thoughts on faith, justice, politics and philosophy

Month: December 2012

Stuck in 1985

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So, my last post attracted a lot of attention! I guess it pays to blog about a controversy. I had some very positive responses both publicly and in private. If I have gained any new readers, be warned – I’m in a ranting mood!

Last time I elaborated on how I felt that UCCF Christian Unions were stuck in the 1980s and needed to stop seeing Christianity in the same way as Christendom. We’re no longer the dominant voice in society, and as such we cannot expect people to come to us. Instead we must go to them. This has led to the buzzword missional being ever more prevalent in our church sub-culture. It’s just a shame that we don’t seem to actually know what it means nor how to go about doing it.

Around Christmas time, I begin to remember what it is I find so jarring and annoying about modern Church. I have a great deal of Christian friends on Facebook, and almost all of them attend some sort of Evangelical, usually Charismatic church (deliberate capitals there). Christmas, traditionally, is the time of year most touted (before Easter) as a time to ‘invite your friends’ to church.

Yeah, because that totally makes sense in our world. Totally. Really, really good idea there folks. I cannot emphasise enough just how stupid and farcical the whole idea is. Two reasons:

1) Exaggeration of the Gospel

“But you can’t exaggerate the gospel – it’s the best news there is, Ben!” True. So why on earth do we persist in doing so? As if a traditional carol service wasn’t enough, we now offer them by ‘laser-light’. We use smoke machines, emotive music, annoying worship songs mashed up with old carols, funky stories, big TV screens. We even produce movies and live albums just to show people how awesome God is.

How utterly, utterly ridiculous.

As Christians we are called to mock the host culture of materialism within which we reside. Jesus makes a direct plea to this with so, so many of his teachings: on the poor, on authority, on taxes, on sin. We are to be counter-cultural. We are meant to show that you don’t need to spend money or accumulate it to love people.

Yet we spend countless thousands of pounds each year on flashy presentations of the ‘good news’ of the birth of Jesus. It isn’t even the gospel – by the most conservative of standards! Surely, the good news is so good that we don’t need to dress it up! Surely, we shouldn’t have to wow people with technicolour screens, fireworks, smoke machines, movies, live albums with great guitar riffs… what a deplorable waste of time!

The gospel does not need dressing up. Jesus was unremarkable in appearance (it says so somewhere in the Bible). Jesus did not lead a revolution with a flag, great inspiring speeches, rallies and battle-cries  Jesus started the quiet, unending, incremental revolution of the Kingdom of God. He did so through what Mother Teresa called ‘small acts of great love’. We are not called to put on a show. We are called to love.

2) The Show Doesn’t Last

When we insist on building up these spectacles, we don’t only overdo it to the point of parody and ridicule from the secular world, but we also set ourselves up for a fall. We damage both the visitor’s perception of God and perpetually our own as well. We do this in several ways:

  • We convince ourselves that evangelism means inviting people to hear someone else tell them about God
  • We reduce Christianity down to a decision and then some follow-up
  • We encourage one another that we can enjoy the host culture without having to critique it, focussing instead on secondary issues such as homosexuality
  • We provide a parody rather than a critique of materialism, and yet preach against it. Thus we appear hypocritical
  • We provide people with the notion that God is in a building and we must go to him there each week, even if we preach against that – it is there subconsciously.
  • We insist through the subliminal that emotive music, or powerful preaching, are key to our experience of God. We diminish the role of simplicity and silence.
  • We fail to be incarnate and instead join the world in being excarnate – we experience via screens, via someone else. We don’t do things for ourselves and when we do we filter the reality through some form of technology.
I could go on, but that last one is a good one to end on.

The Alternative: Missional Life

The problem is that 80’s style bring-them-in evangelism is all too easy. We can give ourselves a pat on the back each time a curious friend comes to church, we’ve done our bit. Even better if they make a commitment to be just like their normal self with a bit of eternity tacked on.

The difficulty is that Jesus calls us to do more. Jesus came to earth from the Heavens – he became incarnate, and, in a way, downwardly mobile, too. We are called to follow his example. We are called to reject the greed and materialism of our culture. We are called to live within the culture but not be of it. That means no more flashy light shows and stunning presentations to draw people in. That’s not the right Jesus. The Jesus we want people to meet resides in the quiet, in the still, in the changing of hearts and the healing of lives.

We are called to live in such a way that the good news is self evident in our lives. You are the gospel most people will hear. Not your words, but your whole person. Start acting like it! That way, you won’t need to bolt on flashy church services to get people to notice you!

To live in this way requires sacrifice. But it’s worth it. Our reward, as Jesus says, will be great in the Kingdom of Heaven. And the thing is, people who come to know Jesus through long term relationships with other people are far more likely to be sincere and to stick around! It’s no coincidence. It’s because they’ve seen the whole thing work. They don’t just touch base with it on a Sunday and then try to get through the rest of the week. They know it can be done 24/7/365, because they’ve seen it done.

That’s the good news, folks – the good news spreads itself if only we let it. Then we could save ourselves thousands of pounds and employ community workers and youth workers. Much better use of money…

Remember: the good news is BIGGER than you think. It’s BIGGER than we can ever produce it to be. Let it do its work. Don’t dress it up, don’t clothe it in the robes of materialism. Set it free and watch it change the world…

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Thoughts on the BUCU debacle

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So, today I found an article on the Huffington Post about how my former University’s Christian Union is not allowing women to speak… I have to say I wasn’t surprised. Though I never resigned my membership of the Christian Union there, I became more and more distant from it – and wish in hindsight I had done!

Helpfully, here is their side of the story… provided by a friend who is a member of the CU – extracts from an email:

“We are sad to say that our international secretary James Howlett has chosen to step down from his role on the exec because of his convictions on the secondary issue of women teaching in CU… we unite around the core truths of the gospel; that Christ died for our sins, was buried and raised again in accordance with the scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)…We all hold individual convictions on secondary issues such a women speakers… It is good and right that we hold strong beliefs on the Bible’s teaching about secondary issues but they are not what we centre around as a CU and therefore are not always reflected in the CU’s practice.

The decision made was that, because the CU is not a church and because we unite around the core truths of the gospel, it is ok for women to teach in any CU setting. However, we understand that this is a difficult issue for some and so decided that women would not teach on their own at our weekly Equip meetings, as the main speaker on our Bristol CU weekend away or as our main speaker for mission weeks, but a husband and wife can teach together in these. This means that women are able to teach…”

Phew! That was a lot of words that essentially says: we are being inclusive towards those who aren’t inclusive (not necessarily bad in my view) and we wanted to shift from not having women speakers, to having women speakers.

So that’s good! I still think they’ve got it wrong though. My main gripe is around the issue of what the gospel is. The wording above implies the gospel is simply Jesus’ death on the cross. This is NOT true. The gospel is so much more! The gospel is the good news – the good news to those of us who need God that he wants a relationship with us. The good news to the poor – that they don’t have to suffer poverty because God wants to bring about the Jubilee (Acts 2…). The good news to women – that they will have better status in the world (just see how he treats them!)

The good news is so much more than the cross. The cross is the culmination of the announcement. The cross seals the deal. But Jesus brought with him the Kingdom of Heaven – that, friends, is the good news! So yes, let us unite around the good news indeed – the good news that women are NOT a ‘secondary issue’ to God!

Stuck in the Past

The main problem I have with Christian Unions, however, is not that they are fundamentally sexist. No, it goes deeper than that. The problem is they are stuck in the modernist, evangelical, apologetic world. That world no longer exists.

Let me introduce you to the concept of places (Thanks, Mike Frost!). Your first place is where you live. You don’t do evangelism there. In fact, while we are at it, evangelism needs to give way to mission. Living as Jesus rather than just talking about him all the time. Anyway…

Your second place is your place of work. Let’s face it, you don’t really do mission there either. Conversations around the water cooler twice a year with one person does not count! Some people do meet God through colleagues, but it’s not where we should focus.

Our focus should be third places. These are the places the community is built around: pubs, restaurants, bars, social clubs, sports clubs and so on. These are the places people gather. These are the places we build relationships with others and nurture the good in the world (what some would refer to as the common grace of the world, perhaps).

The problem with universities is the blurring of these lines: 1st places, in the first year at least – do not exist. We live with all sorts of people. So our houses are a 3rd place. Our place of work is blurred with social interactions. It too is a third place.

Students only have third places! Wow – what an opportunity to live for Jesus!

There’s two things I want to explore about that:

1) The need for 1st places

As Christians, we should be in a stable living environment – that is what 1st places are for. Places we can switch off, places we can be loved. I reckon these, in a student world, are church small groups. So that is a good thing to have either as a CU or a church but not both!

Why not both? Because then people spend too long in their 1st place and not long enough in their 3rd places… If you’re playing CU football on a Monday, at your church small group on a Tuesday, at CU central on a wednesday, at CU small group on a Thursday, and working on a Friday, after Sunday church you only have Saturdays left to hang out with people who aren’t  Christians!

What happened to that opportunity, huh?

2) Making Use of Third Places

The problem with Christian Unions is not that they connect students who are Christians to one another – this is vital – though should be done by churches themselves. The problem is that they behave like churches with their meetings, small groups and worship sessions. They then teach students to ‘evangelise’ the ‘gospel’ by telling others about it and telling others about events they can attend to learn more – in the hope that at these meetings they will become Christians.

Several problems:

* They behave like churches!

* In order to truly win people over in our post-modern world, Christians need to re-earn the right to be heard with orthopraxy (right behaviour) before orthodoxy (right belief).

* In order to truly win people over, Christian students need to go to others rather than expecting to be gone to.

Now, in fairness – I know BUCU has become more friend-focussed than event focussed. But they do still do events! They still have a ‘mission week’ (so, we don’t need to do the rest of the year? they say otherwise but the problem is the subconscious implications). They still create too many easy Christian distractions from the real world. And they don’t equip people to network well. They simply provide more 80’s style evangelism training for Conservative Christians.

That is why I think CUs in their current form are redundant. It is vital that students connect. But I really, really do think we have got it very, very wrong. The consequences are generation after generation of atheist who cares neither for God nor his people’s methods. Disastrous consequences indeed…

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