, personal stories, of course.  Sometimes though I did find myself wondering if they were true.  I had the sneaking suspicion they must have been embellished.  Maybe though that says more about my failings than Miller's.  We always spot faults in others (real or imagined) that we know we are prone to ourselves.

The book is a collection of essays/reflections on a range of life issues from the perspective of Christian spirituality.  It clearly has evangelistic as well as didactic intent.  I can imagine it working for some people.

It's always a good sign when I irritate my wife by repeatedly asking her to put down her Reginald Hill while I reader her a paragraph.  Did this quite a bit.  Also kept wondering what certain friends would make of it.  Wondered this so much that I'm going to buy a copy for a couple of people in the hope that they might read at and give me their feedback.

When all's said and done I reckon the most important thing is that the book got through to me.  Helped me connect with God.  So I really ought not to complain.  Maybe it's because I liked it so much that it irritated me so much.  Tends to work that way with people as well as books, don't your find?

Anyhow there you have it.  That's what I made of Blue Like Jazz.  (Oh, yes that's another thing, there's virtually nothing about Jazz, which can't be good.)  If you've read it, I'd be really interested to know what you think.  Go on, help me out, make a comment.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Why 18 Certificate Films are Good For Christians

The brief for this column is to provoke discussion.   It’s called Outside Edge because it’s meant to be edgy.  OK then, here goes.  Christians ought to watch more films.  Is that edgy enough for you?  No?  OK then let me say what I’m really thinking.  Christians ought to watch more films, including those with swearing, violence and sex.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. I’m preparing for our MA summer school on contemporary spirituality when I’ll be leading a session on spirituality and film.  I’m planning to show a recent film that deals with spiritual issues.  But which one?  Turns out that most of the leading contenders include the kind of content that offends some Christians. I understand this and I don’t want to cause gratuitous offence. But it bugs me.  It bugs me because I don’t think we should be offended – at least not in a “tut, tut turn it off quickly before I’m corrupted” kind of way. 

Part of the value of films is that they introduce us to the reality of our world or at least the reality as seen by film-makers and their audience of millions.  At its best film is unquestionably important art.  You know, the kind of creative production that helps us see deeper into our world.  Think The Lives of Others, think Shawshank Redmption, think Magnolia. Even so-called escapist films give us insight into the desires, longings and fantasies playing out in people’s hearts and souls.

Now I know that some readers will already be reaching for Philippians 4:8 “ … whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” I know this verse well; it was used to prod me into the Christian ghetto shortly after my conversion.  I know it and I affirm it.  Of course, we should be inspired by and aspire to such qualities but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make ourselves aware of the shadow side that is part of our world, part of ourselves.

If we are to love our world and those with whom we share it, the better we understand and feel its issues, the better our loving.  Not necessarily easier, but truer.  At one recent showing of Clint Eastwood’s wonderful Gran Torino one person commented that there was no need for film makers to “rub our noses in the seamier side of life”.  I disagree.  That’s precisely what we need.

This is not about tittering behind our hands like an eleven-year-old who has just heard a naughty word, it’s not about voyeurism, it’s not about greedily gobbling lashings of violence.  Nor is it about mindlessly approving everything that passes before our eyes.  One of the shallowest ways of dismissing a film is to assume that the film-makers approve that which they depict.  The Colour Purple was not a tract in favour of domestic violence.

Our call in Christ is to love this world of his and to love it as it is, not to hide from that which we find unpleasant, not to love some fantasy of the world as we would like it be to.  You can’t tell me that Danny’s powerful speech at the end of Brassed Off was very moving but would have been better without the swearing.  No it wouldn’t, it would have been sanitised pap, a lie.  Of course watching films is no substitute for proper, flesh and blood, dirty-handed encounter with reality but it just might help to introduce us to the world for which Christ died – the real world.


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.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Refreshing Church

Good time at Connect last night.  Connect is sort of an alternative church type thing that meets up every two or three weeks.  Not sure if it's sponsored by Levenshulme Baptist Church or Urban Expression Manchester, bit of both I guess - these things tend to be a bit messy round here.  The format last night was: gather and chat, watch a short video, natter, pray, meditate.  Despite all my best intentions over the past couple of years this was my first time.  Thought I'd stick some observations up here just in case anyone's interested.

Good stuff:
  • friendly atmosphere - got the sense that it really is as inclusive as it claims to be, can't imagine anyone not getting a welcome
  • amateur in the best sense of that word - low on glitz high on  sincerity 
  • permission to say what you think and what you wonder - there really was an absence of any sense of oppressive orthodoxy
  • seemed to be light on structure - people arrived when they could and left when they had to; the conversation was allowed to run on as long as it needed to and to end when it seemed right
  • a natural, relaxed and unembarrassed bit of praying for needs that had been shared during the discussion
  • the setting - a no nonsense Caribbean cafe called The Retreat on the A6 - really liked the view from the big glass sliding doors straight out onto the busy pavement, enjoyed people having a bit of a pike as they walked past, also liked the noise leakage from laughing teenagers to wailing sirens and the background rumble of traffic all of which made it feel like a real-life happening 
  • the food - well if you can call it that, midget gems, hula hoops, smokey bacon crisps and either mango juice or ginger beer, wierd is good, right?
  • the Nooma vid - seemed to work as a discussion starter.  
Could have been a bit better stuff:
  • would have been good to have had a Bible reading as part of the concluding meditation 
  • a few more blokes perhaps (three of us out of twelve) - although maybe not, I wonder if tipping the hormone balance away from estrogen in favour testosterone might have made it a bit more difficult for some of the women to share as freely as they did.  
All in all a very encouraging couple of hours.  Proof definite of the need for the church actively to generate the kind of space that's within touching distance of regular congregational life but which is also free enough for people to stay at arm's length if they so choose.  I can't imagine the group of people who met last night sharing in the way they did at a regular church gathering

So a big thank you to Ian and Jean for making it happen.  I look forward to the next one.