Category Archives: Work

Discover The Business Connection

Business has changed.bad-interview

We all know that business is built on relationships and relationships at work come with expectations. Our relationships with our customers, our colleagues and our contacts all bring expectations of what we will do, by when and how we will do it.

A firm handshake and an exchange of business cards has been exchanged for a new Twitter follower and LinkedIn invitation. We don’t read reports, we scan an infographic.

Instead of hanging out at the Rotary club we publish our own blog post. Career progression is determined more by our online networking skills than our childhood school.

We have digitised our business exchanges. This has dramatically increased what we can do in a day, we can literally communicate with thousands of people electronically that we could never reach face to face. Mobile communications and a global industry mean we now work faster for longer.

And it doesn’t stop in the office, we check our tablet before we check out for the night. Instead of the paper it is the early morning emails that greet us long before we have arrived at our desk. On the train, in the coffee shop, restaurant and airport we are catching up and checking in.

Don’t get me wrong, much of this is good and has improved our standard of living. But if this is price for life in the fast lane, what is the cost?

The cost comes in the fragmentation of our personal lives. With everyone wanting a piece of us, what is left for those who set no expectations for delivery? Family life is squeezed and social time disappears. Marriages suffer, kids withdraw, hobbies get neglected, health deteriorates.

The cost comes in our isolation. We become islands of activity, a vortex of velocity spinning endlessly. Work life balance slides into fire fighting perpetual emergencies or dispensing quality time to our kids like a Las Vegas slot machine.

The cost comes in our superficiality. Much easier to click Like or Accept, than arrange a Saturday evening BBQ. We have 500 acquaintances on Linked in, 1000 Twitter followers, but only 2 real friends ‐ that we see once a year. We skate across the surface of life, only pausing to sharpen our blade every summer holiday.

The Business Connection is a charity for such a time as this. It meets you where you are at, seeks to understand what you are dealing with, and lifts you back on your feet. Run by people in the business community we know how easy it is to become caught up and cut off. We are Christians working at the heart of Aberdeen’s business community, with the community in our heart. Coming along to our range of events in Aberdeen to find out more.

In the business community, a life connection…The Business Connection.

The Sailor

I wrote this last night as I reflected on jumping back into the swirling, churning waters of life with a busy job, long commute and young family after having a two week holiday. Sometimes getting off the treadmill for a while makes it hard to jump back on!

For those of you Fathers out there with busy jobs and young families I hope you can relate to my feelings here, I wrote it for you.

Still and calm was the cold blue sea
I set sail with my hopes full and free
The lapping waves rocked away
I found it easy to watch and pray

The waves rolled on, pitching me down
Three offspring arrived spinning me round
The foam and spray splattered my face
Suddenly quiet times all over the place

Then came the storm, scary and fierce
A full on job, my lifejacket pierced
“Man overboard” I cry to the sky
Sinking down, I prepare to die

A hand reaches down, grabs onto mine
No longer alone, relief shoots down my spine
“It’s not in the hours you pray to me
It’s in the companionship we share out in the sea”

“Stop cursing yourself for things you can’t change
But rejoice you are called to such a vast range
I’m here all the time, take my hand fast
And together we’ll sail to our home at last”

storm-boat

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 Reality of Work-Life Imbalance – Part 1: The Model

An email arrived in my Inbox last week – “Come and hear about how to improve your work / life balance at our meeting next week…spaces available”. I couldn’t help laughing as I commented to my colleague “I would love to go, but I’m too busy!” My job demands virtually all of my available energy, after the family and work there is very little to give to anything or anyone else. Many of my friends are in the same position, with young families and high pressure jobs, often with long commutes &/or travel.Work-Life-Balance

As I thought about how my life has changed over recent years, I realised that very rarely in life do you achieve a real balance between work and life. As someone once said “we should work to live, not live to work”…agreed, but what if you find yourself in a job where work is (almost) your life? Did God intend me to this busy? To have so little time to give to a social life, hobbies, involvement in church…the list goes on. Does the fact that I enjoy my job so much and believe that God  made me in such a way as to thrive in this job justify the sacrifices that I make?

How do the rewards (and I’m not thinking financial) we get from our jobs compensate for the demands those jobs place on us? Is it ever possible to have Work vs Family / Friends / Church in perfect balance? I tried for a long time to carve out more time away from work to make time for Christian ministry (in particular evangelism), but at each turn God shut the door and only increased the demands and responsibility of my job.

The workplace has changed dramatically in the last 20 years, with increasing mobile communication eliminating the boundaries of the office and encroaching into family time. There is, I believe, more pressure, more travel and less certainty than there ever has been. In an age of global and instant commmunications it is harder than ever to leave work at work. There is an expectation in many jobs to always be “on”. In some jobs there simply isn’t the option to let things slide for another day. Those outside may tell us to sort out our priorities and be more disciplined and say no…and there is a time to draw the line. But simple solutions are often given by those with little experience of the pressures of not delivering.

So, in true consultant style, I created a 2×2 matrix to try and understand the modern workplace.  I know every job is different, but broadly speaking I think they can be grouped into four categories depending on the Rewards / Demand balance:

work life balance.bmp-001Where would you put yourself on the matrix? I realise it probably changes day by day (even within the same day!), but there are probably general trends which play out over the year. Let me ask you, where would you prefer to be? When I was in jobs on the left hand side I longed for more responsibility and greater exposure…now that I’m on the right hand side I remember (almost) what it was like to have free time!ext

I have come to realise that ultimately we are not in control of the rewards / demands tradeoff. We might like to think that by changing jobs things would automatically improve, that we can navigate a less stressful life, but life is not that simple. As The Bridges of Madison County reminds us “We are the choices that we have made“, but we cannot ultimately control the consequences of those choices. As someone who spends most of their time in the top right hand quadrant, I have come to accept this is my life…for now. For all the stress and exhaustion, I now realise that I am tremendously fortunate. I wrote about this to a colleague at work recently:

I think a lot about why we work and the purpose and value of work. I think at the most basic level it is about providing for our families and this provision spilling over into the less advantaged in our communities. At the next level it is the opportunity to do this while contributing something tangible to society (sometimes the corporate connection to society is hard to see in some jobs). For a very small number  of people they get both these aspects in a job where they get the opportunity to do what they do best every day. I count myself very fortunate to be in this small group. At whatever level we find ourselves though, I personally believe there is a higher purpose to what we do that we don’t always see and can’t measure, that comes from not just what we acheive but how we treat those around us.”

In Part 2 I’ll start to unpack what I believe the implications of each of these quadrants are for our churches…

Other posts on work life balance can be found here.

New Atheism – A Third Way?

Last year I challenged a Christian magazine about an article that claimed that New Atheism was a passing fad and resorted to insulting the people who  follow this philosophical worldview for how they respond to church leaders and ministers. I wrote a response back challenging their use of offensive language and their conclusions about its transiency. It was not published.

I have decided to post my letter below as it seems to me that many in the church  have put this in the “too difficult” box and instead prefer to focus their efforts on those who are more obviously (to outward observers) aware of their need of a Saviour, while resorting to intellectual and philosophical ping pong with the most vocal and vociferous proponents of NA. As someone who is completely immersed in the secular business world I know that it is not too difficult, but it takes time, commitment, transparency, vulnerability and honesty for people to open up to you and invite you to challenge their beliefs. For most of us this means working alongside them in a full-time secular job. Then people will see that we are not wierd, naive or judgemental and will be curious about our beliefs. This happened again to me this week in a precious conversation with an atheist colleague.

Dear church, there is another way to engage with the challenge of New Atheism than head on debate with unknown and often  virtual “enemies”… and  it is happening right now, but it is happening through those outside the sphere of professional church leadership. Will you listen to, affirm, support and empower your people to follow a Third Way?

house

Hi there,
 
I’ve been a subscriber for what must be 10 years now. I have to say however, that I was really disappointed by the latest issue in regards to the article on New Atheism. While I liked the author’s analysis of the different groups impacted by atheistic thinking I was disturbed by the way he spoke about the proponents of new atheism. I know how disrespectful many of them are (you only have to follow Ricky Gervais on twitter to find out), however, calling them names is extremely counterproductive. Will this terminology endorse us to unbelievers or turn them away?
 
The whole system of the new atheists is based upon them trying to construct a false dichotomy between the rational, logical, intelligent, fair atheists and the irrational, ignorant, wishful thinking believers. By resorting to name calling we only reinforce this false polarisation and strengthen their hand.
 
I have written and spoken about how I see a third way for breaking this dichotomy – most recently for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers (http://www.sblpa.co.uk/?p=6181)  and also a sermon in April at my home church in Dundee (https://martynlink.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/running-on-empty/). I put the challenge to the church that rather than seeing the secular humanists and militant atheists as the enemy, perhaps we should see the hand of God refining his people through them? I have also written a review of Christopher Hitchen’s memoir Hitch-22 highlighting many of the things I genuinely respected about the guy (https://martynlink.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/looking-for-wilberforce-and-finding-hitchens/) and am blogging my way through his God Is Not Great.
 
My basic premise is this – the more we see the New Atheists as enemies to be fought against, the more we reinforce their straw man. I am passionately committed to living my life as a model for a different way of engagement. Yes we need to engage and confront their strongholds directly, but we must seek the higher ground, and be willing to give them credit for deconstructing some of our woolly thinking and shoddy illustrations.
 
I do not accept his statement that we cannot be seen as being “smart, educated and hold views that contradict New Atheism” – by engaging as an equal in the workplace they cannot so easily dismiss me as they would if I worked for the church or a theological or academic institution. During my 10+ years in the workplace I have made many friends who are strong atheists. My passion is to be a living challenge to their neat compartmentalisation – a fair, intelligent, reasonable person, who they can totally relate to on a professional level, while at the same time believing different presuppositions to them. I want to be impossible for them to easily dismiss.
 
Finally, I completely disagree with his conclusions, at least in the UK (I cannot speak for Australia). New Atheism is not a passing fad, it has strengthened the arm of thousands of nominal atheists who now have credibility for their rejection of Christianity. I live and breathe amongst these people every day and see how it has changed them, given them a new confidence, made them bolder to decry religion in whatever form. The effects, certainly in the UK, will remain in the minds and thought patterns of the thousands of young adults who imbibe this teaching unconsciously. It will reveal itself in the way of life that these people now live and will live for the rest of their lives (unless they are graciously saved), and the way they bring up their future children in an increasingly aggressive anti-Christian society. This is the challenge we face – how do we thrive and not just survive as a persecuted people of God?
 
Again, I send this not as a critic, but as a friend. I’ve appreciated your ministry over many years as it has helped me mature in the faith. Take this as an appeal from a brother in the common cause of the kingdom.
 
Every blessing,
Martyn

My A to Z prayer for 2013

walking_alone_on_long_road-other-e1343172538576My A to Z prayer for 2013

Always you Lord; I do not seek success today, I seek only you

Before all others, you are the one I seek first and constantly

Consciously I turn from all other loves and choose to love only you

Dependent upon your Spirit I ask only to hear your voice and be with you

Everything else fades away when I steadfastly seek your face, help me stay in your presence each moment

Father, I desire you when I do not understand you; I love you when I cannot see you

Great God of the whole universe, help me to trust you are guiding me home and be thankful for your blessings

Hardness of heart is my enemy; give me a tender spirit and a fresh love for others

I am resolved not to base your love for me on my achievement; you love me as I love my children – unconditionally

Just one thing I seek; a full heart of blazing love for you Lord

Knackered is what I am expecting to be for most of the year; help me to accept this is your plan

Life is short and death comes quickly; I have everything I ever needed because I have you

Measure not my life by my accomplishments, or abilities, or reputation but my nearness to you Lord

Nothing… is what I need to be content, fulfilled, at peace. Help me remember this in the bustle of life

Only one day at a time, do not fret about what’s to come or what’s been done…

Peace comes from acceptance and resignation; I completely surrender my life to your hands

Quietness and silence – help me to meditate on you and be still in your presence

Restless is my spirit until you remove all the distractions and I see only you

Spirit, come fill me, lead me, mould me, shape me, satisfy me; all that I desire is more of you

Turn my eyes from worthless things Lord; do not let them dazzle me

Use me as you see fit Lord, no holding back; I do what I do today for you only – show me if you desire something else

Very short is the time I have with my children, they grow so quickly; help me make the most of each day

Work will demand much of me, help me Lord to be strong and do my best every day

X, the sign of the cross upon me wherever I go; always with me, marking me as your property Lord

Youth is disappearing; help me to live each day without deceit, regret or vanity

Zero… the credit in my spiritual account; never more or less than a sinner saved by grace

This post was written for the Scottish Baptist Lay Preachers Association – click here

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…