Not the virtuous, but sinners (One-Year Bible #12)

‘As he went on from there Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom-house, and said to him, “Follow me”; and Matthew rose and followed him.

‘When Jesus was having a meal in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners were seated with him and his disciples. Noticing this, the Pharisees said to his disciples, “Why is it that your teacher eats with tax-collectors and sinners?” Hearing this he said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. Go and learn what this text means, ‘I require mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners.”’ (Matthew 9.9-13 REB)

I note the process in these verses.

  1. Jesus reaches out to Matthew, a tax collector. In doing this he crosses some powerful barriers. Matthew responds positively.
  2. The next thing we read is that he’s having a meal with tax collectors and sinners. Is this coincidence, or is Matthew introducing Jesus to his friends?
  3. Jesus is criticized by the religious establishment for being friendly with the wrong people.
  4. Jesus gives the theological explanation for what he’s doing: he’s going where the need is greatest. (actually, the Pharisees need him too, they just aren’t willing to admit it).

Some good stuff there!

(Today’s One-Year Bible readings are Genesis 26.17 – 27.46, Matthew 9.1-17, Psalm 10.16-18, and Proverbs 3.9-10)

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On Starting with Jesus

Rant ahead. I think of Anglican Christianity as being rather fixated on the idea that God became a human being and lived among us in Jesus (the ‘Incarnation’). This is the centre of our faith. It’s why we stand for the reading of the Gospel every Sunday. We don’ do that for any other reading of the Bible, and we certainly don’t do it for the sermon – but we do it for the Gospel reading. Heck, some of my Anglo-Catholic friends bow every time the name of Jesus is mentioned!

So I can take for granted that when I read John 1.18 – ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ – Anglican heads are going to be nodding. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey said, “In God there is no unChristlikeness at all”. That’s what we believe.

Okay then! I’ve been researching confirmation courses and inquirers’ courses produced in the Anglican family (this is because I want to revise my [now out-of-print] 2003 book ‘Starting at the Beginning’). And here’s what I found! Some of the confirmation courses have great long screeds about the church and the sacraments, how to pray and so on, but they barely mention the story of Jesus at all! The best known inquirers’ course, the Alpha Course, simply assumes that people already know the story of Jesus, and just starts asking doctrinal questions about him: Who was he? Why did he have to die? etc.

Is this a responsible way for us to provide basic instruction about our faith in 2018? I know a lot of non-churchgoing people, and most of them are very unfamiliar with the story of Jesus. They certainly don’t have access to the background knowledge they need to help them understand the story (they don’t for instance, know what the word ‘Christ’ means, which is rather fundamental – if you don’t know that, you’ll certainly miss the point).

Surely, in 2018, anything claiming to be an inquirers’ course or confirmation course ought to be firmly based on the story of Jesus? Surely it ought to begin by re-telling that story, and exploring why his life and teaching is so important for us?

The worldwide Anglican Communion is currently emphasizing discipleship; they’re calling it ‘living and sharing the Jesus-shaped life’. So what shape is that, again? I ask, because recently two well-known Anglican bishops have each issued a suggested ‘rule of life’ to help their people follow Jesus more closely. But I haven’t seen much acknowledgement that Jesus has actually already given us a rule of life; we can find it in the Great Commandments (Mark 12:28-32), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20), and the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), among other places.

What would a Jesus-centred Rule of Life look like? Surely it would begin with the idea of seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33), and then explore the practical ways Jesus gave us to live that out. Things like avoiding anger and practicing reconciliation, being faithful in marriage, telling the truth at all times, turning the other cheek, loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, practising prayer, fasting and giving to the poor, not storing up luxuries for ourselves, not judging others, and doing to others as we would have them do to us (see Matthew chapters 5 – 7).

What I want is a course about basic Christianity that is intentionally centred on the life and teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels. We want people to come to know God. We believe that God is most clearly revealed to us in Jesus. So why isn’t our basic Christian instruction focussed, to the point of obsession, with the life and teaching of Jesus?

Note to self: We need to do better.

 

 

 

Sermon at the Commissioning of Lay Evangelists at All Saints’ Cathedral, Edmonton – January 14th 2018

Tonight our Lord Jesus Christ has given a wonderful gift to his church. He has given us the gift of Alison Hurlburt, Corinna Kubos, and Jenny Stuart to be sent out as evangelists, to spread the good news and to help make new disciples for Jesus. These are the three lay evangelists we are commissioning tonight. But I want to say right from the start that there are more people involved than just these three. Sandra Arbeau has been with us through the whole process of formation; she has recently been ordained as a deacon so will not be licensed as a ‘lay’ evangelist, but she is very much a part of our community of evangelists in this diocese. Also in that community – and here tonight with us – are Richard King and Steve London who have been with us as participants, teachers and learners together with the others.

So these evangelists are the wonderful gift God is giving to his church tonight. I’m using this language of ‘gift’ intentionally, and I use it knowing very well that not everyone would see an evangelist as a gift! Some people see evangelists as a nuisance, or an embarrassment, or a theological anachronism. Some people would see them as fitting in more easily in a Pentecostal or Evangelical setting, and wonder why we’re doing this tonight in an Anglican cathedral!

But we’re here tonight because we don’t see it that way. We’re here because we’re enormously grateful to our Lord Jesus Christ for giving us the gift of these evangelists. We’re here to receive that gift with joy and celebrate it together, and to pray for them, and to ask God to bless them and guide them as they continue in the ministries to which God has called them.

Why am I using this language of ‘gift’? Because it’s the language used in our reading from Ephesians tonight. Look at Ephesians 4:11-13:

‘The gifts he (that is, Christ) gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (NRSV).

In the NIV it’s even more clear:

‘So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ’.

The fullness of Christ – that’s what this is all about. The job God has given to the Church is to live out the fullness of Christ before the world. But it’s not possible for each of us to do that as individuals. I by myself am not the Body of Christ, and neither are you. The Church – the whole Christian community together – is the Body of Christ, and together we live out the fullness of Christ in the sight of the world.

What is the fullness of Christ? Paul doesn’t use the word ‘love’ here, because he’s already rung the changes on that word many times in the first three chapters of Ephesians. But we really can’t start with anything else but love. What do the most famous verses in the Bible tell us?

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him’ (John 3:16-17).

Behind the coming of the Son – behind his ministry to people in his own time and down to the present through the Church – behind all of that is the mighty ocean of the love of God – God’s steadfast, unconditional, stubborn love.

And how does God demonstrate that love? Some modern translations say “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” – which is not a wrong idea, but leaves out an important nuance in the original. “God so loved” doesn’t just mean “God loved the world so much”; it also means “God loved the world in this way”. In other words, the specific act of love the author has in mind is the gift of the Son. God loved the world by giving the gift of his Son, who would leave his place of safety and take the risk of coming among us as one of us, to save us from all that binds us and destroys us, and to give us the gift of eternal life.

So the central fact of the character of Jesus is this outgoing, risk-taking love of God. How does the Church live out the fullness of this love? Paul says that we do it by receiving the gifts he gives us – the gifts of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. We can’t live out the fullness of his character if one of those gifts is missing, or (even worse) if we refuse one of those gifts. All of those gifts are necessary to build up the Church so that we live out the fullness of Christ before the world God loves.

In the Anglican Church in recent years we’ve been a little hesitant to receive Christ’s gift of ‘evangelists’. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts that express love and pastoral care for those inside the church. We’ve been happy to receive the gifts of service and practical care for those on the outside. But the evangelist – the one who announces the good news of Jesus – the one who shares it with others and invites them to become followers of Jesus – we haven’t always received that gift quite as enthusiastically! But tonight, we’re redressing that balance. Tonight we’re celebrating this gift, and the way it helps us live out the fullness of Christ.

And I want to underline for you – going back for a moment to those verses from the Gospel of John – that evangelism is all about love. If it’s not all about love, then it really isn’t evangelism! We Christians believe that God’s gift of Jesus to the world is the greatest expression of the love of God the world has ever seen. The fact that God would come among us himself in the person of his Son, to live and die and rise again to reconcile us to himself – if that’s true, it’s the most important event in the history of this planet. It can’t be just an incidental detail. It can’t be just one item among many in the smorgasbord of religious resources.

No – the news that the God of all creation loved us in this way –  by coming among us as one of us, and by calling people to follow him – is news that needs to be shared with others. Because if it’s true, then – as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s evangelism adviser said a few years ago – the best decision a human being can ever make is to follow Jesus. ‘No one has ever seen God’, says John; ‘It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1:18). So with love and joy in our hearts we’re called to share the good news of God’s Son with the world he came to save.

And that’s what Alison and Corinna and Jenny are going to help us to do. That’s why we’re commissioning them tonight as lay evangelists in the Church of Jesus Christ.

I can tell you, because I’ve had the privilege of getting to know them very well, that each of them – along with the others who have been part of our learning community – each of them has a wonderful story to tell of how God has been at work in their lives, helping them know Christ and follow him. God isn’t just a theory to them; God is a living reality, and for each of them, the great passion of their lives is to know God better and live out his love for others. And especially to – as my daughter likes to say to her little kids – ‘Use your words!’ These three people are not afraid to ‘use their words’ to share the love of God! In fact, when they get together, we often have the opposite problem! They have so much to say that we have a hard time getting through the agenda for the day!

I can also tell you that these three evangelists are not ashamed of living as Christians outside the walls of the church. It’s important to say this, because I think a lot of Christians are shy about that. They don’t mind being identified with Christ on Sunday mornings when they gather together with other Christians, but during the week they’d rather keep quiet about it. Sometimes that’s understandable; we know that not everyone who names the name of Christ right now is necessarily bringing credit to that name, and it would be easier for us not to be associated with those folks. I know these three feel that way sometimes too. But I also know that out in the working world, and in their daily lives with their families and friends, each of them has taken the step of somehow – not aggressively, but firmly – identifying themselves as followers of Jesus. And each of them is finding ways of effectively engaging the world they live in every day, for the sake of Jesus and his gospel.

So what do we hope our evangelists will do?

First, we hope they’ll carry on doing what they’re already doing – following Jesus and sharing his love with the people around them, by action and also by word. We hope they’ll keep growing in the skills they’ve been learning to help them do that. We hope that through their witness people who are not yet followers of Jesus will fall in love with him and begin to follow him.

Second, we hope they’ll teach and mentor others to be effective witnesses too. I find it interesting that in the reading from Ephesians the evangelists are included among the list of gifts Christ has given to the Church, to build up the Church’s life. That’s because all Christians, not just evangelists, are called to be faithful witnesses for Christ. But most of us are scared to do this.

And this is where lay evangelists can help us. I think most of us have had the experience of going to an expert for help and then finding that he or she is so far advanced that they can’t remember what it was like to be as confused as we are! I’m conscious of the fact that some clergy are like that – we use words like ‘ecclesiastical’ and ‘soteriology’ and ‘salvation history’ and ‘epistemology’, to which a lot of people respond with a blank stare and a ‘huh?’ And most clergy don’t have to live their faith in the context of a largely unbelieving or apathetic community, so it’s hard for them to relate to the struggles ordinary people have as they try to be faithful witnesses for Jesus.

But these three lay evangelists know all about those struggles! Jenny’s a property manager, and Corinna works in a penitentiary, and Ali works in student services at a university. So they are well placed to help us learn to be effective witnesses in our daily lives in the world, because that’s where they live day by day.

So we hope our evangelists will continue to share their faith and make new disciples for Jesus, and we hope they’ll teach and mentor others in their churches to do the same thing. Thirdly, we hope they’ll be leaders in helping their churches connect with the world around them. Years ago, all kinds of people used to wander into churches in times of crisis, or family occasions like baptism and weddings and funerals. Nowadays, a lot less people do that. We can’t wait for people to connect with us any more; we have to find new and creative ways of connecting with them.

This is nothing new, of course! After all, in the great commission Jesus did not say “Wait for people to come to you and then make them my disciples”! He said “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). It’s up to us to make those connections, and I know these three lay evangelists will be helping their parishes find creative ways of doing that.

I want to close by saying that it’s been an enormous privilege and joy for me to work with these three, along with Sandra and Richard and Steve, as we’ve gone through the formation process together. I’m not exaggerating when I say that sometimes I’ve gone to our Saturday sessions stressed out and discouraged by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but I’ve always – always – come away encouraged and revived and renewed in my joy in the Gospel, because of their enthusiasm and their joy. This is the gift they’ve given me, and it’s a gift I look forward to continuing to receive and share with them in the years ahead as we work to spread the Gospel together.

The Patron Saint of Relational Evangelists

Reblogged from 2012.

In the church’s calendar we often celebrate special feast days to remember ‘saints’ – people from Bible times or afterwards whose lives have been especially Christlike. We do this not to worship them in any sense, but simply to thank God for their good examples and to learn from their faithful discipleship.

Today, November 30th, is the feast day of one of my all-time favourite biblical ‘saints’ – Andrew. Andrew is known today as the patron saint of Scotland, because of a dubious legend about his bones being taken there in the 8th century. I’m a bit doubtful about the whole idea of ‘patron saints’ myself – I really don’t hold with the idea of a saint giving particular care to one country or group of people – but we won’t get into that here.

However, if Andrew is the patron saint of any group of people, it is surely evangelists. This idea might come as a surprise to some, as he isn’t remembered in the church as a great preacher or as a missionary who pioneered whole new areas for the gospel. In fact, I get the impression from reading the stories of Andrew that he was the sort of guy who was quite happy to play second fiddle and fade into the background without drawing attention to himself. But Andrew had this great characteristic: he loved to introduce people to Jesus.

What do we know about Andrew? Well, he was the brother of Simon Peter who became the leader of the apostles, and the two of them were fishermen. We also know that Andrew had been a disciple of John the Baptist before he met Jesus; presumably he had heard John’s message about the kingdom of God and had been baptized by him. The first time we meet him he is standing with another disciple of John, a man called Philip. It’s the day after Jesus was baptized, and, as the crowd is milling around at the Jordan River, Jesus walks by. John the Baptist points him out, and he says to Andrew and Philip, ‘“Look, here is the lamb of God”. The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see”. They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day’ (John 1:36-39).

So John the Baptist points Andrew and Philip to Jesus, and they spend the rest of the day with him. What happens next? Well, John the gospel writer tells us that Andrew ‘first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter)’ (vv.41-42).

It’s interesting to me that John the gospel writer tells us that this was the first thing that Andrew did after he left Jesus’ company. Obviously what he had seen and heard in that day he spent with Jesus had really excited him: he had found a faith worth sharing! And he also had someone he loved who he thought was worth sharing that faith with – his dear brother Simon. Two of the most important questions we can ask ourselves as Christians are ‘Do I have a faith worth sharing?’ and ‘Do I have a friend worth sharing it with?’ For Andrew, the answer was obviously a resounding ‘Yes!’

Andrew goes on to become one of the inner circle around Jesus – the twelve who he chose to be his ‘apostles’ – the word means ‘ones who are sent’. They would spend the next three years with Jesus, watching and learning from him, and then he would send them out as his missionaries to spread the Gospel all over the world. But before that happens, there are a couple of other stories of Andrew bringing people to Jesus.

In John chapter six, Jesus is teaching a large crowd of people and they have nothing to eat. Jesus decides to test the disciples, so he says to Philip, Andrew’s friend, “Where are we to buy bread for all these people to eat?” Philip replies, “Six months’ wages would not be enough to buy food for each of them to get a little”. But then Andrew chimes in: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” You know the rest of the story: Andrew brings the boy to Jesus, and Jesus takes the five loaves and two fish and uses them to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

Do you see how Andrew brings Jesus’ ‘raw material’ to him? Andrew’s brother Simon Peter went on to become the great leader of the early church, but it would never have happened if his brother –whose name is not so well-known – had not first brought him to Jesus. And Jesus did a great miracle when he used the five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand people, but Andrew was the one who gave him the materials to make that miracle happen, by introducing the boy to him.

I get the idea that Andrew was the sort of guy who would know who was in a crowd. I get the sense that he enjoyed being with people and was an approachable sort of guy. I remember a few years ago, when I used to lead services once a month at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, that we had a girl on our team like Andrew. We would wait in the room we were using for services while the staff brought the kids down from the various units, but this girl would always be moving among the kids as they came down, asking them questions and chatting with them. She was really approachable, and afterwards, when the team went out for coffee on our way home, she would always be the one who would tell us that we needed to be praying for so and so, because they were getting out of jail this week, and so on.

I get the idea that Andrew was like that. It would be natural for him to be aware of the boy with the loaves and fishes, because he’d been moving through the crowd chatting with people. He loved people, and he loved Jesus, and most of all he loved bringing them together.

There’s one more story about Andrew in John’s Gospel. In John chapter twelve, Jesus and his disciples are going up to Jerusalem for a Jewish religious festival. We read that ‘among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks’ (v.20): we assume that they were what were known as ‘God-fearers’ – Greeks who had accepted the God of Israel and his laws, although they had not gone the whole way and been circumcised.

Anyway, these Greeks have heard of Jesus and they want to meet him, but they are a bit nervous about it so they approach Andrew’s friend Philip first – perhaps because he has a Greek name? They say to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (v.21). So Philip tells Andrew, and then Andrew and Philip together introduce the Greeks to Jesus.

That’s the end of the story – we don’t know how the conversation went – but I’d suggest to you that those words of the Greeks could well be the text of Andrew’s life: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. All that we know of Andrew suggests that he dedicated his life to helping others see – and meet – Jesus. Andrew has not gone down in history as a strong leader or a powerful preacher. Rather, we remember him for his personal witness; he is the one who speaks to people one at a time, the one who introduces a friend to Jesus. And so, as we think about what it means to be one of God’s saints – God’s people, the ones he is using to spread his love in the world – I want to suggest to you that Andrew is a good model for us.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”. How is that prayer going to be answered today? How are people who have not met Jesus, and perhaps don’t know anything about him, going to have the opportunity to see him and meet him? I think the answer to that question has two parts to it.

First, people are going to see Jesus when the Christian church, and the individuals like you and me who are its members, look more like Jesus. In other words, when we get really serious about putting the teaching and example of Jesus into practice in our everyday life, then people will see Jesus for themselves. When they see us loving our enemies and praying for those who hate us, caring for the poor and not dedicating our lives to getting richer and richer, seeking first God’s Kingdom and not worrying so much about material things or titles or fame or recognition in the sight of the world – when they see all this, then they’ll be able to see the face of Christ in his people. A tall order? Yes – but it’s always been part of our Christian calling, hasn’t it?

Second, people are going to see Jesus when we, the people of Jesus, introduce them to him, so that they can come to know him for themselves. I am a Christian today because of someone who did that – my Dad. My family went to church every week, of course, but my Dad was the one who lent me Christian books and who, at the crucial point in my life, challenged me to give my life to Jesus. I first met Jesus for myself because of that challenge.

At our Edmonton diocesan synod a few years ago Bishop Jane Alexander ended her charge to the synod with this challenge: that before our diocesan centenary in 2013, every Anglican in our diocese would lead one other person to Christ. Doubtless Jane knew that this would be a daunting prospect to many people in the church, and so she continued, ‘And if you don’t know how to do that, will you agree to work together with other people to learn how to do it?”

I’ve had the joy, throughout my life, of helping people who were not Christians come to know Christ for themselves, and I have to tell you that there’s no joy like it. All of us are all called to be witnesses, as Andrew was. We’re not all great preachers or healers or miracle workers or church leaders, but I hope that we all have a faith worth sharing, and that we all have a friend worth sharing it with.

In the 1920s an Anglican priest called Sam Shoemaker wrote a poem about this ministry of introducing people to Jesus, and I want to close with it:

I stand by the door.

I stand by the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world-
It is the door through which people walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind people,
With outstretched, groping hands.
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it …
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for people to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing any person can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the person’s own touch.
People die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him …
So I stand by the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in–
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics–
It is a vast roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms.
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture in a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening …
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them
For God is so very great, and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia,
And want to get out. “Let me out!” they cry,
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
Once taste God, and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God,
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from people as not to hear them,
And remember they are there, too.
Where? Outside the door–
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
“I had rather be a door-keeper …”
So I stand by the door.

Religion in Decline – finding the reasons why

Survey after survey has indicated that religious affiliation and practice are in decline in much of the western world. Over the last twenty years the statistics are quite dramatic.

Responses to this in churchland vary. Some are in denial (‘My church is doing fine, so I can’t see how it can be true’). Some are pointing fingers at changes (or lack of changes) in the church (‘We’re too homophobic’, ‘We don’t believe in the Bible any more’, ‘We gave up the old prayer book’ etc. etc.). Some think we should just retreat into our ghetto and accept that this is just the way things are.

It seems to me that we need some hard data as to why people are either dropping away, or (in the case of the young) not joining in the first place. I don’t know if we have that data.

In the absence of it, all kinds of solutions are being floated. We should bring contemporary music into the church (actually, we’ve been doing that since the 1970s). We should make the church more seeker-friendly. We should make it more like Starbucks. We should have more invitation Sundays. We should get out in mission more etc. etc.

None of these ideas are necessarily bad, but are they addressing the actual reasons for decline and disinterest? I suspect not.

I have no statistical evidence for the idea I’m about to float, but conversations with lapsed churchgoers and with people outside the church lead me to believe it’s a bigger factor than we would like to admit. I would suggest that one of the major reasons for the decline in religious faith and practice is that people are actually finding it a lot harder to believe in Christianity (or Islam, or Judaism, etc. etc.) these days.

People are steeped in science from their early school days. Science purports to have a totally satisfactory answer to the universe that doesn’t require the God hypothesis. And as Isaac Asimov observed years ago in his Foundation novels, science has this huge advantage: it obviously works. Planes fly. Computers buzz. Cells divide. Medicine heals (way more effectively than it did fifty years ago). You don’t have to take science on faith; it’s empirically provable.

People are also very aware of all the crap that’s going on in the world. Natural disasters are proliferating. We just conquer one deadly disease and another one comes along. Wars and rumours of wars continue, with ever more deadly weapons. Terrorism spreads. Human beings kill and exploit and oppress one another. And God seems to do nothing. People cry to God, but there seems to be no answer. Hurricanes don’t appear to change course in answer to prayer. People continue to die because of diseases based on genetic factors (‘they were made that way’). All of this is a huge challenge to faith.

And, quite frankly, people outside the Christian community don’t seem to notice an obvious difference in the quality of lives being lived by Christians. Divorce and family breakup seem just as prevalent among people of faith. Greed and materialism and racism and support for war and violence don’t seem to be seriously impacted by faith.

For these and other reasons, people are finding it harder to believe the religious view of the universe these days. If there is a God, why would he choose to work through such a weird system as evolution (which works by genetic mutations, which lead to suffering way more often than they lead to positive changes)? If there is a loving and powerful God, how come he isn’t rescuing us from the various kinds of mess we’re in? And if there’s a God, how come his followers don’t seem to be actually putting his teachings into practice (you know: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor”, “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you”, “Do not refuse one who asks for help” etc. etc.)?

If I’m right, we surely have to address this. And I think there are a number of avenues we can explore.

First, we need smart people who can engage with the arguments raised by atheists and agnostics. A strong case can be made for the existence of a powerful and loving creator God, and many intelligent writers over the years have made it and continue to make it (C.S. Lewis, Alister McGrath, Tim Keller, Francis Collins, to name just a few). Some of these people have also investigated the intellectual foundations of atheism and secularism and found them just as wanting (I think especially of Tim Keller’s ‘Making Sense of God’, which he said was not so much answering people’s questions as questioning people’s answers). And in order for these discussions to be fruitful, they can’t be belligerent; people of faith need to make friends with atheists and agnostics, find out why they believe what they believe and how the world looks from their point of view. This is a risk, but we have to do it.

Second, we have to be quite clear that the point of the whole thing is to help people meet God – the real God, the creator of the universe, the one who is far above our understanding, who we can’t control or get to know in three easy steps because he’s always the senior partner in the relationship. People can’t share what they don’t have, and if we can’t share a relationship with the living God, why would people bother with us? They can get everything we’re offering somewhere else, at a much cheaper price! Unless we can say, “Yes, it is possible to meet with the living God, and I can help you do that”, what do we have to offer?

Third, we need to address the quality of our lives. Quite frankly, we are the only Sermon on the Mount our friends are reading. Is the Sermon clear in our behaviour? If not, why would they bother to read the original for themselves? Unless we Christians (individually and as a community) are living lives that surprise our neighbours, those neighbours aren’t going to be interested in hearing about our weird religious theories. Billy Bragg (no friend to organized religion) has said many times that the reason he doesn’t dismiss religion is because of all the people of faith he sees volunteering at the local food bank. Boom! There it is!

In this blog post I’m not proposing exact answers; I’m just attempting to identify the major issues. Quite honestly, I don’t think changing the church’s music or running invitation Sundays or – well, add your favourite solution here – is going to have much of a long term effect. Why? Because we’re still assuming that our neighbours are basically lapsed Christians who still believe the basics of the Christian faith, and would still attend if… (we invited them, or our music was better, or the pastor wore jeans and had a goatee, etc. etc.).

This may be true of some of our neighbours, but for a growing number of them, it’s not true at all. They aren’t lapsed Christians; they’re people for whom Christianity doesn’t make sense. They may believe in a vague god out there somewhere; they may not believe in a god at all, or they may think it’s not possible to know one way or the other.

What they are not is Christian believers; they find Christianity too hard to believe. And I think we have to accept that, and find a way to address it.

 

Random Lent Thought for Friday March 17th: ‘The Boldness of our Spoken Witness’

In the 1962 Canadian Book of Common Prayer, on page 555, there’s a little section giving guidelines on developing for ourselves a ‘rule of life’. It suggests six areas we might like to consider as we think about such a rule; the fifth is this: ‘The boldness of our spoken witness to our faith in Christ’. Yes, talking about our faith with others, spreading the good news of Christ – this also is part of our Lent discipline.

On March 5th 1972, just over forty-five years ago, a process of a few weeks of spiritual inquiry in my life came to a head when my Dad gave me a gentle challenge to give my life to Christ. I responded to that challenge with a simple prayer of commitment, alone in my room. I was thirteen, but by the grace of God it ‘stuck’, and today I look back with great thankfulness, knowing that if it had not been for that day, the last forty-five years would have looked very different.

My parents gave me a strong Christian upbringing but my Dad didn’t trust to that alone to bring me to faith in Christ; when the time seemed right, he spoke a few faithful words, and the Holy Spirit did the rest. Today, may I also be on the lookout for opportunities to speak those few faithful words, to pass on what has been entrusted to me.

How is ‘the boldness of your spoken witness to your faith in Christ’ these days?

‘The Master Plan of Evangelism’: Preface

As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently read Robert E. Coleman’s classic book The Master Plan of Evangelism (first published in 1963). In it he identifies disciple-making through relationship as Jesus’ simple plan to change the world. As such, it might have been better titled ‘The Master Plan of Discipleship’; in fact, Coleman did write a second book by that name some years later, which I confess I have not read!

I think the principles are sound, even to this day. But some of the language is dated (for example, Coleman is rather fond of saying that Jesus’ goal was ‘world conquest’, which means something different in these days of global terrorism than it did in 1963 when Billy Graham was still leading ‘evangelistic crusades’). He was (and is) a fairly staunch evangelical and used the language that evangelicals customarily used in 1963; some of it may be a barrier to a wider readership appreciating his work in 2016. Also, there is a curious lack of detailed practical illustration in the book; the author is skilled at articulating the principles, but not so god at giving an account of how he has put the principles into practice in his own ministry.

What I propose to do in these blog posts is to use the same chapter outlines as Coleman does, reword his original somewhat, sometimes offer some responses to what he says, and try to give some thought to the issue of how we might work these things out in a practical way in 2016 (not the same world Coleman was writing in, and definitely not the same as first-century Galilee and Judea!).

I will not feel obligated to touch on every paragraph of each chapter; some of them are not relevant in 2016 as they were in 1963, some are definitely dated, and some will not have the same significance to a wider audience as they did for the evangelical readership Coleman was originally addressing. I will however cover the gist of his argument in each chapter, using my own words, interspersing my own ideas and interpretations. Anyone who wants to see how my posts are related to Coleman’s original is strongly encouraged to read the book!

In quoting Coleman’s actual words there are a couple of changes I will make. Firstly, in 1963 he used the words ‘he’ and ‘men’ to mean ‘he or she’ and ‘people’; I will usually (but not always) replace them with a more modern idiom. Secondly, in 1963 it was far more common than it is today to capitalize nouns and pronouns referring to God and Jesus (eg. ‘Nevertheless, when His plan is reflected on…’). I will not reproduce this in my quotes from Coleman; personally I find it distracting, and I suspect others do as well.

Preface: The Master and His Plan

Robert Coleman sees the Great Commission of Jesus as central to the evangelistic work of the church, and although in 1963 he could just allude to it and assume everyone would be familiar with it, maybe in 2016 we need to lay it out right at the start to make sure that everyone is on the same page:

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:16-20).

Coleman, writing in 1963 for an evangelical audience, does not bother to engage with the critical scholarship that dismisses this as a later addition of Matthew’s own invention. My own personal view (and I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this) is that this is an authentic saying of Jesus. It is consistent with, though not identical to, the commission statements found in the other gospels (Mark 16:15-16, Luke 24:47-48 cf. Acts 1:8, John 20:21) – all of which agree that at the end of his ministry Jesus gave his disciples some form of commission to take his message out to the world and to invite people to repent and believe in him. That the early church continued to use the discipleship language of Jesus for some time is demonstrated by Luke’s witness in Acts 11:26 that it wasn’t until the gospel reached Antioch that the word ‘disciple’ began to be replaced by the new word ‘Christian’.

So this Commission has been given to us, to take the message of Jesus out and to invite people to become his disciples. Merely because we’re busy doing stuff doesn’t necessarily mean we’re accomplishing the work we’ve been given. We might even become very skilled at what we do, but if we’re not doing the right work, there isn’t much point to it. As Coleman says, ‘the question must always be asked: Is it worth doing? And does it get the job done?’

So, regarding our evangelistic work, we need to ask if our work is actually fulfilling the Great Commission. Are we seeing an ever-expanding company of dedicated men and women reaching the world with the Gospel message as a result of our ministry? Evangelistic programs are all very well, but are they helping us to accomplish our objective?

What we need is a well thought out strategy to help us move daily closer to our long range goal. If we’re going to find joy and fulfilment in our work, we need to know how any particular course of action will fit into the overall plan of God. And this is especially true of any particular plan or method we employ to help us spread the Gospel. We must be able to see how it fits in with the goal of making disciples who will seek first the Kingdom of God by practicing the teaching of Jesus and making new disciples in their turn. Otherwise we’ll just be engaging in busywork.

Coleman’s aim in writing the original ‘Master Plan of Evangelism’ was, as he put it, an effort

‘to see controlling principles governing the movements of the Master in the hope that our own labours might be conformed to a similar pattern. As such, the book does not seek to interpret specific methods of Jesus in personal or mass evangelism. Rather, this is a study in the principles underlying his ministry – principles which determined his methods. One might call it a study in his strategy of evangelism around which his life was oriented while he walked on the earth’.

Our study of the plan of Jesus is based on the New Testament, and particularly the gospels, which are either eyewitness accounts of the story of Jesus, or are based on such accounts. John tells us that he wrote primarily in order to show us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, so that by believing we may have life in his name (John 21:31). However, this revelation of the new life in Christ also includes the way he lived and taught others to live. The witnesses who wrote these things down not only saw the truth; they were also changed by it. Because of this, they inevitably bring out the particular aspects of the life and teaching of Jesus that struck them the most and influenced them to leave everything and follow him. Not everything is reported, of course; the writers paint a portrait of the whole by describing a few characteristic encounters, teachings, miracles and experiences, all within the framework of the overarching story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But of those things that have been recorded, we can be sure that they are intended to teach us how to follow the Master. And since part of that following includes evangelism (“Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” [Mark 1:17]), the gospels are also our best available textbook for the work of evangelism.

The plan of Coleman’s study was to trace the steps or Christ as portrayed in the Gospels without undue recourse to secondary materials. He studied the life and work of Jesus to try to discover the reasons why he chose the methods he used for his mission. In doing this, Coleman tried to look at the big picture, from the standpoint of Jesus’ ministry as a whole, ‘hoping thereby to see the larger meaning of his methods with (people)’ .

Jesus Had a Clear Objective. The days of his earthly life were an unfolding in time of the eternal plan of God. It was always before his mind. Coleman says, ‘He intended to save out of the world a people for himself and to build a church of the Spirit which would never perish. He had his sights set on the day his kingdom would come in glory and power. This world was his by creation, but he did not seek to make it his permanent abiding place. His mansions were in the sky. He was going to prepare a place for his people that had foundations eternal in the heavens’.

Nowadays we might word this a little differently. Writers such as N.T. Wright have alerted us to the fact that ‘dying and going to heaven’ doesn’t actually occupy the same amount of space in the New Testament as it does in popular spirituality. The New Testament writers are more interested in the coming of the Kingdom of God ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’, and in the resurrection of the body. The coming of the Kingdom of God on earth was the centre of Jesus’ teaching; the Church is meant to be an outpost of that Kingdom, a signpost even, demonstrating by its life what that Kingdom is all about, so that people are drawn to follow Jesus as their King.

Everyone is included in this invitation. Jesus’ love was universal; he was ‘the Saviour of the world’ (John 4:42). God wanted all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). So Jesus came and lived and died for everyone. His goal was to reach the whole world with the Gospel of the Kingdom: in terms of the big picture, we in North America are in fact ‘the ends of the earth’ that he talked about in Acts 1:8 (“…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”).

Jesus’ whole life was ordered by this objective. Everything he did was significant because it contributed toward this ultimate goal. This is why it is so important to observe the way he chose how to spend his time, and to try to discern the basis on which he made those choices. He did not have in mind only the immediate future and the immediate geographic area of Galilee and Judea. He was calling together a team of followers that he would send out into the whole world to further the plan of God for its redemption. Jesus had confidence in that future plan precisely because he lived by it in the present.

It is tremendously revealing to study that plan. If we think carefully about it, we will be led to some far-reaching conclusions. But it might take us time to discover them; in fact, it might appear at first glance as if the Master has no master plan at all! This is in fact what Coleman calls ‘one of the marvels of his strategy. It is so unassuming and silent that it is unnoticed by the hurried churchman. But when the realization of his controlling method finally dawns on the open mind of the disciple (we) will be amazed at its simplicity and wonder how (we) could have ever failed to see it before. Nevertheless, when his plan is reflected upon, the basic philosophy is so different from that of the modern church that is implications are nothing less than revolutionary’ (italics mine).

We will proceed to lay out eight guiding principles of the Master’s plan. They are not necessarily sequential. Actually all of the steps are implied in the first one, and in some degree they all begin there. The outline is only intended to give structure to Jesus’ method and bring out the progressive logic of the plan. One thing we may notice is that as the ministry of Jesus progresses, the steps become more pronounced and the sequence more obvious.

The next post in this series will be based on Chapter One of The Master Plan of Evangelism. The chapter is entitled ‘Selection’, and the first subheading (restated in modern idiom) is ‘People were his method’!