Category Archives: The church

Why I love the church

Recently I asked myself the question “why do I love the church?”…this was my answer:

1. The outsider is the centre.
Those that are on the outside are the ones that we want to care for; people will labour for those who they have never met, for those that are not seeking God.

2. The least are the most
The needs of the one who is the least influential are prioritised over those that are the most involved. The special needs of the few are sought to be met if possible, even at the expense of the comfort of the majority.

3. The unrequested is provided
What is not expected, what is not demanded is given freely, willingly, instinctively. When one person sees a need they take the initiative to meet that need, without being asked or asking someone else.

4. The needy are the needed
Those that have nothing to offer, those who nobody else has time for or wants are the most precious to Christ…and the most precious to his church.

This was all brought home to me at my home church recently. We are a small rural church of 40 or so adults and a dozen kids. Over the course of a few weeks my Dad distributed 3000 gospel leaflets round our town. In response to one of those leaflets a group of East European young people came to church. They started coming to the morning services, and without even asking, our people on the audiovisual system put up the bible reading in their own language, alongside the English. At this moment I realised again afresh, that I love the church! People going out of their way, without being asked to help those new to our church feel at home…what a great place!love-the-church

We are not ashamed

Losing my religion and finding my faith. Part 3: Fear and shame

In my first post I explored UK society has changed and how it’s view of the church has changed over recent years. In my last post I considered ways in which Christians can and should be a positive influence in society. The key question we must ask now is “How do we respond to a world that doesn’t want to hear about the light?”  Today Christians up and down our country are being pressurised to be silent about their beliefs, relegating them to the private sphere. We do not live in an open and respectful environment. So many are afraid of causing offence that we live in fear and silent compliance with society’s beliefs and values. In this post I have some ideas for how to stay undetected and not cause anyone to be uncomfortable…

1. How to protect society from the offence of the gospel:
Believe what you want but keep it to yourself
Pretend that what you have is not that important
Pretend that everybody is fine as they are
Pretend that every lifestyle choice is equally valid and equally meaningless
Never break the pretence of all of the above
Be totally committed to Jesus in your house and church building, but keep your mouth shut outside of those two places

2. How to protect our kids from the offence of the gospel:
Pass on your embarrassment of your faith to them so that they become automatically self-conscious whenever it is ever mentioned
Make sure they blend in to the background and fit in the social groups
Tell them about the love of God but never about the consequences of rejecting God
Don’t teach them a Christian worldview, especially avoid creation, sexuality & materialism
Apologise to their teachers whenever they bring up their faith at school
Leave them to make up their own minds about what they believe when they are old enough
Avoid any hint of indoctrination by never discussing spiritual truths
Never let your faith cost you anything – they might see that and realise it is a dangerous thing to believe
Always put their needs and desires above those of God, making sure that their every whim is met, while bathing them in the aroma of the God of Comfort

3. How to protect the church from the offence of the gospel:
Be self-apologetic: “We are nice people really if you get to know us”
Avoid talking about those parts of the NT that speak about judgement. Definitely avoid preaching on the OT law
Explain how we are much more refined now than those primitive times
Focus only on Jesus’ words, but only those words of his that are comforting & affirming
Never discuss the rejection passages or examples of spiritual darkness

4. How to protect God from the offence of the gospel:
Don’t mention his behaviour in the Old Testament and if it comes up by accident be apologetic and diffident
Explain that he is much more refined now and people back then were naive and ignorant
Explain that he didn’t really mean what he said about hell, human sexuality, judgement, punishment, sin, eternity…
Always present him in a positive light. Emphasise his grace, love, compassion, mercy, patience (it’s a long list of positive traits after all), but never his discipline, anger, wrath, punishment, judgement or justice.
Never teach, mention, preach about or discuss any of these latter points and they will die out from neglect, thus removing them from our vocabulary
Be apologetic before and after reading out any passages highlighting the latter characteristics
Teach that in order to be good,  God must mirror our values, or we won’t recognise his goodness

stand-out-from-the-crowdObviously the suggestions above are intentionally sarcastic. What people forget is that the more they tell us to be silent, the more they pressure us to conform, the more they stoke our fire of passion for real truth. Yes, many may comply, but the few who stand will stand taller, brighter, stronger, for longer. Brothers and sisters, we need to remember that we don’t need to deny a truth for it to die out, we just need to neglect to proclaim it for a generation and that will be enough. Let us proclaim the full counsel of God with love, mercy, compassion and tears, but just let it be the full counsel.

When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him.” Isaiah 59.19

Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” Luke 9.26

Lord, give us the ability to love people enough that we are prepared to be unpopular; ready and willing to be depised and rejected. Your heart was full of love for people Lord Jesus, you always chose honest love over comfortable compliance. Help us to stand strong alongside you until that final day. Amen

So then how shoud we live?…Connected and Compassionate

Losing my religion and finding my faith, Part 2. Connected and Compassionate

So how do we respond to this decay in our Christian heritage (see Part 1)? I suggest there are five things we must do. In a world where good and bad have lost their absolute reference points and become synonymous with helpful and unhelpful, we must give people a living portrait of what absolute goodness means.

1. Strive to do good – in a land of exile it is not enough to only tell people about the truth, it is not enough to only argue at the theoretical or logical level. We must demonstrate our love in real ways to a lost world. We must find ways of touching needy people, of restoring broken lives, of healing bruised bodies. Only by living amongst people and loving them in practical ways will we ever create a hunger for ultimate truth. Society is too sceptical, cynical and secular to be convinced by rhetoric alone.

  • Are our words and actions balanced?
  • Do we spend as much time in practical service as we do in gaining knowledge?
  • What are we doing, what is your church doing, to tangibly serve its community?
  • Are we making a difference to the community we live in?
  • Would they noticed if you moved your church to another location?

2. Strive to be good – if our ghettoisation is the main cause for our ineffectiveness amongst society, then our lack of godliness is our Achilles’ heal once we make contact. Unfortunately our in-fighting and apathy, our self-seeking and pride fuel anti-Christian sentiment in anyone unfortunate enough to get close. We cannot continue to make excuses and expect people to be drawn to Christ. If we proclaim that Jesus has changed our lives, and show such weak evidence of change, are we surprised people are not hungry? Our compassion should be our hallmark, as much as our orthodoxy.

  • Are we top heavy with our passion for truth vs our mercy for sinners who oppose that truth?
  • Where do we make excuses for our lack of godliness?
  • What do we need to repent of and put to death?
  • Where do we need forgiveness and healing?

3. Affirm what is good – if you listen to what we communicate about society, all too often it is overwhelmingly negative. We disagree with this, we are horrified by that, we lobby about the other. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do all this preservative activity. Our saltiness should seek to prevent decay in society. My question is, is there anything positive we can say about society? Is there anything we can affirm as good? What can we celebrate in modern culture? Can we complement our pronouncements with some encouraging, affirming messages?

  • What can we say about our culture’s approach to creativity, innovation, equality, the poor, the workplace? Is there anything beautiful in all of this that we can endorse?
  • What can you think of that you really appreciate about culture & society? What can you privately and publicly celebrate about our culture?
  • What can you do to encourage your politician, social media network or friends about the good things in our society?

4. Love unconditionally – we have become so familiar with God’s unconditional love for us that it sometimes loses it’s shock value. To love someone unconditionally leaves you wide open to abuse, being taken advantage of, being used as a door mat. We love conditionally because it protects us from damage. Unconditional love requires no reciprocation, it does not say “I will love you if…”. It just loves. We have been shown this greater way. A love of no holds barred, no safety net, no damage limitation love. My prayer is that we Christians would realise that this is what God is calling us to do, not just for each other, but for our neighbours, colleagues, friends and family who don’t know Christ. In the past I have been guilty of seeing them as projects to be saved and won for God. I still long for everyone to come to know him, but now my end goal is love. To love them without any conditions, not so that they could become something, but because they already are something. Loved by God and precious to him. This is how God viewed us before we were saved. He came to save us while we were his enemies.

  • Are we prepared to love with no thought for hitting targets?
  • Who in society needs unconditional love the most?
  • Who else in this world could love the unlovable?

5. Sacrifice pre-emptively. Nevertheless, even if we strive to do good, and be good, and love unconditionally, there will be those who will reject our love. We should love despite our motives being questioned, we should love whether that love is returned or not, we should continue to offer the hand of fellowship, even if that hand is struck down. The response of the beloved will not determine the actions of the lover. At some point the cost of continuing down this path will escalate. We do not get to choose the cost of our devotion, only how much we are prepared to sacrifice to be obedient. Let us not wait until we are in the crucible to set our priorities.

  • Are we prepared to be unpopular, to be social rejects?
  • Are we prepared for our compassion to cost us our legal status as charities? What about losing our jobs?
  • Are we prepared to lose everything we have been blessed with, if doing so is the only way to remain faithful?
  • Have we rejected the god of popularity or are we still seeking to serve two masters?

f378ebca96aec2f12bc40fbd1e73f6b0As John Wesley said many years ago…

We must regain this wholistic view of life if we are to translate our compassion for people into a deep connectedness. Many individuals and churches are taking up the challenge, may God grant that we would all see our part.

Total Forgiveness

Amish-women-mournLast Sunday I spoke on the subject of biblical forgiveness from Matthew 18. The message is available to download here or listen online here.

The main theme for the sermon was how can God ask us to forgive everyone and yet, he requires reconciliation before restoring relationship, i.e. why do we have to say sorry before we can become part of God’s family? I also used the Amish shootings to try and understand what happens when someone doesn’t ask for forgiveness? Should we still forgive? The article I refer to at the end that was written about the incident can be found here.

We also touched on some of the practicalities of how this works in the church in the midst of our messy lives and unfinished characters. How can we live in unity whilst not overlooking areas of sin in the church family? It was a tough subject and worthy of much deeper study, but ultimately a vital issue to understand as forgiveness is one of the chief characteristics of a genuine faith. It is the litmus test of the reality of God’s grace in our lives. I pray it will be a blessing to you.

Discipleship for the 21st century

DiscipelshipHow do we disciple the next generation of Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian society? How does a marginalised church thrive and not just survive at the grassroots level? Are our discipleship practices still relevant for the 21st century, if not how do they need to change?

In answer to some of these questions I give the following four suggestions:

1. Discipleship must start with the heart. For those with a family the first priority for discipleship is the home. Someone once said “As goes the husband, so goes the marriage, as goes the marriage so goes the family, as goes the family so goes society”. We live in a broken society; much of this is down to the destruction of families and the decay of men as stable husbands and fathers. Are we willing to take the challenge to strive to be men of purity, faithfulness, courage, discipline, kindness and generosity? If we are fathers then our number one discipleship priority is our children and our wife – if we neglect these, all else will ultimately be futile and our discipleship of others ultimately unsuccessful. How much time and effort do we invest discipling our children? How is our inner life?

2. Rediscover whole-life discipleship. Inadvertently we have come to believe that the Great Commission is primarily fulfilled by Christian missionaries and pastors. We have divided the secular and the sacred and said that the secular has little purpose or significance in God’s redemptive plan. However, the Great Commission can only be fulfilled when the 99% of us who are not in full-time Christian work step up to the task and take our responsibility for discipleship seriously. We must once again see that all of our lives, in every part, is a response to God’s calling and mission. Our discipleship must embrace the footy team, the golf course, the office, the university halls and the school canteen. We must realise that a life lived out in service to the common good of society is pleasing to God. Our discipleship must grow beyond only being about spiritual truisms and become intensely practical. The best way to glorify God at your work is firstly to be excellent at your job.

3. Seek to embed discipleship in community. Through the fracturing of society and the marginalisation of the church we have ended up compartmentalising our lives. We have our work, our home, our church and our friends – all distinct and separate. The power of the gospel increases dramatically as we close the circle between our family, school, church and social lives. How is the community to see the unity and love we have for each other, if we are always leaving that community to drive to a distant church? We hide the power of grace-filled lives behind the walls of our buildings when we create preaching stations divorced from the communities we live in.

4. Discipleship for all. When did Jesus start discipling his Disciples? Before they were Christians or after? Before of course. Why then do we think discipleship only applies to our fellow Christians? It is very easy for many of us to become so busy with church work that we have very few friends who are not Christians. This is a tragedy. How many non-Christians are you discipling? You may well be doing this without even realising. When we think of evangelism we start to get sweaty palms and dry mouths and feel pressured to get the message right. If we start to see our words and actions together as discipling non-Christians then it takes the pressure off us. As we live alongside them, providing the level of interaction is high enough, our conversation will naturally challenge and encourage them.

I used to think discipleship was what I did when I met up with a Christian friend for coffee and bible study once a fortnight. I now see that my discipleship starts as soon as I get home at night, or get into work, or head out for a drink. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t set aside planned time for one to one discussions. Not at all, these times are precious, if we have that time to invest. However, if we are intentional and natural then it will liberate us to see all of life as our discipleship arena.

Father, may you give us the wisdom to hear your voice, the strength to follow and the determination to remain faithful to your call to disciple others. May we be among those faithful men who are able to train and disciple other faithful men. And to you be all the glory. Amen

The Reality of Work Life Imbalance – Part 3: The Implications

imagesCA1NAP2NIn this final instalment, I would like to consider what each of the four groups can give to the local church and what each of them need from the local church, before closing with some thoughts on why I have chosen to address this challenging topic.

Sweet Spot (top left)

What they need: Opportunities to serve.

What they can give: The fact that their work demands are low means they have energy and time to give to serving the church. Along with the next group, this group is most likely to take the leadership positions in the church, as they have the time available to give. Those who are particularly successful in their business may also have talents and experience that they can use in building bridges between the church and the community.

Passing Time (bottom left)

What they need: Social interaction – their work offers little satisfaction, they may be looking to be part of something more meaningful. They may also want company if they have lots of time and little challenge at their work. They find their ultimate meaning in their faith, but they may want to have things they enjoy doing outside of work.

What they can give: Availability, attendance. They may well be at every meeting, every social activity, forming the glue that binds the group together, being the reliable ones that are always there. First to get there and last to leave.

work life balance.bmp-001

Slave Labour (bottom right)

What they need: Lots of encouragement, understanding and support. They need these things even more than those in the top right hand quadrant, as they have little job satisfaction that could help confirm their calling and motivate them to continue.

What they can give: They have little time and energy, they can give very little to the church. They may need to be emotionally carried and supported.

Labour of Love (top right)

What they need: Affirmation, understanding, encouragement. They may know that they are where they should be, but may feel isolated and misunderstood. Their motives for sacrificing so much may be questioned and they need to know their church is right behind them.

What they can give: 2 hours once a week, maybe more, but sometimes that is all. Some can give more, but may well be sporadic, depending on work level and travel.

Work Life Imbalance Implications

One important point is that their expression of commitment to the local church from each of these groups will look different to external eyes. For some with fewer demands (left hand side) it may be that “time = commitment”. For those on the right hand side it may be their “convictions = commitment”. They may only seem to give two mites worth of their time to their local church, but like the widow in Luke 21, it may be everything they have to give.

I hope these are helpful lenses to look at ourselves and try and understand what different people in the workplace need and what they can give to the local church. I realise this is an over-simplification. In the real world, people’s lives are messier than these neat definitions. The amount of time we have to give to things outside work depends greatly on our family and health situations. There are seasons when our family responsibilities can turn a Sweet Spot job into Passing Time, because of what is happening outside work. Indeed, some jobs mean we oscillate between two or three of these categories.

I would like to close out these three posts with some thoughts on why I chose to talk about such a tough issue. Some of the points I raise are painful to hear, highlighting frustrations with what I have seen of how the church responds to the issues that the workplace throws at us.  “Why risk being misunderstood, why risk causing offence? Why not rather always say things that everyone will appreciate and like?” I have struggled with these questions, and have searched my own conscience.

The first question I ask myself, “Is it what I see really true?” However, even if it something is true, sometimes we do not say things that are true to each other because of the law of love that covers over a multitude of sins. Therefore, the next question I ask myself is “Is it helpful?” Sometimes what is most helpful in the long run is also most painful in the short term. Ultimately, I need to decide if I believe the issues I am raising are so important to me, God’s people and ultimately to God himself, that I am prepared to be unpopular with people I dearly love.

I often ask myself what the difference is between being opinionated and prophetic. Strong opinions in themselves do not justify being shared and I realise I risk being labelled as such. Prophetic words are equally challenging, but within them we sense something of the call of God to his people. By being prepared to try and walk this knife-edge, I inevitable risk missing the still small voice of God and offering unauthorised fire. But I am up for the challenge because I believe that God has placed a passionate burden on my heart for his people, the lost and his word.

I am prepared to challenge fuzzy thinking among atheists and bear their wrath. Why? Because I genuinely love them. I also have the amazing privilege of being authorised to challenge the assumptions and preconceptions at my work, in order to make our business and strategy more robust. I risk being misunderstood by senior business leaders, but I continue to challenge the business because I care deeply about our future success. I am prepared to challenge false assumptions in the church, why? Because I love it too much to consider my own popularity of more importance than its purity. Through it all my deep desire is that my words would be prophetic rather than opinionated. You and God are the judge of that.

The Reality of Work Life Imbalance – Part 2: The Strain

WorkLifeFor too long the church has viewed the workplace as the space between the church service and the midweek prayer meeting. There may be the occasional sermon or book on the theology of work, and how it pleases God for us to work hard and fair and to do your bit for your family and society. However, this approach misses the subtlety of the changes that have occurred over the last two decades in the modern workplace. Too many Pastors have only a distant memory of what secular work was like and little understanding of the complexities of the modern workplace.

No longer do we have one job for life, no longer do we leave our responsibilities in the office when he head out the door, no longer do we live our lives working our whole lives at the local factory or office just around the corner. No longer do we mix with our work colleagues socially at the weekend and get to know their kids. Maybe it never quite reached this nirvana (particularly as the social benefits were often outweighed by financial struggles) but work has undergone a seismic shift in both nature and pace.

The modern workplace is transient, distant (both emotionally and often physically) and all embracing. The modern worker will move jobs every couple of years. They may have to re-locate their home numerous times, unless they live in a large city hub. Modern communications means they are contactable 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, even during weekends and holidays. Responsiveness to emails is a pre-requisite for success as important as punctuality to formal meetings. Add into the mix the increasingly global nature of business and, working for an international company can mean frequent long haul travel. Put it all together and you have long hours, frequent out of hours interruptions, pressure, stress and exhaustion.

All of this inevitably leads to pressure on those closet to us:  our wives and our kids. Work puts a strain on families; it can disintegrate friendships and cause health problems. Marriages fall apart, families are fractured, homes are split. And the church looks around and wonders where all the committed men are? Perhaps you have heard someone say “Where are the men who (in my day) would do a hard day’s work and then be out at the prayer meeting? Men are not just committed enough these days.”

Dear church, newsflash for you – we are fighting to survive, we are straining under phenomenal demands from our work and the consequences of a broken, splinted society. We are putting our limited energy into protecting those that are most precious to us and God – our spouses and our kids. We recognise that we don’t have a perfect work / life balance, in fact, we struggle, and fight to minimise the imbalance. This is the reality that we live with.

I recognise that not everyone in the workplace has such demands on them, or to such an extent. My argument is that the church should take the time  to understand where people are at and not treat everyone in the workplace as a homogeneous group, dispensing generic advice to all and having the same expectations of all. In my first post on this subject I split the workplace into four categories that are generalisations of the various types of demands work places on them and the rewards it gives (read Part 1 here). In this post I’m speaking as someone in the top right hand box of that quadrant. I admit that these are generalities and sterotypes to some extent, but by their very nature models are simplifications of reality. Good models help us understand reality better.

My point is that we need to stop measuring someone’s commitment to God by their attendance, or lack of it, at church meetings. For those that have been put in a position of responsibility and pressure – our modern day Daniel’s and Joseph’s, we need to stop asking, why aren’t they here at our meetings, and start asking, what is God doing through them there? It’s interesting that we never read of Joseph or Daniel undertaking any activity at the local Egyptian or Babylonian synagogue. Their entire ministry was played out in front of the most senior secular leaders of their day…and what an impact those two men had.

In the providence of God Joseph saved an entire continent from starvation, Daniel stood true to Jehovah in the heart of the most powerful nation on earth. His testimony brought the most powerful kings of his day face to face with the living God, causing two pagan kings to proclaim the power and majesty of the only living God (King Nebuchadnezzar in Daniel 4.34 & 35 and King Darius in Daniel 5.26 & 27).

And so, why do we do it? Why not give it all up and get an easier job, a less stressful life? There are many reasons, but the one I want to mention is one that I have come to realise over the last few months. It starts with a question: which of the four quadrants (see Part 1) is hardest to reach with the truth of the gospel? Both “Sweet Spot” and “Passing Time” have jobs with low demands and are looking for things outside of work to give them meaning. They are more likely to be open to forming new friendships and attending evangelistic courses. Those in “Slave Labour” are more likely to be desperate for something meaningful in their life. Getting time with them may be a challenge, but there is likely to be some interest there, if they are not too disillusioned with life. The real tough ones to reach are those in “Labour of Love” – they have extremely demanding lives and very rewarding work. The only way to reach this group is to run as fast, as hard, for as long as they do. They are not looking to form friendships through clubs, they do not have a wide circle of friends. Often their work is their life.

So, if God puts you in that top right hand quadrant and you start to build relationships with people that very few people are able to meet even as acquaintances, you feel incredibly honoured. As you see God working in their lives, you start to think that maybe you should stick around. You start to see your work life imbalance as less an admission of failure, but rather as a ticket of entry. Entry into the lives of a quadrant that the church will never reach through standard evangelistic techniques and methods. It almost feels like you are undercover! Except you are hiding nothing. But you are there on your own, no support team, no backup plan. The church may not understand or affirm your calling, but you know deep inside that God has his hand on your life and those around you.

Be blessed all you Josephs out there…you know who you are!

The Prophet, the Parchment and the People

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement Part 5.

If you have been following my previous posts on cultural re-engagement, I expect there is one question that is at the forefront of your minds and that is: “it’s all very well saying that the church should affirm, then connect, then challenge, but most of the time church leaders don’t have the luxury of the time required to build engagement before needing to challenge. What do you do then?”

Those of us who work or live amongst those outside the reach of the church do, on the whole, have the time required (if we choose to use it) to develop meaningful, real relationships that are the foundation for cultural engagement. Those who are in positions of leadership in the church often do not. They are required to stand for truth at the risk of being misunderstood, misrepresented and misinterpreted. Their’s is the prophetic call to the nation to turn back to the living God, to hear what he says to a lost generation and warn them of the consequences of their rebellion. Can these two approaches be reconciled? Should they be reconciled? Importantly, is one more faithful to biblical principles than the other?

h-richard-niebuhr2I have come across many theories that seek to provide a universal approach to cultural engagement for the church. One of the most famous theorists is Richard Niebuhr, who outlined the following categories in his 1951 book Christ and Culture. In it he proposed five models for understanding our approach to culture:

  1. “Christ against Culture. For the exclusive Christian, history is the story of a rising church or Christian culture and a dying pagan civilization.
  2. Christ of Culture. For the cultural Christian, history is the story of the Spirit’s encounter with nature.
  3. Christ above Culture. For the synthesist, history is a period of preparation under law, reason, gospel, and church for an ultimate communion of the soul with God.
  4. Christ and Culture in Paradox. For the dualist, history is the time of struggle between faith and unbelief, a period between the giving of the promise of life and its fulfillment.
  5. Christ Transforming Culture. For the conversionist, history is the story of God’s mighty deeds and humanity’s response to them (Source: Wikipedia)”

There are other ways of categorising the approaches but they can be broadly put into one or more of these categories. Church leaders are taking their churches down one or two of these approaches, depending on their denominational roots, church tradition and individual perspective. My question to the church is this – “is it possible that God would have different (biblical) roles for his leaders and his people?”

Could God have purposed that there would be some individual Christians who would stand against the culture as a prophetic voice? Could God have purposed that others would be so immersed in society that their work would transform their town, community or nation? Of course he could. A clear example of this is seen in Jeremiah’s letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29.1-7. In this passage Jeremiah, a prophet of God, is in defeated Israel writing to those who had been taken captive to Babylon.

As the tearful prophet sits down to write on this piece of parchment his manifesto to the people of Israel in foreign lands, here is the perfect opportunity to call the people to rise up against the unbelieving, sinful country they were living in and call them to account for their pagan living. Is that what Jeremiah does? No, instead, under the inspiration of God, he commands them to settle in their country, build, plant, prosper, seek its welfare and work for the good of the land they are living in.  Here is God telling his punished people to work for the good of their culture – to cultural engagement in Babylon.

And yet, only a few short chapters later Jeremiah (in chapter 50.1-5) strikes up this judgement of Babylon, again at the command of God. Here is the prophet pronouncing judgement and standing against the culture and land of Babylon. So we see that it is not either / or, but rather both/ and. We need to stop trying to shoehorn everyone into one, or only two ways of approaching culture as if God only ever worked through one means.

We need to recognise that God can, has and will raise up leaders like Joseph (to lead culture), Daniel (to transform culture) Noah (to stand against culture). George Muller,  William Wilberforce and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, respectively, are modern day examples.  Today we, equally, need those who will speak a clear voice of biblical truth against our godless culture, we also need those who will get stuck in to working alongside our society to make it a genuinely better place. And we need to recognise the importance, value and God-honouring vocation of all these callings.

es-rock-climbing-01What strikes me is that God commanded the Israelites in Babylon to work for the welfare of the city, even while there was a coming judgement against the city. Amazingly, Jeremiah was the means of providing both the mandate to renew the city, and the message leading to the razing of the city. God cannot be put in a nice easy category, his purposes are too diverse, his means too manifold. All we can ask is “what would you have me do Lord, with this small life that I give to you wholeheartedly?” Obedience is of utmost importance, for few of these people, when they set out on their journey could have ever imagined how God was going to use them.

Finally, this passage in Jeremiah 29 is just before that famous verse where God says “I know the plans I have for you…” which we love to apply to ourselves. But before we do that we must remember the primary application of these verses is to the exiled Israelites, struggling to know the will of God in a foreign land. Not knowing whether to acclimatise or resist, to fight it or fit in. Remember this – God’s plans to bless us are for an alien people in a hostile land, working for the good of this land. Why? Because God has called us to it and promised to be with us and bless us. This is my call to people and prophet alike – fulfil your unique role in this desperate land before it is too late. What are we waiting for?

A Call To Cultural Re-engagement – The Model

The results of the 2011 census were released this week for England and Wales, they revealed that 59.3% of the population claim Christianity as their religion. Although this has decreased since 2001 when it was 71.7%, it still represents a clear majority. The next largest religion was Muslims at 4.8% (up from 3.0% in 2001), representing a huge gap between the first and second most prominent religions. The number of people saying they have no religion has increased from 14.8% to 25.2% during the last 10 years. Clearly the nations’ beliefs are changing and the causes, implications and (Christian) response remain the subject of much discussion. Some have concluded that the data represents a pluralisation, more than a secularisation of the nation. It is also important not to look at the data in isolation and to differentiate between people’s behaviour, their sense of belonging, as well as their beliefs.

Whatever the reason for the change, in this post I want to suggest a model to understand the shift that has taken place and propose a model for re-engagement.

In broad terms, the UK in the mid 20th century was a country with the following characteristics:

  • Largely biblical foundations even if not everyone went to church
  • Generally accepted moral standards and ethics
  • These standards were largely uniform across society
  • They were strengthened by a strong nuclear family bond and community structures
  • Both private and public messages were largely pointing in the same (predominantly biblical) direction, thus, mutually reinforcing each other
  • The minister, surrounded by his church, were at the centre of the communityCultural distance_before

When we turn to 2012, the picture is completely different:

  • The church is largely ignored and the minister is often perceived as irrelevant
  • A disengaged society continues to push the church further away (especially in the media and political spheres)
  • Apart from a few exceptions, our voice in the public square has effectively been removed and whatever contact remains often becomes confrontational
  • The policies and laws are changing to reflect modern secular and pluralistic beliefs
  • The church struggles to engage and either focuses internally (and becomes a ghetto) or overcompensates and loses distinctiveness
  • Church members struggle to live in two opposing worlds, resulting in them sometimes compromising their beliefs, or separating their private beliefs and public lives
  • Nevertheless, at the grassroots some individuals and churches are re-engaging the community – whether that be in the urban or rural environment and/or within the family, workplace & church

Within this new societal order there is a line of engagement where Christianity and culture contact each other and interact – positively or negatively. As Christians in an increasingly anti-Christian society, we may ask ourselves the question “Are we persecuted?” No, not directly. But if we ask “Are we marginalised?” Yes! Definitely.  The easy response is to resort to unthinking jibes and insults that only act to reinforce the polar extremes.

Cultural distance_afterThe urgent question of the day is “How should we approach our increasingly anti-Christian culture?” Do we see our role (as the church and individuals) to be mainly against what is bad in culture? Is there anything we can affirm? How do we gain an opportunity to have our voice heard if we do want to affirm something? Do church leaders have a different role within society to their congregations? (I’ll specifically explore this in my next post).

So the question is: How will we respond? Is there anything those of us who spend 90% of our time amongst non-Christians in the workplace can do to influence our culture? As Bill Graham once said: “I believe one of the next great moves of God is going to be through the believers in the workplace”.

A Model for Re-engagement

Against this backdrop, Christians are responding in a number of ways to re-engage with those on the edges of their family, community, work and church circles. For some this is natural and easy, for others it is harder, and new mechanisms are sometimes needed to enable relationships to be built. For those in the business community the pressure to conform can be very high and the opportunities to engage in meaningful conversation are often few and far between. I believe the challenge to equip believers with a deep theology of work; teach them how to be exemplary employees; and know how to share their faith in the marketplace has largely been neglected by our churches. Nevertheless, some new structures have emerged and there are some examples of best practice in creating new organisational structures to allow gospel conversations to flourish. They are generally following a pattern of:

Affirm >> Connect >> Challenge

Affirm

  • Celebrate the good things in creation & culture (affirm the good, contribute to arts, professions, community life)
  • Seek the good of society & culture (contribute something tangible)
  • Build others up in areas of shared interest
  • Be good at what we do – excellence in our professions

Connect

  • Establish connections within culture (find our contact points)
  • Being purposefully & intentionally holistic in our serving – both helping and heralding
  • Loving and serving people holistically – word and action, not seeing them as a spiritual project or notching up conversions. Can we do both / and rather than either / or when it comes to word and action?
  • Not limiting our engagement to the purely spiritual arena – we will never engage with them by throwing verses over the chasm or through the silos.
  • Aim is to take the church to the people

Challenge

  • Where can we affirm culture and where must we challenge our culture?
  • How do we hold these both in tension?
  • Have we figured out our theology and response in areas we are challenging or do we react?

The goal is a rediscovery of a holistic faith, sometimes this will lead to new structures / models of church and para-church organisations in order to re-engage our society. The challenge we face is to create a generation of aware, engaged, holistic disciples in the workplace.

Some questions to consider:

  • Do you find this model helpful? Do you agree that this is the shift that has happened, or at least that it describes where we are heading?
  • What examples of good cultural engagement have you seen or been part of?
  • Where would you place yourself on the model?
  • If you spend most of your time within the circle of society, do you feel you are equipped to thrive in this environment? How could your church help you in the challenges and opportunities you face?
  • If you spend most of your time within the circle of church, what steps can you take to begin to connect with those around you, outside of the church? What changes might you need to make in order to affirm the culture around you? How can you better understand the challenges faced by those in your church within the society circle?

Let me know what you think…

A Call to Cultural Re-engagement – The 3 Chasms

Cultural Distance in the UK

When I had more spare time, I used to lead many Alpha and Christianity Explored courses. The first talk on the Alpha course is always: ”Christianity: Boring, Untrue & Irrelevant?” In order to engage we need to first understand where people are. This talk seeks to engage the pre-conceptions and misunderstandings that people have in order to re-engage them with Christianity.

I believe Alpha’s first talk was true to the questions people were asking a few years ago, but now, I believe, UK society has moved further away. Let me say that I’m a big fan of both Alpha and CE and I have used them both many times in the past. However, I believe we have underestimated both the size of the gap between us and society and the depth of the problem. 

As I watch UK culture, I believe that religion is no longer seen as something misguided but benign, but rather something that is actually harmful to an enlightened society. The case is being made by prominent secular humanists, parts of the media and some political figures that religion is actually a source of corruption and a dumbing down of our natural intellect. It is explained as a vestigial coping mechanism that might have had a use in giving us a misguided comfort before science removed our need for false hope in gods and superstitious fear of ghouls. It is now redundant and primitive.

As I was thinking about these things, I was studying Acts 26 for a message and it hit me the difference between Paul standing before Agrippa and us standing before our society today. Standing before Agrippa Paul could rely on three levels of common ground – general revelation (nature / creation), special revelation (biblical revelation) and shared cultural values (those of the Jewish nation).

My proposition was that all these three have been removed in our day, so I titled my talk: “A Reasonable Faith: Christianity: Unscientific, Corrupt & Intolerant?” I believe these three areas describe the areas where society is questioning the integrity of the Christian faith. I recognise that it is a spectrum of views – not everyone is thinking like this, but many are and they are asking questions that we, on the whole are not answering.

  • Unscientific? We now face a credibility gap where science is seen to have provided the answers and we are holding onto out-dated ideas. It has removed the shared ground of General Revelation – a common understanding in our origins.
  • Corrupt? With the increasing confidence of authors such as Dan Brown and the decreasing biblical literacy, false information and inaccurate historical claims can easily sway public opinion. We now face a reliability gap when the historical reliability of the New Testament is assumed to be a matter of personal opinion. The church is thought to have re-interpreted or even edited earlier versions to suit their own political purposes. This has removed any remaining Special Revelation common ground, so that biblical authority is an oxymoron.
  • Intolerant? As the faithful believers continue to hold onto biblical truth and society’s moral standards diverge from these truths, our stance is seen as being intolerant of other positions. We now face a compassion gap, where we are seen as intolerant bigots for not allowing everyone a right to have their views accepted. This has eroded our common ground of Shared Cultural Values so that we can no longer assume or expect others to share or even understand our ethical views.

Do you agree that this is a fair assessment of where our society is at, or perhaps at least, the direction it is heading? If so, then the question we need to ask ourselves is whether we are bridging the chasms in our cultural engagement or throwing well-intentioned homilies into the abyss? If people really are thinking this way, how do we leap across the chasms to speak something meaningful to them?

Paul himself explained that God was the creator, sustainer and saviour of the world to the mainly Greek audience in Athens is a way that would engage their cultural antenna – referring to their poets and influential thinkers of the time (see Acts 17.22 and following). He explained the good news of Jesus using the language and concepts of the Athenians – sometimes seeking to build common ground, at other times directly challenging it. But the important thing is that he had clearly thought through the challenges and adapted his style to his different audiences. Have we thought through the challenges these chasms present and come to a position that we can articulate? Are we prepared to think the hard thoughts that possibly our current ways of communicating are simply lost across the chasm because we are assuming a common ground that no longer exists? These are the challenges that face us in engaging with our culture. Tools such as CE and Alpha are still vital as we live in a heterogeneous society with the remnants of a Christian heritage, but we cannot rely on a one-size-fits-all approach.

Or perhaps you are on the other side as you read this – an atheist, agnostic or you prefer not to label yourself. How do you see things from the other side of the chasm? Reach out and let me know. I’m listening.