Total Church 15: Success

Continuing discussion of Chester and Timmis Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community

Chapter 13 is on Success

A lot of this book is counter-cultural to conventional ways of doing church. And this theme continues as they question ‘success’.

I’ll ask a question up front: – what does ‘success’ in church life look like to you?

Success in Total Church looks like:

– small multiplying churches rather than large single congregations that don’t church plant

– being gospel centred in everyday life and community.

– being an authentic community which is not just all about Sunday performance.

They have a pop here at soft-selling the gospel in order to ‘grow’ a church:

Entertain the congregation each Sunday with a good performance. Do not focus on the depth of their sin, nor the cost of cross-centred discipleship. Whatever you do, do not challenge the idolatrous desires of their hearts. Instead offer them sermons on how to realize those desires and find success in life. Or better still, tell amusing stories which excite them with a vague sense of optimism. That is one way to grow a congregation.

– leadership as enabling and releasing others for ministry, not about being enslaved by our own or others expectations

– growing Christians and growing gospel opporutnities

– an ecclesiology of the cross, where God’s power is seen in weakness – not size, numbers, charismatic personalities, technology, buildings etc

“The future of mission does not lie in grand strategies or mega-structures. Christ is building his church, for the most part unseen, in the shape of thousands of congregations. This is the future of the church: the sovereignity of the risen Christ and the ‘church of the poor’.”

Seems to me that basically they are saying there is no easy ‘short-cut’ to Christian authenticity – in everyday Christian living and in mission and evangelism. It’s got to be real from the bottom up, in individual lives and in communities of Christians following Jesus.

This seems obvious – but in post-Christendom what was assumed is now being exposed. Christendom (which in Ireland meant that pretty well everyone went to some sort of church) was so pervasive and apparently successful, was so deeply woven into the fabric of Irish society, that the external performance continued but with little depth or authenticity or spiritual reality. Nominalism reigned.

As Christendom continues to die away in Ireland, we have to rediscover the Christian basics: what church is actually for, what discipleship is, how to engage in authentic evangelism, connecting the gospel with real everyday life, being good news as well as talking about good news and so on.

As we reach the end of this book (one post to come), I’ve generally found it helpful and challenging as it has re-thought-out the basics and cleared away a lot of excess baggage that has accumulated around how we think of and do church.

Sundays on Mark (19): clean and unclean

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on Mark’s gospel

This week Mark 7:1-23   Clean and Unclean

Jesus has already clashed with the Pharisees over Sabbath, fasting and Table Fellowship with sinners. Now he locks horns over ritual purity.

Jesus is a controversialist – he does not back away from head on conflict in this case. The issue is the complex system of dietary laws based on a rabbinic oral traditions that had been systematised and applied in minute detail to every aspect of  life, supposedly to bring it under the Torah.

Jesus goes for the jugular, calling them hypocrites whose hearts are far from God and who have set aside the law of God and replaced it with their own traditions.

Now that’s pretty polemical stuff. They shared his concern for purity after all. Jesus nevertheless calls man-made (and therefore having no weight) what they considered of ultimate spiritual importance. But even more, it distorted the true Law and was based on false motives and false thinking. The ‘corban’ issue is an example – the ‘law’ was being used to evade family responsibilites.

Jesus’ declaration (that Mark deliberately draws attention to for his later readers) that purity is from within and not from what is eaten (or not), would have far reaching implications for the early church. Jesus is not so much opposing Mosaic food laws as attacking the idea that men can attain true purity by external behaviour which is powerless to change the heart.

It is the heart that is the real problem of humanity. Jesus is pointing to the real and desperate need for purity of heart, of forgiveness of sin, of spiritual transformation from within.

He has the answer that no ‘Tradition of the Elders’ could ever deliver.

PRAYER: Most holy God, perfect in love and holiness, you know our hearts. Renew our thoughts, minds and motives through your Holy Spirit as we confess our sins and seek your gracious forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Clean and Unclean

1The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus and 2saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were “unclean,” that is, unwashed. 3(The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)

5So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?”

6He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
” ‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
7They worship me in vain;
their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ 8You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men.”

9And he said to them: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! 10For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ 11But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), 12then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. 13Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

14Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ ”

17After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18“Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a man from the outside can make him ‘unclean’? 19For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods “clean.”)

20He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ 21For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. 23All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.’ “

Ireland’s financial apocalypse?

The  ‘Saturday Story of the Week’ is this analysis from Morgan Kelly, professor of economics in University College Dublin.

[this is edited from when first posted – forgot!]

Here’s a few clips from what he said. Basically it is no longer a question of whether Ireland will go bust, but when. …. (Sorry to dampen your Saturday).

When you compare the leviathan that is America to the minnow that is Ireland, you find that the Irish Government has

“already committed itself to spend … 10 times per head of population the amount the US spent to rescue itself from its worst banking crisis since the Great Depression.”

That’s worth pausing to ponder.

He then does a few sums on how much Irish taxpayers are set to lose in the bailout and concludes:

“So between developers, businesses, and personal loans, Irish banks are on track to lose nearly €50 billion if we are optimistic (and more likely closer to €70 billion), which translates into a bill for the taxpayer of over 30 per cent of GDP …. Adding these bank losses on to the national debt means we are facing a debt by late 2012 of 115 per cent of GDP …

And when you calculate the debt based on taxes raised here in Ireland the

“optimistic debt to GDP forecast of 115 per cent translates into a debt to GNP ratio of 140 per cent, worse than where Greece is now. And even this catastrophic number assumes that our economy does not contract further.”

Over the last two years Ireland has suffered

“the deepest and swiftest falls in a western economy since the Great Depression” and the contraction is far from over. There is likely to be “a borrowing crisis for Ireland. The first torpedo, most probably, will be a run on Irish banks in inter-bank markets, of the sort that sank Anglo in 2008.”

“We have long since left the realm of easy alternatives, and will soon face a choice between national bankruptcy and admitting the bank guarantee was a mistake. Either we cut the banks loose, or we sink ourselves … Our crisis stems entirely from the Government’s gratuitous decision on September 29th, 2008, to transform the IOUs of Seán FitzPatrick, Dermot Gleeson and their peers into quasi-sovereign instruments of the Irish state.”

“the State is a distinct entity from its banks and, having learned the extent of the banks’ recklessness, we now have no choice but to allow the bank guarantee to lapse and to share the banks’ losses with their bondholders….”

Of course, expecting politicians to sort out the Irish banks is pure fantasy. Like their British and American counterparts, Irish politicians have spent too long believing that banks were the root of national prosperity to understand that their interests are frequently inimical to those of the rest of the economy.

So what’s the hope? Kelly puts his in the new independent regulator and governor of the central bank who now hold huge political power.

“We can only hope that the Central Bank is using whatever time remains to us as an independent State to devise an intelligent Plan B – or is it Plan C?”

How does this make you feel? Helpless as this all unfolds in the remote corridors of power? Angry over the future this heralds for children and young people for years ahead; for the poor and the dependent? Fearful? Just hoping that it will all turn out all right somehow? Bewildered at the complexity of it all and not sure what to believe.

How should Christians be thinking about this stuff?

I’m no economist but the mega-shift (there is no word big enough even with a makey-up one like that one) from private debt run up by out of control banks to public debt owned by the State (you and me) seems to me deeply, profoundly and absolutely iniquitous.

So I’m with Kelly – cut the banks loose to take more responsibility for their recklessness.

a glimpse behind the consumer glitz

Worth listening to this clip (4 mins and mid way down the page) from Reuters journalist Kelvin Soh on the Foxconn factory in Taiwan where Apple iphones and other products for Dell and HP are made.

Imagine working in a factory of over 400,000 people. Food, sleeping quarters, leisure facilities, shops are all provided. Shifts of 10 hrs on the assembly line and not allowed to speak at all.

There have been 10 suicides at the plant which is why it is in the news. Management have put nets around the building to catch jumpers.

Now in a self-contained ‘town’ of nearly half a million that might be near societal norms? Most workers are delighted to have a job and the conditions apparently are far superior to brutal conditions in many factories in mainland China. Maybe so.

But the story is a rare glimpse behind the glitz of the consumer dream: into a world of military style working regimes designed to maximise efficient use of low-cost (and replaceable) ‘human resources’.

What does ‘success’ look like?

We’re at the end of term at IBI. All week there have been many farewells, hugs, thanksgiving prayers, plenty of big sighs of relief among students after an intense last few weeks of study. Staff have a bit to go yet with loads of marking and a 5 year university review coming up … but I ain’t expecting or looking for sympathy!

It’s a double-edged experience, this parting of the ways: On the one hand,  ‘job done’, ‘task accomplished’, ‘year over’, ‘courses passed’. On the other hand, friends departing, goodbyes, a real tinge of loss.

Students have formed communities of friendships with each other and staff – yet by definition this is a transient temporary community. 2009-10 is now coming to an end. We all have been engaged in a common working together for a specific time and for a specific purpose.

We’ve studied, taught, discussed, presented seminars, written papers, debated, reflected, prayed, sang, cried, drank gallons of coffee, encouraged, been discouraged, listened, struggled, worried, risked, worshipped, eaten countless meals together, learnt, laughed, shared lives, been stressed out, rejoiced, served, annoyed others, judged others, repented, forgiven and moved on.

In short, a Christian community; fallible, imperfect, ordinary people,  yet wonderfully marked, in my view, by the presence of the Spirit. A vibrant, diverse mixture of people, touched by the grace of God, for a while walking alongside each other before going different paths again.

So to my question, especially for students  (and I have my own ideas but I’ll hold off on them for the moment):

WHAT IS IT ALL FOR? What does it mean for a course in Applied Theology to have been a ‘success’? What are the unique benefits of a time like this, temporarily ‘set aside’ to study in community?

Bird’s eye view of Paul (4):Road to Damascus

Chapter 2 of A Bird’s Eye View of Paul examines Paul’s own experience of ‘the Road’ – the one to Damascus that is.

I’m enjoying this book – very readable, concise and focused on the big stuff.

Bird sketches two Pauls:

1. The pre-Damascus Road Paul

– a pious and blameless Pharisee

– appalled at the message of a crucified messiah. A nice line, ‘the cross is offensive to Jews because a crucified Messiah implies a crucified Israel.’

– opposed to worship and adoration being given to Jesus.

– zealous for the purity of the law as a boundary marker of Israel’s holiness – and willing to kill to maintain it. To suggest that Gentiles could enter the elect people of God without becoming Jews and keeping Torah was to threaten Israel’s very identity.

2. The post Damascus Road Paul

Whatever exactly happened on the road to Damascus it turned Paul around completely.

He did not ‘convert to Christianity’. He converted to an entirely new way of understanding Israel and God’spurposes for his people.  He becomes a key leader in the messianic sect within Judaism, with the specialised task of including precisely those ‘sinners’ / Gentiles that he had fought so hard to exclude.

– his view of Jesus (Christology) utterly changed: – he was not a failed or false Messiah, he was the Lord, the Son of God.

– his view of salvation (soteriology) utterly changed:- he came to see the curse of the cross not as a shameful failure, but at the very centre of God’s salvific purposes.

– his view of the future (eschatology) utterly changed:- before he believed in a future resurrection where all God’s faithful covenant keepers would be vindicated. Now God had vindicated his Son through whom the end of the ages had come (1 Cor 10:11). The future had broken into the present. The Spirit had been poured out as a seal & deposit of the future new age (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5: Eph 1:13-14).

– his view of the Law utterly (nomology!) changed:- before he believed the Torah marked out the people of God, obedience to the law was the basis of future vindication. Now he believed that faith in the Messiah was the basis of justification or vindication. Jesus was the ‘end of the law’. Life in the Spirit fulfils the Law.

– his views about the church (ecclesiology) utterly changed:- previously he had persecuted the heretical messianic sect. Now he understood it to be the very body of Christ whom he had been persecuting. And just as radically, if faith in the Messiah defined the people of God, Gentiles could enter in without having to obey the Torah.

Something dramatic and life-changing happened on that Road. He was the least likely convert imaginable. He did NOT think all this through and decide to follow Jesus. No, his changed thinking came after his unexpected and un-sought-after experience of meeting the risen Christ.

As Bird says

‘a ferocious force had seized him and turned him inside out, upside down and spun him round a dozen times … the grace-event killed Saul the Pharisee and birthed Paul the apostle.’

It not only changed Paul, it changed the history of the world.

A tangential thought on conversion sparked by those 5 areas of Paul’s changed thinking. If you are Christian who had a conversion experience from someting to Christianity, what were the key things that changed in your thinking? Any in common with Paul or are they quite different?

Total Church 14: children and young people

Continuing discussion of Chester and Timmis Total Church: a radical reshaping around gospel and community

Chapter 12 is on Children and Young People

Here Chester and Timmis turn their attention to youth work and offer a reorientation of ministry among young people shaped by their twin pillars of gospel and community.

The authors question whether ‘youth’ is actually a meaningful category and whether ‘youth work’ focused on young people as a distinct group will wither away. They say this because there is doubt that the majority of young people actually belong to a distinct sub-culture.

While they may attract numbers, studies from the States show the ineffectiveness of sugar coated youth activities; i.e. having a mad fun night of games all evening to attract kids and then have a short Bible talk. Their point is that in such popular models the ‘important stuff’ takes place in an unplanned ad hoc way around the fringes and bears little actual fruit as most simply walk out on church as they become adults.

The authors argue real fruit is not measured in attendance but in terms of mature disciples. Lives are changed by the gospel; the Bible is key and the means is sharing lives.

Rather than a youth centred approach, the authors argue for one that integrates young people into the everyday community and mission of the church. A key to this are leaders older than teenagers but younger than parents who have a commitment to young people and model gospel living.

The theological point here is that the church is a diverse body of believers and that young people as much as anyone else should be part of that diversity. Part of discipleship is an equipping young people to be an active part of church life – they are evangelised within the community, they contribute to the community and are included intentionally in the community. This is neither ‘youth work’ or ‘youth church’. Young people are servants, believers, and learners as much as anyone else.

And so Total Church argues for the integration of children into the church communiy with all the difficulties that entails, rather than building in a generational gap of children / adult church. Since the church is the household of God,  the goal is mutual accountability between the generations.

Again I find a lot of this good – the church I go to is a small community and maybe as a result the young people are very highly involved, including ministry activities with adults. And the ones I can speak for love church …

Sundays on Mark (18): Jesus the miracle man

Continuing our simple Sunday reflections on Mark’s gospel

This week Mark 6:45-56: Jesus walks on water

This story is tightly tied to the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 and the probable resultant ‘messianic mania’ that followed. ‘Immediately’Jesus packs the disciples off, deals with the crowd by dispersing them and withdraws for prayer. This is a repeated pattern in Mark [see after the Sabbath healing (1:35-9); here in ch 6 and also in 14:26-42. Jesus walks a solitary path of the surprising, unexpected and ultimately unacceptable Messiah. He consistently rejects being boxed in to the people’s expectations. His is a Messianic call that does not fit with the glorious warrior reclaiming Israel’s spiritual and political freedom.

His walking across the lake and the disciples’ reaction echoes the earlier calming of the storm. They are ‘on their own’ and struggling and Jesus comes to them and not only solves their immediate problem (a tough row in the middle of the night) but demonstrates his power over natural elements. In both cases their reaction is one of fear and lack of faith. The reference to ‘hardened hearts’ regarding the significance of the just performed miracle, shows that they have not yet begun to grasp the significance of who he is.

And you get this sense with the people in Gennesaret too – there is intense excitement as the word spreads and you can imagine village squares filled with the sick, lame, paralysed and walking wounded – all wanting a healing touch of his power. Jesus’ message or identity is not mentioned – it is this miracle worker’s restoring power understandably people are desperate to experience. And he graciously responds.

Prayer: We thank you Lord Jesus that you come to us graciously despite our hardened hearts, despite our limited understanding and despite our self-interested motives. Help us through your Spirit to have hearts of faith, deeper understanding of your glory and renewed motivation to serve others in love. Amen.

Jesus Walks on the Water

45Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. 46After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.

47When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. 48He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them, walking on the lake. He was about to pass by them, 49but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, 50because they all saw him and were terrified.

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

53When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. 55They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed.

Idealistic or realistic?

Saturday Story of the Week

Yes, I know there is rather a lot going on in the world and I don’t want to appear obessesed by the Civil Partnership Bill, but I’m returning to it again this week because there is an interesting discussion going on out there.

Here’s a letter in the Irish Times by John Samuel on Thursday [who as well as having a full-time job as a church leader, teaches with us in IBI]

And to this article by David Quinn of the Iona Institute in the Independent on Friday

Both saying similiar things – marriage is best for sociey and for children and should actively be protected and supported and encouraged by the State.

David Quinn leaves religious based reasons to oppose the Bill out of his argument. He also appeals to the freedom of conscience issue that was raised by the evangelical pastors last week.

John is refreshingly upfront when he says

“If the Bible really is God’s word, as I believe it is, then its teaching on matters such as marriage is in fact best for all of mankind, not just a minority. Christians should use their democratic freedom to seek to persuade their fellow-citizens of the benefits of following the maker’s instructions.”

I believe the Bible is God’s Word. I believe that its teaching on marriage is best for all mankind. It would be ideal if we did live in a society where our fellow citizens did follow the maker’s instructions.

But if there ever was an Ireland in the past where that happened, it isn’t the Ireland of today. So while I agree with so much of what John is saying, I think it is idealistic rather than realistic.

In saying this I’m not being ‘defeatist’ and saying Christians should withdraw from the public sphere

Nor am I, as John discusses in his letter, trying to re-write the Bible to say something it does not.

I do think that Christians will need to argue for freedom of conscience [although I’d like to see this aimed at protecting the rights of our ‘enemies’ to believe what they want and the good of society as a whole than protecting just ourselves].

But I also think we have to develop a Christian realism of how we engage with, live within and witness to Jesus in a diverse plural post-Christendom culture.

What do you think?