Thursday, January 31, 2008

Good study time

Had a fab day at Dr Williams's library in London yesterday. This is an institution like something out of Dickens and yet it's wonderfully efficient. I went to track down some journal articles and the staff quickly located what I wanted and copied anything I needed (again very quickly) - so thanks to them for making a research day so pleasant and straight-forward.

I went to look for material on leadership in the early church from Paul into the apostolic fathers. In their spacious and airy reading room, surrounded by ancient tomes and overseen by busts of eminent congregationalists from the Victorian era, I located a number of helpful items, plugged in my iPaq and made copious notes in the convivial surroundings.

I reckon if I could do that every week, I'd complete my MPhil in no time at all. If only!

So today I'm back getting ready for Sunday and wondering about church stuff with a spring in my step!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Reinventing English evangelicalism

I've just started reading Rob Warner's Reinventing English Evangelicalism, 1966-2001: a theological and sociological study. It's his PhD, completed at Kings College under Andrew Walker. Andy Goodliff and Jim Gordon have both blogged reviews in great detail, so I'm not going to that, though I will be commenting on things that strike me as I read it.

The first of these is something that Warner notes from studies of American Christianity. He suggests that despite their numbers, American evangelicals have made precious little difference to American life.

'Notwithstanding the high proportion of Americans professing evangelical beliefs,' he notes, 'these may not be the primary or dominant convictions in the personal lives and socio-political convictions of American churchgoers.'

In other words, faith is a private matter that might influence personal morality but has nothing to say about business ethics, buying and selling, military policy or any other political issue. It seems that Christians have settled for the enlightenment division between the public and private realms - faith belongs in the latter and is not allowed to set foot in the former.

Sadly, I suspect the same is true in the UK as well. Too many Christians bolt Christian faith on to their ordinary trust in the way things are, trusting God in their personal lives, but trusting the military to keep them safe and their bank balance to keep them secure.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Good times

'Good times' - as my eldest daughter would say when something goes well. Last night certainly turned out to be pretty good.

For one thing, I think I felt the freest in my preaching here that I have ever felt. For another, people were generally encouraging in their response - not in the sense that they enjoyed it but that they thought it was a word for them and could form the basis for how we move forward as a church.

It means that quite a few people are looking forward to next Sunday when our new pattern of gathering gets underway - 4:45pm for the classic-style service, 7pm for the contemporary one.

I'm trusting that God has good times for us as we step into this new pattern. We'll see...

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Learning lessons from Paul?

Looking forward to the evening service today. It's the last one in its current time-slot - next week we have two (more on that in a moment).

The reason I'm looking forward to tonight is that we reach the climax of our reflections on Clustering around the Table based on 1 Corinthians 11-14. And I am keen to explore whether the model Paul assumes - relatively small, home-based gatherings around the meal table - is a model that would help us build community and share our faith with our neighbours in more informal and interactive settings.

The early believers took the Greco-Roman symposium as their model for what happened when they met - a meal followed by a structured conversation in which everyone participated. One of the key things to notice in this, it seems to me, is that the early followers of Jesus didn't create something new and didn't amend something noticeably religious as the pattern for their gatherings. So, could we take the dinner party or summer BBQ as our model for church?

Next week we launch our new evening programme for an experimental period. We're replacing the hallowed catch-all 6:30pm service with two gatherings. At 4:45pm we'll be having a classic-style service with hymns - old and new - prayers and a sermon. Then at 7pm we'll have a late service with more contemporary music, an informal feel and interactive worship and teaching. It will include elements from our cafe-style gatherings and a more flexible and fluid approach.

It'll be interesting to see how it goes. My hope is that over time it might double the numbers coming in the evenings as people feel able to invite their friends to one or other of the services. Our primary aim in all this is mission - we want to provide people of varying temperaments worship formats that they feel comfortable inviting their friends to.

Of course, in many ways this is but a stepping stone along the way to working out how we might apply what we've been exploring in Clustering around the Table to how we create church here that builds believers and provides opportunity for others to hear and respond to the Christian message.

In due course, it would be good to see groups meeting in cafes and pubs on Sunday and other evenings through the week in order to do and be church. But revolutions start with baby steps...

Friday, January 25, 2008

Meetings, meetings...

We got into serious planning mode for Prism this week. Prism is the alternative strand of the baptist assembly.

Ruth, Sam and I met on a roundabout in Lutterworth to begin serious planning and made really good progress.

Keep your eyes on the Baptist Assembly website for more details - they should be up in the next couple of weeks.

As we were thinking about music, Sam introduced us to Cinematic Orchestra, very chilled and jazzy. I'm listening to ma fleur now and enjoying it a lot.

This week has been full of meetings but quite productive. It was Pecan's AGM last night - a good mix of stories and exhortation to keep up the good work.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Map to the heart

If you haven't caught up with Maps yet you should. The album We can Create came out in the middle of last year. It's another of those creations by a single individual in his bedroom. And it's quite lovely.

The bedroom in question is in Northampton and Maps is a guy named James Chapman. But the fact that the record was co-produced by Valgeir Sigurosson (Bjork's collaborator) and mixed by Ken Thomas who has worked with Iceland's wonderful Sigur Ros explains why it sounds so lush and rich.

Bits of it sound like Moby (no bad thing) especially It will find you; other bits sound like nothing on earth. Check it out - you'll be so glad you did: it'll make your heart skip like a spring lamb.

Thank God it's Sunday

We had a fabulously positive church meeting.

It wasn't just that the three issues we were really keen to move ahead on were agreed (though that is great), it was the spirit in which the discussion was held. Although differences of opinion were aired, people listened to one another and as a result, I think we discerned the mind of Christ.

We adopted a new way of expressing membership through an annually renewable covenant, we co-opted some excellent people to the leadership as the first stage of moving to a different way of recognising and appointing leaders and we agreed to trial a two-service evening programme, with a classic-style service at 4:45pm (we think) and a more experimental mix of contemporary songs, celtic liturgy and elements from our cafe services at 7pm.

It was completely knackering leading it and I went home to file my tax return for light relief!

Then in the evening, our cafe church explored issues of table behaviour in Corinth and how Elrond's council from the film the Lord of the Rings throws light on our reading of 1 Corinthians 11:17ff. We had lots of good discussion, though it was a relatively low-key evening.

Today, I've felt a mixture of complete exhaustion and something near elation. I think we might have turned a corner - though we have not reached our destination.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Sunday comes too quickly

Because I had three days out at a conference this week - Mainstream (usual mixed bag) - I feel slightly under-prepared for today.

We have a church family meeting at lunchtime with too much on the agenda but nothing that can be left for the next one.

I hope everything gets talked about in a spirit of co-operation and we're able to move forward together as a people united in a desire to create church that is flexible for believers and welcoming to outsiders.

One issue I have to raise but which we can't resolve is the process of registering as a charity and the effect that will have on our current rules and set up. With the BU governing document not yet ready (hopefully I'll hear good news about that on 14 February), we can't begin the process of talking about it as a church. A cursory glance at it suggests that it will replace our current rules - with all the trauma that will cause. Still that's for another day!

It's cafe church this evening - possibly the last in their current form (depending on the outcome of discussions at the church meeting!). We're continuing our look at 1 Corinthians 11-14 thinking about clustering around the table. Our focus this evening is on how we treat difference and especially how we welcome and include 'the poor' as equals at our table.

It was this issue that indicated to Paul the depth of the hole the Corinthians were in. Describing their gatherings as doing more harm than good (11:17 cf 20), Paul focuses on social divisions that continued among these early believers because they had insufficient grasp on who they were in Christ and what difference that made to their social relations.

We'll be exploring that under the rubric of the types poverty that Malcolm Duncan outlined at Mainstream which I've found very helpful as I've reflected on it in the light of 1 Corinthians 11 (see previous post).

Hopefully, it'll make for a good evening. We'll also be watching a clip from Lord of the Rings (the forming of the fellowship) and listening to Elbow - an eclectic mix as ever.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Overcoming poverty of aspiration

I'm just back from the Mainstream Conference at Swanwick. I was hoping to blog while I was up there as I had great free internet access in my room (thanks Hayes conference centre) but I was too tired when I finally crashed out from catching up with mates!

It was a good conference overall. The highlight was Malcolm Duncan, the movement director of Faithworks. He is a truly brilliant communicator who is also a highly original and creative thinker - a rare combination, I find. He offered us an inspiring and achievable theology of social action and community transformation and challenged us to go do it - all in under an hour.

He has a new book out called Kingdom Come: the local church as a catalyst for social change. I've not read it yet but if it's half as good as his conference presentation, it will be a blast.

In the question and answer session on the final morning of the conference, he spoke in passing about poverty, drawing our attention to something he's written (that I'm looking for) on the five aspects of poverty. Three of these - which are spoken of a lot by sociologists of religion - are material, civic (ie being powerless and therefore disengaged) and spiritual (using the term in its broadest sense).

To this Malcolm added two - poverty of identity (so many people not having any idea of who they are and why they matter) and poverty of aspiration. This last one resonated particularly with me. It's about people having no hope, thinking the best days are behind them, hankering for the good old days. We hear it every time people talk about society going to the dogs and things being so much better when we were young.

It is this poverty that robs the church of its power and relevance because it suggests that Christian eschatology has nothing to give us that resources our present work for God. we pray 'thy Kingdom come' but expect everything to stay the same - and so it does.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Why study the early church?

A couple of friends have asked me recently why I seem particularly interested in how the early church met. One who emailed me asked whether how the early Christians met is relevant. I thought it was a really good question - one of those straightforward, obvious ones that aren't so easy to answer.

Here's an edited version of my reply...

It’s a really excellent question. It is the question that drove me to study the social history of the New Testament in the way that I’m currently doing. The reason is simple – though the answer is proving to be anything but!

The current debate about what people call emerging church or fresh expressions is centred on the question ‘what should the church be like to be relevant to the world we live in 2008?’ This question is often refined to this one ‘what would the church look like if all we had was the gospel and the culture we live in – and no history at all?’

We find it really hard to answer that question for two reasons. The first is that we’ve had 2000 years of church history – some of it glorious, some of it anything but. The second is that we have scripture and especially the New Testament which we often read thinking that it contains a blueprint of how we should do church.

I am convinced that what we have in the New Testament are people wrestling with the same question we need to wrestle with – namely ‘what should the church look like if all we have is the gospel and the world we live in’? This is why the churches in Corinth were different from the churches in Rome which were different from the Christian communities in Thessalonica.

I am fascinated to see if there are lessons for us in how the early followers of Jesus earthed the gospel in their culture. As I said earlier, I do not believe the New Testament has a blueprint for church organization or leadership, a single way for the followers of Jesus to express their corporate life. What I think we have are Spirit-inspired people making it up as they went along.

It is fascinating to see what they came up with and how it enabled them to embody the gospel of Christ in a way that enabled others to hear it, see it, experience it and respond to it.

That’s what I want to see happening in our time but I fear that weddedness to forms of church that might once have worked prevents that from happening. If our authoritative text shows us how the first followers did it and invites us to learn their method but not ape their forms, I think that’s worth a shot.

Does that make sense?

Of course, the other reason I'm studying the early church is that I think it's fascinating because I'm a history junkie and I might get an MPhil out of it. But maybe that's too mercenary an answer!

Monday, January 07, 2008

Living for the benefit of others

Just re-read Bruce Winter's essay in the Brower and Johnson collection Holiness & Ecclesiology which has a lot of really helpful things to say about Paul's teaching on sanctification (an event not a process) and how Paul dealt with the Corinthian's failure to live up to their calling.

In particular he reminds us that one of Paul's major concerns was how his hearers' conduct helped or hindered their neighbours seeing the gospel in action. Commenting on what Paul says about food offered to idols, Winter says: 'He [Paul] rejects the popular aphorism that 'all things are permitted' (10:23), and demands what was antithetical, i.e., they give no offense to Jews or Greeks or to the church of God but seek the welfare of their neighbours that they may be saved.'

That seems spot on to me - and goes a long way to explaining Paul's teaching on a whole range of things in the letter. The church's porous boundaries meant that Christians - individually and collectively - had to have a firm grasp of their identity in Christ and sensitivity to how their conduct commended their faith to outsiders.

They were sanctified, set apart (1:2, 4-7) so that their neighbours would see Jesus' revolution in action through how they lived and related to each other. It was their failure to live up to this calling that exercised the apostle so.

Getting to grips with scripture and culture

I've had an interesting few days wrestling with 1 Corinthians 11-14 and how we do church in our world.

I remain convinced of two things. The first is that we need to read the New Testament more carefully against its social and cultural background, to mine it for resources to help us re-imagine the church in our own generation.

That sounds easy enough until you start asking questions about the domestic arrangements of the early Christians, their relative position in the social pecking order, their economic circumstances, the influence of other religions and philosophies and especially of the Imperial cult. And there's a stack of other questions that lurk behind them.

So are we able to recover the circumstances and meaning of our authoritative texts.

The second relates to that final point. Two thousand years of church history and our denominational backgrounds deafen and blind us to what the texts are actually saying. We cannot hear Paul above the cacophony of our own traditions.

Someone once described culture as 'the way we do things round here' and that pretty well describes the situation we find ourselves in. When I talk about 'church' in our setup, people immediately form a picture that involves our worship space (of which people are very fond as they invested cash and labour in creating it), our music (of which people are both proud and critical in equal measure), our preaching and teaching, Sunday School, groups and departments within church life.

Immediately we are thinking of something that Paul didn't know and never envisaged. More than that, we are interpreting Paul's words against the background of the church we know. So when I asked last night whether church should always involve food, the immediate comment was that it would be a lot of hard work for the catering committee because they couldn't conceive of church with food being something that happens beyond our building and present context.

For all these reasons, I have a feeling that last night misfired somewhat! Next week I need to be simpler and more direct - while hopefully being true to my understanding of what Paul is saying to us in 1 Corinthians 11-14. We'll see

Friday, January 04, 2008

Listening and reading

In Rainbows is a such a good album! There's not a duff track on it and Jonny Greenwood seems to have rediscovered the joy of playing of guitar because he gets sounds and emotions out of it that we've not heard from radiohead for ages. Thom Yorke's voice is amazing too. But the biggest surprise is that the album is full of melody, gorgeous tunes erupt on every track - not something usually associated with the band.

I also got the five disc special box set of Bladerunner for Christmas, which includes Ridley Scott's 2007 final cut of the film which I watched the other evening. It's still a ground-breaking movie, a fabulous story, compellingly told and if anything richer than the Philip K Dick book on which it's based (which I also really like). Perhaps it's because Bladerunner is so stripped down while at the same time expanding the conflict at the end between Deckard and Roy Batty, but the key theme of what it is to be human comes across much more powerfully and poignantly in the movie than in the book.

Just before Christmas my stock of reading was added to by a collection of Edwin judge's seminal essays on the social history of early Christianity. Called Social Distinctives of the Christians of the First century, it's been edited by David Scholer and published by Hendrickson.

Judge is one of the key scholars in this area. His 1960 booklet The Social Pattern of the Christian Groups in the First century in many ways kick-started the social scientific study of the New testament, the investigation of where the early followers of Jesus fitted into their world that has led to seminal works by Gerd Theissen, Wayne Meeks, John Elliott, John Gager, Philip Esler, Bruce Malina, Bruce Winter, and a host of others. The book is the first of three collections of his writings coming out in the next year.

I also got Holiness and Ecclesiology in the New Testament (edited by Kent E Brower and Andy Johnson and published by Eerdmans) because it has an essay by Peter Oakes on Romans that he'd sent me a copy of while in draft form for my opinion. It's an excellent piece - worth the price of the volume on its own.

But there are twenty other essays by scholars of equal merit and creativity, exploring the themes of holiness and community in the all the New Testament books. Other stand-out essays are those by Bruce Winter on 1 Corinthians, Michael Gorman on cruciformity in Paul, Richard Baukham on John and Troy Martin on Galatians.

I've now got to wrestle with where the early Christians met and what their gatherings were like for a Sunday evening series we're starting this week called clustering around the table. Using 1 Corinthians 11-14 as our launch pad, we'll be looking at how the domestic environment of the earliest Christian communities helped to shape the faith and how we might learn new ways of gathering in our world from a close examination of how it was done in first century Corinth. We'll see.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The fragility of what we know

A fascinating, if brief post by Todd Bolen at his Bible Places blog
(, gave me a little light reading at the tail end of last week in the form of the report of the excavations at Qumran over the past decade. You can find it at

I'm no expert in this area but I reckon the feathers are going to fly over this in the coming months. What the archaeologists suggest in their well-written and beautifully illustrated report is that Qumran was not a religious community but (effectively) a pottery factory and that the so-called Dead Sea Scrolls, long thought to be the library of the Qumran community, is in fact a collection of scrolls from many communities - synagogues and the like - deposited in the caves by people fleeing from the Roman advance in 70AD.

I'm not sure what it does to the 50 year-old Dead Sea scroll industry but it must raise some pretty fundamental questions about things that have been taken as 'gospel' in recent scholarship.

I for one will be watching the biblio-bloggers with renewed interest. Maybe I'll learn something!

Of course, one of the things it does remind us of is that our knowledge of the past - especially the ancient past - is very fragile. Huge superstructures are built on thin foundations. I am discovering this afresh as I explore what we know of the domestic circumstances of the early followers of Jesus and what those circumstances might tell us about what those early followers did when they gathered, who led them, who participated, what time of day they met, how often, what their neighbours thought was happening, etc, etc.

Does the archaeological record of places like Pompeii (very fashionable among NT people at the moment) and Rome, as well as cities in Turkey that have been partially or fully excavated, tell us reliable things we can build models on?

In particular, I've been reading Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, David Horrell, David Balch and Michele George over the past couple of days and finding out that there's still major disagreement on whether the early Christians met in the homes of those with a bit of money and who could therefore afford a domus-style home or in insulae (understood as apartment blocks rather than neighbourhoods) or workshops because they were all poor artisans (I simplify to make the point).

Where the early churches met has considerable implications for the mechanics of what they did. For example, if they met in a domus, did the host provide the meal they shared? If they met in a workshop was the Lord's supper a potluck meal created out of whatever the participants brought to share?

I'm also still wrestling with leadership language in the first christian century (roughly 40-140) and finding that the meaning of the words used depends on the context in which they were uttered. Bishop means one thing when we think of a cathedral and something else again when we think of gathering in a home.

Happy New Year

Happy new year to anyone passing this page. Hope it's a good one.

I finally caught up with Radiohead's In Rainbows in its CD incarnation on Monday. What a wonderful album it is - fierce, gentle, melodic, witty (not words usually associated with Radiohead), there's not a duff song on it. A great musical end to the old year.