Saturday, December 10, 2016

Trampolines and Brick Walls: Don't flex on the gospel, do flex on everything else to love the church and advance the gospel.


In his 2005 book Velvet Elvis Rob Bell argued that the church has a problem because we think of theology as like a brick wall - rigid and systematic, whereas we should look at our theology as being more of a trampoline - flexible and in which some of the springs can be safely removed. The analogy seems really attractive, though it's pretty flawed - not least because you could removed more bricks from a wall than springs from a trampoline before everything would fall apart... but beyond that it's also woefully ignorant.

In writing to Galatians Paul wont have any of this anti-doctrinal faith. He tackle gospel denial and says it's Father-desertion... he speak of gospel truth and it's about the Father's revelation of the Son. It's life-filled, relational, and write-down-able. And accuracy matters - because it's curse-worthy to believe a different gospel, and to teach others to hope in something contrary to Christ. Theology is about the knowledge of the Father and his Son by the Spirit - it's not cold and rigid, but without accuracy we're not talking about the same God, just a similar one. Or in Galatian language "a different gospel that is no gospel at all... a perversion of the gospel." 

But, some things are flexible and some things aren't. The gospel can't be up for grabs, a lot of other stuff must be - at least when it comes to ministry practice.

In Galatians 2 Paul tells one of three stories to his Father-deserting friends that build his case that they should get back to where they began rather than heading off in a different direction. He tells that he went to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel for them (2v5). It's worth a big detour upstream to Jerusalem to preserve the gospel in Turkey - just as later it's worth a big detour to to Jerusalem to maintain the unity of the Jew and Gentile churches in Rome.

Though there were false brothers in Galatian - counterfeit-christians - the church itself hadn't lost the plot and they recognise that "God who was at work in Peter... was also at work in Paul" and "they recognised the grace given..." to both Paul and the Jerusalem church. One gospel.

What's curious is the test for finding out whether Jerusalem is true to the gospel.

  • Paul takes Titus in the expectation that gospel loss would mean he'd be compelled to be circumcised (v3). Meanwhile, in Acts 16v3 (possibly around the same time, depending on how you date Galatians), Paul gets Timothy circumcised so he can take him with him.  To be clear: If the Jerusalem church compels Titus to be circumcised that's evidence that the gospel has been lost, but when Paul gets Timothy circumcised that's the gospel advancing.
  • Likewise, in Paul's next story - Peter stands condemned for putting himself back under food laws, and in effect saying to his Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch that they're not welcome unless they take on the food laws too. But in Romans 14v21 Paul says it's best not to eat if that'll cause problems for your brother or sister from a Jewish background.

Context and motive call for different practices. It's a recipe for inconsistency but necessary for the inclusion of diverse peoples and for taking the gospel diverse peoples. And it works because, the gospel isn't a matter of out conformity. Habits, festivals, food laws and bodily markings aren't the issue. Loving the church and reaching new people require different approaches at different times and in different places. What would we need to flex to ensure that the only obstacle is the gospel?

Paul embodies this by being prepared to become all things to all people to win some... and by his substantial detours - twice to Jerusalem - to demonstrate bond between the Gentile and Jewish churches.

The real mark of the gospel isn't what we wear, eat or celebrate. It's the Spirit of the Son indwelling the believer by faith and enacting our adoption. All else is flexible. Sadly churches fall out over loads of things, but a true gospel priority should mean most of those things - important as they are - are matter over which we're more than happy to flex, to serve other believers and to reach those who aren't yet believers. Sadly, we tend to hold on to things for the sake of having church how we want it to be.

If I get this then I'll be radically committed to welcoming any other believer and removing things that are obstacles for their conscience out of the way, and to welcoming those who don't believe by changing anything at all - apart from the gospel. If I get this I'll be incredibly flexible and inconsistent in my view of almost everything in church life... though that'll look messy, I suspect the gospel shines brighter against that messy backdrop.

Image - Creative Commons - Missle

Thursday, December 08, 2016

The Greatest Gift - Of Sainsbury's and the Incarnation


The nativity scene can seem sweet, inspiring and utterly removed from our day to day experience of life in this broken world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Step back and we find that in the beginning was The Word - a communicative being, who was with God. The Word is also called the Son, Jesus. And God is called the Father. Both are God. This is the Triune God. And from eternity past the Father has been giving the gift of himself to his Son and the Son likewise to his Father in self-giving, overflowing love in the Holy Spirit. Love that created the world, and love that steps in...

Sainsbury's Christmas advert is on the money - the greatest gift we can give is ourselves... though, you have to ask how that makes any sense in a secular material worldview? But through the lense of the Christian faith it makes perfect sense. In Biblical terms, it's love that is at the heart of the universe.

The Christmas story is the story of God with flesh on, God in meet, God becoming a human being. John writes in the opening of his biography of Jesus: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us."  Now, God dwelling is nothing new, the whole story of the Old Testament is a story of God dwelling with his people - this God is a God who dwells. And, the notion of God in flesh isn't exactly new either. The Old Testament tells of the coming of a son of Eve and a son of David to restore all things... the new thing in the New Testament is that the incarnation happens.

The song asks - what if God was one of us? And the Bible's response is... see for yourself, in the accounts of John, Mark, Luke and Matthew.

My God is so small and so weak, a vulnerable baby in a feeding trough. Or, as the 4th Century Egyptian pastor Athanasius brilliantly asks and answers:
"Why didn't Jesus come in more impressive form - as sun, moon, stars or fire? Why come as a mere man? Because he did not come to dazzle us but to put himself at the disposal of suffering people..."
He turned up as one of us, a member of the human race not to dazzle us (as if we need more sparkly lights) but to put himself at our disposal. He makes himself available to needy suffering sinful humanity in exactly the way we need him to be.

In the Sainsbury's advert 'Dave' thinks he needs a clone to do his work so he can be with his family. What we need isn't someone to pick up the stuff we don't want to do but to live our lives and die our death for us. We need the head of a new human race....
"He did this so he could put us all to death by dying in our place... out of sheer love for us."
The death of Jesus puts humanity to death to abolish death for us and bring us into his new resurrected humanity. Christmas and Easter go together. The story of the word become flesh is the story of a seed who came to fall into the ground so it could bear much fruit, of a man striding towards the hour of his death. A light walking in the darkness, among a people who corrupted God's dwelling place, a people under wrath, a people who can't shape up but rather need to die and be re-born, re-made.

And says John, the coming of God the Son as a member of the human race leads to the knowledge of the Father, and the adoption of any men and women who receive the Son into the family of God. Forever, familial, relational, participation in the life of God given to all kinds of people who receive the God who forever became one of us.

Image - Stefano Corso - Creative Commons

Monday, November 28, 2016

Spot the difference? Reflections four months after re-locating.


In last four months we've moved from a provincial city in the South West of England to a larger city in the Midlands. Lots of things in our lives are different now... wise friends counselled us in August that there is difference that is good, difference that is bad, and difference that is just difference.

Much is similar. 
  • We still live in the UK. 
  • We're still in a church that uses a mix of old and new music, and where the normal ministry approach is based on expositional bible teaching. Sunday meetings are basically very similar. 
  • Both are in student cities, and in both most people in the church came to faith in a different church somewhere else in the UK. 
  • A majority of both churches are middle-class graduates. 
  • The local UCCF staff worker is a member of our church in both cases, and the church is popular with students.
  • The speciality coffee scene is strong in both locations.
Some things are different, and could be bad or good depending on various factors...
  • Politically, we've moved from having a Labour MP to a Tory MP, and from a Remain area to a Leave one...  In our previous church, the Sunday after the vote in June was sombre, with visible lamenting. In our current church, support is evident for both sides.
  • As winter hits we'll probably get less rain and more snow. 
  • We've left the beaches, and traded Dartmoor for the Peak District. 
  • My job is a bit different - though essentially an expansion some aspects of part my old job, with other things I used to do covered by other members of the team here. 
  • My wife isn't in paid employment at the moment which makes for a big difference in her day to day life compared to teaching part-time previously. 
  • Our school age boys were at the same primary school but are currently at different schools. 
  • Our current church is part of the FIEC, our previous is in the Newfrontiers family. 
  • There's much overlap in that but some differences in theological emphasis and practice, most noticably a difference between informal and formal membership, and elder-led vs. elder-led/congregational polity.
More noticably, here's a few of the differences we've experienced which probably all fall into the third category and probably have the most impact on us.
Large City (320k) vs. Small City (120k)... The large city brings increased cultural and ethnic diversity. Both cities are very green, but in our old city you could see the hills beyond the city wherever you were. 
Small Town Life (35k) vs. Small City life (120k)... A corollary to living in a big city is that it's made up of smaller towns. We've found ourselves very much in a small town in a big city. There's enough here to mean we only very occasionally venture out into the wider city. Previously, I might traverse our smaller city often, I rarely need to leave our neighboorhood now. With a combination of church, running club and school gates it's rare to walk through town now and not see someone we know - even after four months. You might walk further to get that same experience in a larger setting.
Large multi-congregational church (500-600) vs. Large single-congregation church (250-300)... Our old church met as one congregation in a large venue - it felt very big and the sense of scale effected a lot of how things neeed to be done. Our new church meets in a space that is half the size, and has 3 morning congregation and 1 in the evening. Numerically our new church is twice the size, experientially its like being in a much smaller church. Alongside that, the actual scale increase means a staff team here that includes almost 3 times as many people in full/part time roles.
Local church vs. City wide church... Most of our new church live within a mile of our Sunday venue. In our old church we were gathered from across a bigger cityscape. Community functions differently in these two approaches. In our new church people think about the locality of our building and happily walk to church...  in our old church people would travel further and think of their lives more widely... that said in both locations people think nothing of travelling for work and to a supermarket. On a geographical Triangle between Church - Home - Work, home and church are nearest.
Church with a building vs. Church without a building... Our old church ran through home groups, our new church has strong home groups but also has the capacity to run many midweek ministries to serve different parts of our community. In our new church this most significantly includes a large midweek work with International Students from nearby Halls of Residence. When your Sunday venue disappears from Monday to Saturday then your visible presence is a community scattered into all areas of society... without a building its more natural to join in with what's going on, having a building makes it more likely that you'll set up your own stuff. There's 'go and tell'  and 'come and see', and a place for both.
70 year old church vs. 13 year old church... Both our old and new churches have a median age that is young - early-30s at a guess with a large number of students. By virtue of being around for longer our new church has a wider demographic spread, and includes people who have grown up in the church. Our new churches includes within its umbrella a 3 year old church plant into one part of our small town. Both churches have some history of sending people out to other nations or parts of the UK into church ministry, relative to scale and time. Both churches are transient but some of our new church have been members of the church for decades longer than our previous church has existed.
I'm sure there are other differences and similarities... some are gains, some losses, very many simply difference.

Image - Creative Commons - Forsaken Fotos