Tag Archives: Missional Church

A refreshed vision

For the last few years a small group of us have been sowing into the Aberdeen business community, with a heart to bless the city. We are refreshing our vision for 2020, you can read more below:

The Business Connection 2020 – Refreshing Our Vision

The Business Connection (http://thebusinessconnection.org/) exists to equip, encourage and empower people in the corporate sector in Aberdeen city and shire. We are a not-for-profit charity (SC045163) run by four trustees from within the business community for the benefit of the business community. All Trustees are volunteers, sourcing their income from professional employment or leading their own business or social enterprise. The charity is self-funded and relies on the donations of supporters to fund our activities. The charity’s activities have progressed over the last seven years:

– Since 2013 we have been hosting fortnightly breakfasts for workers to make friends, share stories and build relationships.

– Since 2016 we have also been hosting monthly talks on the last Friday of the month aimed at supporting the business community with helpful, thoughtful presentations on local and national issues across a range of topics.

– In 2019 we hosted the first Thrive Aberdeen conference along with 12 other Christian organisations (including Evangelical Alliance, LICC; Transform Work UK and many others) aimed at calling, gathering and celebrating those of a Christian faith in the workplace.

As we begin a new decade, we are relaunching the charity with two new Trustees – individuals of deep faith who bring significant experience across the public and private sector in Aberdeenshire.

Together we have sought to discern what the needs of the city and shire are at this moment in time. We believe that now is the time to sharpen our focus on the specific challenges facing our historic city. In order to ensure we invest the right resources in our vision we are stopping the fortnightly breakfasts for the foreseeable future.

We see that the forces that have shaped Aberdeen to be the city it has become are shifting and the city has entered a period of reinventing its identity. This change in direction has a knock-on impact on those of us employed in the city. We are asking ourselves: “How can those who care about the health and well-being of the Aberdeen business community help them influence the future direction of the city and shire?”

Alongside this focus on providing an intentional platform for influencing executive decision making, we also want to support the business community in having a more direct impact on helping organisations seeking to bless the neediest in the city and shire. So, we are also asking ourselves: “How can those of us who have benefitted from the prosperity of the region bless those who have not?”

We believe this dual pronged approach enables those in business to be a force for good – helping connect the decision makers to the workforce; and helping connect some of the most fortunate in society with some of the least fortunate. We are proposing a two-pronged approach in 2020, with a series of thought-provoking sessions from key organisations both within and outside the Aberdeenshire region on these two themes.

We invite those of you within our 280 strong network to come along and engage with our guests. We invite the key decision makers and culture shapers in Aberdeenshire to come and share thoughts on how the workforce in this region can help contribute to a better future for everyone.

We very much look forward to the year to come.

The Business Connection Trustees: Barry McAllister; Jim Grimmer; Martyn Link; Smart Masoni

Thirst

The child does not question the milk
The lover doesn’t fixate on the why
The flower doesn’t ask what if
The puppy never asks how long

In our seeking can we forget the destination?
In our waiting can we forget the signposts?
In the finding do we question the giver?
In our trusting do we need an answer?

To know the road to take but not the length to be travelled
To know the direction to seek but not the landmarks
To trust you go before and beside and within us
To want, to desire, to hunger, to yearn

To long for the King, not noticing the kingdom
To gaze into your eyes not counting the time
To find you in the journey, not the destination
To trust you for the timing and forsake my plan

To rest in your presence
To share in your love
To bless one another
To become one

Be of one purpose thankful
Be in his presence together
Be with his people thirsting
Be one Priesthood trusting

“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.” 1 Peter 2.2

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.

Losing my religion and finding my faith (#1 Decay and Decline)

Losing my religion and finding my faith: Part 1

Decay and decline

boar-war-memorialAs I walked around Melbourne last night I came across a memorial to those Australians who lost their lives during the Boer war. Inscribed on the plaque were these words: “Fighting for the unity of the Empire, which is our strength and common heritage“. It struck me that the reason Australia sent its men and women to a foreign country to fight and die was to protect the unity of the British Empire. The Empire was considered worth fighting for, for it was the foundation they stood upon and common bond they had inherited.

How different the world is now. The Empire has dissolved and many are glad it is so. The idea that the British Empire was  a source of help and support in difficult times is anathema to many, all they see is the failings and corruption of power. The world has found a new strength, not in mutual dependence and sacrificial duty between countries, but in individual freedom of expression and unrelenting pursuit of self-interest.

The parallels to the decline of Western Christianity are obvious. In our generation we are living through the decay and decline of a Christian heritage that shaped our society so profoundly in earlier centuries. If we have eyes to see it, the planks of Christian values are being removed one by one. Many would say this is for the better given the scandals and abuse of power of the past.

Yes there was a day when the church wielded a measure of power, when the state allowed the church influence over state affairs. However, it should not be overlooked that much good was done in these times, with the spread of education, commerce and common law. Often it was churches and missionaries that started the first schools and taught people how to read. But the good has been airbrushed out by modern sceptics and cynics, to leave only the bad. Yes, we made mistakes, yes, there were abuses of power and corruption, yes, we look back now in horror at much of what done in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. But are we accountable for the sins of our fathers? Are we to hang our heads in shame and hold our tongues in silence when malicious powers are seeking to destroy the genuine good Christianity brings every society it encounters? No! This guilt by association is what insidiously saps our confidence to speak out today.

We are shackled by the real and perceived failures of past generations when they were given the opportunity to rule. We need a new humility to recognise and repent for things done in the past that we can see from the hindsight of history were not right. But we also need a new resolve to not be ashamed of who we are and what we believe. In the midst of a decaying religious tradition we must allow God to rebirth us through his cleansing fire.

Losing my religionWhat does that Christian jargon mean in practice? It means we must be ready to lose our religion in order to find our faith. We need to reassess our lives in every part in the light of the fact that we are now in exile. We may not have moved country, but our country has moved. The introspection and doubt of earlier times has been replaced with a brash confidence. Back in 1991 REM may have said “That’s me in the corner, That’s me in the spotlight, Losing my religion, Trying to keep up with you, And I don’t know if I can do it, Oh no, I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough”, but modern secular humanists have no such insecurity.

We are in a foreign land that is not just neutral, but increasingly hostile to our faith. We must start with our personal life, setting our foundations of personal holiness and complete abandonment to Christ. We must raise our children with the ability to survive as aliens and outcasts in their schools and universities. We must review our church activities to remove any barrier that prevents us from forming meaningful connections with the communities we live in. We must seek to reintegrate ourselves back into society. The church is no longer the centre of the community, we must find out where the new centres are, and how we can get involved. We must be ready to sacrifice, if need be, some of our comfortable fellowship with each other, if this is what is preventing us from being immersed in people’s lives outside the church’s walls.

The vestiges of our tradition are crumbling from constant attack. Christian values are being excluded from the public square. However, the irony is that nobody can stop us from being immersed in grass-roots public square discussions. Society will be changed one conversation at a time, if it is ever to be changed. Are we in a Christian ghetto, quivering from the angry world outside or are we picking each other up and sending each other out with fresh energy? Only when we have the conviction that our greatest ministry calling, after our own family, is to the people and places we visit everyday, will we make a meaningful and lasting impact.

It is a truism of every age that each one perceives its own wisdom, but not it’s faults just as accurately as it sees the faults but not the wisdom of the preceding ages. We have lost the British Empire and we are losing our national religion. Do we recognise what wisdom is being lost in this process? As Christians we know that the knowledge of God is the beginning of true wisdom, and only an intimate understanding of him can help us to rescue the good and hold back the bad in a confused and anchor-less nation.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding (Proverbs 9.10)

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 Silos

In our last post we considered how the way society thinks is changing. However, when we come to investigate why Christians have lost their voice and influence in society then the picture becomes even more stark. In the past the UK used to be a country that listened to, and even respected, Christian leaders as a voice of moral authority. This is no longer the case.  The structures within society do not lend themselves to helping us discuss the important issues of life and faith. Thus, this leaves us without a platform to defend or explain our position.

I see three main areas where these changes have occurred which mean that rather than being a city on a hill, we are now a city in a valley. We are hidden from society and our light is not shining as brightly because our platform, confidence and practice have been eroded. For each area I propose some ideas for how we can break out of our silos.

1. Erosion of Christian Structures

Many years ago Christianity was at the heart of the community. Everything happened either at the church, or through the church. Everyone knew the minister and the church had a dominant role in the life of individuals.  There were also strong community bonds that held influence over the behaviour and attitudes of the church and wider society. While not everyone liked the church or its leaders, they at least knew who they were and their opinion mattered within the local parish. However, there was undoubtably a nominalism and deadness to some of church life that sometimes put more importance on respectability and appearances than genuine faith and true piety.

In the past, we used to think we could just open the doors and people would come in, this is no longer the case. Secularisation has been one of the major causes of this change – diminishing the influence of the church as a public voice and removing it from the market place. Our place in the centre of society has gone, we are now on the periphery. New ways of establishing a presence in a secular nation and our communities must be found if we are to engage with our culture.

Breaking down the Silo: The only way we can break out of our silo is to establish living connections with those around us. We will have to balance the desire to share our faith, with the need to first listen to others. We need to first learn how to serve and love our community as an end in itself – to love it as God loves us, with no thought of what we will receive in return. For too long we have separated the word and deed – swinging to either extreme. Fortunately many churches are re-engaging in their community in various ways and many individuals are seeing the importance of establishing strong community connections. In the  business community and the arts, I see a vision among many for affirming what is good in society and building bridges. The task is to contribute something positive to society.

The challenge we must ask ourselves is: “Do we find ourselves only ever complaining or moaning about society? Do we find most of our time is spent with other Christians?” We need to learn how to affirm what is good; seek new ways to build connections with the community we live / work in and look to serve people holistically. If we do this, getting opportunities to share what is so important to us won’t be a problem.

2. Privitisation of Faith

We are constantly told that “It’s ok to believe what you want in the privacy of your own home, just don’t go forcing anyone else to believe in the tooth fairy”. Our lack of confidence means we retreat from engaging in public debates; we internalise our faith and it becomes private – not to be shared in public. A misrepresented view of science is used to support this pressure with prominent secularists claiming that “you cannot be logical, rational and have a faith”. This is made worse by the wide disagreement between Christians of how to understand scientific evidence and how this relates to biblical inspiration. We are divided and confused, so we stay silent.home-prison

Breaking down the Silo: I sometimes wonder if we have gone down a wrong alley by creating a space between apologetics and the gospel? Perhaps we see the gospel as the message about Jesus’ death and resurrection,  and apologetics about defending biblical inspiration, creation or explaining why there is suffering etc. This gives the impression they are two separate things, the former being essential, the latter optional. When our apologetics is weak or under threat we are tempted to retreat to focussing on the gospel. We then stick to communicating only these core themes, but they are detached from a broader meaning and context in society.

But does this fit with biblical patterns? In Acts 18 (in Athens) and 26 (before Agrippa) Paul takes the eternal truths of God’s saving plan and interweaves them with contemporary issues, values and culture through the backdrop of God’s redemption of mankind. There is no distinction between where apologetics starts and ends and the message about Jesus as Saviour and Judge starts and ends. We need to reclaim the pattern of communicating the gospel as: Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and return >> within God’s redemptive plan >> within the broader Christian worldview. Our message needs to touch on each of these three areas every time we communicate. This is how the new testament authors explained the eternal truth that they were communicating. In Acts 26.1 Paul uses the Greek word apologeomai when describing the act of declaring his message – not the content of the message itself.

3. Compartmentalising our Lives

Because of the pressure we feel from #2, we make our lives fit into various boxes of work; home; social; church. We create a spiritual / secular divide and have in our minds a view of what constitutes a spiritual activity (i.e. things done at church or supporting the work of the church) and social / secular activities (that have little, if any, spiritual value). We see the value of activities as they relate to our ability to either fund or directly engage in spiritual activities (as defined previously). The impact of this is that we live in different worlds, adapting to the expected behaviours and norms within each box. The increasing pressure to keep faith out of the workplace means that while we may try our best to live out our Christian principles in our workplace, we struggle to articulate our faith. It will also mean that we become desperate to spend our time in activities which we deem to be the best use of our limited time. Time spent in secular activity will become simply waiting time until we can “do something of eternal value”.

Breaking down the Silo: I was fascinated by this interview with Tim Keller, particularly the fourth question. I think many of us are guilty of saying we believe all callings are equally valid (that’s not to say they are all equal), while at the same time we still act as though some callings are more God-honouring than others. In a mark of true humility and honesty, Keller admits that he feels this tension. The only way to break out of this silo is to reclaim a biblical view of work, where whatever we do can and should be done for the Lord – an incredibly liberating and affirming position.

So the question is: “Are we constantly feeling that our time is being wasted, because we are not doing more spiritual work?” (that’s not to say we shouldn’t prioritise our time or set aside individuals to be devoted to preaching and prayer). And: “Are we intentionally cross-fertilising our boxes, at the right time, so that people see us in a different context?” Social media is a perfect tool to do this cross-fertilisation – “Are we using social media intentionally; who is listening or following you? Is it only people who think the same way as you do?”

Let me know your thoughts on these and other silos and how we can break out of them.

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.