Jake Belder
Dec 18, 2014

As I have joined in corporate prayer in various contexts in the past few months (by which I mean a setting where one person leads a gathered congregation in prayer, as opposed to a prayer meeting), I have encountered three emerging (or at least, new to me) trends in prayer that concern me. I wanted to make a few brief observations about this, and invite the thoughts of the reader in response.

First, I have observed an increasing number of people lead corporate prayer by simply saying things like, ‘Lord, we pray for Syria and for Iraq,’ or, ‘We pray for our diocese.’ Although I did not recognise it initially, it later struck me that this sort of prayer lacks a petition. I sometimes find myself wanting to interrupt and say, ‘…And? What do we pray for them?’ I’m sure that people who pray this way have genuine petitions in their heart; in the case of Syria and Iraq, for instance, I am sure the unspoken petition is a prayer for peace. But in the context of leading corporate prayer, those petitions need to be vocalised.

Second, I have also heard someone repeatedly use the phrase, ‘We pray to God for ____’, and list the various points of intercession for the day. I was particularly troubled by this, because in addition to not offering a particular petition, we were not actually addressing God at all. This person was informing us of what to pray for, but we never actually prayed.

Finally, I have noticed the emergence of a pattern of including large portions of silence into prayer. Whilst I do not think silence is necessarily a bad thing, I do find it interesting that this happens in the context of corporate prayer. Usually in these silent periods, those who are gathered to pray are invited to pray in their hearts in response to a short bidding. The problem with this is that it then ceases to be corporate prayer. There is something unique about gathering together to pray and collectively bringing the prayers of the people together before God. That is lost when when the corporate prayer primarily becomes a time of silent, individual reflection.

The main reason these trends concern me is because, as William Willimon argues in his book, Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry, the ‘[leader] teaches the congregation about prayer in [their] leadership of the…prayers’ (83, emphasis mine). The person leading the prayers is not just praying on behalf of those who are gathered to pray, presenting before God the prayers of the people, but they also model prayer, and have as their ‘goal the enabling of the congregation to speak and to listen to God’ (83). In his composition of the Book of Common Prayer, this was part of Thomas Cranmer’s aim as well. Recognising that he was working in context of reforming a Church where few people knew how to pray, he gave them the BCP as a means of teaching them how to pray.

Leading a congregation in prayer is both a privilege and a great responsibility. Embracing that responsibility means taking seriously the call to give voice to the prayers of the people, and being intentional about modelling prayer in a way that teaches, equips, and encourages others to take hold of the blessing they have of calling upon God as Father and to commune with him. For that reason, we need to be attentive to how we pray when we lead others in prayer.

Again, these are just a few brief observations, and I welcome any thoughts the reader might have on how we ought to approach and carry out corporate prayer.

Dec 16, 2014

Several times in the past few months I have been involved in discussions on the role Scripture plays in theological reflection. Prior to one of those discussions, we read an interesting paper by Roger Walton, a Methodist leader in West Yorkshire, who did some research into the different ways the Bible was used by theology students in various contexts. He ended up producing a taxonomy of about seven different methods students employed, one of which was what we commonly call proof-texting. In its worst form, it is a method that takes a few verses from here and there to prove a theological point, without any reference to context. At the risk of generalising, accusations of ‘proof-texting’ are most often lobbed by liberal theologians at those who take a more conservative approach to Scripture and theology.1

Proof-texting has a bad name, and even mentioning the word will cause many people to sneer. Indeed, it is often a method employed poorly. But the question I wanted to ask in these discussions was, does that mean we ought to write off proof-texting altogether? Is there never a place for that kind of literal use of Scripture, where we can simply say, ‘The Bible says…’?

Warnings against proof-texting often accompany the argument that a doctrine of Scripture needs to be properly nuanced. Certainly, having a robust doctrine of Scripture is important for theology, and we need to work hard to understand the nature and authority of the revelation God has given to us. But I think there comes a point when we put too much stress on the idea of ‘nuance’. In my more cynical moments, I begin to wonder if those who say, ‘We need to be more nuanced in our use of Scripture’ are actually saying, ‘I need to find a way to make Scripture say what I want it to.’

The December issue of Christianity Today carries a profile of Pope Francis authored by R.R. Reno, and one of the things Reno notes is that people are drawn to Francis because of his literalism, particularly in his embrace of poverty. ‘The literalism of Francis,’ Reno writes, ‘makes immediate the commands of God.’ Because Francis is a Roman Catholic, and I am not, there is much I disagree with him on, but in terms of his desire to live faithfully, he is an important example. He does not spend all kinds of time engaged in academic scholarship trying to figure out what exactly Jesus really means when he says something. Instead, Francis reads the Bible, hears the commands of Jesus, and obeys immediately, in this case seeking to embrace the calling to humility, generosity, and love. That is a type of proof-texting. ‘The Bible says…’ and he does. And while some people scoff at this literalism, it is something that draws many more people to Francis because in those actions, they are pointed to Christ.

The more I hear about ‘nuanced’ doctrines of Scripture, the more I think we have replaced the call to be conformed to Christ with a desire to be conformed to comfort. We cover that up by saying that we are so far removed from the original context or that the text of Scripture has been corrupted over time, that we need to engage in all kinds of study and scholarship to get at what Jesus really said.

By no means am I saying that all scholarship is bad or that the hidden agenda of every theologian is to evade Jesus' words. As someone currently embedded in an academic theological environment, the work done in these sorts of contexts is often very important and valuable. If I did not believe that, I would not be doing the kind of work I'm doing. But I am also aware that when we are not watching our hearts, this kind of thing can become a convenient means of finding a Jesus who will allow us to live in a way that does not provoke hostility from the world around us. It’s worth noting, as I’ve pointed out recently, that inconsistencies here are blindingly obvious to some atheists, and a serious hindrance to our witness.

A desire to always avoid more literal readings of Scripture carries with it an implication that we have a God who is no longer trustworthy and faithful. If God has decided to reveal himself in Scripture, would he really allow that revelation to get so corrupted that only the most academically astute amongst us could figure out what the Bible really says? If loving God means keeping his commands (1 John 5:3), would he allow Scripture to change to the degree that it would be nearly impossible for us to simply read it and discover those commands?

If this makes me sound like a ‘fundamentalist’, then so be it. I want a robust and healthy doctrine of Scripture as much as the next person, but we need to be serious about what is going on in our hearts. The fact is that following Jesus is hard, sometimes it even hurts, and we don’t like that. Our hesitation to take Jesus at his word, to obey immediately, exposes the weakness of our faith and our failure to believe that he really does know what’s best for us.

Following Jesus will bring trouble in this world, yes, but he has overcome the world (John 16:33). Because we have died with him and been raised to new life with him (Romans 6:4, 2 Corinthians 5:17), Christ now lives in us (Galatians 2:20). And that means that however much the world mocks us, hates us and persecutes us (which it will, Matthew 10:22), we will be able to follow Jesus with all our heart and know the joy of living as he has called us to. That is a joy we miss out on when we are more concerned with the pursuit of happiness and comfort. What's more, just as Pope Francis' literalism is what endears him to so many people, when we embrace the joy of living in faithfulness of Jesus, we too point to him and draw others in to discover the life that he offers. So why are we so afraid to take the words of Jesus at face value?

His commands are not burdensome (1 John 5:3-4). They bring life (John 5:24). What's keeping us from hearing and believing the words of Scripture is not a corrupted text. It's our corrupted hearts. More than anything else, then, the most important tool we bring to the interpretation of Scripture is a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit.

1It should be noted that more liberal theologians engage in their share of proof-texting as well. I'm thinking, for instance, of the way Matthew 25:34-40 is constantly employed in the service of social justice causes (see Alastair Roberts’ helpful post on why that passage is not as straightforward as it is often taken to be).
Dec 1, 2014

The video above provides a really helpful introduction to the Church calendar and the significance of the different seasons throughout the year. Although I didn't grow up in a context where the Church year was observed (with the exception of the major feast days), it is something I have come to deeply appreciate, and I think following the liturgical calendar is of great benefit to the shaping of the life of the Church, for a few different reasons.

In the first place, as the video says, it roots the Church in the story of the gospel. It's not just that we hear the gospel each time we meet together, though that should certainly be the case, but that we inhabit the story throughout the whole of the year in a much more profound way. We spend long periods of time reflecting and dwelling on the story of redemption and the work of Jesus to reconcile us to God and give us new life, situating ourselves within the unfolding drama. We slow down and recognise what God's people have known for so long – that this is a story that unfolds over thousands and thousands of years, and that we have to wait upon the Lord, who brings salvation in the fullness of time.

This season of Advent that we have just entered into, for example, is so important for the Church because we have largely lost that sense of waiting and expectancy. Advent forces us to confront the reality that we continue to find ourselves living in a time of darkness, in a world that is still broken and in need of redemption. Slowing down to reflect on that helps us to enter into the longing and expectant waiting that the prophets spoke of as they waited for the promised Messiah, to join in Isaiah's cry: 'Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!' (Isaiah 64:1). We can't jump right to Christmas; the coming of the Messiah only makes sense in the context of that longing for deliverance, as we learn what it means to expectantly hope in the fulfilment of God's promises. What's more, one of the characteristics of the Early Church was the sense that Jesus' return was imminent, and therefore the idea of running the race and pressing on in the pursuit of holiness was an urgent task, as was the call to make disciples of all nations and bear witness to Kingdom. As we wait for Christ's second Advent, recapturing this sense of the imminence of his return helps to reawaken a Church that in many ways has lost this urgency.

Secondly, this is about formation. As James K.A. Smith has observed, we are shaped less by what we think than by what we love, and those loves are cultivated by the stories and liturgies that we inhabit, intentionally or otherwise. He argues in his book, Desiring the Kingdom, that our culture is well aware of the reality that we are liturgical beings and bombards us ceaselessly with narrations of the world that seek to capture our hearts and imaginations and orient us towards a particular vision of flourishing and of what it means to be human. The only antidote to these pervasive attempts to re-narrate the world is to firmly root ourselves in the true story of the world, revealed to us in Scripture. And the primary means we do this is through the worship of the Church. The Church's calendar helps us to rehearse that true story of the world throughout the whole of the year in our worship, constantly keeping us rooted in that story and helping us resist those attempts to reshape and reorient us.

Finally, this is a way for Christians to be distinctly separate from the world, to declare that we belong to a different Kingdom and that our lives are ordered differently. Christ is Lord over all of our life, including how we mark time. We march to the ticking of a different clock, and allow that clock to set our focus and our priorities. As people who are baptised into Christ and given a new identity, we root ourselves in the story of redemption and spend the year pointing to Jesus and the salvation that comes through him, constantly rehearsing how God has acted in history and placing ourselves in that story.

And that can only be a good thing.

(The chart below helpfully marks out the seasons of the Church year along with the corresponding liturgical colours, as they are observed in the Church of England.) church-year

Nov 26, 2014

Theologians often argue about which area of theology is most important, the debate being particularly pronounced between biblical theologians and systematic theologians. Last week, Derek Rishmawy offered his own take on the issue:

In response, Alastair Roberts posted about twelve tweets (yes, as prolific a tweeter as he is a blogger), stringing together a number of thoughts on why he thinks liturgical theology might actually be the most important area of theology. For the sake of ease of reading, I have slightly edited his tweets and put them together into paragraph format:

I am not sure I agree with Derek. Liturgical theology (perhaps also ethics) has always been my favourite area of theology. I've always had wide theological and academic interests, but liturgical theology has long been my integrating focus.

Liturgy forces you to bring together both systematic and biblical theology, not as abstract fields of knowledge, but embedded in rich and variegated traditions of practice, and relate them to the prevailing conditions of belief, identity, and community, discerning the ways in which texts and practices form us, instructing and guiding persons in their effective use, crafting new practices of our own, relating to truth of God to the life of the body, and constantly attending to the ways our theology is or isn't validated in the lives and practice of the Church and its members. All the streams of theology converge at and flow from the font.

The loss resulting from neglect of liturgical theology is immense, leaving us only the penultimacy of both biblical and systematic theology. Unlike most biblical theology, liturgical theology places the Scriptures in the context of the reading/formation of the community of the heirs and executors of the biblical testaments. Unlike most systematic theology, liturgical theology approaches Christian doctrine, not as second order reflection, but as preached summons and living confession. For me, liturgical theology has always been the discipline most constitutionally committed to the non-abstractness of Christian theology.

Some fascinating insights here, and as an Anglican, I find myself resonating deeply with his comments. Someone asked Alastair where they could begin reading on the sort of thing he is suggesting here, and in response he points them to Alexander Schmemann’s book, For the Life of the World, as 'a book that captures the spirit of the sort of thing that I am arguing for’, a recommendation I would heartily echo.

On the whole, though, Alastair observes that there is still much work to be done here (he briefly notes that he wants to write a book on the subject, and I certainly hope he does). But if liturgical theology is as important as he suggests it is, then hopefully we will see scholars increasingly devoting themselves to this area of theology.

Nov 20, 2014

Elaine Graham and Stephen Lowe, in their book, What Makes a Good City? Public Theology and the Urban Church, make the following point about the benefits of the parish system:

One of the cardinal virtues of the church is its local nature. In the Anglican tradition, that is enshrined in the parish system, which guarantees that every square centimetre of the country falls under the responsibility of a local congregation… Such territorial jurisdiction, however that may be formally constituted in legal terms, does indeed keep alive an understanding of the whole of the created order in a particular area belonging to God, and of a desire to render holy the local, the concrete and the particular as the specific context in which the church, as the spirit-filled Body of Christ, can help to further God’s mission in that place. As the theologian Sigurd Bergmann has argued, it is about ‘God taking place’: a sacralisation of the physical, the spatial…as an arena of redemption (49).
parishes

Recently, there has been some discussion particularly here in the Church of England on the drawbacks to the parish system, and it is also important to recognise the reality that our lives are often not rooted in one specific community any longer. Yet despite these things, I think the commitment to place remains something significant. Our calling and mission as Christians is something that must be thoroughly rooted in the places we inhabit. And that is because we do not bear witness merely to something spiritual, but we bear witness to a King whose redemption extends as far as the curse is found, who is at work reclaiming the whole of his creation. As a result, our mission takes concrete form in our local contexts.

I don’t know if Abraham Kuyper knew anything about the English parish system, but if he did, perhaps he would have approved, given that in some ways it is an ecclesiastical structure which takes seriously – and quite literally – the idea enshrined in his famous dictum, that ‘there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, "Mine!”’. Often the parish structure is understood as giving a parish church responsibility for ministering to the people in their parish in specific ways, particularly through the 'occasional offices' (baptisms, weddings, and funerals). This certainly opens important doors for our mission in our local communities. But if Christ is at work reclaiming the whole of creation, then our vision must be bigger – to look at our parishes as the local places in which we have specific responsibility to demonstrate the reality of the Kingdom and the rule of Christ over every single part of life. The opportunities afforded us through the parish system to reach out to those in our communities is one aspect of this, but it also means equipping regular members of our churches to bear witness to the Kingdom in everything they do.

We must be doing this wherever we go, of course, and it is also something we can participate in outside of our local context. But it seems to me that something like the parish structure gives us a tangible and immediate scope in which to exercise our mission, a local focus where we can concentrate and participate in very real ways in making known the presence of the Kingdom. There are some great examples of relatively new churches which have adopted parish models for this very reason. And from there, of course, different parishes in a city can come together to work towards demonstrating the reality of the Kingdom on a bigger scale, and to even use their resources to help churches in other cities around the world begin to demonstrate Christ's Lordship over all wherever they are.1

Very simply, if God enacts his redemption within the arena of creation, then we ought to be demonstrating that in our local contexts. And given that here in the Church of England we inherit with our churches responsibility for a particular community, that's a good place to start.

1I recognise that these are American examples, but I think they are particularly good examples of churches that understand the scope of the mission we are called to in our local contexts. We could learn a lot from them here in the UK.
Nov 18, 2014

Bethany Jenkins got some folks riled up yesterday by suggesting that we drop the term ‘apologetics’, arguing that it is a relic of the culture wars of the 1980s:

As much as you can in a Twitter conversation (you can view the whole conversation here), she makes the case that using the term connotes a sort of battle mentality and can put Christians in the mindset that there is a fight we need to win. She suggests in part that it is not truth needs to be defended, but instead falsity that needs to be held accountable, and so we ought to avoid the posture of defence. At one point she hints at the idea that our engagement with those who are not Christians could possibly be termed our ‘public faith’.

I have never thought of the idea of dropping the term ‘apologetics’ before, but I am also conscious of the fact that I really have not thought about apologetics since I finished my previous theology degree more than four years ago. Studying apologetics was enjoyable, and I remember thinking at the time that I could see the usefulness in being able both to ‘expose’ the inconsistencies in the thinking of those who were not Christians and to make a rational case for Christianity. However, when I then moved to England and began working for a church and engaging much more regularly with people who were not Christians, I very quickly realised that they simply didn’t care if their thinking was inconsistent. And this was something all the training I had in apologetics did not prepare me for.

Now, that does not mean that I abandoned any effort to make an intellectual or rational case for the Christian faith when engaging with people who were not Christians. Certainly, any communication of the gospel addresses what we think and believe, and there is value in trying both to help people address the inconsistencies in their thinking and to help them make sense of the world we live in. But it seems to be a bit of an illusion to think that simply presenting the most logical and rational argument is going to turn the hearts of people towards Jesus.

This is precisely where some of James K.A. Smith’s recent writings are so important, because this is not primarily a matter of thinking. This is a matter of the heart. One of the big points he makes in the two published volumes of his 'Cultural Liturgies' project, Desiring the Kingdom, and Imagining the Kingdom, is that we are shaped less by what we think and believe than by what we love and desire. Human beings, he says, are 'liturgical animals'; we are creatures who are formed by liturgies that seek to inculcate in us, by way of a set of practices and habits, a particular vision of 'the good life'. These practices train us to respond instinctively to that vision so that we begin to live in the service and pursuit of this good life. This is simply what is at work in those who are not Christians – they have been shaped by the liturgies of the culture they inhabit, been given a non-Christian vision of ‘the good life’, and their hearts are oriented in that direction. And while it might be worth arguing this for the sake of pointing out where they need their thinking changed, more than that, they need their hearts re-oriented.

In my engagement with those who are not Christians, Smith’s thesis has often proved to be true. I could share the gospel with someone and show them how things they thought and believed were effectively irrational, and even find them nodding along in agreement. But in the end, what matters is that following Jesus would mean giving up things – sometimes everything – they loved and desired, not least of which is their autonomy. And that is a much bigger stumbling block than any intellectual objection they might have.

In light of what Smith says, then, how do we engage with those whose loves and desires are disordered? First of all, I would not say that we throw out the idea of apologetics altogether, nor do I think Bethany is advocating that. After all, there are people out there whose objections to Christianity are primarily intellectual, and we should be prepared to engage with them on that level. But for many people, reordering loves and desires will simply not be a matter of getting their thinking sorted out (and we should note that this is often just as much the case for those who hold intellectual objections to Christianity).

Here we need to remember what Lesslie Newbigin once said, that the greatest apologetic for the gospel is a congregation that believes it (I'm not sure if he actually used the word 'apologetic', but the basic idea remains). What he means is that the witness of our lives as the redeemed people of God is often more powerful than all our intellectual reasoning. This does not mean that we adopt the false notion that we can share the gospel without words, because the gospel is a verbal announcement that we are very clearly called to proclaim. But it does mean that the gospel should so transform our lives, both as individuals and as a community, that the world around us is drawn in to see what it is that has changed us.

Instead of assuming a posture of defence, our ‘public faith’ ought to assume a posture of welcome. We are not saying to the world, ‘Let me show you what you have wrong!’, but, ‘Look at what Jesus offers!’ As we live lives that reflect rightly ordered loves and desires, and that witness to the fullness of life that comes from submission to the rule of Christ, we offer an invitation to ‘come and see what God has done, his awesome works for mankind!’ (Psalm 66:50). It is an invitation to come experience a community and a people who have been transformed and made new. And it is in this context that we can then answer those who ask us to give the reason for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15) as they begin to taste and respond to the love, joy, and hope we have in Jesus.

So maybe Bethany is right that we ought to drop the term. Certainly her call to move away from the posture the term connotes is helpful. But whatever word we use, we are not here to win a fight. We are here as instruments of the Kingdom, bringing hope to a broken world through our witness to the risen and ascended Jesus, and welcoming others to discover the life he alone offers.

(On a bit of a side note, I notice some argument in response to her tweet that we shouldn't drop words simply because our culture doesn't use those terms in the same way any more. I would just point out that this is coming from some of the same people who often cast the word 'religion' as something entirely negative.)

Nov 12, 2014

Dorothy Sayers, in her essay, ‘Why Work?’, is highly critical of economies that are based solely on production and consumption, and in particular, how they negatively affect our conception of work. Writing from the viewpoint of wartime Britain, she observes that reckless consumption has so thoroughly devalued work that workers are now solely perceived as cogs in the production machine. Sayers believes that it is to society's detriment to continue to operate in this way, and that instead we need to radically reshape our understanding of human work.

work

She is not alone here, and this is a theme picked up by many other Christians writing on the subject of work as well, such as Edward Vanderkloet, who, in his article, ‘Why Work Anyway?’, in the edited collected, Labour of Love: Essays on Work, notes that when we devalue work in this way, we should not be surprised that people end up pursuing happiness in all the wrong places. He writes,

Work is meant to ennoble mankind. Work should provide us with a profound sense of satisfaction; it should give us a sense of self-fulfillment. For a factory not only shapes products, it also shapes people. A nurse not only helps the patient, she also helps herself. It is, therefore, deeply tragic that countless workers in our society are deprived of the satisfaction of accomplishment due to the nature and structure of their work. Such people are virtually forced to seek happiness in leisure and the possession of goods (39).

As Christians, we are rightly critical of those who make idols of things like leisure and material goods. But it is not enough for us to simply tell people to give up these things and to instead satisfy their desires in Jesus. There is a sense in which that is true, of course, but to simply say that in response to what problematic economic structures have done to our conception of human work only spiritualises and downplays a very real problem.

If we believe that work is something fundamental to being human, then we need to commit ourselves to working towards a culture and society which puts economic structures in place that give proper dignity to human work. When we do that, we will indeed help those whose desires have been wrongly ordered to find satisfaction in Jesus, but not in some overly-spiritualised way. Rather, it is because in seeking to redeem economics and work, we are both bearing witness to and offering a taste of the redemption of all of creation that comes through Christ's Kingdom, and pointing to the reality that Jesus satisfies our desires and brings life in all its fullness when we allow him to rule over ever part of our individual and collective lives.

Nov 6, 2014

Forget youth groups or summer camps. Christian Smith, a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame and lead researcher of a recent study of faith in young adults, found that the single most important factor in determining whether or not children maintained their faith into adulthood was their parents. When parents take their faith seriously, encourage conversations about faith in the home, and are active in their local congregations, 82 percent of the time, their children will continue to actively practice their faith into adulthood. The article continues:

The connection is "nearly deterministic"... Other factors such as youth ministry or clergy or service projects or religious schools pale in comparison. "No other conceivable causal influence...comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth," Smith said in a recent talk sharing the findings at Yale Divinity School. "Parents just dominate."

In some ways this should not come as a surprise. Scripture frequently emphasises the role of parents in nurturing the faith of their children (think of Deuteronomy 6.1-8 and Proverbs 22.6, for instance), and part of what God promises through the covenant is that he will bless future generations of his faithful people.

But that raises a question – what about children who come to faith as a child or in their teens, who do not have the opportunity to have their faith nurtured by their parents? Does the mean they have little chance of their faith being sustained into adulthood?

Most every church understands that reaching young people is absolutely vital for the ongoing life and mission of the church, and huge amounts of resources and energy are poured into figuring out how to get young people in, and how to keep them in once they are there. But I wonder if this recent study helps us to see that we’re missing something important. Perhaps instead of investing so much into the current models of youth ministry, we should be focusing on enabling and equipping parents in our churches to also be spiritual parents for those children and young people who do not have Christian parents.

What might that look like In practice? Perhaps a set of spiritual parents could ‘adopt’ two young people from their church with the intention of journeying with them and discipling them into adulthood. They would regularly open their home to these young people, share meals together, talk about faith and read the Bible together, foster an environment where young people can ask and work through the big and hard questions they wrestle with, and share life together in such a way that the spiritual parents would regularly be modelling to the young people under their care what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. They could also be responsible for taking them to church each Sunday so that the young people have mentors to show them what it looks like to participate in the worshipping community. And above all, spiritual parents would be regularly committed to praying for the young people they are responsible for.

If parents really are the key to nurturing and sustaining the faith of young people, then perhaps this is a possible model for youth ministry. Not only does it follow more of a biblical and organic model of discipleship, it brings children and young people more fully into the life of the church, something youth ministry, for all that it does well, often cuts them off from. What's more, these more personal and intimate relationships would give children and young people the opportunity to regularly see the faith enacted and embodied in ordinary life. And whilst it would take serious investment and vulnerability on the part of those taking on the role of spiritual parents, it would ensure that children always have an older, wiser, and more mature Christian mentor to look to and learn from.

I am not saying that this is the only answer to the problem of young people walking away from faith and from the church, but if the research is true, then perhaps it is something worth considering. In a context where we sometimes seem to rely too much on a model of youth ministry focused on programmes, something like this would mean re-learning to rely on the power of the Spirit working through the simple things that God has given us – prayer, love, and the means of grace. And that can only be a good thing.

Nov 4, 2014

Alastair Sterne, lead pastor of St Peter’s Fireside, a new church plant in Vancouver, says that his conversations with atheist friends help him to grow in faith. The article is very interesting, and picks up on something that has struck me before – that sometimes atheists and others who are not Christians know how to be better Christians than we ourselves do. Good conversations with them can help not only to sharpen what we think and believe, but also to challenge us by exposing our blind spots. Sterne's recent conversation with an atheist friend about Scripture illustrates the point:

One evening, my friend said "You Christians think that God wrote the Bible, right?" to which I said “That’s a rather blunt way of stating it, but sure.” He went on, "Here’s what I don’t understand. I ask Christians all the time if they read their Bible and they often say ‘No.’ Seriously? If I believed I had a book written by God I would read the s**t out of that book!"

This kind of honesty about what Christian discipleship ought to look like reminded me of a video that made the rounds several years ago in which Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller fame), a well-known atheist, made a clarion call for Christians to do evangelism:

I think there are two observations to make here. First, often as Christians we acknowledge that reading Scripture and doing evangelism are things we need to do more of, or do better. The problem is that we usually stop there and fail to take action, partly because we think that they are more private, hidden things that we can always work on later. But this, then, is a clear warning that these things are not hidden, and to hear a couple of atheists (rightly) call us out on the glaring inconsistencies in the practice of our faith ought to be humbling and challenging, and prompt us to act quickly for the sake of our witness in the world.

Second, I find it interesting that these atheists expect that discipleship will be something robust and all-encompassing. In the examples above, for instance, they expect us to take the authority of Scripture and the reality of heaven and hell very seriously, and to act accordingly. That again is a challenge to us in an age where it sometimes seems that the overriding concern of our witness is to make Christianity palatable. Here we are trying to make following Jesus more comfortable and less demanding in the belief that this will somehow make the Church more attractive to others, and people who are not Christians are telling us they have no respect for a religion that does not demand everything from you (which makes you wonder if we're really just redefining what it looks like to live faithfully for the sake of our comfort). As the English author and atheist Julian Barnes has written,

There seems little point in a religion which is merely a weekly social event...as opposed to one which tells you exactly how to live, which colours and stains everything… What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious – seriously serious – unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?

Indeed. Sometimes atheists know how to be better Christians than we do.

Oct 31, 2014

I confess that I have long disliked the celebration of Reformation Day. I get slightly irritated when people wish me a 'Happy Reformation Day!', or when my social media connections of the Protestant (and particularly evangelical) variety treat it as if it were the most significant day on the calendar.

Lest I sound too cynical, let me note that I am, indeed, very thankful for the Reformation. I believe that it was absolutely necessary to reform the Church, and I am glad for the good things that came out of it – a renewed emphasis on the authority of Scripture, theological discoveries that brought us to understand things like justification by faith alone (although many Protestants forget that we received far more from the reformers than just a renewed soteriology), the renewal of the Church's worship, a curtailment of the abuse of power by corrupt church leaders, and the fact that I do not have to fund building projects in the Vatican pay for my relatives to be sprung from purgatory.

But despite the things I am thankful for, I am not comfortable with the celebration of Reformation Day, for three reasons. First, the celebration is rooted in a distorted understanding of the Reformation era that is prevalent amongst many Protestants. Celebrations of Reformation Day focus on Martin Luther's act of nailing the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, and behind the commemoration of that event lies two assumptions. The first is that this was a monumental act of defiance by Luther against the Church; the second, that this was the event that sparked the Reformation as a whole. Both of these are simply not true. Whilst he wanted to see the Church reformed, Luther's only intention with the Theses was to raise a discussion with his academic peers about the things he believed needed reforming. Posting theses to be debated was a perfectly normal action in those days, and the only reason it precipitated the major events that followed was because someone grabbed the piece of paper off the door, translated it into German, and sent copies of it all throughout the country. And the only reason that had such drastic effect was because of the groundwork that had been laid in previous centuries as massive cultural changes swept across Europe – the increasing dissatisfaction amongst the populace with the corruption of the medieval Church, the extensive work of many other mostly unknown reformers within the Church (such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, whose influence deserves far more attention), and not least, the invention of the printing press.

Secondly, to set a day aside to celebrate this particular event fosters an unhealthy view of the history of the church. When Luther's actions in Wittenberg are celebrated as the singular event that sparked the Reformation, some Protestants end up with a view of church history that looks something like this:

What effectively ends up being said is that everything that went before Luther, with the exception of the Early Church, was wrong, and that it was good that he was able to cut us off from that awful medieval Church and recover the purity of the what had been lost for more than a millennia. History, though, is never that cut-and-dried. Luther was one cog in the wheel (albeit a very significant one), and he needs to be set in context. The history of the Church is far more nuanced than a bunch of high and low points on a chart. What's more, although much of what happened in the medieval era meant reform was necessary, there was also much good, and much that we actually owe to our medieval forebears.

The third and most important reason I dislike the celebration of Reformation Day is that it is simply a celebration of the disunity of the Church. For some reason, people seem to forget that although Luther was ultimately forced to break from the Roman Catholic Church, he did not do so immediately, nor did he do so willingly and joyfully. He spent years in agony deciding whether or not to leave the Church he knew as 'mother' and to go against Christ's call for unity in the body (John 17:20-26). For as long as he could, he fought to reform the Church from within, just as the many other reformers who went before him did, because they cherished unity and catholicity. And although some of them chose to break, in many cases it was Rome that excommunicated them (or burned them).

If separating from the Church was never the intention of these men, why do their valiant efforts to remain united go unheralded? Instead, we prefer to celebrate the second-most definitive and drastic split in the history of the church (the first being the Great Schism of 1054), which has left us with some massive collateral damage – just look at what it did to the tiny segment of the Church that is the American Presbyterians:

In no way am I advocating a return to Rome, as if that will solve the problem of disunity – indeed, Rome is as much to blame for our division as Protestants are. More, I think history makes it clear that the split at the time of the Reformation was largely inevitable, and I have to admit that I doubt we will see the full reunification of the Church on this side of Christ's return.

But I don't think this should stop us from trying. And so while I'm thankful for the Reformation and the heritage I stand in as an Anglican, I wonder if instead of celebrating Reformation Day, we ought to spend the day mourning our disunity and renewing our commitment to the unity Jesus prayed for, pledging ourselves to work where we are to continually reform our churches and traditions, earnestly praying that these efforts will coalesce and draw us together to ultimately re-establish the real and tangible unity of the body of Christ here on earth.

(Much of my thinking on this I owe to my former church history professor, Jim Payton, whose book, Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, deals with a lot of the misconceptions people have of the Reformation era, and which I commend to you.)

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.