Archive | theology

Was Jesus Missional?

Is church missional or attractional? Two buzzwords that frame an important debate about the calling of the church.

A few weeks ago I attended a fascinating conference on Disciple Making Movements (DMM). At the conference there was a strong rejection of institutional or attractional models of church. It was argued that these models of church hindered multiplication, exponential growth and the development of disciple making movements.

Instead the church should send out teams of disciple makers just as Jesus did in Luke 10. Teams of two will then locate ‘people of peace’ in the local community or culture. These people of peace are then discipled through a simple bible study method called the ‘Discovery Bible Study’. These studies essentially ask three questions; what does it say? What does it mean? What will you do? This must be a replicable process that is not dependent on knowledge or expertise. The person of peace then begins discipling others. In this way, new disciples is not asked to leave their community or culture and neither are those they disciple. This, it was argued, is the true definition of missional.

So David Broodryck who leads a movement of over one thousand communities says “Inviting others into a community they don’t already belong to, whether a service or gathering, a missional community or a cell, is by definition attractional. To be missional is not to invite someone into a new community, it is to redeem their existing community.”

In stark contrast, I’m currently reading ‘Deep and Wide’ by Andy Stanley, the Lead Pastor of Northpoint Community Church in the US. He sees a regular Sunday attendance of 33,000 over several sites. He is also passionate about making disciples but goes about it in a completely different way. In his book he says, “We are unapologetically attractional. In our search for common ground with unchurched people we discovered that like us they are consumers. So we leveraged their consumer instincts. When you read the gospels it’s hard to overlook the fact that Jesus attracted large crowds everywhere he went. He was constantly playing to the consumer instincts of his crowds. Let’s face it: it wasn’t the content of his messages that appealed to the masses. Most of the time they didn’t even understand what he was talking about. Heck we’re not always sure what Jesus is talking about. People flocked to Jesus because he fed them, healed them, comforted them and promised them things. Besides what’s the opposite of attractional? Missional don’t think so!”

One is “unashamably attractional”, the other is exclusively missional. Perhaps this reflects a third conversation I had this week about sodalities and modalities. Missiologists such as Ralph Winter argue that the church has two dynamics which must be held in tension for it to grow. The first is the local church (modality). This is the place to belong. Winter argues it is a place of first decision. People choose to attend, to belong and that is enough. The second is the sent church (sodality). This is the place of mission and disciple making. Those who make up the sent church have made the first decision to belong, but they have also made the second decision to become disciple makers. This is the place for those who do are frustrated by the local church. Traditionally these two dynamics have expressed themselves as parish churches and monastic orders. Winter argues that people are one or the other. To try and introduce one into the other will simply produce resistance or frustration. So, the argument goes, don’t try and create a missional local church, instead locate the ‘radical few’ who are naturally part of the sent church, disciple them and release them to make disciples in the communities and cultures around the local church.

I wonder though whether this is a false dichotomy. This analysis leaves me with a number of questions. Can you create a missional culture that attracts people into a new community? Can you mix sodality and modality or will you simply produce resistance?

Do you have to let go of the local church, acknowledging that they will only ever be places of first decision and find the ‘radical few’ willing to make the second decision to make disciples, or can you cast a vision and create the necessary structures that allows the local church to be the sent church?

It seems to me that Jesus refuses to choose one or the other but holds the two in creative tension. In one sense, he is clearly attractional. Not only does he attract crowds with his preaching and teaching, he calls his disciples to follow him. He takes them out of their community and culture and creates a new community, a new Israel. According to Broodryck, we must also call this attractional disciple making. Having said that, Jesus also sends out disciple makers into towns and villages across the region, establishing indigenous communities of disciples that Paul quite possibly encountered on his missionary journeys a few years later.

Paul also appears to maintain this tension. His whole mission was to new people groups. In one sense he refuses to ask them to abandon their communities and cultures. But in another sense that is precisely what he does. In his letter to the Ephesian church, he speaks of the creation of the one new humanity out of the two. The church was to be neither Jewish nor Gentile, it was to be a third thing. In Paul’s thinking the church is a new community, an alternative city or ‘polis’ that is different and distinctive, citizens of heaven, aliens and strangers in the world. In fact, one can argue, persuasively I think, that most of the metaphors for the church in the New Testament assume the attractional model. Paul speaks of the temple and the body, Peter speaks of living stones and the kingdom of priests

The New Testament describes an ecclesial rhythm that includes come and go, invitation and challenge, community and mission, breathing in and out. Lets transcend this false distinction and create highly attractional worship experiences and plant missional communities and cells throughout the community and workplace.

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Retreat is a painful thing

 

Retreat is a painful thing. I’m on the second of my new monthly rhythm of retreats. I don’t go very far, but I am alone for 36 hours with a few books, my thoughts, a journal and my restless ego.

Last month I read Tim Keller’s book ‘The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness’. It has its origins in a sermon on 1 Corinthians 4:3. Paul, he says, does not care what others think of him. Neither does he care what he thinks of himself. All that matters for Paul is what God thinks of him. Keller makes the point that his ego is quiet, it’s working properly, it’s not drawing attention to itself like a swollen, distended organ or limb. I was reading this acutely aware that I was alone, without anyone to impress, and on retreat, without anything to do to give myself value. My ego certainly wasn’t quiet.

Today is equally painful. Strangely perhaps, I feel intensely lonely. Over lunch I looked at a beautiful photo of my daughter that a friend had emailed to me. I am missing her and its only been six hours! I also feel restless and unsettled. My mind and my spirit are all over the place. It is easy when you are alone to feel defeated and depressed. You feel like your thoughts and feelings are out of control, untameable. Certainly there is frustration and a touch of despair. It may be the extrovert in me but I fear solitude as something inherently destructive. My temptation is to flee, to escape into fantasy, or simply to do something, to get busy, to be appreciated.

The Psalm for Morning Prayer today was Psalm 42. Verse 1 jumped out at me as I read:

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my souls pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

 As I read I felt a still small voice say to me that my sense of desolation and restlessness was not something to flee or escape from, rather it was an expression of desire, in this case, desire for God that could only be satisfied in prayer and contemplation. This sense of longing and lack is a recognition in my spirit that God alone satisfies. It is possible to drown out this yearning with the white noise of the world around me, to momentarily gratify my ego with gifts or experience. But it never lasts and the real state of my ego, my self, becomes all too apparent when all of that is stripped away.

My aim today then, is to get to a place of contentment and peace; to simply hold myself in God’s presence; to remain alert and aware in the stillness. If I can do that, it will be progress indeed. If not, at least I have a stash of chocolate to turn to!

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no waterMy soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1,8)

 

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What now for the Church of England?

I was surprised how emotional I was when I heard the news this week that the General Synod had voted down the legislation that would have led to the introduction of female bishops. The thought of another decade of ongoing debate, a sense that this is the most balanced legislation we are likely to get, and a solidarity with the amazing women I know exercising ordained ministry in the church who once again feel undervalued, all boiled over in that moment as I hurled my iPhone onto the sofa as I read the headline.

In the days since I have thought a lot about the decision. I am one of those who wants the Church of England to remain a broad and inclusive church; one that is able to disagree well. So for me, it is important that those of a minority view do feel that they have a place in the church as it moves forward. Having said that, trying to understand why those who disagree with me on this issue do so, is not easy.

Though I don’t fully understand their position, I can appreciate that episcopacy is of real significance to conservative catholics. Consecration effects ordination, which in turn, has a profound effect on Eucharistic ministry. I worry though that this leaves my catholic brothers open to the charge of Donatism when most of them are really good Augustinians.  I can appreciate too the significance of the historic episcopacy and its links to Rome which means conservative catholics deny the Church of England has the authority to make such changes. Again though, I wonder how their conscience allows them to remain in what is really a Reformed church. We have been doing things that Rome refuses to recognize since the Reformation. Why is this different? Perhaps it is because this is the first time we are tinkering with the essence of the church. But I wonder whether the introduction of a third province will have much the same effect. It certainly seems to alter the role of the bishop and their relationship to one another and the wider church. I can appreciate too that for conservative catholics the priest represents Christ at the altar in a different way to the evangelical minister at the table. But if it is true that ‘what is not assumed is not healed’ as Gregory of Nazianzus argued, then surely one must believe Jesus became a human being rather than a man, and so can be represented by a woman at the altar. Otherwise, what are we saying about women and their salvation. I plead ignorance of these things so if someone would like to help me understand them better, please do.

But to be honest, it’s the conservative evangelicals I find harder to understand.  I have much more in common with them. I read most of the same books. I like many of the same theologians. I even recognize that complementarians can marshal a coherent and compelling case from the Scriptures. But in this debate we are not talking about complementarianism, we’re talking about episcopacy. Let me explain what I mean.

Conservative evangelicals have always prioritized the local church. It is the local church that is the base ecclesial unit not the diocese gathered together around the bishop. This, in practice, has led to Conservative Evangelicals getting on with Gospel ministry on the ground and leaving the more bureaucratic diocesan jobs to the other traditions. John Stott had to make an impassioned plea for evangelicals to get involved in the structures of the church at the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress and conservative evangelicals have been disagreeing with him ever since. This leads people I know well to say things like ‘the diocese is a para-church organisation’ and ‘if there was a Presbyterian church in the UK, there wouldn’t be any conservative evangelical Anglicans’. These are not young naïve presbyters but leaders in large churches and theological colleges saying these things.

So what has changed? It seems to me that complementarianism is much more constitutive of conservative evangelical identity than it used to be. It has become a boundary marker that indicates you take the bible seriously enough to be identified as a conservative evangelical. I also suspect the experience of conservative parishes and dioceses in The Episcopal Church in the US has left many conservative evangelicals in the UK wary of those who say the Code of Practice will be enough. These wider concerns though leave conservative evangelicals with an inconsistent and incoherent ecclesiology. If the diocese and its bishops really matter so little (and the church planting strategies of many conservative evangelical churches suggest this is so) then how can they justify such opposition to female bishops?

Instead of mustering such fierce opposition to female bishops, I wonder whether conservative evangelicals might actually be in a unique place to suggest a solution. The bible clearly speaks of multiple presbyters leading churches. So in the same way that conservative evangelicals have always prioritized the local church, they have also emphasized the plurality of church leadership (one of the reasons why Presbyterianism remains so attractive to them). I realize that the evangelical sub-culture tends to create celebrity pastors and preachers, but I think the theological point remains true. There is a built in antipathy to monarchical leadership in the church whether that is in the parish or in the diocese.

Whilst a single bishop has to represent their entire diocese it is difficult to see a way past the current impasse. Those of us who support the introduction of female bishops are probably tempted simply to wait until the next time, confident in our belief in the inevitability of change, but I suspect the next time the legislation won’t be so inclusive and that will be a shame. But could conservative evangelicals be more pro-active than that and suggest an alternative? A third province is not an evangelical answer, but plural diocesan leadership might be. It seems to me to be a relatively small change to give Area Bishops the same title as the Diocesan Bishop and in doing so create a Diocesan college of Bishops with a rotating chair that acts as the focus of unity collectively. Obviously, all of these bishops would have to recognize the validity of each other’s ministry, but in this way, much like multi-member constituencies in a Single Transferable Vote electoral system, everyone would feel like there is someone to represent them.

Despite the emotions and disappointment of this week, it remains my firm belief that there is a way forward that can gain the support of each house, allowing us to move forward as a church and consecrate female bishops. That, at least, is my prayer.

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Seaside God

One of the highlights of Focus 2012 was the early morning walks along the beach and I do mean early! Joanne and I had not taken into account the impact that exciting family worship, wonderful children’s work and the transparency of the glamped up tents would have on Emilia’s sleep patterns. Instead of sleeping from seven in the evening to seven in the morning she slept from nine to five for most of the week. That’s a loss of four hours sleep every night! After the first early morning which didn’t go well for Joanne who is most definitely a night owl, I took on the responsibility to get her up, dressed and out of the tent without disturbing the neighbours and their sleeping children.

We usually ended up on the beach and there we met the Lord. Thanks to Nicky’s prayers the jet stream had moved north so the weather was amazing! The sun glinted off the rolling waves that lapped at the beach. At that time we had the beach to ourselves. These early morning walks became the highlight of Focus for me as I was free to pray and seek God in a way that was difficult to do anywhere else.

I reflected with Joanne that a beach in Shadwell would do wonders for my spiritual life. “Or a mountaintop” said Joanne in response. I thought for a moment and realised that, for me, the coastline connects me with God in a way the mountaintop does not.

The mountaintop speaks of God’s mightiness and transcendence. His awesome, otherness, if you like. You go to a mountaintop to get away from things, to retreat into the breath taking beauty of the snow capped peaks. It is by definition, a moment.

The beach on the other hand speaks of something more intimate. I was reminded of some precious times one summer in Guernsey when I wedged myself into a cleft in the rock with a copy of Brueggemann, the bible and a piece of carrot cake, and God passed by. The beach is a great place for a conversation, a place to walk and talk. The beach is a place of movement and change, a thin place, where it is possible to connect with God in a way that doesn’t take you out of things. The beach is a journey rather than a destination. You climb a mountain and reach the summit. You walk along a beach and when you come to the end, you simply turn around and walk back.

Now I am back in East London, I wonder where I will connect with God in a similar way. I doubt it will be the Highway, currently part of the Olympic Route Network! Though it is a place of movement and journey, the pace and intensity is completely different. The river, on the other hand might be the place I’m looking for. That place where you suddenly notice God has joined you as you stroll along in the ordinary moments of life.

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A human being fully alive?

My life is a little out of sync at the moment. At the beginning of the week I was away with a bunch of clerics on our chapter conference. It was nice to be out of London. Ely is a beautiful place and the cathedral really is a portal between heaven and earth. It was good to have some time to rest, be silent before God and even run, as well as share the Eucharist and pray together. But I realise increasingly that I am a creature of habit. I am a home boy who appreciates the familiar. So it left me feeling out of sorts.

Joanne and Emilia have just left for a weekend in Bath celebrating her mum’s birthday. I’ve been left behind because I’m working over the weekend. It was not an easy good bye. I needed some Pralines and Cream ice cream to console me after they left. To top it all off, I have not been at all well for the last few days.  All this disruption to my usual rhythm leaves me feeling a little disconnected to myself and to God. My usual patterns of devotion, irregular though they may be at the best of times, get further diluted, so the resources at my disposal to deal with these changing circumstances are depleted and I’m left feeling flat.

The second century theologian Irenaeus famously said that “the glory of God is a human being fully alive.” He is building on Jesus promise of abundant life; life in all it’s fullness. But what does it mean to be fully alive. What does it mean to live abundantly? These questions become acute for me when I am feeling flat or out of sync. Frankly, they can leave me full of frustration and despair. My life is just not reflecting this full life promised by Jesus. Surely this sort of life is full of joy and delight, whereas mine is not.

But as I reflect on being fully alive whilst feeling flat, it strikes me that a full life must include the full spectrum of human experience and emotions. Jesus was still living the abundant life in Gethsemane as he sweat drops of blood. Jesus was still living life to the full as he faced torture and execution on the cross. He lived a life of integrity and transparency to God. He remained open and undefended to God and to those around him right to the end. That is why he could forgive his enemies and ensure John would take care of his mother. So fullness of life simply means being open to what God is doing in your life, however you feel or whatever you face. An abundant life is one that resists self-defence and remains vulnerable and exposed, that recognises that every moment of life is pregnant with possibility.

 

 

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Fathers

We heard a sermon on fathers at church this Sunday and I had a nice surprise. My own dad and I didn’t always see eye to eye as I was growing up. We used to argue about most things including the way I ate my peas and the length of my hair. So, perhaps it won’t surprise you to learn that my conversion to Christianity was something of a teenage rebellion. I remember defiantly reading my dad Ephesians 6:4 and telling him to stop exasperating his children. It wasn’t well received. I even preached a sermon at my brother’s baptism where I rather shamefully declared in the presence of my dad that, in contrast to my heavenly father, my human father was something of a disappointment.

On Sunday the preacher recounted the parable of the Prodigal Son and likened God to the father who watched for his son at the window until he saw him in the distance and then hitched up his robes, abandoning any sense of decorum, and ran to his son and threw his arms around him, embraced him, kissed him and welcomed him home. At that moment God took me by surprise. He gently pointed out something I had never realised before. For me, this wasn’t just a story, it had actually happened!

One of the things my dad and I argued about when I was a teenager was my taste in music. I was into Metal long before Grunge ruined it. I was particularly fond of Glam Rock and somehow managed to persuade my parents to let me go to see bands like Faster Pussycat, Tiger Tails and Little Angels. I even had a pair of pointed black suede and snakeskin winklepicker boots with chrome buckles and one inch heals.

One night, after a gig, my friend and I decided to walk home. I was wearing the winklepickers, so it took us a long time. As we approached the house together at about 1am I noticed a chink of light in the window as the curtain was pulled back. My dad ran out of the house in his socks despite the wet ground, he despatched my friend with a word, wrapped his arms around me and walked me into the house. There was no row, no sharp words, just loving relief that his prodigal son had come home. Before I met him for myself, that was the closest thing I felt to the love of God, yet somehow I had simply stored the memory away and failed to make the connection. So, even though this is a little late in the day, its still worth saying; thanks dad.

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Thank you Rowan

I was at the playground with Emilia when the message came through from the Bishop of Stepney that Rowan Williams had resigned as Archbishop of Canterbury. As I read the news, I lost track of Emilia who managed to climb across an obstacle course all by herself!

I must say it was quite a shock, and I was left with a deep sense of sadness, tinged with anxiety for the future. In the heat of battle between all the competing factions within the Anglican Communion, Rowan has continued to hold us together with grace and humility, determination, spiritual depth, and imagination, almost certainly at extraordinary personal cost.

His resignation prompted me to return to his theology so I dipped into Ben Myer’s new book “Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams.” His description of Rowan’s theological method is both beautiful and inspirational:

Theology, in his view, is not a private table for one but a rowdy banquet of those who gather, famished and thirsty, around Christ. The lonely work of reading and writing is not yet theology but only its preparation. Theology happens whenever we are drawn together into the congenial and annoying labour of conversing, listening and disputing – in short, where we are drawn into a collective struggle for truthful speech.” (pxi)

Clearly, Williams doesn’t mind taking a few risks. He doesn’t expect Christian thinking to be safe or easy. Indeed, he once remarked that the best theology is like ‘the noise of someone falling over things in the dark’ – an awkward, inelegant testimony to the God who rearranges the furniture of our lives. (p5)

I think it was Gregory of Nyssa who said that the theologian is to give wings to the soul. No one does that better than the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury. Thank you Rowan.

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Erasing Hell?

I had a funny moment in the office last week that turned into something of a theological odyssey. We’re planning a second campaign based on Tim Keller’s Reason for God. One of those sermons asks “What about Hell?’ The person who is down to preach that sermon really doesn’t want to and I have to say I have some sympathy with them! It makes you realise that, after the dust has settled on the ‘Love Wins’ controversy, Rob Bell really was asking some very important questions.

What does ‘eternal conscious torment’ say about the character of God? Obviously, I appreciate that my own capacity for justice is finite, yet still, as God accommodates himself to me, as he reaches down to me so I can, in some small way, comprehend him, my own sense of justice should at least resonate with the justice of the God who has revealed himself to me. Maybe I have been watching too many episodes of 24, but it does sound a little like torture to me and that’s got to beg the question. Now, Tom Wright, in his book ‘Surprised by Hope’ allows himself a moment of speculation and argues that as all created goodness is stripped away in hell, then those who reject God become less than human, pure evil if you like, so that not only are they without hope, they are without pity. That helps a bit, but as Tom says, it’s speculation.

What does an eternal hell say about the victory of God?  If everything is not summed up in Christ, if the cosmos is not remade, if there are those that resist God’s love forever, does that mean God has been defeated? Origen asked this very question. It’s why he’s not a saint!

What does an eternal hell say about existence? Is hell the absence of God? If it is, then how can those suffering the torments of hell be said to exist at all? Doesn’t existence participate in God? Doesn’t some notion of extinction make more sense of eternal separation from God?

In the end we decided on an approach to the sermon we were both happy with. Go with Calvin and refuse to speculate. What do we know? On what is the bible crystal clear? One can argue about the different metaphors and names we translate hell. Is it the second death or a lake of burning sulphur? What about Hades, Gehenna or Tartarus? Will the worm ever die? But the bible is clear that salvation is found in Jesus alone. The bible is clear that one day we will all be raised from the dead to face the judgement of God. At the end of the day, isn’t that enough?

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Renovating the Heart

I took part in a pastoral care think tank a few weeks ago. It was one of those precious moments where all of us around the table felt we really were talking about the things we ought to be talking about as ministers and pastors in the church.

Two questions stood out for me during the conversation. The first was ‘how does the human heart work?’ We looked at the complex interplay between understanding (cognition), feeling  (affectation), and will  (volition). The discussion was an attempt to articulate the process of change. We were all a little suspicious of Aristotle, even if the Holy Spirit is bolted on, so we wanted to look beyond virtue, Christian habits and practices. They all seem to work from the outside in. We wanted to work from the inside out so we began with the heart.

But how is the human heart transformed or renovated? As far as I am concerned, it has got to begin with desire. As we chatted we wondered whether desire and affectation were the same thing.  I suspect that desire runs deeper than feelings and perhaps drives understanding, feelings and will, but I’m open to persuasion. Either way affectation, fuelled by cognition is the main driver of the will

Of course, if the renovation of the heart begins with it’s desires, how can those desires be shaped or trained. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of the ‘pedagogy of desire’ in which the desire of the heart is thwarted, chastened, transformed, renewed and finally intensified. But how does this process take place?

As good Charismatics, we soon turned our attention to the question of prayer ministry. This led us to our second question. What do we think we’re doing when we pray ‘Come Holy Spirit’ and what has it got to do with the renovation of the heart? We mapped the process of spiritual transformation from intensity, through intentionality, to intimacy. Intensity has three movements within it; firstly purgation, secondly illumination and, thirdly union. We tentatively concluded that prayer ministry was a moment of intensification that had to be intentionally followed up with the Gospel if we wanted to sustain intimacy with God in the long run.

This means that to move beyond behavioural modification to real heart change, the ministry of the Holy Spirit has to go hand in hand with a gospel-centred theology. Effective pastoral care demands both.

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How to Pray for Revival

The one factor present in every major revival across the world is extraordinary, intense, corporate prayer for God’s kingdom to come and his glory to be revealed.

This is prayer that is sustained, ongoing and intense. It is prayer for God’s Spirit to erupt from our hearts, for God’s presence to be thick amongst his people and for God’s glory to be revealed to the city.

Martyn Lloyd Jones, the great Welsh preacher described it in this way: “Give him no rest, give yourself no rest, keep on, bombard God, bombard heaven until the answer comes.”

Lord, teach me to pray like this, give me a longing to pray like this. Amen.

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