Saturday, April 29, 2006

mission-shaped church

I’ve been reading the official C of E report mission-shaped church recently. People who I’ve spoken to who’ve read it (mostly young adults in leadership roles in the C of E) generally rave about how good it is. As usual, I’m going to disagree....

mission-shaped church is basically trying to answer the question

How can the Church of England go about reaching the people it isn’t reaching at the moment?

Much of the book is good advice about church planting, examining the weaknesses of the parish system in large areas of the country, etc.

Much of the book is looking at ways that people are trying to reach out at the moment, especially in terms of “fresh expressions of church” – doing things differently, cell churches, network churches, especially in terms of growing churches among new groups, etc. The weakness? I think they’ve screwed up the theology.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the C of E is not bringing the gospel to a huge proportion of the population, and that a large amount of that is down to the way we do things. It is important to recognise, as the book does, that England today is an increasingly fragmented society, with many different subcultures, often without much in common with each other. I agree with the authors that the C of E all too often is not engaging properly with many of these cultures. In fact, it seems that there are several subcultures within the Church of England, which often have little to do with the cultures in society.

I agree that our response to this situation should be to be “all things to all men, so that by all means possible we may save some”. But I think there is a huge danger in doing that; one which the book hardly even mentions.

The situation in the Roman Empire at the time the New Testament was being written was in many ways similar to ours. Society was fragmented, with the biggest divide that affected the church being that between Jews and Gentiles, and it is against that background that Paul wrote these words

Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.
1 Corinthians 9:19-22, NIV

Paul in that quote seems to be speaking about precisely the same idea as mission-shaped church - that of changing who we are and the way we do things to reach people. But while evangelism does seem to have involved total cultural engagement, Paul had different priorities for how the church worked.

It could certainly be argued that the distinction between Jew and Gentile in the Roman world was at least as big as any of the divisions in modern culture. And yet the New Testament clearly sees them both in the same churches, in the same congregations, working alongside one another.

For [Christ] himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Ephesians 2:14-18, NIV

Part of Paul’s view there is of course on the fact that the Gentiles had previously been excluded from access to God. But part of it is clearly on the fact that Jew and Gentile have been united and reconciled to one another in Christ. In the Bible, there is not even a hint of creating separate Jewish and Gentile churches, though it is clear that the style of outreach used to reach Jews and Gentiles were very different at times.

Once people become Christians, they are united to all other Christians in the same family. Yes, that means that where the way we do things is uncomfortable for other Christians, we should change it. But it does not mean that they should have a separate church meeting because they like a different style of music. It means that we should lovingly accommodate them within the Church. Heaven is not going to be split into ghettos according to social background or ethnicity or musical tastes. Therefore the Church shouldn’t be either.

Where there is a good case for separate meetings is where the same languages aren’t spoken or where people are sufficiently geographically distinct (or indeed there are space considerations) so that it’s not reasonable for everyone to meet in the same place at the same time. And even then, there should be efforts made to express unity together.

This doesn't mean I think all Christians should go to their parish church. In many cases, the parish church will not be accessibly culturally or theologically. In those situations, I would say that ideally the parish church should change, and then the Christians might start going there.

So what would I suggest instead of mission-shaped church? As far as I can tell, there are two truths we need to hold together.

  • Church should be accessible to and express the unity of all Christians in the area. If that means compromise on musical or liturgical styles then that is what it means. If that means getting to the point where established Christians are uncomfortable with it, they should do it out of love for God and for one another. It might well involve "fresh expressions of church".
  • The way the Church reaches out to groups within the community should be incarnational, seeking to participate in the culture, to “become Jews to win the Jews, goths to win the goths”, etc.

It's worth me noting here that there are some very good insights in this book.

Monday, April 24, 2006

J Hudson Taylor - A Man in Christ (Roger Steer)

One of the (many) things I did this last week was read an excellent biography of Hudson Taylor, which I'd thoroughly recommend. By the time he became prominent, Hudson Taylor was an awesome spiritual giant (or as he would have said, a servant of an awesome God). This biography helps you see how he got there, how he learnt to trust God, and how his offering of his whole life was used by God to bring so much glory to his name.

Here's a link to the page. And here's a review of it on the site of the mission society descended from the one he founded.

Here's a quote from Hudson Taylor, quoted in the book:

How are we going to treat the Lord Jesus with reference to this command? Shall we definitely drop the title "Lord" as applied to him and take the ground that we are quite willing to recognise him as our Saviour so far as the penalty of our sin is concerned, but we are not prepared to own ourselves "bought at a price" or Him as having any claim on our unquestioning obedience? Shall we say that we are our own masters, willing to yield something as His due, who bought us with His blood, provided He does not ask too much? Our lives, our loved ones, our possessions are our own, not His: we will give Him what we think fit, and obey any of His requirements that do not demand too great a sacrifice? To be taken to heaven by Jesus Christ we are more than willing, but we will not have this man to reign over us.

The heart of every Christian will undoubtedly reject the proposition, so formulated; but have not countless lives in each generation been lived as though it were proper ground to take? How few of the Lord's people have practically recognised the truth that Christ is either Lord of all, or is not Lord at all! If we can judge God's Word, instead of being judged by that Word; if we can give to God as much or as little as we like, then we are lords and He is the indebted one, to be grateful for our dole and obliged by our compliance with his wishes. If, on the other hand, He is Lord, let us treat him as such.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Collect for Easter Eve

Grant, Lord,
that we who are baptized into the death
of your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ
may continually put to death our evil desires
and be buried with him;
and that through the grave and gate of death
we may pass to our joyful resurrection;
through his merits,
who died and was buried and rose again for us,
your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Camera Throwing

While tidying up my computer, I came across this photo, which I took on a train while practising the skill of camera throwing.


There is no true Christianity without brokenness.

If we are not broken, then we have not met God and we do not know ourselves.

Isaiah's response to the vision of God's glory was “Woe to me, I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips and my eyes have seen the king – the LORD Almighty.”
Isaiah 6:5, NIV

Why should we be broken? Because God is not like us.

When we start to see what he is like, we realise that we are nothing.

If we understand something of God's power – that power that spoke and the heavens and earth were formed – the power that sustains everything, upholds everything and can accomplish whatever he wants – we cannot fail to see that we are totally impotent and pitiful.

If we begin to fathom the extent of his wisdom – that he sovereignly planned all things, from the intricate functioning of atomic nuclei to the most distant galaxies, and who uses even outright rebellion against him for his glory – we must then realise we are totally ignorant and foolish.

If we glimpse something of his love – the love that would seek out his enemies and die so that they might be reconciled to himself, then we see that we are condemned by our selfish uncaring attitude even towards our friends.

The more we see that contrast between ourselves and God, the more we are reduced to a state of shocked silence as we see that we are totally unworthy of even existing in his universe, the more we see that we are incapable of understanding him and the more we must throw ourselves onto him.

That is not a bad thing – it is the right state for us to be in and the state in which we are most useful for God. As Paul wrote:

For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.
2 Corinthians 4:6-10, ESV

It is when we are at our most broken, our most clearly foolish and powerless, our most dead that the power and wisdom that is working in us and the life that is displayed in us is most clearly not our own.

And yet, so often, we see and hear even church leaders approaching God in prayer and in praise without this sense of reverent silence, of brokenness. So often we hear people pray without recognising the One to whom they are praying. I know for my part that I find that increasingly difficult to do – I find it really offputting when others do it, but ultimately I suppose I feel sorry for them. If they have not been struck with awe at what God has done – if their god is so small, so weak, so foolish that they can approach him like that, then I cannot see how they can be satisfied in him or rejoice in him either.

I have been very much struck recently by Mark 1:39-3:6. There are six episodes there – the first three with outcasts, the unclean and sinners coming to Jesus for physical and spiritual healing. The second three have confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees who thought they were righteous, cumulating in them plotting to kill him. And in the middle, we have Mark 2:17.

Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Mark 2:17

I act as if I am righteous every time I condemn someone or think myself better than them. I act as if I am righteous every time I pretend that I am ok and that I am capable of holding myself together. I act as if I am righteous every time I try to come before Jesus other than broken and crying out for mercy and grace. If we think ourselves righteous, Jesus does not call us, a path which leads ultimately to us killing Jesus because of his claims (as in 3:6). Wholeness leads to condemnation.

If we recognise that we are sinners, and come to Jesus humble and broken, as the leper did in 1:40 who came begging on his knees, then Jesus will heal us and forgive us, then he has come to call us and save us.

If we do not, then he will not.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The Wound of Knowledge

I've just finished reading one of Rowan Williams' earlier books - The Wound of Knowledge. It's basically a review of "Christian Spirituality" from the New Testament as far as Luther and St John of the Cross.

What Williams means by "Christian Spirituality" is the experience of being a Christian, especially in terms of what it means to take up the cross and follow Jesus in terms of our minds - what it means to die to ourselves, to know nothing except Christ, what it means to be people who follow, worship and dwell in a God who became human and died. In doing so, he covers quite a lot of historical theology, including the Gnostics (and anti-gnostics), Augustine and Aquinas. I found that helpful in terms of seeing how, for example, Arianism and Gnosticism both stemmed from (Neo-)Platonism.

His style is very different to the classic "evangelical" style - he seems to try to present each view as if he agrees with it, and doesn't do much in terms of critical evaluation, rather seeking to explore tensions between views. That sometimes makes it difficult to see what he actually thinks himself - perhaps he accepts that all the writers he considers are straining after the same reality, trying to verbalise it in different ways. That means that his take on Luther, for example, is very different to the one I'm used to - his main focus is on the experience of Luther's understanding of the unworthiness of people in God's sight and God's transcendence rather than on the reformation solas

For what it's worth, I think his actual views are somewhere between those of Luther and John of the Cross (whose views I'm aiming to write about soon). His treatment of the Biblical stuff is pretty good...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


I would like to write about something I read recently, but don't have time just now. So this is a reminder to me and a "teaser" for you.

What I'd like to write about is some of the views of St John of the Cross, as I understand Rowan Williams' explanation of them in The Wound of Knowledge. I don't wholly agree with these, but I think they are very interesting. Here's a sample:

"...the purifying of mental and spiritual life; understanding is reduced to faith, memory to hope, will to love.

Illumination is the running out of language and thought... the need to let go of cerebral activity when that point is reached.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Clean and Tidy

Why do I find it so hard to get round to cleaning and tidying, even when I know it has to be done?

Why do I enjoy it so little?