Friday, September 27, 2013

Francis Spufford - Unapologetic

Don't miss these 80mins of Francis Spufford at the Theos Think Tank on September 26th 2013 reflecting on his outstanding book Unapologetic: Why despite everything Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense. I've also enjoyed his book The child that books built.

Spufford finds a rare angle of appealing for the emotional sensibility of Christianity and recognises that many of our conventional answers miss the mark, not least the way we talk about sin. His answers may not be exhaustively satisfying but the answers we have already fail in many ways too.

See also Francis Spufford and Philip Pullman on Justin Brierley's radio show.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Halloween: Trick or Treat

A cracking bit of poetry on video from Glen Scrivener on the meaning of Halloween (yes it's not for six weeks yet but worth thinking about things ahead of time...)

Halloween: Trick or Treat? from on Vimeo.

For more see: Pete Dray speaking at Durham University in 2011 on Why God Loves Halloween (pdf)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

5 ways to do social media better

Facebook,Twitter, Blogs etc. Social media is a catch all for ways in which the internet allows people to connect and generate content to share, with varying degrees of commitment and privacy and possibility.

1. Accept that Social Media is real.
Social media isn't something to be pitted against "the real world" but is a part of how real people can connect with other real people. It might not be the same as face to face communication but it is real.
I've been a relatively early adopter when it comes to using these new media and feel like I've benefitted from that. But, it's easy to miss out on the opportunities that are available.Technology can have its pitfalls and can expose problems in us, but there are good things here. Don't feel weird about it.

2. Connect with people.
a) People you know - let the tools of the 21st Century add value to existing relationships.

b) People who like what you like - the internet allows you to find other people who are into things you're into. I don't just mean yes-men - I love to hear from people who see things differently to me. Hashtags are your friends to find new friends. Be broad - I love when I see a CU decide not to try to launch its own hashtag for freshers week (too niche and sub-culture creating) but instead engage with the university's own.

c) People in your city - your workplace, your culture etc...  follow local businesses - especially the ones you engage with in other settings, follow the local council, engage with events and bands and politicians and initatives. If you're a CU then engage with other societies, the Guild, the University, academics and faculties...

Members of Christian Unions know that they come into that Union as members of local churches, but to the University involvement with the local church represents an intruiging connection with the people of the city who will open their lives and homes to students... and with whom students can make a contribution to the good of the city.

3. Consider your audience.
Create content that engages the people you're connected with. Consider who will see your content. I've linked this blog to a facebook page not to my facebook profile because I've got lots of friends who I don't think would be automatically interested in everything I write here. I could've changed what I write (and may do that), and I can still post links to relevant posts... and my friends can opt in via the page.

Who is your page for? Is it an in-house members page or is it public? Intended focus shapes the terms of engagement. Unless you run a closed group then your page or group is a public forum. Your CU or church page shouldn't assume people are Christians - point yourself towards your University or your city, towards the shared questions of human beings there, and let that shape what you'll talk about and how you'll talk about those things.

I've been taking a lead on our church social media for a while - we run a blog, a facebook page and a twitter feed (and we have an 'members' group which functions quite well in house). Initially our content was church news and sermon mp3s - essentially pitched to church members and Christians moving into our city. Lately I've begun to slowly adjust this more towards our city - because we're not just in our city for Christians, we want to be part of the life of our city. That changes who we follow on Twitter and what we'll talk about. For a CU - sure you can talk about your events but talk about the sign up for Welcome Week, talk about exams and Guild elections, about the amazing things about studying this world, preparing for graduate life, celebrate other poeple's events and causes not just your own. Join God in the renewal of all things.

Personally, I'm fitting this in between everything else in life so it's still a bit more ad hoc than it should be, and I really should recruit a few more contributors to generate content and connections for us. We're not as consistent as we might be but I'm pleased with the direction of travel.

Considering audience also means understanding the medium. Twitter is low-commitment and low-relationship - you follow them because you want to (for whatever reasons), they follow you because they want to (for whatever reasons) but no reciprocity is required and no relationship is required. Blogs live from google and links from other social media, the dominant voice is the blogger but comments are open. Your facebook friends are mutually agreed commitments to share aspects of life - though each party decides how transparent they want to be.

4. Share.
Things Trend because people pass them on. When you spot good content share it appropriately. Spread the goodness. And... spread goodness rather than spreading evil. It's really easy to be argumentative but really pointless. Aggression is unpleasant.
Sharing makes a difference. If I post to our church facebook page we reach 50-100 people who already like the page, if I share that to my timeline the reach increases towards 500... if every member of the church does the same our reach would be in the thousands. And as long as we can generate content that is of interest to people's friends why shouldn't that happen?

5.  Interact.
Like things. Comment on things. Reply to things. Share things. You can be a passive voyeur but life is richer if you engage. You might lack time - but life has plenty of gaps and if you've got a smartphone you can tweet on the bus, while waiting for things to happen, though preferably not during a meal or on the toilet. Decide what level you want to engage at and then go for it. Don't mediate every moment through your smartphone but do adopt a suitable generosity with your life, questions and concerns because social media allows you to share life with others - and that can be mutually beneficial.

And, lastly, a particular bugbear. Next Spring, Christian, don't give up facebook for Lent... because facebook is a a tool through which you connect with me. And giving up your friends for Lent is even more bizarre than giving up chocolate.

Your community is talking, why would you want to stay out of the conversation?
I'm still learning. What's your experience?

Friday, September 13, 2013

Oliver Barclay (1919-2013)

Oliver Barclay died yesterday. A giant of whom the world was not worthy, now cheering us on in death as he did in life. Oliver was one of the leading lights of the UCCF movement over the past century, and a man whose fingerprints are left all over churches and individuals in the UK and far beyond.

I had the privilege of meeting Oliver one January evening in 2002 as a quirk of an accomodation plan that had landing myself and my good friend  and fellow UCCF intern Rich staying with Oliver and Daisy for a week. When you sign your name in the guest book on the line under John Stott you realised you're a minnow in a giant's house.

Truth be told, aged 22 I had never heard of Oliver when we were given his name in the dark corridor of UCCF's old Leicester office (a centre he had established). Little did I know how much my Christian life - formed over the previous four years in the air of UCCF - had already been shaped by Oliver's ministry. What we found behind their front door was a gentle, friendly, understated and deeply inquisitive 81 year old who with his wonderful wife demonstrated outstanding hospitality and kindness.

Oliver subsequently encouraged me to join UCCF's staff team in 2003 and became a supporter and occasional counsellor to me over the years. My wife and I would pop in and see them in Leicester from time to time - something made more difficult by our move to to the South West. Those occasional hours, the last of them in late 2010, were enriching and provoking and inspiring. He maintained a genuine interest in frontline student ministry.

Our last phone call (a couple of years ago) was him picking up something in my prayer letter - he wanted more detail to fuel his prayers and to humbly offer his wisdom and correction to the situation.

Read more in the obituary at
"He had no formal theological training but developed in himself – and cultivated in his staff – the ability to ‘think theologically’. He read through Calvin’s Institutes each year and prayed daily for a deeper understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ. He never lost sight of his dual task, to strengthen a witness to Christ both in the student world and among faculty. He followed news of UCCF missions closely until recent months, and remained as convinced as he had been in his early days that ministry in the university world was the most strategic way to build a thoughtful acceptance of biblical truth. We thank God for Oliver Barclay’s tenacity and far-sightedness, his shrewd judgment and his passion for the gospel; and we commend his widow Daisy and his four children to your prayers." 
Here are some words from Oliver, from his out of print UCCF booklet on When Science and Faith meet:
He worked hard to foster "a Christian mind" among students and graduates, demostrating the integrity with which one can follow Christ.
I give thanks to God for his work in and through Oliver. Another treasure, with his friends and co-workers Bill and Shirley Lees, and John Stott, now resting with his Saviour.

Here's a few comments from others:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

9 ways to nail the first CU meeting of the year

Christian Unions will have their first meeting of term in the next week or so. In the South West we're welcoming over 25,000 undergraduates to University and they're all welcome at our meetings...

How can you nail that first CU meetinng?

1. This is a gathering of human beings. 
This isn't "them and us". Our experience of reality is that we have a lot in common with one another. We breath the same air and share many of the same questions and concerns. At the start of the year no-one really knows anyone, every encounter with other people feels risky, people are likely to be guarded. Appreciate this and set the tone as giving people space. Avoid ice-breakers - they make people uncomfortable and do almost nothing to help people come out of hiding.
(There are questions to ask here about all our communication and social media - are we speaking publicly but 'in house' or are we speaking to the University as a whole...)

2. We're keen to be good for University life. 
Our message is get involved in University life, in clubs and socities, be intensely curious about people and your course and everything. Life fascinates us, blows our minds and breaks our hearts. Professor John Lennox of Oxford University says "Keep asking questions until someone asks you one back." We like that. We're not an exclusive and separate society, in fact our closest friends probably aren't part of the Christian Union though we aim to cultivate a good sense of community here.

3. We think it's good to be part of our city. 
We appreciate the place, local business, the culture and quirks and beauty of our city. We want to be at home here and contribute to the good of our city. We think it's good to connect with other people, and that a local church is a family that will welcome anyone with open arms. We're aware that most students never set foot in a non-student home at University and we think that's a shame. We've found that church connects you with a diverse local community. There are many other reasons to go to church, and many more you might give if you were speaking to someone you knew was a Christian... but here you're speaking to human beings in general.

4. People have a life
Start the meeting when you say you'll start - advertise an end time and hit the time. Keep things moving, and explain at the start what people can expect. If you start late in the first week people will assume they should keep coming late. If you over run you're ask people to choose between coming next week and doing the other things they want to do. Why force that unnecessary choice? An hour an a half is enough time to do a lot of things... a 75-90min meeting is probably sufficient.

5. People stick because of friendship and a sense of belonging 
Go out of your way to meet people and be friendly... even the most introverted of us wouldn't set out to deliberately be unfriendly. Imagine all the interesting people you could meet and the value that might add to life and the journey you might make together.

6It's the Christian Union meeting - so do speak clearly of Jesus. 
People will expect that. Christians know Jesus is revelant, but we'll need to show how that is the case, especially since we expect all kinds of people to be there. We want to set a tone that says, it's a reasonable and good thing to investigate the claims of Jesus, and everyone is welcome to do that. That's what Christian Unions are there for - give everyone the opportunity to consider for themselves who Jesus is...

7. Setting the right tone...

We want our meetings to be welcoming to everyone. Any kind of people you can think of could be in the room. And we're glad about that.

We want our language to be including not excluding. People who believe in the Incarnation don't throw rocks from a distance. We go and sit with people and listen and weep and smile and celebrate.

  • If we sing, we want our songs to be clear, to make sense, of beware of unhelpful language like military metaphors...   [Also, if you have a band they better be good... if they aren't then keep it simple, a good singer/guitarist beats a bad band everytime. 
  • If we pray we'll be simple and brief... model that anyone can do this. 
  • What's said from the front needs to be free from jargon and in jokes unless you want to communicate that you'd prefer the CU to only have you in it.
We're aware that confrontational language ranges between being off-putting and rude and offensive.

A good degree of emotional intelligence is necessary to lead a meeting. A desire to tick boxes to prove orthodoxy is a bad qualification to lead the meeting (though orthodoxy is great!) Those upfront need to be especially aware that there are harder-to-swallow aspects of who Jesus is and those things need framing with care and sensitivity and awareness of the connotations and implications they have for people, however unintended. What's modelled up front gets picked up in the seats.

8. Facilitating next steps...
Desiring to  give opportunities for people to make next steps from wherever they are lets not make too many upfront assumptions about people. Yes this is a meeting of the Christian Union but we meet as human beings, standing with one another. "You" is confrontational and divisive, "We" might not even want to call ourselves Christians let alone be Christians... and even if "We" are Christians that could mean a whole lot of different things... especially on opening night.

So, lets provide clear pathways. 
  • Get a box fifty £1 Bible's from that you can give away at the start of the talk to anyone who doesn't have one. Have plenty available along with relevant literature to resource people for their journey. A term card. An Uncover seeker study guide etc. 
  • Have pens and connect cards on seats and give people an opportunity in the meeting to fill them in. Including a 'volunteer' column will help everyone to have something to respond to and you can easily involve people and give ownership. Have somewhere accessible to hand those in and meet a leader at the end of the meeting. Follow up connect cards within 48 hours because that's friendly and . .

  • Serve people by being with people... asking questions and listening. 
Get this wrong and it sets a wrong tone in the meeting and you lose people and model bad ways to live... get it right and you're flying. 

9. And... what else?
Comments are open.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Learning to walk

"There is something intoxicating in the oldness of it, the strangeness and magic of the legends. It holds both joy and sadness. As we walk about the world, we tread on layers of accumulated culture; the earth is alive with stories. We in turn are ‘story-formed’. We, like our forebears are storytellers, and makers of culture."
James Watts, Shropshire Lore (see also Maximum-Life)

 "Walking upright, or bipedalism, is considered the threshold of being human, the skill that most distinguishes us from our ancestors. It's also immune to improvement. Walking can be a source of meaning. As long as humans have worshiped gods, they have walked to get closer to them. In the Bible, the greatest spiritual breakthroughs occur when the heroes are on journeys; Abraham going forth to the Promised Land; the Israelites crossing the Red Sea; Israel being dispatched to Babylon. From the Haj to the Stations of the Cross, the greatest pilgrimages contain walking."
Bruce Feiler, via Jon Tyson FlaneurYork, relcaiming the art of the leisurely stroll

"Jesus... walked a mile in our shoes so we could walk in his,"
Andrew Wilson, God and the walk (God*Stories)

Monday, September 09, 2013

You can't say that! Hard questions and real people and offensive Bible verses

Christians in University halls meet to read the Bible and pray. They form witnessing communities who invite those around them to investigate the claims of Jesus. An invitation is offered to join them on the journey of exploring their shared questions.

Recently, a colleague and I wrestled with this senario with our Bible's and a whiteboard and lots of questions...

Last year these students read the Bible books of  Luke, Hosea, Esther and Ruth. This year they've decided to work through Paul's letter to the church in Rome (Romans). Very mainstream. And given it was written to show that the good news of Jesus is for everyone and to motivate people to share that message it fits with who they are. It's no ivory tower document, it's from a pioneering leader who works with unceasing anguish and tears.

So far so good. In week 1 they'll read Romans 1:1-5 with a dash of chapter 15 to catch the purpose and theme of the letter. Everyone is new and so a message about how the Jesus who lived, died and was resurrected is good news for everyone is a good place to begin. Plus reading a letter from the start just makes sense.

The next week there will still be newcomers. Anyone who isn't there for their first time is only there for the second time. Those in the room live in the same building, probably have opportunity to eat together and may even study together. But, relationships are low level at this stage. Trust is low. Risk is sky high. Risk of misunderstanding and offence not to mention an inevitable fear of vulnerability.

This is all to be expected. But, logically, in the flow of the letter and when you've got 20 weeks to read it together, that brings us to something like Romans 1:16-2:5...

That means the first or second time you attend this Bible discussion group you're hearing some of the verses that today sound most offensive about human sexuality and divine wrath. Just reading the passage will sound those alarm bells... As it happens I think that the rough outline of this section is:
  • 1:16-18 Revelation in the gospel. The righteousness & wrath of God are revealed in the gospel of Jesus. The big question for the reader of the Old Testament is meant to be: why doesn't God judge sin - why does he keep just forgiving people? (See Jonah's despairing cry: I knew you'd forgive them!) - Wrath is on the table but not enough detail... if you just read these three verses it wouldn't in itself get you very far with anything. The question raised is answered in 3:21-26 which is the obvious next passage to get to - week 3. The answer is the gospel, the cross of Jesus.
  • 1:19-32 Rebellion by God's people. This passage feels very uncomfortable - lots of things being called sin, many of which our culture takes very sensitively. What's going on? Israel, who had the law, abandoned their God who subsequently gave them over to the outworkings of that first betrayal. This isn't news. It's on the public record in the Old Testament. This is documenting events rather than exposing secrets. Israel should've lived reflecting the heart of their God but they didn't, and one thing led to another..
  • A personal note. Usually this section is cited as "God's wrath is being revealed against the whole world for the sins that the whole world has done." I'm not persuaded that it says that, and I think the opposite is implied by the context. That's not to say it wouldn't be sinful to do what's described here, but that you might need other passages to show that fully. I found this article helpful: How is wrath revealed.
  • 2:1-5 Repentance because of kindness? Who could judge anyone else? Who could throw the first stone? God gave his people freedom. This KINDNESS was meant to win them back to him. The melody of the Old Testament: The God who holds his arms out all day long to his people (Romans 10:21). 
  • If you've received this kindness you wont point fingers at other people, instead being overwhelmed by that you'll hold your arms open to others too. Imagine that kind of community. It's delicious. Instead they continued to betray God and the nations around blasphemed God and asked whether there would be any value to knowing God for the lack of difference he made in the lives of his people.
The kindness of God is the perfect setup for building a community that reflects the heart of God.

But, relationship is low, risk is high,... and directly or indirectly it's almost impossible to be well heard when words like wrath and homosexuality come up today. It's pretty hard in the best of circumstances. And this probably isn't the easiest. There is huge amount of framework needed to explain to 21st Century Britain what those things do and don't mean and why a Christian might say what they might say about them. One liners and off-handed comments just wont do. I hear it happen. Careless communication obscures the good news of Jesus.

Look at it pastorally if that helps. In the room could be all kind of people, though it's almost impossible to know who during a Week 2 meeting. There could be, among others...
  • A student who isn't sure if they're a Christian.
  • A student whose lifestyle and/or orientation is homosexual. 
  • A confident student who want to come out strongly as hard-line on certain things and stereotypically lacks a good level of emotional intelligence.
  • A student who is interested in finding out about Jesus.
  • A student who is ashamed of things they've done and hoping no one will find out.
  • A hyper-sensitive Christian who is full of love for people and afraid of confrontation.
  • A student who doesn't really know where they are when it comes to their sexuality.
  • A typical slightly homophobic Brit who can't be bothered to be politically correct.
  • A student who just joined the student tabloid team and could use a story to write. 
  • A student of another religion who thinks all this grace stuff is pretty soft.
  • The discussion facilitator who is scared stiff of being unhelpful.
But, outwardly it'd be pretty hard to know any of that. 

A leader can (and should) model vulnerability and openness but it takes time, shared experience and courage for any group of people to be honest. So much is at stake for us if we let people see who we really are... Mostly we can't and don't uncover our hearts.

So my scenario paints the combination of a very hard subject with the complexity of any group of real people together. The messy lives are there whatever the subject being discussed.

The Difference between gospel convictions and gospel posture: As a Christian I believe in some pretty objective categories (people really either are or aren't 'in Christ'). My confidence however is of a kind means I'm inclined to be ambivalent towards categorising people. Holding on to the ambiguity helps us to explore things and grow and live in the uncertainty of our experiences.

In the moment, we're human beings with shared questions and stories and confusions and questions. A leader among people has no interest in putting people in boxes and lots of interest in facilitating next steps forward for each person and the group as a whole.
How can it be done?

Let's assume:
  • This is a group of human beings with shared questions.
  • The group leaders aren't looking for reasons to hide their convictions though they are keen to facilitate discussion more than expecting to directly instruct those in the room. 
  • The leaders are - as Paul says in 1:16 - not ashamed of the gospel. But that breeds tenderness and care more than anything else. 
  • The leaders genuinely believe the good news of Jesus is for everyone, for all kinds of people and really want people to explore that for themselves.
  • The leaders are keen to facilitate robust conversations and not avoid important things. They don't think disagreement is a bad thing, and they love people they disagree with.
  • They're keen to speak to the issues that are hot in their culture because they think Jesus is the true end of all our stories.
  • They also know that most people today think Jesus is meant to be about good morals, and that people who follow Jesus are judgmental hypocrites. 
  • And the leaders are completely sure that people who follow Jesus are into Jesus not morality, and that a holier-than-thou posture is something Jesus hates.  
And with such a concrete example...
  • Should they look at this passage in a group discussion at the start of the year? Are there passages and subjects that its not good to look at in certain times and contexts?
  • If they did how could they do it well? How can they frame it? What do they need to bear in mind?
  • If they don't, how do they handle skipping it? Does it matter?
  • In any case, the question - contextualising - is how can a group like this be sensitive to the issues in the room and so fruitfully convey the message of Jesus to the people in the room, showing them how their stories tie into God's story?
I have some questions. Over to you...