Sunday, 25 March 2012

Think before you speak

Do you ever wonder what Jesus would have been like if he got really drunk? No? Just me then... I thought about this again the other day while reading James chapter 3, about controlling your tongue. Here's the passage:
People can tame all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles, and fish, but no one can tame the tongue. It is restless and evil, full of deadly poison. Sometimes it praises our Lord and Father, and sometimes it curses those who have been made in the image of God. And so blessing and cursing come pouring out of the same mouth. Surely, my brothers and sisters, this is not right! Does a spring of water bubble out with both fresh water and bitter water? Does a fig tree produce olives, or a
grapevine produce figs? No, and you can’t
draw fresh water from a salty spring.

It's not right that both good and bad talk comes out of our mouth. Our talk should always be pure, wholesome and positive. Clearly it's not, though; we all say things that are harmful, hurtful, even deceitful. So we need to control our tongue, we need to think before we speak. But that's not the ultimate goal, is it?

What we should be aiming and praying for is to become people who cannot help but say positive and helpful things, all the time. You can't draw fresh water from a salty spring, says James, so we should be pleading with God and working hard ourselves at becoming freshwater springs, so to speak. Like Paul says in Romans 12:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.
Which brings me back to my question about drunk Jesus – if he was perfect and always did the will of his Father, then I reckon he'd probably be alright if he drank a bit too much one evening hanging out with his disciples. Not that I'm proposing we get drunk as some kind of test of how close to perfection we are! Although how we behave when we've had a few certainly does reveal our weak points...

Friday, 23 March 2012

Make disciples or build the church?

Christians often talk about getting their friends and family along to church meetings, almost as if that's the goal of our prayers and efforts to share our faith with them. I want to unpick the thinking behind this a little bit. What does it say about our view of how God deals with us and what being a Christian is all about?

Well, first of all it seems to me that we're implying God only (or mainly) works in our church services. If we place particular importance on our non-Christian friends coming to church on a Sunday, doesn't that mean we think there's something special about that Sunday meeting?

Stating it the other way, doesn't it imply that we think God is not really at work in our day-to-day lives, as we work, play and socialise? Surely he is! If we're a follower of Jesus then he's with us all the time and he wants to work through us all the time, right? So we should pray for and expect opportunities to show Godly love to our friends and neighbours, to talk with them about our faith, and to pray with them. We can share the good news of Jesus with them in the midst of daily life; it doesn't have to be the pastor, the evangelist or the music leader on a Sunday who does this.

I've been reading and loving the blog of a guy called Mike Breen, who used to lead a big church in Sheffield and is now involved in an organisation that, in their own words, aims to 'take 30 years of learning from a very post-Christian England context, as well as penetrating Biblical insights, and come alongside churches and organizations who are finding the North American mission field more post-Christian with each passing day'.

Breen tells the story of the Sheffield church, St Thomas', in this blog post. Check out this excerpt which explains how they focus on helping people become disciples, followers of Jesus Christ, instead of focusing on making the Sunday service as attractive as possible to non-Christians:
St Thomas Sheffield isn’t a massive church and the center of a movement because it’s got the best worship service. Or the best digital experience. Or the best preachers/teachers in the world. It’s because everything they do is about making disciples. They honestly believe if you make disciples and release them to lead, release them into their destiny, release them to be Agents of the Kingdom, everything will change.

If we are great at making the disciples, church growth will never be a problem because to be a disciple means you’re a missionary. It was never OK for us to be a large church and have very few missionary disciples. So we built something where that couldn’t happen. Making disciples was in the DNA from the very beginning and it has just carried through.

It's all about helping people become genuine followers of Jesus, people who hear the word of God and do it. The best Sunday church experience in the world will achieve very little if we're not making disciples and empowering each other to do the works of God's kingdom.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Church services - why do we have them?

I thought I'd re-post this entry from around a year ago, about why Christians feel the need to have church services. What's the purpose of them, what are they supposed to achieve, and what sort of things should happen in them? Let me know what you think in the comments...

Genuine question here. Why do we have church meetings, the usually on a Sunday meet up to sing songs, listen to a talk and pray together thing? I've had this on my list of things to blog about for a while but I think now is the time, following on from an interesting chat I had recently with a guy on my theology course. We were talking about the tension between meeting together as a church to share our stories with one another and meeting to be spiritually recharged. I think it's like a bring and share picnic, which works much better if everyone brings something to share rather than a few people being expected to being all the food which they will then give out to everyone. Of course, there will be times where a particular person doesn't have much to bring, both with a picnic and with a church meeting. That's completely fine, but I don't believe it shouldn't be the typical way of things.

I've been thinking for a long time about how our rhythms of church can (unintentionally) encourage us to let our spiritual life drift between meetings. We look forward to the Sunday meeting in the hope of getting a spiritual uplift from the songs we sing together and from hearing great teaching from one of the church leaders. The same thing can happen with annual events like conferences; as the conference season approaches we get excited about what God is going to do there, perhaps forgetting that he can do just as much in our local settings.

It can easily add up to a Christian life that actually amounts to a few meetings per month and not much in between. Surely this is not how it should be, though? A question, then: is there anything about the way we do our Sunday meetings, conferences and so on that encourages this way of living? Someone famous (Albert Einstein, was it?) said that our current systems are perfectly suited to bring about the results that we are getting. Or maybe it was Einstein who said the same thing but the other way round: 'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them' (I looked this up).

Maybe it's worth taking a step back and wondering why we have the Sunday church meetings. What's the point, what is supposed to happen at them? Firstly, I don't agree with the common view that we meet together to 'worship God'. Look at Romans 12:1-2; one of my favourite little passages in the whole Bible:
And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice – the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him. Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Our whole life should be an act of worship. Paul took the Jewish Temple language of worship and sacrifice and applied it to everyday behaviour, meaning that Christians do not go to a church meeting to worship. Our church meeting should be an act of worship but no more and no less than anything else we do in the course of our day-to-day life.

Why, then, do we have church meetings if not to 'worship God'? I want to share a few thoughts from 1 Corinthians 14, a chapter that has plenty to say about church meetings. In verse 12, Paul notes that the Christians in Corinth are 'eager to have the special abilities the Spirit gives' and he urges them to ask God for those abilities (or spiritual gifts; the Greek word is charismata) that will 'strengthen the whole church'. Paul then talks about praying and singing in the Spirit, which many Christians take to mean using a language not of human origin (speaking in tongues), but goes on to say this:
I thank God that I speak in tongues more than any of you. But in a church meeting I would rather speak five understandable words to help others than ten thousand words in an unknown language.

So here is another clue as to what Paul expects to happen at church meetings. People should speak words that will help others. And this theme is carried on in verse 26:
Well, my brothers and sisters, let’s summarize. When you meet together, one will sing, another will teach, another will tell some special revelation God has given, one will speak in tongues, and another will interpret what is said. But everything that is done must strengthen all of you.

Everything that is done must strengthen all of you. Maybe there is our answer to the question, 'What are church meetings for?' They are for strengthening and helping the believers. Forgive me for tearing a verse out of its context, but Ephesians 4:11 is relevant to this issue, I think. Here, Paul mentions five kinds of people as 'gifts Christ gave to the church': the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers (the last two are sometimes linked together due to the way the original Greek was written). And the responsibility of these people is to 'equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church'. So in our church meetings (and in all our interactions with one another; it's not just a Sunday thing!) we should be strengthened – built up – and equipped to do God's work. What does 'God's work' mean, though? Maybe I'll come back to that another time!

Monday, 19 March 2012

Decisions, decisions

I'm about to enter a weekend chess tournament, the Bournemouth Chess Congress. Now, chess tournaments usually have at least three levels of entry, so you don't end up playing and (most likely) losing miserably to people who are far better at the game than you are. For tournaments in England it's all done based on your English Chess Federation grade. My grade is currently 118, which means for the Bournemouth Congress I can enter the lower level of the competition. But do I want to...?
In my last tournament I deliberately played in the middle section, hoping to pit my wits against really strong players and maybe learn a bit from them. They say that's how you improve at any game or sport; find the strongest opponents you can and try to learn from how they play (i.e. how they thrash you!) as long as your ego can withstand the inevitable battering. I did take a bit of punishment but I really felt that playing tough opponents sharpened my game up, and I'm tempted to do the same again in Bournemouth.

What's giving me pause for thought is that the lower level in the Bournemouth Congress is for people whose grade is below 125, meaning that I'd be one of the favourites. I've never won a chess tournament (although I've had a handful of second and third places) so I'm tempted to give this one a go and enter the lower tier of the competition. There's no way I'll finish anywhere near the top of the intermediate competition; an even score would be fantastic.

So do I man up and put in my entry form for the intermediate tournament or do I go for glory in the lower level? Place your bets now! Or give me advice in the comments, as you wish...

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Team roles in Watership Down

In the early 1980s, psychologist Meredith Belbin published an analysis of the various roles needed in a team for it to perform its task most effectively. Around a decade earlier, in 1972, Richard Adams wrote Watership Down, a tale about the adventures of a group of rabbits. So well-characterised are the rabbits in Watership Down that I've been able to match the main protagonists to the team roles that Belbin identified. I think it works quite well for most of them. (The descriptions of each team role are from this page on the Belbin Associates website.)

Plant – Blackberry

Creative, imaginative, free-thinking. Generates ideas and solves difficult problems.

'Hazel', he said quickly, 'that's a piece of flat wood – like that piece that closed the gap by the Green Loose above the warren – do you remember? It must have drifted down the river. So it floats. We could put Fiver and Pipkin on it and make it float again. It might go across the river.'

Resource investigator – Bigwig

Outgoing, enthusiastic, communicative. Explores opportunities and develops contacts.

Peering through the blades of grass round his head, he could see the curve of a white back. Whatever the creature was, it was nearly as big as himself. He waited, stock-still, for some little time, but it did not move... [T]he idea of going back to the Honeycomb and reporting that he had glimpsed an unknown creature in the grass and left it alone was more than he could swallow. He turned his head and looked at Silver. Seeing that he was game, he took a final look at the strange, white back and then went straight up to the edge of the hollow. Silver followed.

Co-ordinator – Hazel

Mature, confident, identifies talent. Clarifies goals. Delegates effectively.

Late in the afternoon Hazel called everyone into the Honeycomb. 'I've been thinking things over,' he said. 'I know you must all have been really disappointed not to have got rid of me at Nuthanger Farm the other day, so I've decided to go a bit further next time.' 'Where?' asked Bluebell. 'To Efrafra,' replied Hazel, 'if I can get anyone to come with me: and we shall bring back as many does as the warren needs.'

There were murmurs of astonishment, and then Speedwell asked, 'How?' 'Blackberry and I have got a plan,' said Hazel, 'but I'm not going to explain it now, for this reason. You all know that this is going to be a dangerous business. If any of you get caught and taken into Efrafra, they'll make you talk all right. But those who don't know a plan can't give it away. I'll explain it later on, at the proper time.'

Shaper – General Woundwort

Challenging, dynamic, thrives on pressure. Has the drive and courage to overcome obstacles.

Soon he had become Chief Rabbit, having killed both the previous Chief and a rival named Fiorin. In combat he was terrifying, fighting entirely to kill, indifferent to any wounds he received himself and closing with his adversaries until his weight overbore and exhausted them. Those who had no heart to oppose him were not long in feeling that here was a leader indeed.

Monitor-evaluator – Fiver

Sober, strategic and discerning. Sees all options and judges accurately.

When [Holly] had spoken of his deliverance by the great apparition in the night, Fiver had listened attentively and asked one question, 'Did it make a noise?' Later, when Holly had gone back, he told Hazel that he felt sure there was some natural explanation, though he had no idea what it could be... Someone called out, 'What does Fiver think?' 'I'm certainly going,' said Fiver quietly. 'Hazel's perfectly right and there's nothing the matter with his plan. But I promise you this, all of you. If I do come, later on, to feel any kind of misgiving, I shan't keep it to myself.' 'And if that happens, I shan't ignore it,' said Hazel.

Teamworker – Dandelion

Co-operative, perceptive and diplomatic. Listens and averts friction.

Since entering the wood they had been in severe anxiety... Pipkin sat trembling under a fern, his ears drooping on either side of his head. He held one paw forward in an awkward, unnatural way and kept licking it miserably... [Hazel said,] Come on, Dandelion, tell us a story. I know you're handy that way. Pipkin here can't wait to hear it.' Dandelion looked at Pipkin and realised what it was that Hazel was asking him to do. Choking back his own fear of the desolate, grassless woodland, the before-dawn-returning owls that they could hear some way off and the extraordinary, rank animal smell that seemed to come from somewhere rather nearer, he began.

Implementer – Holly

Practical, reliable, efficient. Turns ideas into actions and organises work that needs to be done.

He was, rather, a stander of no nonsense who knew when duty was done and did it himself. Sound, unassuming, conscientious, a bit lacking in the rabbit sense of mischief, he was something of the born second-in-command.

Completer-finisher – Silver

Painstaking, conscientious, anxious. Searches out errors. Polishes and perfects.

They found Bluebell by the hedge at the bottom of the field. He was white-eyed and ready to bolt. 'Silver,' he said, 'I saw a bunch of rabbits – strangers, Efrafans, I suppose – come out of the ditch over there and slip across into the water-meadow. They're behind us now. One of them was the biggest rabbit I've ever seen.' 'Then don't stay here,' said Silver. 'There goes Speedwell. And who's that? Acorn and two does with him. That's everyone. Come on, quick as you can.

Specialist – Blackavar

Single-minded, self-starting, dedicated. Provides knowledge and skills in rare supply.

In the days that followed – days of clear sky and fine weather – Blackavar proved his worth again and again, until Hazel came to rely on him as much as on any of his veterans... Now, free among these easy-going strangers, [Blackavar] saw himself as a trained Efrafan, using his skill to help them in their need. Although he did all that he was told, he did not hesitate to make suggestions as well, particularly when it came to reconnoitring and looking for signs of danger.

So there you go! Maybe the group of rabbits from Sandleford did so well because, among their number, they had all the different skills and characteristics needed to make a really strong, effective team. I just want to finish with Richard Adams' mythology of how rabbits came to be as they are; the blessing of Frith (Adams' god-figure) on El-ahrairah, the ancient rabbit hero.

El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you , they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Gay marriage – it's an outrage

For my second whinge of this weekend (it must be the stomach bug, making me bitter and angry), let's have a look at the heated issue of gay marriage. This article in the Daily Mail has the latest story and in case you're surprised that I'm reading the Mail, I thought their article would be most favourable to the view that I'm about to have a right pop at. Trying to be fair and all that...

The short version

What in all of God's creation makes us Christians think we have the right to impose our particular view of marriage onto society as a whole?

The long version

Okay then. We Christians don't own the concept of marriage. And across the spectrum of even just mainstream UK Christianity there is a range of beliefs regarding marriage. For example, I gather that the Catholic Church has severe restrictions on remarrying people who've been divorced. (I don't have a link with the details, having tried without success to find any guidance on the Catholic Church in England and Wales website).

So there's argument one against this idea of protecting marriage.

Next, even if all Christians across the world believed the same things about marriage, what right do we have to impose those beliefs on others who don't share our faith-based starting point? Most people in the world are not Christian. So we're asking for our opinion to hold sway... why? Because it's what God thinks? I don't like where that could lead, not at all.

Finally, perhaps we Christians would like to argue on some objective basis, for example that permitting gay marriage on exactly the same terms as straight marriage would damage the family or something like that. Okay, let's have that discussion. But some evidence is required, otherwise doesn't it just boil down to 'This is what God thinks' again? Let's see if we can find any such evidence in what the Catholic Cardinal Keith O'Brien (that's him over there →) has been saying that has stirred this all up (the full interview that O'Brien did with the Sunday Telegraph is here)
Those of us who were not in favour of civil partnership, believing that such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of those involved... [my italics]
All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.
Well, here we have a couple of claims that can be investigated. Good. But is there actually evidence that, all else being equal (a key point), a gay partnership is more likely than a straight partnership to cause harm to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved? What about, again all else being equal, that it's better for a child to begin life with a mother and father, instead of two mothers or two fathers? O'Brien just seemed to beg the question in his interview, so please post in the comments if you know of any evidence for his claims.

One last thing the Cardinal said in his Sunday Telegraph interview:
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”. Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?
How is there any equivalence in these two issues? I just don't understand the point being made here at all. Keeping slaves is illegal in the UK (and many other countries) because it robs the slave of their basic human freedom. What basic human freedom would be lost if same-sex couples were allowed to formalise their commitment to one another on exactly the same basis as opposite-sex couples? Oh that's it, the freedom to be outraged at people who want to live according to their own moral standard, not someone else's. (Hypocritical snark, given what I wrote yesterday about assuming good faith in those we disagree with...)

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Arguing honestly – a moan about Tim Farron, Lib Dem MP

Most of my blog posts are the product of at least a few days' thinking, but sometimes I hear or read something and just feel the need for a bit of a whinge. This is one of the latter occasions and is prompted by this piece from Tim Farron (that's him on the right) in today's Guardian newspaper. Farron, tipped by some as the next leader of the Lib Dems, is basically claiming that Labour and Conservative politicians don't have a conscience while Lib Dems do. Here's an excerpt from the start of Farron's article:
When I joined the Liberal party 26 years ago it was because, in my gut, the Liberals seemed the right people to me. Over the last quarter of a century, particularly in these last 22 months, I've been proved right.

When the Tories have had to "do difficult things" – when they closed the mines, the steelworks and the shipyards – do you think they felt bad about it? No. When Labour invaded Iraq, introduced tuition fees, clobbered the poor by scrapping the 10p tax rate or let the bankers off the leash, wrecking the economy – did they feel bad? I doubt it.

But here we are, the Lib Dems, in government taking difficult decisions to rescue our country from the abyss, and we spend our time feeling guilty and beating ourselves up. Do you know what that proves? It proves that we are human, it proves we are decent, that there is something in our DNA as a party that means Lib Dems acquire and retain a conscience.
Now, in my more tribal moments, I'm also tempted to believe that only the politicians from my camp make their decisions based on morality and good judgement. But that's nonsense, isn't it? It's the worst kind of 'my tribe, right or wrong' partisanship. And reading a senior politician making this argument in such a transparent and extreme way really gets my back up.

Drawing out the wider point, I think it's so important to assume good faith with those who disagree with us. If there's good reason not to believe someone is telling the truth, then fair enough, but how can it be right to dismiss the views of those who don't see things our way simply because they don't see things our way? It's certainly never going to bring people over to your point of view, I'd have thought: 'Oh, you've just demonised me just because I disagree with you. Now, let me give some serious thought to what you're saying...' Not going to happen, is it?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Could you start a church?

I think I could start a church. How vain, huh? Of course, it all depends on what kind of church you're talking about! Read this account of someone starting a new church and let me know what you think. It's from the book I've been blogging about recently, 'Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens' by Neil Cole.
While doing some teaching in Japan, I had a dream that Heather, my daughter, started a church... I mentioned it to her just to let her know that she was on my mind and in my dreams while I was away. The next day she said, “Dad, my friends all want to do it!” “Do what?” I asked. “Start a church.” I told her that she would have to do most of the work, and I would coach and lead only a little. She said that was fine. The next day she arranged a house to meet in, picked a night of the week, and found a worship leader; flyers were soon being passed out to friends on campus.
I'd love to know what you think about this as an attitude towards the body of Christ. Is it marvellously adventurous and enterprising to just go for it like this? Or is it far better to gather theologically educated and trained people together, and also to get some oversight from a recognised denomination?

As I'm sure you've guessed, I think it's fantastic that people like Neil Cole's daughter, a school student, can start churches. There are risks with such a messy, almost casual approach to church planting, of course there are. But how wonderful that you don't need years of training in order to be involved in spreading the Kingdom of God like this! This is Cole's conclusion:
I... told them that I think Satan is more intimidated by this little church of fifteen high school kids than by any of those Godzilla-sized churches [that are widespread where Cole and his daughter live]... I showed them why I thought this way: “How many of you think you could start a church like one of those megachurches?” No one raised a hand. I asked, “How many of you think you could start a church like this one?” and all raised their hands. I asked them to look around the room at all the raised hands, and I said with a new-found soberness, “I assure you, Satan is terrified by this.”
I think you'd have raised your hand as well, right?

Post script – the church in China

I think a fascinating example of how Christianity can thrive when church is done in this kind of simple / organic way can be seen with what happened in China under the atheistic regime of Mao Zedong. Here's an extract from an essay I wrote while on my theology course last year:
Mao's Cultural Revolution sought to remove all forms of religion from China, with persecution against Christians including banishment of foreign
missionaries, confiscation of church property, execution or imprisonment
of church leaders and the banning of Christian public meetings.1 Foreign
missionaries were only allowed back in the years following Mao's death in
1976. Here is Hirsch's ['The Forgotten Ways' by Alan Hirsch] account of how their expectations and reality were poles apart:

'They [foreign missionaries and church officials] expected to find the
church decimated and the disciples a weak and battered people. On the
contrary, they discovered that Christianity had flourished beyond all
imagination. The estimates then were about 60 million Christians in
China... And remember, not unlike the early church, these people had
very few Bibles... They had no professional clergy, no official leadership
structures, no central organization, no mass meetings, and yet they grew
like mad.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Copying from the Master

I wrote a few days ago about the DNA of the church. If the church is the 'body of Christ' as the Bible says then it might be worth thinking about the DNA of that body, with the idea that each part should have the same basic instruction code which governs how it functions. Neil Cole, in his book 'Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens', describes this code using a neat little acronym:

Divine truth
Nurturing relationships
Apostolic mission

So what about some practical implications of this DNA idea? Well, the point about DNA is that it gives every cell a set of instructions to follow. Likewise with the church, the body of Christ; we have a core set of instructions and all is well if we follow them. But we can easily lose sight of the instructions and just end up copying how those immediately before us did things – as Neil Cole says:
[A] photocopy of a previous copy loses some definition in the image. Another generation of photocopying becomes even more corrupted. Every succeeding generation of photocopying passes on the flaws of all the previous generations. Eventually, the image is indistinguishable, and the original meaning is lost.
A common argument against doing church in a simple, organic way is that all sorts of chaos can result from the lack of top-down control or oversight. Cole again:
Loose expansion without controls may seem to lack substance and quality, making every succeeding generation worse, but this is true only if we copy each other. The solution to multiple photocopies is to copy from the master rather than other copies. So too, we must copy directly from our Master.
You can think of this in terms of churches, so each church finds its own way of carrying out the apostolic mission of bringing the good news of Christ, within the context of nurturing relationships and divine truth. A church shouldn't just do things the way its parent church or its denomination does things.

We can also apply the idea to individual people, Neil Cole believes. If you're a Christian, think back to when you first committed yourself to Christ or got involved in a church. Did you get told something like this?
You are just a baby. You're vulnerable and weak, and there's so much you don't know yet. There is a mean and wicked enemy who wants to destroy you. You need some good teaching and help, so don't worry about anything but learning right now. Go to church, make friends with Christians, and after you've grown we'll talk about getting baptized and serving. For now, just soak up as much as you can.
What this produces, Cole says, is 'helpless consumers, stuck in their nests' who have their 'mouths wide open every Sunday waiting to be fed'. We teach new believers to be reliant on other people (like pastors and youth leaders), not on the Master, Jesus Christ.

I wrote roughly a year ago about how I strongly believe that 'our rhythms of church can (unintentionally) encourage us to let our spiritual life drift between meetings'. Well, the over-protection of new Christians is just another facet of this; the way we do church in the western worlds seems, much of the time, to produce immature Christians who struggle to sustain their own walk with Jesus.

Maybe we could learn from the Mormons. Many Mormons spend a year or more on mission (often abroad), with young men being strongly encouraged to serve in this way. According to the Wikipedia article, roughly 30% of all 19-year-old Mormon men went on mission with the figure rising to 80-90% if the family is active in the church (figures from 2007). Neil Cole's thoughts on this are very interesting:
Perhaps the best reason for sending young people on a yearlong, door-knocking mission is less about making more Mormons than it is about making better ones. Facing the onslaught of questions, challenges, and debates, these young Mormons solidify their commitment – on the frontline with bullets flying overhead. The internal commitment made in this highly impressionable year sticks with them for the rest of their lives.
Cole's conclusion is that we are 'guilty of protecting new believers from depending on God'. If new Christians get actively involved in the work of the Kingdom right away, then 'we would see how quickly they are forced to pray, trust in God, listen to the Holy Spirit, and find answers'. I wonder what difference this might make in the lives of new Jesus-followers, binding them closely to the Master, the Head of the body, and teaching them to be reliant on Him – not on other people.

So if you're friends with any new Christians, how about urging them to get stuck in with telling their loved ones about Jesus, praying for people, and all that good stuff of the Kingdom. Don't shelter them until they've 'learnt the basics' and 'found their feet in the church'. What do you think?

Friday, 2 March 2012

The DNA of Christ's Body

There's a way of looking at church that extends the 'body of Christ' metaphor in the New Testament into the language of cells and DNA. Just like each cell in an organism has the same DNA (well, except the sex cells), the idea is that each cell or unit of the church should also have the same driving force. Here is one neat little way of describing this driving force:

Divine truth
Nurturing relationships
Apostolic mission

I got this from a book called 'Organic Church: Growing Faith Where Life Happens', by Neil Cole. He explains the three elements of the DNA of Christ's Body, the church like this:
A life changed by the power of divine truth lays aside the old corrupt things of the flesh and puts on the new ways of Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). This then affects the personal relationships of the Christian as love begins to flow our of a changed heart. Empowered by truth and love, the Christian is unable to contain this energy and follows the Lord's command to take the Gospel to others on apostolic mission in hope of changing this world.
Now each individual Christian is likely to have a preference for one or maybe two of these elements. Those of us with a pastoral, caring nature can do much to nurture relationships within the church; those with an outgoing, networking character will contribute to the apostolic mission element; and people with a prophetic or teaching talent will bring divine truth to the community of believers. But Neil Cole's point is that each 'cell' of the Body of Christ must have all three of the components at the same time. This is his warning of the danger of unravelling the church's DNA:
DNA is only potent when it is together... Most churches will gladly exclaim that they have all three portions of the DNA, but they have unraveled it into separate components and so lost its power.
Cole then notes that churches might have 'excellent preaching on Sundays', 'small groups during the week', and 'a strong missions committee'; handling in turn the divine truth, nurturing relationship and apostolic mission that make up the DNA of the church in this metaphor. Cole says the three elements mustn't be separated like this; they must be 'whole, intact, and in every cell'. Each element on its own can have disastrous consequences:
Mission without love is dead and can actually undermine the cause of Christ (1 Cor. 13:1-3). Relationships without truth are dysfunctional and toxic. Truth without application in relationships and mission is delusional (James 1:21-25). To separate each part [of the church's DNA] is to destroy the whole thing.

I've come across a couple of other illustrations that make the same point as Neil Cole is in his 'Organic Church' book. There's the 'Inward, Upward, Outward' idea which many people have used in different ways, that I first came across in Richard Foster's book 'Prayer'. Closer to home for me, is this diagram showing the values, purpose and direction of the church that I'm part of. This model nicely captures the union between our efforts and God's work in the transformation of our character, and our dual mission to 'make disciples of all the nations' and to 'do the same works... and even greater works' than Jesus did during his time on earth.

I'll stop there for now, but the 'Organic Church' book goes into much more depth about what this DNA metaphor means for how we should be church. I may well post again soon with some practical implications that follow from this idea. Obviously, it would be no good at all if I stopped at the theory part. Not to mention hypocritical, given what I wrote recently about the buzz of new ideas!