Posts filed under ‘evangelism’

liberals & conservatives: a plague on both their houses!

I get really fed up with the intra-church wars that go on between liberals and conservatives! I’m sick of long, bitter and futile arguments over historicity in the bible that never get as far as probing the meaning and importance of the texts. I’m sick of evangelicals who privatise and inividualise faith so that it becomes some sort of gnostic “club”, with a tight theological “system”. They seem to think that God’s sole object in sending Jesus was to save “me” and provide me with a “salvation” that is suspiciously close to the ultimate in consumer products. I’m sick of liberals who spend all their time trying to explain why we cannot believe the things about God and Jesus that have always been fundamental to Christian faith, and why we ought to be following people like Jack Spong et al and concentrating all ourt efforts on a more “intellectually credible” faith. They cannot understand anything that smacks of a “passion for Jesus” and retreat into embarrassed silence at the suggestion that one couldn’t do better than to spend one’s life, priorities, energies and resources in service of Jesus Christ. Ironically, the Good News becomes equally parochial – appropriate only for western, “christianised” cultures! Oh – and I’m sick of the people who will read this and subject it to endless qualifications, rather than seeing it as a generalisation that nevertheless embodies some fundamental and disturning truths about the “wings” of our churches! Either the Good News of Jesus Christ embraces every possible area of human existence – public and private – or it isn’t Good News. And either it’s the very best news for a world in the grip of Bad News, and we ought to be telling everyone about it, or it isn’t, and we ought to stop pretending it is and do something more effective with our time, money and resources!

I’ve been reading Walter Brueggemann’s Biblical Perspectives on Evangelism: Living in a Three-Storied Universe (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1993, ISBN 0-687-41233-1). Let me cite him on this subject:

The subject of evangelism invites false disputes between liberals and conservatives … such [ideological] labels betray our understanding of the wholeness of life under the singleness of God’s purpose. With so-called conservatives, I agree that we must get our language right, to affirm that our evangelical language is for us realistic language, and we must not blink at the epistemological embarrassment of the gospel. With so-called liberals I agree that we must see our unembarrassed, realistic evangelical-Christological language is not isolated, specialised languange, but is public language concerned with public issues, uttered for the sake of public criticism and public possibility. Whenever liberals shrink from the epistemological scandal of the gospel and whenever conservatives shrink from the public dimension of the faithful language of the evangel, the gospel is distorted and the Bible is misread.

Way to go, Walter! Give it to ’em with both barrels! He’s right! And he goes on to be even more importantly right:

I submit that in our time, so-called conservatism is an attempt to reduce the danger of the Bible to confessional safety (I just love that phrase!!!), and so-called liberalism is an attempt to avoid the dramatic system-shattering claim of the gospel (stunning!!!). I submit that so-called conservatives and so-called liberals might well return to the shared, concrete language practice of the Bible to learn again that the utterance of the name fo God (or the name of Jesus) is endlessly subversive, polemical, risk-taking (Jesus Christ, he’s right!). Indeed, I suggest that our scholastic debates about liberalism and conservatism are simply smoke screens to protect our vested interests and to fend off the danger and threat of the gospel (O that we might learn to find the gospel “dangerous” and “threatening”). Or conversely the reduction of the gospel to our favorite (Hey, he’s American! Leave him alone!) political slogan is a refusal to let the unfettered news of God have its say. The gospel news of changed governance in all of creation is more radical, demanding, and empowering than any of us can readily imagine, embrace, or domesticate.

Isn’t this one of the most important tasks for us as churches – to rediscover that shared biblical practice, rather than struggling with everything we have to reduce the bible and the gospel – oh, and God to boot – to more manageable proportions? And when we’ve done that, it would be mighty difficult to be a church with nothing to say that engages the world.

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15 August, 2006 at 12:11 pm 5 comments

kids on the bible

We’ve had kids for Hope at the Centre for 12 days. They’re Palestinian youngsters, aged 12-15, identified as potential future leaders in their communities and they’ve spent the time here getting away from the war zone, experiencing freedom, making friends and undergoing Leadership Training & Personal Development. It’s been a great time with them. We’ve certainly got as much – if not more – out of having them than they have out of being here.

I did s bible study on forgiveness with them, using the parable of the prodigal. Of course, one of the main things is that it ought to be called “The Parable of the Lost Son”, coming as it does as the climax of a 3-parable section on the theme of losing and finding. Re-read it if that surprises you. The important implication of the fact that we generally mis-title the parable is that we miss the principal character: God! It’s a parable about the lovesick father, not the wasteful son!

The kids got that one straight away. We read the parable (in Arabic and English) and I then asked them to identify the principal characters. Then I divided them into three groups, each taking one character: the father, the son and the older brother. They each had 2 questions to explore, identifying with their character.

I took the group on the father. The first question was, “How did this parable strike you?” A 12-year old boy answered “Shocking!” I asked why. A 15-year old girl answered, “because the boy told his father he wanted him dead!” And she’s right! You see what happens? Youngsters “get it” straight away, because they come to it unencumbered by years of reading it and hearing it expounded in a church context. It’s a parable whose main offence isn’t the actions of the son in the far country, but in the son’s deliberate rejection of any relationship whatsoever with the father. He wishes the father dead so that he can get his hands on the money.

The surprise of the parable is grace – the joy of the loving father who won’t hear of the son coming back as a servant. The son doesn’t repent, of course! He comes home to negotiate a new relationship, not to restore the old! he knows he’s turned his back fully and finally upon his father. It’s about grace because the father doesn’t take this “last word” of the son on the subject as the Last Word. His Last Word is of love and acceptance. He welcomes the son back – as a son who was lost and is found, was dead and is alive.

The point of the parable, in the words of Philip Yancey, is that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less. That’s not the conclusion most church groups come to – but the kids got it in one!

30 July, 2006 at 9:49 pm Leave a comment

social exclusion, the church and proclaiming the gospel

Here's something to read: the Archbishop of York's letter to The Guardian, and an article by Fran Beckett about the Church and social exclusion. One of the things we're bad at as churches is blowing our own trumpets. Now, that's an obvious virtue. But what's the balance between blowing our own trumpets (hiss! boo!) and proclamation (hooray!)? We are in the business of proclaiming Good News. Good News in a Christian sense doesn't exist as some sort of free-floating message. It is Good News – Gospel – to a world governed by Bad News. It has to become incarnate, which means that it needs to take shape on the ground. The Good News about Jesus is not about escaping to heaven but about heaven coming down to earth. It is about our reality being transformed – our world becoming the kingdom of God.

There's a direct relationship, in other words, between our disciplehip of and faith in Jesus and our actions in the world – between proclamation and mission. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be involved in God's story of salvation for the world. That is why we do what we do. We cannot neglect either aspect of it. The missiologist, David Bosch, distinguishes helpfully between evangelical dimension and evangelical intention. Not everything we do is explicitly aimed at calling people to faith in Christ (intention). But everything has an evangelical dimension because it is intimately connected to the story of God in Christ.

A vital part of mission is therefore always to make explicit the connection between what we do and our faith. The task of proclamation is to establish the congruence between our living and acting in the world in the light of the kingdom, on the one hand, and our faith that God has acted in Christ to save the world. That is when our actions to combat social exclusion, feed the hungry, clothe naked, comfort the suffering and liberate the oppressed truly become the Good News of Jesus Christ.

7 June, 2006 at 2:40 pm Leave a comment

when is evangelism (in)appropriate?

I received the daily email bulletin from ekklesia. One of the articles on Hurricane Katrina is entitled, "Don't use aid to proselytize, Christians urged". The head of the Christian Aid agency co-ordinating relief efforts criticises Christians using aid to win vulnerable people over to their religious convictions as "morally questionable". I think he's absolutely right! When people are suffering as they are, aid is a wonderfully Christian response. It is the equivalent of not walking by on the other side of the road when other human beings are suffering. It says, without words, "We are moved by compassion! What is happening to you is appalling! We want to help!"

That has its own evangelistic dimension. True compassion of that sort is sacramental. If we believe what we say about compassion mirroring the heart of God, then we must trust that people who encounter love and compassion in action encounter God. That is what is needed in this instant. It is Good News concretely in the face of the bad news that governs their lives.

Of course, Christians do not have the monopoly on compassion! Another article is headed, "Axis of evil offers to come to America's rescue" and details offers of help from the Cuban president, Fidel Castro. That must be pretty galling for the American religious Right! Yet we need reminding that all acts of compassion and love are ultimately Godly, whether coming from people of faith or not. The Kingdom, after all, is bigger than the Church (however much we'd like it to be otherwise) and its values and priorities are shared in many ways by extraordinarily different groups. We need to learn to see these other groups as co-workers for the Kingdom, even when they have nothing to do with it and theoretically oppose it. God's presence is found in strange places, as the hearers of the parable of the Good Samaritan found out!

But why the ban on using aid to proselytise? Because that is neither Christian nor evangelistic! The distinction between "proselytise" and "evangelise" is crucial. To proselytise is to seek to persuade someone to embrace my religious convictions – to think and believe and live in the same way as I do. To evangelise is to tell people the Good News of Jesus Christ and invite them to find the same Life as I have in being a follower. That is not the same thing! The former views the other person as a potential convert – a target, or statistic. More importantly, proselytisation is fundamentally about cloning, so that I see the other as a potential "someone like me". Evangelisation sees them as a fellow human being and assumes some sort of relationship between us that is not based on their potential "convertibility".

We need to recognise how deep the unconscious drive is in us to make a success of the Church. Because we express our faith in this context as we do, Church and discipleship are pretty well interchangeable. The trouble is, we lose sight of the crucial difference – just as many of the Christian missionaries were unable to disentangle discipleship of Jesus Christ from white, western, imperial culture! Until we can disentangle the two for ourselves, we will tend to proselytise rather than evangelise.

This is not to say that we shouldn't be desperately keen for those in dire need to receive not only bread but the Bread of Life! Yet what we should be offering beyond aid alone is our prayers and offers of friendship. We are sacraments of God's grace and love in Jesus Christ, far more eloquently than our words. We need to offer ourselves – not our religious beliefs – because in so doing we are offering Christ. And we need to celebrate the Jesus whom we meet in communist Cubans, as well. Because Jesus is there too.

7 September, 2005 at 12:13 pm 3 comments

Can we handle life in the highways and byways?

Lucy's comment on the "Visions to Avoid" post set me thinking (read that thread if you haven't – we need to develop it!). We're "selling" Jesus, she suggests. That's what we've got to offer. And she raises the question, "To whom?" I wonder what most of our church folk would answer if (a) the question was, "Who would you most like to attract to your church?" and (b) they had to answer honestly!

I suspect that the answer is that we'd like middle class, well-spoken, enthusiastic, productive, skilled, younger, thinking, popular, gifted, comfortably off people. I'm getting on for sure-to-certain that the answer will not be poor, damaged, difficult, marginalised, unpopular, dirty, destructive, embarrassing, unemployed (unemployable?) people who need giving to.

This is where I get stuck. I actually believe that these are precisely the people we should be seeking to attract first (ie before turning our attention to those less needy). That's what Jesus did, after all! But Jesus did more than extend charity and hospitality. He chose these people as friends! They were his first choice.

We concentrate our efforts on people like us. We are battling to communicated with jaded, satiated consumers who are overwhelmed with choice. That is not to say for a moment that they – and we – aren't needy. But our needs come from having too much. We pray "Give us this day our daily bread", while my daily bread frquently goes hard and mouldy and gets fed to the ducks and swans because I have so many other, more exciting things to eat. We have Communion services, procaliming Jesus to be the Bread of Life, while people starve to death. Then we have theological arguments about how to dispose of the leftovers! One of our greatest health problems is obesity and our most common mental health problems centre around our bodies and self-image. Part of our salvation is a fairer world in which we live more simply in order that others may simply live.

The parable of the Great Feast is about abandoning concentration on those who are most reluctant to hear the Good News of the Gospel and concentrating on those whose need is greatest – for whom the Gospel comes as gloriously Good News. That is not the same thing as abandoning those others. It's about where our efforts are concentrated.

So how can we make that sort of quantum leap? How can we begin to create a Church that is recognisably the Church of Jesus Christ precisely because it reflects Jesus' priorities in this area? That seems to me part of the task of catching the vision of God's Tomorrow.

12 July, 2005 at 3:30 pm 4 comments

Visions to avoid

Too many discussions of Emerging Church are still underpinned by a desire to be successful. If "success" means growth, then the hard facts are that most churches grow at the expense of others, because we are not so much conecting with people who have nothing to do with Christian faith as competing for a market share of people who are already Christians. Church as it is is getting to the point where we are exhausting the list of people "on the outside" who are interested in "joining" Church.

If the vision to be caught is of a Church that is simply more successful than before in wooing disaffected Christians, it's one we ought to avoid assiduously! There are enough churches presently catering for "already Christians". If we have a justifiable reason for existing beyond our existing shelf life, it must be because we are finding ways of connecting with the vast majority of those for whom the Gospel is clearly not Good News. When we create spaces for them to find faith and join the community of faith, we will find ourselves changing organically. That's when we start to become the Church of Tomorrow!

10 July, 2005 at 1:22 pm 17 comments


Time to move …

... to my own hosted site on http://mustardseeds.wolsblog.com. See you there.

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