Friday, 29 April 2011

The Last Post

I think it is time to write my final Outthere post.

I've had a lot of fun writing about anything and everything for almost two years. But unfortunately a mixture of time pressure and topics that sometimes seemed not to serve any great purpose, has led me to conclude that it is time to draw a line under Outthere.

I wanted to make it official and formal.

Thank you to all who have read, commented and encouraged.


Friday, 15 April 2011

Convivial Housing

A recent news item on Radio 4 revealed that there has been a rise of 30% in people their late 40s-60s living alone.

Apparently this is beginning to concern those in government. Although many have profited from the boom years and - despite straitened times - are much better off financially, their social wealth has diminished. They have become more isolated and consequently lonelier. "Resilience" would be a social issue government would have to tackle, according to the reporter; people needed help in bouncing back from adversity. A rethink of housing was also on the cards. There is a need for more "convivial housing" shared services and resources if not shared accommodation.

It seems as though we are struggling to live with each other and without each other. Western culture, perhaps more than any other, challenges the church to be the community that Jesus called it to be. It is crying out for relationship but can't figure out how to develop successful relationships - partly because it doesn't know what successful relationships look like. And partly because, more than any other culture in the world, it has elevated selfishness from a vice to a value - and a controlling value at that.

Just before his betrayal, John tells us that Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.(John 13.3-5)

The authority that Jesus has given to us provides us with the security to serve in a way that builds relationships and cultivates the kind of community that answers the cry of the isolated and atomised world around us.

You can find an associated article here

Monday, 18 October 2010

Cities of God

Rodney Stark is probably not going to be top billing at the next mission and renewal conference. Though I'd love to see him somewhere in the line up.

I recently read his book Cities of God and what an enlightening and provocative little book it was.

Stark is a sociologist by trade, so his approach is quite theoretical at times. However, you can skip most of that (like I did) and find some really thought provoking conclusions.

Here are some of them:

  • In the early church the gospel was spread and the church grew through social networks - not mass conversion
  • The gospel was not just effective at the margins of society - some pretty influential people turned to Christ - eg Erastus, the city treasurer at Corinth (Romans 16.23)
  • Gentiles who were sympathetic to Judaism found Christianity attractive because of the lack of rules
  • The gospel often flourished in large cities where the ties to traditional religion were loose.

The above is just a snapshot of Stark's conclusions, but I think they merit some reflection.

If he's right, religious diversity is an opportunity not a threat. Religious diversity indicates a breakdown in old patterns of thinking that are sometimes resistant to the gospel.

Christianity should be preached as a liberation from the rules and strictures of religion. It's worth reminding ourselves that legalism has more than one expression. See this thoughtful post.

The gospel can touch people in the mainstream and upper strata of society as well as those on the fringes. I think this is something that those of us in the Pentecostal /Charismatic world need to learn.

Finally, networks. If Stark is correct, the recent concept of social networking is the best news for those who want to spread the gospel in a long time. That might mean that effective evangelism in the 21st century will partly entail building social networks. So parties, Starbucks, Facebook et al. could be big keys to evangelism in our time. Your leisure time can be transformed into something effective for the kingdom! Whatever next?!

See the review at Google Books here

Monday, 4 October 2010

Young fogeys and the future shape of the church

Noun: A person, typically an old one, who is considered to be old-fashioned or conservative in attitude or tastes.

I first heard the term from my grandmother. She was frustrated by a generation of young Christian men with shoulder length hair and guitars (and probably beards). Any physical resemblance to the Lord, she did not recognise. "They'd just dismiss us all as old fogeys" was how she interpreted their attitude to her generation. A "fogey"! What a great word!

Fast forward about ten years...I encountered a whole new phenomenon: the young fogey.

There were certain differences between the young fogey and the old fogey. The old fogey was not self-consciously a fogey. He or she was just being himself or herself and found that he/she was out of step with the times. The older person might well have been offended if you had called him a "fogey" and the term might even have been considered a put down. It must be said that whether the older person could have accurately been described as a fogey or not, their fogeyism was often endearing and was only a symptom of them being true to themselves and their values. Of course, many who dismissed my grandmother's generation as "old fogeys" might well now be "old fogeys" themselves, or worse still they might be retro cool in an embarrassing kind of way or worst of all just "outdated groovers" whose hearts are forever stuck in 1973. Potential fogeyism awaits us all.

The young fogeys were entirely different. They wanted to be fogeys. They dressed in such a way that people would consider them "young fogeys" and spoke in a way that made them seem like upper-middle class Edwardians. They were very conscious of the image they were projecting and sometimes, perhaps more often than not, the image bore very little connection to who they really were, serving only to betray their own insecurities. Young fogeyism is sometimes more "wannabee" than substance.

So why, you might ask, am I writing about fogeyism on a Monday morning? Because I believe the fogeys are after the soul of the church! Not my church - the church at large!

And it's not old fogeyism that concerns me - after all give me a few years and people might think I'm an old fogey. It's....young fogeyism! Or perhaps young-ish fogeyism.

If you read around a bit in the Christian world, you might well be aware of the renaissance in Reformed theology. Calvin, it seems, is cool again. Got any questions? Calvin and his mates Augustine and Luther have most of the answers. Calvin's offspring have lots of answers as well. And if you have got some "problems" - especially ones that aren't conveniently theological - consult "the Doctor" - the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that is (Through his books of course, not through a seance). I have to add that I think the Dr. is very good indeed.

In all seriousness, I am concerned.

(i) I am concerned that like fogeyism in the truest sense of the word, that some of this is just a reaction to the fuzzy theology or lack of theology of the emerging church. There's no doubt that much of what goes under that label is heading in the direction of theological liberalism. Calvinism presents a good bulwark against such a trend. However, the price might well be a new exclusivism and an intolerance of anything that doesn't fit squarely into the reformed theological box.

I have tried to keep up to date with the reformed blogosphere for a couple of years. John Wesley hardly gets a mention in any appraisal of church history or revival, despite the fact that he is undoubtedly the single most influential Christian leader of the last three hundred years. At worst there is a revisionist tendency within some reformed circles. The Sally Army, the Brethren and, of course, the Pentecostals, et al. - even in the charismatic wing of the reformed world, have effectively been airbrushed out of church history, certainly in terms of making any positive contribution.

Calvinism tends to be bookish and ruthlessly critical of any challenge to its central tenets. One of the dangers is that it will kill off any charismatic impulses.

(ii) My second concern, is that the desire to define the faith and defend the faith against liberalism is actually going to destroy evangelicalism. If it doesn't destroy it, it will make "evangelical" equal "calvinist". Anyone who wants revival and wants to win back the West, should consider all the great revival movements. Thank God for great Presbyterian and Baptist preachers. And thank God also for the Methodists and the Salvation Army and the Brethren. And for the Pentecostals. By all means preach sin and grace. And repentance and justification. But don't forget that what fired evangelism in the early twentieth century was preaching on the return of Christ. The church is bigger and more diverse than its reformed expression.

(iii) Finally, I do find much of the output that parades one's reformed credentials incredibly inward looking and tedious. Why trot out terminology and phraseology that is well past its sell by date? Sorry, but some of it does smack of young fogeyism, and I don't think the world is waiting for the young fogeys!

I write the above observations as someone sympathetic to the reformed outlook, but also as one who has discovered that the world is a bigger place and the gospel a bigger message than the playground of any particular theological school, however worthwhile it might be.

This will give you an insight into cool Calvinism.

This is a brief introduction to young fogeyism. Get the handbook here . The hardback will cost you £256.74.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Illegal Inspiration

Over the summer I succumbed to an irresistable offer to take out a year's subscription to National Geographic for £15 a year. Too good to resist.

In the September edition there was an article about Madagascar. The reporter decided to track down those involved in the illegal rosewood trade. It seems that many are deserting traditional occupations to go in search of a fortune harvesting and selling rosewood.

As is usually the case, the trade is dominated by gangs and corruption. Even so, those who want to be involved go to enormous lengths to get even the chance to be a part of what is happening. The report described a thirteen hour journey down dirt roads and through forests, a journey to the heart of the wilderness. And what awaited those who made it was a life of hard work and danger.

It's amazing what people will do when driven by need or even the desire to get rich.

These kinds of stories almost always challenge me. It's so easy for us in the relative comfort of the West to shake our heads in disapproval of those who risk life and limb to do something illegal and something that is ecologically bad for Madagascar and the world.

However, I find that it challenges my passion and commitment to Christ.

To what lengths am I prepared to go to further the cause of Christ? What risks am I willing to take for Him? Does it match the illegal loggers of Madagascar? Does it, for that matter, match the business guys who'll work long hours and make huge sacrifices for the sake of filthy lucre?

It might sound as though I have written this post from a spiritual Tardis that has taken me back into the church culture of 1950's Britain. Let me put your mind at rest, I am firmly in 2010.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in an era in which the kind of commitment I'm talking about can very quickly be written off as "works", "legalism" or "duty". It might be that we have discovered all the rights and privileges of being spiritual sons and daughters without understanding the responsibilities. There was a time that having a "servant heart" was considered crucial to authentic Christianity. I'm not sure that that is still the case in contemporary Christian culture.

I had a dream recently. I was dreaming that I was preparing a sermon on Timothy, Paul's spiritual son and fellow-worker. I only got two points of it before I woke up. I kept trying to recall the third point - but it just wasn't there. The two points were: (i) Timothy's Call; (ii)Timothy's Commitment. The first point was straightforward; God called Timothy to serve Him.

Point two was more surprising. It was from Acts 16.2-3 "The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of [Timothy]. 3Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek."

For the sake of church unity and cross-cultural evangelism, Timothy submitted himself to circumcision. That was the price of his calling. It wasn't something he had to do. It wasn't necessary for salvation. It was the price of joining Paul's team. Of course, there were issues involved that were due to the culture of that day. That's the point. That was the level of commitment that was needed to spread the gospel at that time.

Relax. I'm not suggesting it's time to get the knives out! However, it does challenge our thinking about the kind of commitment that preaching the gospel effectively entails. I think I'd opt for a few long journeys down dirt tracks and forests myself!

Monday, 20 September 2010

Promoting doubt

Richard Nixon is hardly someone you would think might be able to provide us with some good advice about how the church should face the challenges of what the Pope on his recent visit to Britain referred to as aggressive secularism . Forever tarnished because of Watergate, he's an unlikely inspiration for a post on a Christian blog.

Nixon wrote a book in the mid-80's called No More Vietnams. Although Nixon tried to justify the way he handled the Vietnam conflict, he came to see that the future demanded a different approach. If Western values were to triumph in the developing world, Western nations needed to use their prosperity to feed the poor rather than simply trying to gain the upper hand militarily.

Although much of his analysis applies to the Cold War and is perhaps rendered obsolete by recent history, he makes an important point: ideological battles are not won by the strength of arguments or even by military superiority. Ideology is worth squat if it doesn't actually change people's lives for the better.

Which brings me back to the Pope's statement about aggressive secularism. In the last decade or so I have heard the cry go up for a more aggressive Christian response to secularism. The subtext is that there is an ideological battle going on and we are not winning it because we are not shouting loud enough and condemning stridently enough those who oppose us. The cry is usually for more protest and utlimately points in the direction of Christian intolerance. However, there is a danger that if we meet those who oppose our faith in the same spirit we will become more like them and less like Jesus.

Fortunately, there are many capable and able Christian apologists - for example, John Lennox , Alister McGrath, to name a couple - out there who, in my opinion, are putting together robust answers to Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. It is good to have people who can clearly and publicly articulate the Christian faith.

It is important that Christians are able to give a reason for the hope within them, however, I have the feeling that the impact of Christian apologetics on secular society will be minimal. I say that not because of the quality of the apologists or their work, but because there is in general an unwillingness to even consider the possibility of an alternative to the secular worldview. Having said that, if any apologist is reading, please keep up the good work - we still need to be able to answer our opponents!

Which is where Nixon can help us. We might not be able to win the ideological battles in the ways in which ideological battles in the past have been won, but I think we can operate in ways that disarm those who want to marginalise the Christian faith. We can invest in our communities. We can spend ourselves and our money on behalf of those in need. Our era is one in which people expect both little and much from the church. It sometimes feels as if society expects the church to do nothing of practical relevance but at the same time expects the church to do much. We must act in a way that causes our communities to doubt their prejudices against the church. We might find that promoting this kind of doubt is necessary if we are to effectively promote faith.

Please don't think I'm suggesting that this will result in mass conversions. It might and it might not. That isn't really the important thing. What's important is whether or not the church is seen to be acting in a way that faithfully reflects the heart of Christ for this world. Is the Christian community functioning in a way that is consistent with it's identity as Christian? That's the question.

Monday, 13 September 2010

How Sky+ could have saved the Church of Scotland (or not)

I must admit that even though my friend was a man of good character and unimpeachable integrity, I did have to question a statement he made over lunch.

I asked him why he thought the Church of Scotland had gone into decline. (Just for the record, the decline of the decline of the Church of Scotland is not hearsay. See here and here).

I was totally unprepared for his response: The Forsyte Saga.

This classy drama from the golden age of the BBC drew the faithful away from the kirk on a Sunday evening and seriously weakened the church of Knox and the reformation. If you think I'm kidding: "Many people preferred to watch the Forsyte Saga on television to attending evening services at their local kirk." Read the whole thing here.

Now it would be comforting for those outside the C.o.S. to think it was a specifically Scottish and Presbyterian problem. However - behold - the Methodists way down in the deep south of England were under attack from the same Beeb drama!

Read the history of Teignmouth Methodist. Teignmouth is in South Devon! Auntie has obviously no ethnic prejudice when it comes to distracting the faithful! Here's the killer line:

"By 1961 there were only 23 left in the Sunday School and Evening Services were very poorly attended. The BBC's production of the Forsyth (sic) Saga caused Leaders' Meetings to discuss the timing of their evening services. This affected all the churches and in 1967 the galleries were removed from our church."

This is a church with a history: General Booth had even preached here.

Of course, it would be inaccurate and superficial to blame Sunday night tv for the decline of the historic churches in Britain. There were many other factors that ranged from theology to urban planning and development.

And we'd be foolish to think that because we are free in the Spirit and not dead and traditional like some established churches that we are somehow immune to the cultural forces of our day. In fact, describing historic churches as dead and boring might reveal more about our own perceived self-importance than the reality of what is happening in at least some historic churches.

The question is not just "What can we learn from the challenges Christians faced in the past?" Though that is a very good question. The question is "What has got hold of our hearts?"

It might be tempting to think that the C.o.S. and the Methodists were unfortunate to face their great challenges in an era before recording tv programmes was possible. Or that if some prophet had stood up and urged "Keep coming to the Sunday evening sevrice, saith the Lord, for the day will come when you shall be able to see it all again on UKGold, and the glory of the latter remake of The Forsyte Saga with Damian Lewis will far exceed the glory of what you now see," all would have been well.

For all it's benefits, Sky+ is unlikely to help us squarely face the challenges to the church the enemy will pose in our day - and by "enemy", I mean the enemy, not the BBC.