Tuesday, March 31, 2015

All is gift (reflecting on the sacraments)

I had the opportunity to travel to London on Monday for a day with Peter Leithart, a pastor, author and scholar from the US who spoke on the place of the Sacraments in the life of the church.

I was struck by the high value he placed on unity in the church, on his practical application of the generous welcome of God to the weak, and his passion for these oft neglected gifts of Christ to his church. It was great to learn from one in another tradition alongside Lutherans and Anglicans, Baptists and Presbyterians and others from Newfrontiers and more.

I'd have plenty of questions around his theology - not least that he baptises babies, but Leithart's pastoral heart for his people, his love of the church, his conviction that church has something to say to our world moved me deeply.

I appreciated his attention to the Rites (rituals) of the church and the way that these both engage and challenge our culture and our world. He noted that we all have rites, however formal or informal. The question is what they are, and even more so: what story they tell.

And I loved his passing comment that its not so much that Baptism or The Lord's Supper are means of grace, they are simply grace, gift. Food isn't so much a means of nourishment. Food is nourishment. Bread and wine aren't just a means to get grace - they are grace, they are gift. And in baptism we get God himself, he claims us and names us for himself.
Reminded me of Evan Koons 'All is gift'

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Looking back on #ilovemycity

As a church we're persuaded from the Bible that we're to explore, experience and express the goodness of God across our city. From a preaching perspective we work through different books of the Bible and seek to hear the good news of Jesus in the language and emphases of those books.

Exploring, experiencing and expressing God's goodness isn't a set of three mutually exclusive categories but inevitably some terms we're more generally addressing our UP-ward relationship with God, sometimes our IN-ward experience of church, or our OUT-ward experience of life in our city.

That means each term has a different feel. In the autumn we were unpacking Galatians, exploring the character of relationship with God with his people. We called this 'You are always welcome'. Over Christmas we considered the incarnation and its implications for life in this world, 'One of us'.

This term we've been in Genesis 1-4 considering the foundations of all things 'I love my city', and God's big story which runs from the garden to the city to fill this world with his goodness so it can be his home with all who trust in Christ.

Download the final sermon in this series: I love my city - everything with him.

We wak in this series thoroughly in the tradition of the Dutch Reformed churches, people like Abraham Kuyper who argued that Jesus stakes his claim on every square inch of his world. We stand on the shoulders of rigorous thinkers such as John Dyer, Don Carson, Andy Crouch, Tim Keller, David Stroud, Jon Tyson, Os Guinness, Francis Schaeffer and L'Abri Fellowship and others who have taught us that the Christian story is of the renewal of all things through substitutionary atonement in Jesus.

I've loved the way this has widened my eyes to see what God is doing in this world, in his world.

Personal salvation and personal piety are unspeakably wonderful. Our story is never to be less than that, but it must be more. Its not that I'm the type or am inclined to a wider vision - a small salvation suits me nicely, but it falls short of a Biblical view of the gospel of Jesus.

As Evan Koons says in a highly-rated resource we've been making use of, we need to ask:
What is our salvation for? For the life of the world.

In Genesis we allowed ourselves to paint the picture. A rich canvas of purple one week, green the next, and then blue and so on. Optimistic and idealistic in Genesis 1-2, realistic, bleak and deeply hopeful in Genesis 3-4 as we engage with human betrayal of God, curse, sin, alienation, vengeance and more. And in the darkest moments, there is the Triune God seeking people.

As we go forward I feel that we have a rich opportunity to pursue a grassroots initiatives in community across our city, sharing 'life on life'. We can back local relief agencies and partner with others - such as Foodbank, YMCA, CAP. We can seek to value the vocations of people - called to join God in the renewal of all things through business and retail, education and health care, academia and customer service and more. And we can seek to resource those - particularly at our local University - who may wield great influence for good in society in their graduate lives.

We'll either represent Christ in those places or something else - the gospel has application to every part of life.

In each area can we do that with an eye to the bigger picture and the deeper mystery of faith.

Next up we're in 1 Peter, 'Everyday Church' - what's so special about church, why and how should we do church in today's society.... I'm excited at the prospect of growing as a loving family together.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Process stories: behind the scenes of a new preaching series

A week on Sunday we start a new preaching series for the summer term, unpacking the message of 1 Peter. We're calling this 'EVERYDAY CHURCH' which is the title of Steve Timmis and Tim Chester's book on 1 Peter. For us discipleship has 'UP' to God, 'IN' to church, and 'OUT' to our city aspects. After series in Galatians on God's welcome, on the Incarnation and Genesis on living in this world, this is going to be more of an 'IN' series. A look inside how Christian faith, layed out to the mix gathering of newer and more established believers and many friends who are journeying regularly with us. 

As Jesus has welcomed us we seek to offer his welcome.

In looking at 1 Peter, we're asking what's special about church, why bother with church community, and how does that work in today's society?

This series will begin in the school and University holidays so we'll be podcasting and seeking to communicate clearly so people catch the start - though we know many members and friends may be with us irregularly so the sermons will need to both be a coherent series and stand alone messages - each seeking to meet people where they are and issuing a call to faith in Christ.

Friday afternoon for me then was about finalising the visual identity for this and printing the resource booklet covers. Next week I will complete the content and get that printed too. Our printer is a monster and will be working very hard!

Producing our series literature isn't where this begins. Our senior leadership team met in January and decided what we'd be preaching and focussing on. In February Stu and I prayefully hit the books, he has a mid-term study week. I've been particularly helped by Angus Macleay's book 'Teaching 1 Peter' from the Proclamation Trust, along with Edmund Clowney's gospel-centred classic in the BST series, whilst also drawing on hours in the text itself and the work of excellent evangelical scholarship.

From there we shape the series outline. What's the message of this book? How can we communicate that clearly and effectively? We're leaning heavily on Macleay's approach with a 13 week series. He suggest a options for 3,5,8 and 16 week series. We're very slightly condensing his long series approach.

I produce a notebook for our preaching team - Stu, Joe and myself, and three guest speaker who will join us this term - with key questions to bear in mind both drawing out the meaning of the text and communicating it's message to human beings at our Sunday gatherings.

Meanwhile Stu has met with a professor at the University who is a world expert on 1 Peter - a little providential opportunity which we're thankful for. We're a young team and anyone we can learn from is worth listening to.

Before we even get started on this my eye is on our next series which will take us from late-July through to the end of August. Traditionally this is a time to train up younger preachers. With that in mind I'm pushing forward on a few fronts. We're going to work with a book I've taught before in another context. I've begun to issue invitations to preach, juggling availability on dates. I've invited the curate of a local Anglican church to come and do some training with us on how to handle a Bible passage. He's an old friend from my time with UCCF and I'm delighted that he plans to join us for all four preparation evenings - two on handling the Bible, two on crafting a sermon. We have much to learn together.

Meanwhile this Sunday we conclude our present preaching series, a term in Genesis 1-4 which has for me been a fascinating vision of the God who made this good world to flourish under the hands of his image bearers, moving as GK Beale says towards a global Eden, a glorious city, and yet terribly marred by our deep relational betrayal. Only through the wounded Christ can things be restored, and as human beings turn to find life in him they join him in the renewal of all things. We're supplementing the lessons we've learned from one of The Gospel Coalition's Top 10 resources of last year - 'For the life of the world' a video discussion series based on Dutch Reformed worldview theology from Abraham Kuyper.

People are taking next steps, responding to what Jesus says in his word about his gospel, and it's great to see changed lives.

Our Senior Leadership team will meet later in April to set our direction for the autumn and it'll be time again to gather resources to do our best to serve our city with the good news of Jesus.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How (not) to be secular?

James K A Smith engages with Charles Taylor's big book 'A Secular Age' to consider what it means for someone to follow Jesus in our time, and to communicate the message of Christ to others.

The Plausibility Problem
Once men and women looked up to the sky and it sang to them, today we look at the vast empty vacuum of space. Something has changed. 500 years ago it was plausible to believe, and implausible if not impossible to reject Christ. Today the reverse seems so. It seems thoroughly plausible not to believe in Christ, and implausible if not impossible to believe.

Confidence or Conversation
Taylor observes four forms of belief today. A grid - Immanence vs. Transcendence, Take vs. Spin.

There are those who believe in a transcendent world - there is more than you can see. Some, like Taylor do so with an openness to discussion (take) while others are less inclined to ask questions but rather incline to confident confrontation (spin) - 'the fundamentalists.'

Similarly there are those who believe in an immanent world - there is just what you see. Some, like Julian Barnes say 'I don't believe in God but I miss him' (take), while others 'the academy' (spin) are more bold and less open to discuss faith.

Spin vs. Spin can't communicate. It wont. It can't see the point. This is our experience - we talk at one another, past one another, offend one another unnecessarily, caricature one another.  But Take can talk with Take.

Taylor observes a pathway to opening up conversation through consideration of 'cross-purposes' which challenge the Immanent Spin.

What of:
1. Agency (human responsibility)
2. Aesthetics (beauty)
3. Ethics

The Immanent Spin can be deeply imaginative, creative... but does it have ground for that? Or it rejects them, but can it do so without deep impoverishment? And if I feel the looming impoverishment might that suggest their rejection is a false step, that the world might not be as it was assumed to be?

Can we re-enchant this world with a bigger picture and a deeper meaning?
Can we empathise and reach out to Julian Barnes and his instinct of a gospel-haunted world?

From Narnia to our world
Might it be that CS Lewis isn't just doing Christian allegory in Narnia but, as Michael Ward says in his PhD thesis: seeking to demonstrate the possiblity and create fresh plausibility of a meaning-drenched universe by engaging the imagination. Might being in Narnia teach us how to live better here? Might adventuring with Narnia's Christ freshly introduce us to this world's Christ.

Might truth, beauty and goodness can awaken and create a space in which a conversation can happen, a world in which men and women might begin to explore faith, where the message of Jesus might be freshly heard, freshly considered, through the background and foreground noise of this secular age.

The two years before I came to know Christ I was so disenchanted that I quit reading fiction after years as an avid reader. I lost my imagination. I felt despair. I discarded the image. I began to feel impoverishment...  Meanwhile many still imagine, dream, see (and far richly that me) - living in Narnia but forgetting that this world still exists.

We need fresh approaches. We need to think harder. There are pictures to paint. There are stories to tell. There is life to be savoured. There is beauty to appreciate. There is love to be apprehended by. There is more. And this isn't a strange thought - there are thinkers thinking about it and living it - Tim Keller, Don Carson, Jamie Smith, Robert Farrar Capon, Charles Taylor, Michael Ward, Evan Koons, L'Abri... what's the next step?

The iceberg is melting

Church in decline
I've lived in University towns and cities since I was 18 years old. In those places church can look quite healthy. There are young people in the church. There are congregations that feel big (200+).

The view is distorted though. Half of churches in the UK don't have any teenagers. The church population is aging and declining. That's a problem because when the clock goes forward that's an absence of 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s... and a population who are heading for their eternal home.

The church might be growing in London but the national picture is numerical decline.

And these might be days of small things.
But, who can settle for that?
Who could settle for people not knowing Jesus?

I'm persuaded that knowing Jesus is good.  And not knowing Jesus is bad for people and for this world. People not in churches means people not walking with Jesus but walking against him and away from him and means further ruin for this world.

Hope for the world
It's been said 'the church is the hope of the world' but few would agree today. Why is that?

1. People don't want Jesus
And that's a problem that goes to the depths of the human heart which on one level the church can't do much about. Paul anguishes and weeps over this, and goes further.

2. Church has to ask about how well it is representing Jesus
How's our communication? Are we - even with the best of motives - getting in the way? Paul as he travelled around learned the local language and concepts and beliefs, and contextualised the gospel to his situations.

Being heard
Contextualisation means communicating in a way that can be heard. The message musn't compromised - the church is the community who believe in the crucified Christ, a people who have repented to Christ and found there is none like him.

But, we have to ask how does the gospel fulfill what people in our culture desire?
And how does the gospel subvert what people in our culture desire?

Doing that means lots of listening.
And listening. And listening.
That means taking time to understand people.
That means understanding language.

e.g. The success of 50 Shades represents a desire for intimacy and acceptance. The gospel affirms that. But, the gospel challenges 50 Shades saying that the love we're made for isn't found in an abusive relationship.  (See Daniel Strange's For our Rock is not as theirs for more on 'subversive fulfillment')

Posture and Tone
And doing this means changing our posture and tone. There is urgency but the world is rarely changed in a moment. Real change takes a generation. It takes time day after day, week after week to paint the picture, re-enchant this world, to rebuild plausibility for the gospel, to engage a secular age.

Gospel-believers don't strut. Gospel-believers have empathy.
The Church must live as those who know what is to seek life outside Christ.
The Church must knows what it is to fall in love with this world.

The main thing as the main thing
Church know that everyone is in the same situation: I need Jesus, and I think everyone else does.  The 'gospel' is good news for every person. Every person - made in the image of God, an image marred to its very core. Christ is good news for every person who will have him. And the Triune God is on the front foot in seeking people.

He's yours if you'll have him, do you want him? Do I want him?

That's not easy. But we're finding that it is possible - if personally costly - to move some of the barriers out of the way. And when that happens people find church is a place that helps, a place they can safely consider Christ for themselves, and begin to see what it would mean to entrust themselves to him.

The iceberg is melting. Jesus hasn't changed. But there are  hard choices and hard work to do if our society, our friends, our culture are to consider Christ, and if church is to be a movement of people who represent the Triune God in his world.