Saturday, July 31, 2010

Quitting Christianity

Don't panic, I'm not talking about me, well not yet! No, it's the title of an article I came across about Anne Rice, the author, who has decided that Christianity is no longer something with which she can be associated. I have some sympathy.

According to the article Rice:
"questioned the word “Christian”, asking when a word becomes “unusable … so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy”. The next day she concluded that she was “out” and announced her refusal to be anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science, and anti-life in the name of Christ.

“In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian,” she concluded Wednesday.

From the rest of the article it becomes clear that this isn't about giving up on faith. It is about someone struggling with everything about Christianity that fails to reflect Christ. A struggle we ought all to take seriously. This is why some have looked for an alternative word or phrase, red letter Christians for example.

Perhaps we need to reimagine the meaning of "Christianity", to think about how we can redeem the term and rescue it from all that isn't Christ.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Preaching Deeper Sermons

What is it that we want from the Sunday morning sermon? Do we really want to be taught three things we already know about a text we've read before or do we want something new every week, as if Sundays is some form f religious entertainment?

Well of course we would never reduce Sundays to entertainment, but I've been in many churches where I've heard people say, "We need more teaching," and I've often wondered what they mean by that. In many ways the church is over taught and under experienced. Our lives don't live up to our knowledge. Except they do if our knowledge is only shallow.

So, maybe what we need is not more teaching but more depth. Depth not in the sense of more information about original languages and building layers of supporting Biblical references, but in the sense of a deeper connection with a growing spiritual life. A deepening of the soul, if that's a valid concept.

In thinking about this I was interested in an article that appeared on the Christianity Today website about deeper preaching. The article suggests five kinds of deep sermons:

  • Biblical depth
  • Intellectual depth
  • Experiential depth
  • Cultural depth
  • Applicational depth

Several things strike me. First you can't do all of these, and maybe you shouldn't try to them all, in a single sermon. Second, why would you try to them all every time. It's interesting to think about all the factors that come into play when you are both preparing to preach and actually delivering a sermon.

Personally I find that I write more notes these days in order to keep myself on track. Sometimes I develop my sermons a little like a mystery story. Trying to find the question that a text or theme raises and then seeking to unfold the answers. Other times it's more about presenting the flow of an idea that runs through the passage and the context. I'm keen too to connect the small things with the bigger picture. It's easy to forget the big theme of the bible in order to focus on the small thing. How does grace impact on how we interpret passages about discipline, about divorce and about a thousand other things?

Anyway, the article is worth a read and something to which I will return and give some more thought.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Journey Ahead

If it were a simple matter of discovering a new vision in an old context, then maybe the journey would be easier to plot. But that's not our situation. We need to reimagine church for a new context. If we look for a vision before we recognise the changing context then we are in danger of imagining only what we are used to imagining. Let me explain it this way. If all we have known is a pattern of being the church that focuses upon getting people into the church, then we will reimagine the church in exactly the same way. We will be pushed towards developing programmes geared to filling the church.

On the other hand, if we recognise a new reality, a reality that focuses upon getting the church out and active in the community, building relationships and reconnecting people with the God who misses them most, then we will imagine a very different church. At least I hope we will.

To help plot our course we need to identify some of the key themes that will help us along the way. At this point we need to make one thing really clear.

Everything flows out of our personal and corporate relationship with God.

We should not take this for granted. We should carry this like a valued possession,wear it like a badge. I believe that everything Jesus did arose out of his relationship with his Father rather than his ability to do them himself. He was fully God and therefore capable of performing miracles in his own right, but he chose only to do what he saw the Father already doing (John 5).

Accepting this principle means that anything we do has to arise out of a deep and intimate relationship with God. Jim Packer, commenting on the state of the American church once said, "The problem with North American Protestantism is that it is three thousand miles wide but only half an inch deep."

The last thing we want is a lukewarm, shallow version of Christianity. That simply will not satisfy and may ultimately prove to be the real reason people have left the church of many years. They're bored with an expression of Christianity that lacks the life of Christ. As Sweet and Viola put it:

To be perfectly candid, there are few things that are as dull and boring in life as a Christianity without the living, breathing, radiant, triumphant Christ. It's a first-degree snoozer. If you could bottle it, you would have the cure for insomnia. 
Jesus Manifesto

Monday, July 26, 2010

Jesus Manifesto

I've just about finished reading Sweet and Viola's book, and I'm not sure what to say about it. Sometimes I find Viola's attitude towards the church a little irritating if I'm honest. It was the same in Reimaging the Church.

But, Jesus Manifesto is a really good, challenging and inspiring book. There is much to commend it's central message. As the jacket notes says:

Christians have made the gospel about so many things-things other than Christ. Religious concepts, ideas, doctrines, strategies, methods, techniques, and formulas have all eclipsed the beauty, the glory and the reality of the Lord Jesus Himself... We know a lot about trying to be like Jesus, but very little about living by His indwelling life.

Perhaps the book is unnerving because it goes to the heart of what it means to be the church, to be an authentic follower of Christ in whom and through whom Jesus lives and ministers. In doing so the authors challenge much that has been taught and continues to be taught. Perhaps too it's uncomfortable to think that all the sermons you've every preached may be rejected as inaccurate and un-gospel!

If you're evangelical and keep telling everyone that "it's all about Jesus", this book might just make you stop and think about what you really mean when you say that.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone


We wandered over to the cinema yesterday afternoon to see  Inception, the much anticipated film of the summer. At just short of 150 minutes it is a long film but you'd never know from watching it. Never a dull moment.

Without giving away the story, we've got the pain and suffering of failing to deal with the past, carrying bucket loads of guilt around with you, issues of denial and reconciliation and the science fiction stalwart theme of trying to figure out where reality begins, ends or even exists. Add to that some clever use of special effects and you've got a really good piece of cinema.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Where do we go from here?

If the church stands still, or worse still tries to go backwards to some nostalgic period when everything seemed to work, then we will find that the very people we are trying to reach will have moved even further away than they are now. So we must move forwards, the only problem is, which way is forwards! Because we are people of our time and our history, we tend to answer this question according to the things we have learned and experienced. Unfortunately that can lead us to answers that won't work in the age in which we find ourselves. The story has changed, life is different, and we need to discover how God's story challenges and reshapes the story of post-modern life.

We need a new imagination of church, but we also need some parameters within which to begin our journey of re-imagining. The good news is that a lot of people are taking this journey and there is a lot of interesting stuff with which we can interact as we shift our perspective towards what it means to be a church deeply committed to following Jesus and fully involved with our community in partnership with God on his great mission.

In this we are all novices. This is not a road down which we have travelled before and it is unfamiliar ground. We might look like we are lost, but we are not. And it won't be quick either. Frank Viola says that the church is not a train, it is a group of people out for a walk. What we know for sure is that business as usual won't actually address any of the challenges we face with respect to reaching our communities for Christ.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Problem with Programmes

The problem with a programmes based approach to church is that it too often removes people from the communities in which they live and work and transfers them into a church community disconnected from their ordinary lives. Programmes can simply serve to keep people busy, too busy in the end for any real involvement in God's mission.

But we can't stop having programmes! Programmes help us organise ourselves, they help us strengthen areas of weakness and encourage areas of strength. Programmes are good provided the programme serves the purposes of the church and doesn't distract from it.

The second problem with programmes is that they don't always work. In a long term study carried out through the Willow Creek Association, they found that no matter how good your programmes for discipleship might be, very few people were actually being discipled through them. The people who were actually growing in their relationship with God were the people who were actively involved in the ministry of the church, and I'm not just talking about weekend services and internal church stuff.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Fundamental Shape of the Church

I believe that the fundamental shape of the church can be summarised like this: Christology (what we believe about Jesus) drives our missiology (what we believe about our purpose) which in turn drives our ecclesiology (how we "do" church).

Jesus is at the heart of everything we do, or at least he should be. In fact we could go so far as to say that he is both the centre and the circumference of who we are as his followers. He is, to paraphrase Sweet and Viola (The Jesus Manifesto) the preoccupation of the church.

How do I see the Church?

More from my random thoughts paper.

It is probably best summed up by the quote from Rowan Williams that: It's not that the church of God has a mission, rather that the God of mission has a church.

Our role, as God's people is to partner with him in the mission he is orchestrating in our world. We were formed for this mission and called into this mission. Roxburgh and Boren put it this way:

Mission is not something the church does as an activity, it is what the church is through the mystery of its formation and memory of its calling.

Introducing the Missional Church p45

Taking on such a perspective requires a re-imagining of what church is and how it functions. It is not about developing new programmes of things to do, it is about a new imagination about being missional, of partnering with God wherever and whenever he is at work in the lives of those around us. It is important to understand that this is not about redefining the church in terms of evangelism. Missional does not equal more evangelistic in the traditional sense of those words. Evangelism is part of mission, but it is not the whole of mission.

Over the centuries I believe that the church has lost this missional edge. It has replaced being the church with doing church, it has replaced a relationally based community of followers with a programme based community of adherents.

Relational Capacity

I am currently trying to piece together all my thinking about the church. Not an easy task! There are so many thoughts and ideas and challenges to process. It feels almost like trying to write a memoir but having forgotten the order of events! So I've started by writing a series of random paragraphs about questions and quotes that have influenced, clarified, or affirmed my thinking. I also find from time to time that a book comes along that helps provide a vocabulary for my thoughts.

So I thought I'd turn some of these paragraphs into blog posts and see if that triggers more thinking rather than dumping the whole thing on the internet in one go. After all, who has the time or inclination to read a 2,500 word blog post that isn't even finished!

Relational capacity is a phrase I came across. Put simply it is about our capacity to form meaningful relationships. Here's what I wrote:

A quote I heard recently went like this: "Your missional effectiveness is directly proportional to your relational capacity."

In other words, we can't reach people we don't know. Traditionally, the way we have done church has diminished our relational capacity and hindered our missional effectiveness. We simply do not have the time to meet unchurched people, people far from God, the very people God misses most.

When I talk about the way we have done church I'm not talking about Sundays as much as the rest of the week. When I look at the typical church calendar the simple truth is that very busy people become even more busy with church focused activities. Small groups, prayer meetings, leaders meetings, members' meetings, worship practices, planning meetings. They all pile into our diaries and leave precious little time to do anything else.

Maybe the only way we are ever going to open the door to increasing our relational capacity is to simplify church so that it doesn't demand so much of our time. But if we do that, we will need to commit ourselves to using the time released in a positive kingdom way.

Making such a change will also require a shift in thinking about what it means to be in church and more importantly what it means to not be in church! When I was a young Christian if you chose to spend time with unchurched friends rather than with Christians, it was a sign that you were backsliding. Your salvation was in doubt and your commitment questioned. Not exactly a supportive environment! I'm not so sure that such an attitude still exists, but it does highlight our perennial focus on being in church rather that on mission.

That leaves us with a simple question: How do we increase our relational capacity?

Answers on a postcard...

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Praying about what you see

I do find it rather interesting how going for a walk can help me pray for my community. You see people and places and things going on that, if you are looking, can be helpful.

Today's walk took me through some open fields, past the cemetery, schools and local shops. I went past some remote houses too. Each of these helped me pray. As I passed the cemetery I prayed for those who are grieving and for those who would have their day interrupted by loss. The remote homes made me stop and wonder if anyone ever visited them to share God's amazing story or where their lives as isolated as their homes.

Could I have done this sitting at home? Probably. But I'm not sure I would have thought about the same things without the visual prompts.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Peer Supervision

Everyone, at least everyone in ministry, knows how lonely and hard it can be. Having a second voice to keep you sane and help you reflect is vitally important. The second voice gives you a safe place to let go of all the frustrations and heartaches, to share all the joys and highs with someone who knows what it feels like to walk this road of the servant leader.

The question is will peer supervision provide that place? For some I think it will, for others I'm not so sure. The concept is fundamentally sound. The principle of having a fixed relationship with another practitioner who will listen to the issues, share the journey and ask the tough questions is good. Whether that needs to be a single voice is up for grabs.

In Bedford I was privileged to be part of a small group of ministers who met once a month. Some might call it a fraternal, but it was more than many a fraternal of which I've been a part. We shared our stories, we listened to the questions, we never judged each other. We prayed for each other and we never let each other get away with simply moaning about things. Maybe above everything else, we knew we were not alone. We knew that some of the questions for which we had no answer were questions we shared in common. And none of us had answers for them!

So, yesterday was a valuable day. Initially I thought it was an information day, but it turned out to be a taster day. Fortunately my partner for the day had come to see in the same way I had come to see, so we talked about how the process might work for us and what we might do without actually committing ourselves to the process.

The biggest challenge to any process of peer supervision or peer mentoring is that you moan together. That you share sympathy and avoid responsibility. But that can be avoided. The other area of concern is the assumption that we all begin with the skills needed to offer this kind of mutual support. Those who have trained in counselling will approach the task with skills and questions that are not necessarily possessed by every minister no matter how competent they might be.

Personally, I'm still looking for the level of friendship and support I had previously. Perhaps it's an unrealistic search!

Of course none of this takes away from the process of reflection and prayer that should be the practice of every leader. Self-mentoring or self-leadership is an area in which we can all develop. Taking time to reflect on pastoral situations and leadership issues, personal discipline and spiritual growth is healthy. I bet there's a website somewhere about that.

I know I go on about it, but keeping a journal is a really helpful tool, especially if you review it. You can learn a lot about the recurring themes that are impacting your ministry. It can also help you get a perspective on things. Perhaps the reason you are feeling down about something is because you haven't really faced it, truly faced it. Your journal will show you this is you're honest when you write and when you read it back.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Glass of wine anyone?

Will wonders never cease! Marks and Spencer are doing wine by the glass to save you carrying a bottle to the picnic.

A plastic wine glass with a foil top is just the thing you need to not look too desperate on that picnic i the park outing. I've no idea what it tastes like, so I might just have to try it.

Do you think a stemmed glass and an M&S carrier bag will make it acceptable on a bench than a bottle of Shiraz in a brown parer bag?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Stressed in Ministry?

Measuring stress in ministry is not an easy thing. The particular nature of ministry has its own internal stresses. So it was interesting to come across this simple self-assessment tool.

I did a quick self-test and was surprised by the result. Apparently I'm less stressed than I thought I was!

Friday, July 09, 2010

Another (spiritual!) reason for an iPad

Joking apart, it was interesting to read how one pastor uses an iPad in his devotional life.

How an iPad improved my devotional life

It's not a cure-all for any lack of discipline you experience, but it might just inspire you if you've bought an iPad and want to try the apps suggested. I use Youversion for my Bible on the iPad and iPhone. I also use iPastor and Prayerjournal.

The Creative Process

Thank you Tim for the link to this picture of the creative process!

Find it here.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The church. What's it all about?

I'm off to do a funeral in an hour, one of the privileges of ministry. It's never easy, and the older I get the more I feel as if there must be someone better equipped to do it than me! I thinks it's the ministry equivalent of golfing yips, the involuntary movement that creeps into your putting stroke and ruins your game. Just ask Berhard Langer!

Anyway, before I go I've been working on trying to get done on paper some thoughts about the church, its mission and purpose. Stuff about vision and structures and strategies. No easy task, I can assure you.

Currently I'm looking at a pile of 16 books and a dining table covered in post-it notes with ideas and thoughts scribbled on them. Sometimes it feels like I'm trying to translate a book from a language I don't know using only a dictionary. But I persevere.

My journey with the church and the mission of God began to take shape when I wrote a paper for my theology degree. It was my attempt to look at what Jesus had called the church to do and how we could realign ourselves with his commission. I wasn't very successful at answer the question I really wanted to ask, and I'd like to go back and rework that essay using some of what I've learned since.

So in a sense I guess that is what I'm trying to do. It's just going to take some time to get it out of my head and onto paper, electronic and wood based!

At least I'm putting my iPad to good use!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone