Jake Belder
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).

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.


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.)

Oct 29, 2014

For my research, I have been doing some broad reading on the theology of work and vocation. Most recently, I have read Gary Badcock’s book, The Way of Life: A Theology of Christian Vocation, in which he argues against the notion that each Christian is uniquely called to a specific career. Badcock suggests instead that the vocation each Christian has is more general – a call to love, faith, and obedience to the will of God – and that each of us will work out what that looks like in our individual lives.

Christians first and foremost need to understand that their calling and vocation is to be holy in whatever circumstances they find ourselves in, Badcock says. Commenting on 1 Peter 2.4-5, he continues,

Here there is more than enough to sustain a Christian theology of vocation, for the task is to be holy where we are, amid the responsibilities of ordinary life, and within the community or communities in which we live. Or, as a rather different theological source puts it, ‘Life in the Holy Spirit fulfils the vocation of man’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1699). Everything else must be secondary to this or, better, a function of it. To be ‘for God’ in life – this constitutes the Christian doctrine of vocation. It must be so, for the Christian vocation is a response to God, and the human response is constituted as much by the specific character of each person as by the general call of God to faith and obedience. ‘What does God call me to do?’ is a question that nobody but I can answer. But the specific nature of each response, and the ensuing variety of Christian vocations, must not be allowed to cloud the fact that the fundamental structure of the Christian calling is the same in each case: the call is to the love of God, and because God is love, to the love of one’s neighbour. What remains is to find the way of doing this that corresponds best to what lies in the self, to one’s special gifts and qualities, within the specific circumstances of one’s life. More than this cannot be done, and nothing more than this can be required of us (123).

On the whole, I don’t think Badcock says enough about the significance of our work, but I do think he makes a valuable point here. Many Christians experience a great deal of stress over the question of whether or not they are doing the will of God, but often that concern is focused on the idea that God has a blueprint for their lives which they must follow to the letter, and that they are doing something wrong if they haven't figured exactly what that looks like. In response to this, Badcock is right – the answer to the question, ‘What is God’s will for my life?’ begins with the pursuit of godliness. And when we set ourselves to be ‘for God’ in this life, he will put us where he needs us to be in order to use us for his plans and purposes.

Oct 27, 2014

The publication of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer is one of the most significant moments in the history of the English Church. It was the first Protestant prayer book and the first attempt at reforming the worship of the Church after England’s ecclesiastical break with Rome. Thomas Cranmer was given the task of creating an English liturgy for the people that would help shape their worship and belief as England wrestled through the changes of the Reformation era.

I read the preface to the 1549 edition last week for a module I’m currently enrolled in on issues of authority in Anglicanism, and a number of things struck me. In the first place was Cranmer’s insistence that worship was for the purpose of growing in godliness. This appears a few times throughout the preface (which is only a couple of pages): The ‘common prayers in the Church…[are] for a great advancement in godliness’; ‘The whole Bible should be read over once every year’ so that everyone ‘should (by often reading and meditation in God’s Word) be stirred up to godliness’; and so on.

Cranmer notes that the trappings and ceremonies that had been introduced in centuries prior to the Reformation hindered people from becoming more godly because worship became so completely inaccessible to them. Whether it was the fact that the Mass was conducted in Latin, that so little Scripture was read, or that good things were distorted and ‘grew daily to more and more abuses’, Cranmer was firm in his conviction that ‘because they have much blinded the people and obscured the glory of God, [they] are worthy to be cut away and clean rejected’. He even goes so far as to poke a bit of fun at the difficulties of just trying to follow Roman worship:

The number and hardness of the rules called the Pie, and the manifold changings of the service, was the cause that to turn the book only was so hard and intricate a matter, that many times there was more business to find out what should be read than to read it when it was found out.

Thus the prayer book was introduced as a means of simplifying the worship of the English Church. It is important to note that Cranmer was not inventing anything new. This was truly an act of reform: to take things that had been passed down from the Early Church, to strip them of whatever had distorted them in more recent centuries, and to give back to the Church something that would once again form them into the likeness of Christ. That is why amongst the changes Cranmer made was to renew the emphasis on the primacy of Scripture. In his famous phrase, he wanted Christians to 'hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them', and so he completely saturated the worship of the Church with Scripture, both by having nearly the whole Bible read through every year in the context of gathered worship, and by infusing the language of the liturgy itself with Scripture.

Finally, Cranmer states something about the unifying purpose of the new prayer book, and in doing so, says something significant about the whole question of comprehensiveness and bringing a diverse church together by means of a common form of worship:

In this our time the minds of men are so diverse that some think it is a great matter of conscience to depart from a piece of the least of their ceremonies, they be so addicted to their old customs; and again on the other side, some be so new-fangled that they would innovate all things and so despise the old that nothing can like them, but that is new; it was thought expedient, not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God and profit them both.

That last line is incredibly significant. Cranmer wanted to see the English Church united, but he was not willing to let that merely be a surface or superficial unity (like we, in many ways, unfortunately seem to have today). For him, that unity had to be expressed in true commonality of worship (the extent of that commonality is an important question, of course), and even more, in the shared goal of glorifying God and of growing in holiness.

We would do well if our unity was based on those same goals today. Does that mean a return to the Book of Common Prayer? No, but perhaps it is worth thinking about whether something like Common Worship, in all its vastness and diversity, actually maintains the commonality of worship Cranmer called for, or whether it is intended more 'to please and satisfy...parties' rather than 'to please God and profit them'.1

1 Let me add that I say this as one who is, on the whole, an admirer of Common Worship.
Oct 25, 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.

Please note: This will be the last instalment in the Miscellanées series. I simply don't have the time to continue to put this post together each week. From here forward, all the links I share on Twitter will also be posted to a new Tumblr blog, and archived there. A link for the Tumblr site appears in the menu bar above.

Here are the links from the week of 19-25 October 2014.

  1. Hallowe'en is Coming: some thoughtsMichael Sadgrove muses on whether there is still a place for Hallowe'en. An interesting post.
  2. 33 thoughts on reading – Some great thoughts on how to make the most of the reading experience. This is a manifesto I can very happily get behind.
  3. 10 reasons why you shouldn't have a church website – In a day where conventional wisdom seems to be that a good website is crucial for a church to have, this is a very interesting post.
  4. The gospel and telepathy – This is fun: "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if you're unable to communicate telepathically."
  5. An Extraordinary Synod, IndeedGeorge Weigel has some interesting insights on the recent Roman Catholic Synod on the Family that took place in Rome earlier this month, which he says was quite extraordinary in a number of ways..
  6. Reading Wendell Berry at Costco – This article is a review of James K.A. Smith's latest book, How (Not) to be Secular, but also offers some really helpful insight into Smith's thought, as the reviewer draws from a number of his recent writings.
  7. A Tale of Two Deaths – A brilliant piece from Matthew Lee Anderson on the sacredness of life and courage in facing death: "To choose death, even when death is inevitable, is a fundamental betrayal of the sacredness of life. It is a concession to the enemy, not a triumph over it: it claims for itself ‘dignity,’ but it is a false dignity that comes from binding oneself to that which destroys human life."
  8. The Death of the Parish – Here is a thoughtful post from David Koyzis on how our use of cars has impacted our ecclesiology.
  9. Loving the Hunt: Kuyper on Scholarship and Stewardship – This is a good post on why in scholarship, among other things, it can't always just be about the end results. The process of inquiry is just as important.
  10. Seeking self or costly discipleship? Standing with the persecuted – Another great post from this week from David Koyzis: "At the moment, [Christians in the global south] need us to stand in solidarity with them, and we will not do so credibly if we have accepted a faith that downplays the path of obedience to a God who claims the totality of our lives as his own. It is just possible that the best antidote to a peculiarly western religion focused on the self is to open our eyes and ears to our persecuted brothers and sisters overseas."

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

Oct 20, 2014

One of the things I hear every now and then from newer preachers is that they have an ambition and desire to be able to preach with simple notes, or even without notes. At our college Communion service at St John’s College the other week, the visiting preacher preached without notes, and many people said afterwards how amazed they were by this. And rightly so – she didn’t stumble at all, the words ‘uh’ and ‘um’ were pretty much absent from her vocabulary, and the sermon was clear and structured.

Does this mean that all preachers should aim to preach without notes? When people suggest to me that they should, there are a few things I usually say in response. That is not because I presume to be an expert on preaching, but having done it regularly over the past three years, I have a few thoughts borne out of experience.

In the first place, every preacher has different abilities. The preacher at our Communion service clearly had the sort of memory that could just absorb things as she prepared, which could then be distilled verbally without any written prompts. My brain doesn’t work that way, however. It’s not that the stuff I take in while I prepare to preach doesn’t stay there, but the way my memory works, were I to go into the pulpit without notes, I would have a lot of difficulty calling it all back to mind. Give me a pen and paper and I can probably write it all out again, but to share it all verbally without prompts would be difficult for me. As a result, I use a script when I preach, and I’m unapologetic about that fact. I’ve worked hard during the week to expound the text and to put the sermon together, and when I get into the pulpit I want to make sure that everything that needs to be said gets said clearly.

Secondly, in response to this, some new preachers are concerned that if they use a script it will sound like they are reading an essay. That will only be true if you write it like an essay. One of the things you learn when you preach is to find your own voice. For me, that means that when I write a few sentences or a paragraph for a sermon, I read them back to myself to make sure it sounds like something I would say. It means I don’t always use proper grammar, that I don’t worry too much about colloquialisms, and that I sometimes write in a sort of ‘stream of consciousness’ style. And because I try and write in the way I speak, when I get into the pulpit, I only need to glance at a line I’ve written to remember what’s there. That frees me up from having to focus too much on it to make sure I read it correctly.

Sometimes after I’ve made these points, those who advocate preaching without notes might make one final comment, and that is to suggest that to preach a scripted sermon is to stifle the work of the Holy Spirit. Honestly, I think that is nonsense. When I preach, I can think of at least four distinct ways I depend on the work of the Spirit: first, to sanctify me; second, to write the truths of the passage I’m preaching from on my own heart first; third, to guide me in my study and preparation; and fourth, to take my words and to use them to open up the truth of God’s Word so that his people will be built up in faith. If that’s not depending on the Spirit, I don’t know what is. And yes, that means that sometimes when I’m preaching I will feel prompted to say things other than what I’ve written. But more often than not, it means I stick to what’s on the page in front of me.

If you can preach with bullet points or without notes, that’s great. But I don’t think that is a goal that every preacher needs to aspire to. God uses you as you are, with your unique abilities and gifts. And if your desire is simply to proclaim his Word faithfully so that his people are transformed more and more into the likeness of Christ, and so that others come to know the risen Lord Jesus, then he will do that work by his Spirit whether or not you need to have notes in front of you.

(And yes, that's a photo of me preaching from a couple of years ago. With notes.)

©2014, Jake Belder. Disclaimer here.