Monday, January 31, 2005

church and kingdom

this struck me the other day - maybe coz I'm slow, bear with me... Jesus never told us to create churches. He said we should preach the good news of his Kingdom.

He says 'I will build my church' (Matthew 16:18). He says it in the context of Peter's confession of who Jesus is - the messiah, that is the coming king of God's Kingdom. And he says it in the context of Peter declaring this truth publicly - albeit to the Twelve.

It is interesting that the other synoptics - both of which report this conversation - don't have the bit about Jesus building his church. Commentators suggest this is because Matthew is particularly concerned with the church. That might be the case. But Matthew doesn't seem to be saying that the 12 will build the church. Rather he says they will confess the king and the king will build his church.

So what? I hear you cry.

Just this. There's lots of talk at the moment of how we get the church right to communicate the good news in a changed culture. Ministers bemoan the fall-off in volunteering over the past generation - how hard it is to get people to fill vacancies in church organisations. We talk about launching new ministries to attract new communities of people, of having more services and needing to get more members involved in running those services. All good stuff. But...

In all this, I wonder if we've lost the plot a bit. Christians are called to proclaim the message of the Kingdom of God, the story of his reconciling justice, his new world order embodied in Jesus and his people. And they are called to do as they go into the world (Mt 28:19), something we do as leave our homes everyday.

What happens as we do this is that people respond, express interest, find faith, commit themselves to Jesus and naturally gather into groups to explore together what that means - this appears to be what's happening in the early chapters of Acts (if we read them forwards rather than backwards in the light of all our historical understanding of what the church became (I'm fed up of commentators 'discovering' proto-catholicism or whatever in these texts. Let's just read them for what they are.)

What lessons are there for our debate about emerging church here?

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

permeable boundaries

I've been thinking about boundaries.

On Sunday I was preaching on the Good Samaritan. For all its being a parable about doing good to everyone, it's a story about boundaries, told in answer to a lawyer's question about who's in and who's out of the people of God (context is all...!)

Now I'm preparing some thoughts for Sunday evening, continuing our series on work. Paul in 1 Thessalonians wants his readers to live in a way that's distinct from their pagan neighbours. He particularly focuses on sexual ethics and cultic practices. There are boundaries to be observed.

This means the Christian community is not an indistinct, shapeless thing. You can look at it from outside and see definite boundaries, set by behaviours that are accepable and those that aren't. It was why the Thessalonian Christians were being given a hard time by their neighbours.

But unlike virtually every other group in the ancient world, the Christian community's boundaries are permeable. They are not set by birth, ethnicity, social class, status, job, postcode, whatever. The boundary is faith in Jesus. On one side there's no faith; on the other there is faith.

The trouble is that the Christian community has established all kinds of supplementary boundaries - dress code, alcohol and cigarettes, language, theological nit-picking, liturgical tastes, you name it, we use to divide ourselves from others.

We need to get back to the simple things, don't we?

Monday, January 24, 2005

Church from the margins

One of my meetings last week was with a group from a church who are having a weekend away at which I'm speaking.

One or two of them are very excited about Stuart Murray-Williams' Post-Christendom - an excellent examination of why we've ended up where we have. They would like me to explore what it means to be and do church from the margins.

So I've started thinking and will post random thoughts from time to time - if anyone wants to challenge or add to my thinking, I'd be grateful.

One thing that has struck me is a paradox of marginality that means the church now is in a similar position to the position it was in when it first started. Let me explain (if I can).

Although church going in Britain has become a minority activity and the Christian story has become one among many stories vying for our attention (and one that doesn't get taken seriously by the media), the church as an institution still has a central role in British life and culture. For example, 70% of brits describe themselves as Christian. For example, bishops sit in the house of Lords, the Christian view on moral issues is still heard if not listened to and the media still reports on what's happening within the church.

Furthermore, churches - by virtue of their history and recognisable buildings (see previous post!) - have a place in most communities around Britain. Many are centres of excellence in the provision of childcare, welfare work, educational activities and youth work. Many people who do not share our faith, regard the presence of the church locally as a key generator of social capital.

So although Christian faith is an activity increasingly pushed to the margins of our culture, church and Christian teaching still has a place at the centre of public life.

This paradox (if that's what it is) is mirrored in the early history of Christianity as recorded in Acts. The first Christians were a sect within second temple Judaism. So they shared a heritage, common values and traditions and especially common scriptures with the dominant culture around them. They were thus able to get a hearing for their new take on this history because they spoke the language of those around them - I don't mean aramaic and greek but shared perceptions of the world.

How much is this true of us? I came across a group of Americans last week who were over studying Shakespeare as part of a drama course. What they were finding interesting and challenging was the fact that in order to appreciate the bard, they needed to draw from the well of Christian faith and teaching that had nourished him. I wonder how many brits have made a similar discovery. Much of our culture and tradition is incomprehensible without an understanding of Christianity.

Indeed as John Gray - professor of European Thought at LSE and not a Christian - points out, the dominant secular humanist culture of the west is a pale, misguided and therefore dangerous dilution of the Christian faith. Everything good in it - human rights, protection of individual freedom, community values, etc - comes from Christianity; everything bad in it - a belief in ethical progress and the ultimate triumph of our values in the world and thus universal human happiness - is derived from Christian eschatology stripped of the controls and faith in God that kept purveyors of such beliefs slightly more humble in previous generations.

What might all this mean for a church that is increasingly marginalised but which still has the key to the origin of many of the values we hold dear in Western culture? Answers on a postcard, please...

bringing the church home

Thanks to Ben for reminding me that I've not posted for a week. I've been travelling - well I've been up and down the M1 more times than anyone with a brain should.

Hours in the car mean that I've had concentrated periods listening to great music. Over the past week I've been especially into James Grant's Holy Love. He's a Scottish singer- songwriter with a catholic heritage and nice line in laconic love songs dripping with Christian imagery. He has a wonderful voice too.

He sings songs that capture the struggle of faith in the modern world. Particularly good is the closer The Soft Option. Well worth checking out.

Looking forward to new offerings from mercury Rev and Low - hopefully out this week - and Athlete (Wires is my favourite single of 2005 so far!)

I've started reading House Church and Mission - the published and translated form of Roger Gehring's PhD. It's something I've been waiting for (sad boy that I am!) as it reviews the latest scholarly discussion on how Christian groups were organised in the first century.

In all the talk about emerging church and the desire to recapture something of the dynamic of early church life, the issue of structure and especially the use of homes is rarely prominent. Often indeed the talk is of hi-tech wizzardry and lavish production values that only large groups in well equipped spaces can mount. Not that there's anything wrong with this per se, of course.

We're just starting looking at the possibility of doing new outreach work on an estate near our church and I am keen to explore the use of homes not just for initial work but as the essential long term structure of any 'church' that we establish.

Clearly 21st century south east London is not the same as first century Thessalonica or Corinth; houses (oikos/oikia in the orginal) do not fulfill the same function as they did. But meeting in homes does offer the flexibility to do things in a way that you can't do them in a meeting place such as a church or community hall.

For instance, there's a limit on the size of group that can meet which means that all gatherings have to be interactive. Then, there's the informality of homes, the relaxed atmosphere and the fact that it's easier to centre any activity round the meal table (something the early Christians seemed to do). Finally there's agreater equality between 'ministers' and 'others' at the gathering.

Baptists have always believed in the priesthood of all believers - a strong New Testament theme - but we have always fallen into the trap of having a clerical class (in the form of ministers and latterly worship leaders) who dominate proceedings.

I want to see if centring activities on homes will lead to greater equality between all particpants and offer those with questions about faith a greater freedom to explore what Jesus might mean to them.

I'll keep you posted. I'd love to hear from people who are trying this. I realise that there are lots of you out there much further down this road than me. In particular I know of groups that are doing 'table life' church - if any of those would like to comment, I'd be grateful.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Full marks

Mark Steel in this morning's Independent takes Christians to task for things they've said about the tsunami. And for the most part, he's right. We sound a pretty dopey bunch trying to explain why God allows, causes, turns a blind eye to, uses or otherwise interacts with natural disasters.

The proper response, I reckon, is silence. Gobsmacked silence. Awed, tearful silence. Then it's 'what can we do to help?' and get on with our lives. I have friends in Sri Lanka working tirelessly to bring relief, help and hope to their neighbours. I'm praying for them. Our church is sending cash and praying for them. What else can we do?

Mark Steel suggests that God's monopoly should be ended, the running of the universe broken up like British rail and sold off after a process of competitive tendering.

The trouble is, of course, God doesn't really have a monopoly. Any Christian making sense of the tsunami has to include the fact that when God created (however he did that), he made people his partner. We are stewards of the creation and responsible to provide sensible management of it under God.

What on earth does that mean? I'm not sure. But I did read one post-tsunami piece pointing out that had it happened in the Pacific the death toll would have been tens or hundreds. And that if seismologists had got on the phone once the quake happened on Boxing day, the casualties in Sri Lanka, India and even Thailand could have been cut ten-fold.

But there's no early warning system in the Indian Ocean. That's hardly God's fault. The one in the pacific was put in place by the nations bordering that ocean - America, Australia and Japan among them. No one so rich or influential borders the Indian Ocean. So the poor were left to face the movement of tectonic plates and ocean waters on their own. Not surprisingly, it wasn't much of a contest.

Perhaps one of the things that Christians can do at this time is to remind all of us that the human capacity to act in everyone's interests seems severely limited. Asked what the problem with the world was, G K Chesterton said 'I am'. It's a start. It's not an answer. But it is a pointer to the right sort of questions to be asking.

One of the amzing things about the tsunami's aftermath has been the response of people all over the world. What if such a movement of generosity could be harnessed by the Make Poverty History campaign - could the world be different at the start of 2006?

protesting too much?

Bigbulkyanglican says it all regarding Jerry springer - there are simply much more important things for Christians to get their knickers in a twist over. I don't see my brothers and sisters protesting about the treatment of Palestinians, the occupation and theft of their land by settlers. Neither do I see them burning their tax demands outside the Treasury until we act to clear the mountain of debt keeping millions in poverty - a pverty tsunami every week as the Prime Minister put it (check out the make poverty history website).

I'm just back from the Mainstream conference - excellent - where John Drane urged us once again to listen to what people are actually saying and not think we've got all the answers, when in fact we've not really grasped the questions. As someone much wiser than me once said 'life is not a problem to be solved but a work to be made'.

Brian Mclaren has some interesting observations on protestants in his book (see New Year Reading). In a nutshell he suggests that because we started as a protest movement, protest is our prime modus operandi. The trouble is that if our identity is forged in protest, we don't actually create anything; all we do is constantly tear down. We define ourselves in terms of what we're not and who we're against - hardly a sound basis for a dialogue.

I taped Jerry Springer. I'll watch it and blog again - if I have anything at all intelligent to say about it!

In the meantime, back to Dylan and a mountain of emails...

Thursday, January 06, 2005

kicking up a fuss

Lots of Christians are circulating emails about the BBC's decision to screen Jerry Springer - the opera in Britain on saturday evening. Lots of f-words, c-words and outrageous blasphemy apparently. One group is even planning to get the BBC sued under our archaic blasphemy laws.

This comes as the Government here is contemplating legislation to outlaw incitement to religious hatred - which is a bit too close to 1984's thought crimes for my liking.

The problems with these protests - whatever the merits of the Springer play, which I probably wouldn't have watched, but might now, just because of all the fuss - is that they reinforce what a lot of people think about Christians, namely that we're thinned-skinned and judgemental.

Blasphemy laws were enacted as a means of social control when Europe was 'Christian'. They enabled the church to hand 'heretics' over the secular arm for punishment because they thought the wrong things about God and had the temerity to voice those thoughts. They have no place in a pluralist culture. Laws of libel and slander should protect individuals from malicious accusation but religions ought not to be protected.

When seikhs stormed a theatre in Birmingham and forced the closure of a play that depicted murder and rape in a temple, I felt a chill. What if Christians start complaining about Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral or about every Agatha Christie, Morse or Midsomer Murders that had storylines involving cloisters and clerics going off the rails? We'd be constantly manning the baricades.

Drama needs to be taken on its merits. Is a play, film, TV spectacular raising issues that help us see the world a little a differently? Is it goading us to think more carefully about what our faith says and how it looks to a baffled world? Is it opening up a conversation about truth? If so, let's grab the popcorn, sit down, watch it and have a robust debate about it afterwards (in a civilised way over canapes and red wine, of course). If it isn't doing any of these things, why honour it with protests?

If the Christian faith is true - and I certainly can't make any sense of the world without it - then it doesn't need a man in a wig to defend it from a musical. If it's true, it will stand the challenge of a West End show.

What this furore distressingly shows up once again is that Christians are thin-skinned. We don't like this kind of thing. We find it cheap, nasty, distatsteful and we don't want it disturbing our calm.

The trouble is that in a world of tsunamis, Aids and ethnic conflicts there are far greater challenges to our calm repose than a piece of theatre - but there's no one to sue.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The mixed economy church

Thanks to my friend Ben for mentioning Rowan Williams suggestion that all kinds of churches need to exist side-by-side. We're beginning to try this mixed economy approach - I like that phrase - but it's really early days.

It all began when I suggested that maybe we needed more services to meet the differing needs, tastes and aspirations of people. Do we have a trad service and a chorus-charged knees up, a reflective, quiet service and a family friendly, everyone all together gathering? The trouble with this is that's still stuck in the one size fits all mindset - the only difference is that we're offering four take-it-or-leave-it gatherings rather than one.

It's also stuck in the everything-has-to-happen-on-Sunday mentality. And sundays are increasingly difficult for all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons.

So, we're now pondering a range of gatherings all through the week partly aimed at different groups, but partly run on the basis of 'if you're free Thursday at noon and want a short traditional church service, come and join us.'

We're looking at gatherings in homes, groups discussing movies, issues related to work and family life; we're also looking at groups getting together to do something useful in the community - decorate a community hall, renovate a waste space that could be a kids' playground (the type of things that were done so successfully during last summer's Soul in the City in London).

I'm keen to create spaces where people can talk about life and faith without the pressure to do bizarre and uncomfortable things - and without feeling they've got to sign for a whole package when all they want to do is ask questions and explore ideas.

I'd love to hear from anyone who's tried this kind of thing.

As to Spinal Tap - what a great movie! I forgot it was on or it might have been difficult to choose between it and LOTR!

Listening to James Grant's Holy Love - what a lovely record it is - and the last track is a gem about living with faith in today's world.

new year reading

Always good to start the new year with a book.

Mine is Brian McLaren's A Generous Ortodoxy - a book with a ludicrously long sub title that makes a point but means the cover is the ugliest I've seen in a long time!

For those of for whom the Christian faith is the only way of making sense of the world, this seems to me to be quite an important book. In rapidly changing times, asking the question what relevance does faith have, particularly faith in Jesus, seems pretty crucial. Crucial too is the supplementary question 'what shape will that faith have in the twenty-first century'. All Christian ministers need to be asking this of themselves and their congregations.

McLaren has done this in a series of books over the past six or seven years with considerable panache. This new one seems to be no exception. I'm looking forward to the journey.

Yesterday was the last day of long the Christmas lay off (in England at least) so the family watched the extended version of the Return of the King, the final part of Peter Jackson's amazing Lord of the Rings trilogy. All gathered round the telly with wine, chocolates and excitement.

As well as stupendous set piece scenes and the wonderfully observed relationship between Frodo and Sam, what struck me last night was the theme of power and its potential to corrupt. And bubbling under the surface all the time was the question of whether Aragorn would succomb to the temptation to seek power for itself or for the benefit of all of Middle earth. It's a good question for all of us with power to consider - whether that power is in our families, our churches, our workplaces or in government of some kind.

It's also a ripping yarn of a movie - four hours just flew by!

and now it's back to the routine - at least in the UK. have a good one.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

starting again

New year. New blog. I think this is the third I've started. So far I've managed a week's worth of posts before getting snowed under, forgetting my password and eventually the web address of the publisher.

But not this time.

I'll post things I've seen and heard that made me pause for thought.

I'm a year into a church work in Bromley, on the southern tip of London heading out into Kent. There's lots of changes on the way. It'll be a fascinating journey. If you want to post ideas, thoughts, comments, I'd love to hear from you.

I'll do a profile in a while. But currently I'm listening to Dylan - who would be god but the position's filled. He's singing about trying to get to heaven before they close the door. In a moment he'll be reminding me 'it's not dark yet, but it's getting there' in a song that is the most moving meditation on growing yet committed to vinyl/tape/chips (whatever it is they burn master tapes onto these days)

Most of my thoughts are in the Indian Ocean where millions struggle with the aftermath of the tsunami. If you've not given yet, share something of your abundance with those that have nothing. Best place to go is It's painless and it makes a real difference.

More from me in the week. Look forward to meeting some of you - in a virtual way, of course. Let's take a sideways glance and see what shape the world is....