Sep 27, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 21-27 September 2014.

  1. How to Survive the Secular ApocalypseKevin Flatt suggests that secularism is crumbling around us, and makes some helpful suggestions as to how Christians can respond to that.
  2. On not being converted – Reflecting on Jesus' calling of Matthew to be his disciple, Jeremy Fletcher has some good thoughts on how for so many of us, conversion is an ongoing process.
  3. Where to go to Church – Here is a rather interesting piece on what kinds of things you should consider when choosing a church. The author ends up suggesting that a church should be chosen 'first and foremost, for its theological positions and, secondarily, for all of the other great benefits that it could offer'. There is an interesting conversation to be had here.
  4. Do Christian Schools Produce Good Citizens? The Evidence Says Yes.Cardus, a Canadian think tank, has done some very interesting research on how different types of schools prepare children for life in wider society. You can read some of the results here.
  5. Recreated in Four Dimensions – Here is a deeply encouraging piece from Peter Leithart on what our baptism actually does to us. If you've never really taken the time to stop and think about what your baptism means, do it now.
  6. Children Who Never Play – This is a really interesting piece on the benefits of letting children play, particularly in unsupervised environments, and how it forms them as people and as members of society.
  7. Busy is Blasphemy – We all say we're busy from time to time, but perhaps we ought not to. Here is a great post that suggests saying you're busy is a weapon of pride and self-interest, and you just need to stop it.
  8. The importance of testimonyIan Paul has an interesting post on the role of testimony in sharing the faith. I was interested to read this, as I've reflected on it before too, both on the effectiveness and the necessary content of testimonies.
  9. What do we do when the Bible is ‘wrong’? – Another helpful post from Ian Paul this week, this time on how we deal with parts of the Bible that seem to be wrong based on what we know from other sources, and especially when we want to uphold the authority of Scripture.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Sep 22, 2014

A couple of weeks ago, I was listening to a few people talk about the decline of the church here in the United Kingdom, and about different strategies that are being employed to address the decline. One of the leaders in the Methodist Church was talking about what they are doing to re-brand their denomination with a much more distinct focus on mission, and about their experimentations with intentional communities and new monasticism. A local vicar and theologian was later saying that if there is ever to be a renewal of life in the church, it needs to begin with a renewal of the clergy. The overarching concern of the conversation was one very earnest question: How do we stop people leaving the church?

Usually when I am listening to these sorts of conversations, two things go through my mind. The first is that, when we are faced with a situation like we are currently in here in the UK, we will only be able to press on when we have a healthy understanding of God’s sovereignty and a conviction that he is at work in the world even when we cannot see it. I posted about this a few months ago. The second thing that goes through my mind, though, is that maybe we do not need to do anything differently at all. Maybe we need to consider that God allows us to go through times like this in order to help us (re-)learn to depend on him.

I understand the impulse to want to rethink the things we do as the church when we seem to be failing to draw people in. After all, it is our calling to bear witness to Christ and his Kingdom and to seek to bring others in to discover the fullness of life that Jesus offers, and when that is not happening, we should be concerned. But what if too often we end up thinking everything needs to change because we are only looking to fulfil this calling in our own strength?

When listening to these sorts of conversations, you often here the first-person plural employed – we need to do this, we’ve tried this, we should try this. On the one hand, this could simply be understood as wrestling with how to carry out our responsibility to be witnesses and thinking about what that looks like in different times and places. But on the other hand, perhaps we need take a step back and consider the idea that God has already given us all the tools we need to be his witnesses in the world – Word and sacrament, and the empowerment of the Spirit – and have faith that the tools he has given us are the right tools for the job.

I tend to think, as I listen to these sorts of conversations, that although we would not hesitate to acknowledge that these are the tools we have been given, we have lost our confidence in what they can accomplish because they do not seem to be working right any more. But is the problem that the tools are faulty? Or is it perhaps that we simply do not trust God and his Spirit to make those tools effective any more? Few Christians would dare suggest that anything God has given his people to carry out their mission is insufficient. And that is why I suggest we consider that God is allowing us to go through a time of decline in order that we can re-learn to depend on him and the power of his Spirit to do the work he has called us to.

Christians around the world who find themselves in contexts where they are oppressed and persecuted also focus on what they need to do to preserve and grow the church. But I suspect that if you were to ask them what we need to do, their answers would be pretty simple: pray, read the Bible, stop making an idol of comfort and be willing to count the cost that comes with faithfulness, and keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Certainly that is what animated the early church and why God blessed it with such rapid growth, as the book of Acts testifies to. And again today, with the church growing as rapidly as it is in different parts of the world, there is something for us to (re-)learn here, and it is not about adopting the most innovate strategies and programmes. It is simply about wholehearted dependence on the God who has called us and who is the source of the church’s life.

If we get to that point where our talk about what we need to do lines up with the things we need to do to depend on God, we will find ourselves in a good place. And perhaps, in God’s mercy, we will even find that the decline of the church is something we do not have to talk about any longer.

Sep 20, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 14-20 September 2014.

  1. A Book I’d Like to Write (or At Least Read)Wesley Hill says he might like to 'write a book for a mainstream press that tries to explain to a skeptical audience what it’s like to hold a traditional Christian sexual ethic. An insider’s report, so to speak, for traditional religion’s puzzled and interested observers'. I think he is right that something like this would be very helpful.
  2. Leave none alivePhil Whittall compiles a helpful list of resources on the whole question of God and genocide.
  3. Should Sermons Be Published? – In a day where recording and publishing sermons is almost ubiquitous, Jake Meador has a really interesting and thoughtful post questioning that practice. There is lots to think about here.
  4. Table Manners: Why We Take Communion Every Week – Good overview piece in Christianity Today on the importance of Holy Communion. Nothing new, of course, but as it is written for a primarily (American) evangelical audience, it's good to see them running pieces like this.
  5. Agents of New CreationPeter Leithart discusses how Christians give light to, form, and fill the world, modelling the pattern of God's creative acts.
  6. Parenting in the Spirit – Another post from Peter Leithart, who here says, 'If you want your family to flourish, make sure your family is a Pentecostal family.' What he means by that is that we need to parent in the Spirit – seeking to be filled by the Spirit through prayer, through the Word, at the Table, and by putting to death that which grieves the Spirit.
  7. The Lavishness of Friendship and a World Beyond VowsWesley Hill wrote the cover story for the recent edition of Christianity Today, and here Matthew Lee Anderson interacts with some of Wesley's points, raising what I think is an interesting conversation.
  8. What does it mean to be ‘lost’? – A very interesting post from Ian Paul on the language we use to talk about those who are not Christians. There is much to talk and think about here.
  9. Church Planting Is Extending Eden – I am going to blog a response to this post next week, but for now, I'll simply point out that there is a lot of theological confusion here, particularly in the narrow view of mission and in a misunderstanding of the creational mandate.
    (Update 25/09/2014: I've decided not to respond to this article, partly because of time constraints, and partly because I've said much of what I would say in response before on this blog.)

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Sep 17, 2014

In his book, The House Where God Lives, theologian Gary D. Badcock discusses the significance of God calling people to himself and giving them a new identity, and how that new identity is completely bound up with being given a new mission. He writes,

The church does not exist because people elect to join it for reasons relation to personal fulfilment, but because God reaches out to the world in love, calling a people into existence as his own. From the standpoint of the individual – judging from the Bible at least – being summoned by God is often a crushing experience, and it calls into existence a new identity for the person in question. In the paradigmatic call stories of the Bible, the whole meaning of a person’s existence is restructured by the mission that is entrusted to him: the person receives a new name. That a person’s name changes is symbolic of this transposition, for in the Hebraic world of the Bible, a human name signifies a corresponding human character: Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter. Furthermore, the agents of the transformation of the church, the Son and the Holy Spirit (the ‘two hands of the Father’), operate in a way that, while certainly not crushing the human desire for personal fulfilment, is certainly not merely a means to it. Instead, what they do is lay hold of us, and they gather us in so that we participate in the divine purpose and mission. There is no sign here of the spirit of consumer religion (170-171).

For Christians, baptism is that summoning by God that crushes us. To go down into the water is to be stripped clean and washed of our old identity, in order to come up again out of the water raised to new life and given a new identity, marked with the seal of Christ. And because our new identity is now fully bound up with Christ, so too is the new mission we are given – to participate in the work Christ began during his time on earth of revealing and making known the Kingdom of God.

Baptism is thus not about our commitment to Christ, but it is about Christ claiming and remaking us so that, as new creations, we are now sent out to do his work in the power of the Spirit. No longer do we live for our own purposes, but only for the purpose to which Christ has called us. A new name means a new mission.

Sep 15, 2014

Okay, I admit it, I used an intentionally provocative title for this post (despite telling someone just last week how I don’t like to do that). And really, I’m thinking about more here than just keeping your children in church. But the image below, which I stumbled across the other day, makes a significant point:

Substitute ‘people’ for ‘Christians’ and you see what I mean. Children don’t just need to hear us teach the faith, but they need to see us enact the faith. And while of course that needs to happen all the time, observation and participation in corporate worship teaches children so much about what it means and looks like to be a Christian. The things we do and the postures we adopt as we gather to worship are absolutely key to our formation as disciples of Christ. That is no less true for children.

In the summer issue of Comment magazine, editor James K.A. Smith points to a new book by Vern Bengston, Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generations. Discussing Bengston’s findings, he writes,

When it comes to passing on faith, what matters is how you relate to your children. Authoritarian constriction doesn’t help (zealots only produce rebels, Bengston found); but neither does a hands-off, laissez-faire, let-the-kids-decide approach. Instead, as Stephen Warner helpfully summarizes in a Books & Culture review, ‘Emotional solidarity, consistent role modeling, and openness to adolescent and young adult experimentation are ingredients in successful intergenerational religious transmission.’ In other words: proclaim the faith to your children, immerse them in the practices of the body of Christ, model the faith for them, and given them room to question it – the sovereign Spirit will do the rest.

Smith concludes by saying that the worst thing we could do is to lower the bar for what’s expected of our children, and that we need to do away with 'the misguided suggestion that diluted Christianity is one that will "keep" our young people.' Equally problematic, I think, are practices that keep children from full participation in corporate worship, whether that be cutting them off from it until they are nearly adults, or limiting their exposure to corporate worship to contexts that look almost nothing like what constitutes corporate worship in most settings. Yet so often these are the convictions that shape our discipleship work amongst children.

The point is simple: Take your responsibility as parents seriously when it comes to the faith of your children. Don't shut them away in Sunday School for more than a decade or send them off to be entertained in different contexts and then expect them to fully integrate into the regular worshipping life of a local church. Research demonstrates this is less likely to happen than with children who have grown up in church. And that is because a key part of our responsibility as parents in handing down the faith to our children is intentionally engaging them in the practices of the faith and showing them how it’s done. To paraphrase Kid President again, 'Kids are learning how to be Christians by watching you.'

(HT: Gemma Dunning)

Sep 11, 2014

Despite the nearly two months of inactivity on this blog, I have not given up on it and allowed it to die. It has simply been placed on the back burner due to some big changes in life. If you follow me on Twitter, you know that earlier this year I was selected to train for ordained ministry in the Church of England, and so we have relocated to Durham where I'll be training at Cranmer Hall.

Moving and getting settled and all that comes along with that is not the time to be blogging, but now that we've been here for about a month, I expect to begin posting more regularly again soon. Look for some new stuff next week.

Jul 18, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

Here are the links from the week of 13-19 July 2014.

  1. A Call to Adopt – The good people at The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation, and Culture asked me to write an article on adoption for their blog. It was a good opportunity to reflect again on adopting our children, ten months on from bringing them home.
  2. False Steps in the Assisted Dying Debate – A very helpful and incisive piece from Andrew Goddard in response to some poorly argued statements from Christians who have recently come out in favour of assisted suicide.
  3. On the Need for Gay Christian Role ModelsWesley Hill shares some thoughts on a key way the church can help celibate gay Christians to live faithfully.
  4. Barbara Walters on the Art of Conversation, How to Talk to Bores, and What Truman Capote Teaches Us About Being Interesting – As someone who thoroughly enjoys good conversation (and wishes he was much better at it!) I found this post quite interesting.
  5. “Great sermon, pastor!” Handling genuine compliments – Here is a helpful post from Chris Green on how to handle different types of post-sermon conversations.
  6. Church Planting Is Insufficient For Social Change – This is a great post from Anthony Bradley on why just planting churches and converting people won't change cities. Christians need to be fully involved in the life of our communities, especially at the institutional level, if we are going to be a blessing.
  7. On good disagreement and the future of the Church of England – This theme came up last week in a post from Martin Davie, and here Anthony Smith picks it up again with some thoughtful comments.
  8. Marriage for the Common Good – Here is a great piece from James K.A. Smith on why marriages cannot be 'privatized enclaves for romance', but must be for the common good. He writes, 'When we expect marriages to be extensions of idealistic weddings, we're not only setting ourselves up to fail, we are abandoning the call to "household," to curate open homes where others are welcome and from which we lean out to serve the good of our neighbours.'
  9. Christoformity – The whole idea of ‘cruciformity’ has been a somewhat popular idea in recent years, but Peter Leithart here helpfully suggests that we need to talk about more than that.
  10. Ecclesiastes, a Book for Our Time – Craig Bartholomew talks about his new commentary in these two short videos. The second in particular is quite interesting as he talks about his reading of Ecclesiastes and the tradition it most closely aligns with.

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Jul 12, 2014

Every week I use Twitter to share a variety of articles and posts and other interesting things I have seen and read across the web. They are then collected here and posted at the end of the week.

As you can see, the past couple of weeks have been either been very slow, or – and this is much more likely – I have been very out of the loop.

Here are the links from the week of 29 June-12 July 2014.

  1. Should we preach like a TED talk?Chris Green has an interesting post on what preachers can learn from the TED method, as well as some things they ought to avoid. The timing of this post was perfect, as I had just linked to something else about the TED method a couple weeks ago and was thinking about what preachers could learn from this.
  2. Why disagreement is not goodMartin Davie has a thoughtful post here on Justin Welby's idea of 'good disagreement'. He largely disagrees with Welby's approach, and makes the case that instead the Church ought to be a community that pursues truth, and that aims at coming to agreement in the truth. (I would note as well that if Davie's reading of Welby is correct, the former is arguably more Anglican than the latter!)

Feel free to comment on any of these items or recommend further articles or posts related to the content above using the space below.

Jul 8, 2014

Several weeks ago, Anthony Bradley tweeted this:

Anthony makes what I think is a profoundly important point that needs to be taken seriously if we are to think about what it looks like to be faithful in our Western context. Yet amongst the myriad of books and articles and whatever else claiming to have the answer to why the church in the West is declining and increasingly being marginalised, this point is seemingly never made. Liberal Christians often contend that the church’s decline is a result of having not kept up with the values of our culture and society, and thus being perceived as completely irrelevant and out of touch. Conservative Christians often contend that the church’s decline is a result of the influence of liberal Christianity and the watering down of the gospel.

To some degree or another both of these factors could be taken into account, but neither is sufficient to answer the question altogether. The problem with these conclusions is that they only look at our action in history. They fail to point to the action of God in directing the course of history.

I have always been fascinated by Acts 16:7-8, which has sometimes been called the most pivotal event in Western history, when the Spirit of Jesus prevented Paul, Silas, and Timothy from going into Bythnia on their missionary journey and prompted them to go Macedonia instead. One of the things that is striking about Luke's narrative here is that it solely focuses on the action of God in directing history in relation to the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church. Nothing is said about Paul, Silas, and Timothy's response to this prompting, nor about the reasons God sent them where he did. And Anthony’s question is simply this: If God has directed that the gospel would spread to certain places and not others before, why could he not do the same today?

My point is not that we should not always be on the move, going where the church is growing the most. Paul, Silas, and Timothy had a unique call, and other examples from the book of Acts show Christians labouring faithfully where they are. Nor is my point that we should not consider any other factors in trying to come to grips with what has happened in the West. What we need to understand most of all, though, in this context where the church is not growing in the ways it is in other parts of the world, is that we will only remain faithful and avoid discouragement if we simply remember that God is in control. If you don’t have confidence that God is directing the course of history and that he is at work in the world to build his church, you will ultimately think that it all depends on you. And when you then find yourself in a 'time of small things', as one of my colleagues likes to say, your response will be to either give up on the means God has given us to do the work he has called us to, or give up entirely because you are so discouraged.

Ministry is always hard work, and there are always challenges. In many of those parts of the world where the church is flourishing, Christians face significant opposition and persecution. Our challenge is, amongst other things, significant apathy. It's helpful for us to remember Paul's instructions to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2: 'Preach the word; be prepared in season and out of season.' Paul goes on to tell Timothy that he will find himself in a time that sounds very similar to our own. And what is Timothy to do then? He is just to press on faithfully with the work he has been entrusted with.

We certainly ought to pray that the church will again grow and flourish here in the West. But in the end, that is not up to us. Right now we are simply called to be faithful, whatever the situation. And no matter what it looks like around us, there are many other places in the world that remind us we can be confident in Jesus' promise: 'I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it' (Matthew 16:18). God is always at work.

Jul 3, 2014

Preaching aims, in part, to confront the sin in the lives of the hearers, in order that they might be convicted to turn from sin and turn to Christ. Often the idea of fighting sin is equated simply with behaviour modification, and while that is partly true – turning from sin should change our behaviour – it goes much deeper than that.

Tim Keller, in his book, The Reason for God, says that “sin is the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from him” (162). Keller goes on to say that all sin leads to emptiness, because we look to build our identity on things in this world, and turn to them to try and fill a void inside of us. But because that void was only ever meant to be filled by God, these things never satisfy us.

Keller continues:

As Augustine said, if there is a God who created you, then the deepest chambers of your soul simply cannot be filled up by anything less. That is how great the human soul is. If Jesus is the Creator-Lord, then by definition nothing could satisfy you like he can, even if you are successful. Even the most successful careers and families cannot give the significance, security, and affirmation that the author of glory and love can (172-173).

I find Keller's understanding of sin here (and fleshed out much more in his later book, Counterfeit Gods) to be very helpful, and in my preaching, this understanding is often lurking in the background, giving shape to what I say. There is nothing more I want than for people to desire Jesus alone. But I actually find this difficult to communicate. By that I mean that I think it is easier to convince people that they should abandon a certain behaviour because of its negative effects than it is to convince them that underneath their sinful behaviour lies a longing that can only be satisfied by Jesus. As simple as that truth is, it often feels to me like it is really hard to drive that point home.

One of the things I have had to learn as a preacher is that there are limits to what I can say. And that, I think, is what I need to recognise in this case as well. Here is a simple truth, and as a preacher I am just called to point to Jesus as the one who satisfies all our deepest longings and desires, and to let the Holy Spirit go to work in the hearts of the hearers to convict them of that reality. I can only say so much, and need to believe that through the power of the Spirit, those who are listening will grasp the fullness of what is being offered as Jesus is held out to them.

I know my faith in the work of the Spirit still needs to grow, and I keep praying that I will get to the point where I stop expecting my words to do his work. If you are a preacher, do you struggle with this sort of thing too?

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.