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5 ways we can learn from children

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This is the first guest post on this blog! It’s written by my friend Dorian. He is a kids worker at a North London church and studying Applied Theology with Moorlands college. In his spare time he enjoys recreational mathematics (don’t we all?), and usually mixes up American and British spelling. If you’d like to contribute a guest post, get in touch at contact@edsslipper.net

Theologians have given lots of different opinions about what Jesus meant when he said “whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it“. Most of them have talked about the importance of imitating certain childlike qualities; and interestingly, they usually talk about the importance of imitating the qualities that society of the day finds desirable in a child.

chalkboard

Rather than debating over which child-like qualities Jesus might have been talking about, I suggest actually learning from the children themselves. Here are five ways I’d suggest we can do so:

1. Learning as you teach children.

In order to pass on knowledge, you must first know what you wish to pass on! I’ve found that teaching in Kids church is a great way to to really learn yourself. The preparation needed to speak on a passage in a way that is both meaningful and simple enough for kids to understand is a challenging and rewarding way to learn.

Ok, so technically this isn’t learning directly from children, but it is seeking to learn as you teach. which brings us to:

2. Learning from the questions children ask

A good teacher lets their pupils ask questions, and children are great at asking. Children don’t have as much of a developed world-view as adults, so they are much quicker to notice discrepancies between teachings and actions, and ask questions that adults are afraid to ask.

Check out the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17: all of Israel was encamped against the Philistine army, but were too terrified to move against them. David, acting as a delivery boy for his brothers spots what’s going on, and asks the question “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?” David, the youngest son of Jesse, had seen how the way the Israelite army was behaving, i.e. cowering in fear, was contrary to their belief that God himself went before the army to guarantee their victory.

By their questions children can have a prophetic voice, challenging the practices of the church, and pointing out where teachings don’t match up with actions, often because adults have become desensitized to the message.

Don’t be afraid of the questions children ask, but be willing to be challenged, and be willing to seek answers and learn.

3. Listening to their faith

Children often have a simple, yet powerful faith that adults can learn from. Check out 2 Kings 5. A important general was plagued by leprosy, and it was the passing comment of his wife’s Israelite servant girl that eventually led to his healing. This girl’s simple faith statement: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy” was listened to and acted upon, which ended up influencing the fate of entire nations, and bringing this general to know the Lord.

Children aren’t afraid to say what they know to be true. Neither should we be.

4. Learn from their mistakes

The Bible frequently calls believers in Christ “children of God”, and in a lot of ways our behaviour toward God is very childish.

One time when I was working in an orphanage, two girls had been taken out of their families and placed in our care. They had been in the children’s home for a very short time, when one night, during a thunderstorm they ran away. Thankfully the next morning they were found, though shivering cold and soaked to the bone.

I was quick to judge these girls, wondering why on earth they would run away from a place of safety and protection, into the darkness and a town they didn’t know, and during a thunderstorm no less! But the more I reflected on this incident, the more I began to see my relationship with God in a new light. How many times have I run away from Him, seeking my own way rather than the safety and protection He provides? These girls showed me how important it is to trust God, even when I don’t know what’s going on, and reminded me to repent for the times I have tried to live life by my own rules rather than His.

5. Learn from how children receive grace

The flip side of the story I just told, is how the two girls came accept the orphanage as their home. Even though they messed up big-time when they ran away, they realized that they were forgiven, and then sought with open arms to receive all the orphanage gave them. An adult who has been given a meal would want to repay this, either with money at restaurant, or by a gift or with reciprocity if invited round to a friend’s for dinner. But children usually aren’t able to repay what is given to them.

We could never repay our parents, or whoever in our childhood were the important adult figures were, for all the time effort and love they poured into raising us. And we could never repay our heavenly Father for the gifts he has lavished on us, especially not Jesus’ sacrifice for us. Instead, we are asked to freely receive his abundant grace, and live as best we can to the way he taught us. Children can show us how to accept a gift freely given.

If you want to know what Jesus meant we he said we should receive the Kingdom of God like a child, then I encourage you to spend time with children! Volunteering to help with Kid’s Church (or Sunday School, Kidz Klub, or whatever it’s called at your church) is one really great way to grow in your faith. Just remember that as much as you go to teach and serve, you also go to learn how to receive God’s Kingdom as a child.

Drinking coffee: evangelism revisited

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A while back, I took practical steps to stop a heresy. Someone in America was claiming that coffee was superior to tea. This heresy was just too much to take. So I took it upon myself to send this lost soul some tea.

coffee

Original photo: LoboStudioHamburg, in the public domain

I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself a tea specialist. I’m definitely not the kind of person who refuses tea that was made in a mug – although I do squirm when I see the teabag soaking in cold milk before the hot water is added. So, naturally, I asked for advice from my friends. They had great suggestions – some I knew really well and I had available at home; some other I had to go and buy; a special blend was provided by a friend of mine; and some blends were definitely out of my reach (Irish breakfast is a surprisingly hard blend to find).

All that I was able to do, I did. I even gave detailed instructions about acceptable amounts of milk; ignored the purist in me and mentioned some people actually put sugar in their tea (I know, right?). But in spite of my efforts, I could not ensure that: the tea would get drunk, much less that it would be drunk properly. Sure enough, I received a message from my friend later telling me that he didn’t quite like it as much with cream. Cream. (Dramatic pause). As it turns out, this was a slip of the tongue (or so I’ve been told); and my friend now likes tea while still preferring coffee.

The thing is: I didn’t simply want to grow the ranks of the tea-drinkers in our great war against the heretics. Quite frankly, I don’t care how many people tick the “I prefer tea” box in the next census (that SO should be a question); or how much tea is being consumed in the world (as long as there’s some for me). But when I see people who are missing out on the greatness of tea, I am saddened – especially when those people are my friends.

But here’s where it becomes more interesting: after I had offered to send tea, I was offered some coffee in return. Which I gratefully accepted. After all, it is only (a) fair, and (b) through seeing things from the other side that I can relate with the Lost. From the other side of the caffeinated evangelism, I got to realise a few things:

  • the first time you drink coffee, it is going to be a weird drink.
  • if the person offering you coffee is a specialist, you’re going to expect a perfect cup instantly.
  • it’s not worth wasting your time if you’re not going to do it properly. There’s no point in receiving coffee if you’re not going to try it; or if you’re going to judge it all on the first cup.
  • coffee is definitely not tea. We really, really, really need to save the Lost ;-)

I am far from having finished the coffee I have received; so this view might change. Not very likely, but my love of tea might grow stronger from the whole experience!

To my readers: are you a tea or a coffee person?

Unlike my previous dubious metaphor post, this one is pretty transparent (I think). But there’s  a lot of stuff in here which barely scratches the surface of evangelism. What *one* thing do you take away from it?

10 myths about the Bible

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The Bible is, together with prayer, the way to learn about God and connect with Him. But its role is sometimes misunderstood. Here’s a short list of things I’ve heard about the Bible which quite frankly upset me – some because I think they don’t do justice to the Bible; others because I think they stop people from accessing it.

bible

1. The Bible is just a reference book. One that we might look at if we want to decide whether getting a tattoo is wrong, or to find out about the life of Christ. If that’s the only way in which the Bible were to be read – simply as an authority – then a rulebook might have served better. Talking of which: isn’t that the Old Covenant approach? The Bible is the living word of God. It inspires us, it teaches us, it moves us and, essentially, transforms us.

2. There’s only one way to read the Bible. Of course not! There’s many ways to read the Bible. I’m not talking here about literal vs figurative interpretation; nor about how to take the cultural context into account. These debates are important, yes – but better left to others; and taking sides in this debate, to me, feels like turning the Bible into just a reference book. What I’m talking about is ways to let the Bible transform you. And for that, there’s plenty of ways. Tease out the general meaning of a passage – its direction, its structure, its rhythm; when it’s a story, identify with different persons in turn (yes, including Jesus) and feel what they’re feeling; etc. etc.

3. The Bible is boring. If you really think that, you haven’t read the whole Bible. Seriously, there’s bits of 2 Chronicles which are far more gripping, even from a storytelling perspective alone, than Game of Thrones’s most gripping. And these bits aren’t an exception – most of the Bible is just as gripping.

4. The Bible is exciting throughout; this myth can be followed with: “and if you don’t agree, you’re missing the point of whatever you don’t find exciting.” I personally don’t find the whole Bible exciting. Sometimes, it’s a drag because it’s boring. Sometimes it’s a drag because it’s depressing. Seriously, though, if you manage to get the first ten chapters of 1 Chronicles to look as exciting as John 15, then (a) you really have a heart for genealogies and (b) please share that excitement with us in the comments. Yes, most, if not all the Bible, points to Christ and is exciting for that reason. But just like any other book, there are bits that are a drag to read.

5. Bible verses can be used as ammunition to shut down an argument. This myth is also known as “Cos the Bible says so”, a phrase which has become one of my pet hates. If the Bible is the living word, then let’s treat it as such. Imagine you have an argument about the theory of relativity, and somehow you have Einstein or Eddington at your disposal. Do you simply get them to come and stand behind you, or do you let them speak? The Bible, as the living word, opens up conversations – it does NOT shut them down.

6. Reading the Bible is an easy habit to take on. This is not true. Like I said before, it can be a drag. And if on top of that, you live in an environment that only considers the reference book aspects of the Bible, you lack the motivation to do so – after all, not many people just take up a textbook regularly. Being reminded that it is a book that transforms us is far, far better a motivation to read it! But there are ways to help: I personally find reading plans extremely helpful; but I also find that once I have the dynamic going, it’s a pleasure. And yes, sometimes I lose that dynamic and it’s a drag again to get back into it. I’ll admit – I’m currently about a week behind on my plan and it’s not the easiest to get back into the daily reading habit.

7. If you don’t have a reading plan, you’ll burn in hell. Also known as “read your Bible every day or perish”. Folks, don’t read the Bible out of a sense of ought-ness, that’ll get you nowhere. Get started out of a sense of ought-ness, maybe – because otherwise you might never start. But don’t let that be your sole motivation:

8. Only the KJV is valid for reproof, teaching etc. Yes, some people do believe that. I remember reading on a forum a while back someone claiming that Hallelujah was an English word that had been stolen by the Hebraic language. So, to clarify: the KJV is not the original text. It’s not even the earliest English-language version! Yes, I’m being flippant here; but have you ever looked down on others for the translation they use? Why would “KJV+NIV+ESV+NRSV” be the only valid set of translations?

9. Protestants know the Bible off by heart. We don’t. We know some verses, but definitely not all of them.

10. Catholics don’t read their Bible. Seriously, I’ve heard that a few times, and it annoys me to no end; so let’s make it clear: Catholics read their Bible just as much as Protestants do. And kudos to them for that – after all, they do have more to read ;-)

Are Christian Unions detrimental to the furthering of the Kingdom?

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I’m aware this blog has a readership in the US and in France as well as in the UK. I’m not sure how widespread Christian Unions (CUs) are in American universities, and I know they are nearly non-existent in France. So, to those outside the UK, you may find this post less relevant, and I’m sorry about that; but please bear with me as the issues raised may be relevant to your ministry. First, let me give a bit of background about CUs.

CU

In theory, CUs have a very laudable purpose: to share with people on university campuses and in colleges the Gospel. In theory, then, Christian Unions are merely evangelistic organisations. They are, in my experience, quick to warn members that they are not church, and that they do not, and should not, replace church. All very well in theory; but the place the CUs have in student Christian life is different. To understand their actual function, official and normative documents cannot suffice; rather, the origin of the CU movement should let us know where it fits and how it is used (1).

The UCCF is the national organisation to which CUs are affiliated. It started off, under a different name, as a reaction to perceived liberalism from SCM, and started in a logic of opposition to an organisation which was committed to ecumenism and which tried to cater for a wider spectrum of Christianity (in particular with respect to the place of atonement and Biblical infallibility). Evangelism soon became central to the work of the UCCF, something which could no longer be said of SCM.

Cue forward to 2013. UCCF-affiliated CUs are present in most universities; and often are the main Christian presence on campus. But the logic of dualism and opposition, and in many ways pride, which started off the movement, is still strongly rooted in them. It shows, in particular, through the emphasis on its Doctrinal Basis (DB, around which many tensions are crystallised), which serves mostly as an engine of distinctiveness: our way of imagining Christianity is the only way; these are the essential truths to which we hold, as a Christian Union. Want to know whether we hold your denomination as Christian? Check your beliefs against the DB. How far are we from the historical commitment to ecumenism of pre-split SCM; or even from the commitment to unity stated by the UCCF?

Mike Reeves, from UCCF, tries to justify this central position of the DB through reference to the long-lasting tradition in the churches of having creeds; but an ontological analogy cannot serve to win a functional argument: the DB has no doxological value, that is, it is not conceived as a statement of praise. If it is to be compared to anything functionally, the 39 articles of faith of the Anglican church are a better match; but these do not hold as central a place as the DB holds; and while the former were redacted with the aim to bring continuity to the experience of parishioners after a mostly politically-motivated change (2), the latter stems from a stand-offish attitude that tries to build barriers around a very specific view of Christianity. The contents of the DB themselves could be the topic of another series of posts, but those would easily degenerate into petty theological arguments, and prove divisive rather than uplifting. Suffice it to say, to appease the spirits of my CU friends, that I agree with what they point towards, even though I find the wording sometimes unhelpful.

Since the 1919 split, then, this commitment to a specific view of Christianity as opposed to others has remained part of CUs’ identity. But as offshoots of SCM affiliates, CUs share some of its traits, functionally. A CU is, functionally, a group of Christians on campus, and provides for them ways to explore their faith and to enjoy fellowship with one another. It leads to strong friendships, and to great growth. I am grateful for the role the local CU has played in my life, in giving me the chance to grow and test my gifts in various areas. I am grateful, also, for its official purpose of evangelism, and for the many people who could be blessed through our local action. But all the things that the CU does are meant to be geared towards evangelistic action.

  • Living holy lives turns into being good witnesses.
  • Baptisms are seen primarily as opportunities for evangelism.
  • Giving a warm welcome becomes a gateway for evangelism and that alone – even if covertly.
  • The ultimate aim of Christian life becomes the Great Commission, not the commandment to love God and to love one another – although these might be taken as read.
  • Churches are partners and equippers for evangelism. In particular, church can (although by no means always) becomes restricted to Sundays, with the CU taking over for the rest of the week for all Christian activity.

Why do I think this is detrimental to the furthering of the Kingdom? Because it has a double effect of boxing in Christianity into evangelism, thereby denying its members the full experience and joy of Christianity; and of boxing evangelism into an activity which we were commanded to do, rather than as something that flows from an outpouring of love for Christ and a desire to imitate him. Let me explain this a bit further: several people get involved in evangelistic activities because they are put on by the CU and by its small groups, and because there’s little better to do on a Friday night.While it is good that this happens, and that many are reached through such activities, it leaves me wondering whether it might not be a hypocritical way of engaging with others; and how sustainable it is: that is, how people would behave once they leave uni and no longer have these activities.

Of course, it may not be the job of the CU to do anything other than evangelise; but as long as they remain the main Christian presence on campus, the very people they reach out to will experience a very limited aspect of Christianity, especially if the church they get directed to is a Sunday thing. That’s how some of my friends who became Christians through the CU affirm, with great conviction, that the only purpose of us as followers of Christ is to make more disciples.

It can seem ironic, or hypocritical, that I would promote Christian unity and holistic Christian life by giving such a damning profile of Christian Unions. But as I see it, there are two ways Christian Unions can take – two strands of their DNA they can choose to follow, but keeping both of them together will lead to the problems I outlined:

  • either embrace the part of their heritage which comes from SCM, and become a community of Christians on campus – a union of Christians on campus. But if it chooses to do so, it needs to embrace other parts of Christian life or risk leading its members as well as those it reaches out to, to a cheapened version of Christianity: a commodity rather than a pervasive identity. For that, it needs to face the daunting task of ecumenism and shake off the parts of its make-up that come from wanting to be distinctive from SCM.
  • or embrace the focus on a purely evangelistic activity. But if it chooses to do so, it needs to stop being “the” Christian presence on campus: it needs to stop being the go-to place for young Christians joining university and even for the people it reaches out to, and leave that to others. And that might have to go through a reduction of its activities, where and when they take up the bulk of the week.

In any case, it needs to bridge the gap between its ontological and its functional identities. If it doesn’t, it will bring up a generation of people who pay lip service to Christianity but restrict it to evangelistic action. That would be (pardon the pedantry) bringing the Kingdom farther but not further, making it wider, but doing so at the expense of meaning and of joy, and leaving for many a shallow experience of Christianity.

Bringing the Good News to strangers and to friends is, in both cases, still very relevant and part of the DNA of the CUs. But it cannot be exclusive, or it cannot functionally claim exclusivity over Christianity on campus.

(1) Most of this history I get from Wikipedia. I’m old, I know – but not quite old yet to know this history first-hand. If you know better than Wikipedia, do let me know! UCCF have also put together their own video to relate their history, although no mention of SCM is made. Equally, SCM relate their own history without mentioning the UCCF.

(2) This analysis is from ATP Williams – although, admittedly, article 22 is worded in a fairly stand-offish way.

Christianity: about community?

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Last week, I wrote a post in which I highlighted the shift, in terms of focus, from nations to individuals between Old and New Testaments; in order to stress the importance of individual relationships rather than merely corporate ones. This week, I’m looking at the community aspect of Christianity.

community

Background: adapted from GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license.

No better way to start than quoting a comment from last week:

The reformation, while rightly seeking to distance itself from the then overtly controlling religiosity of the Catholic church may have taken a step too far in their emphasis of individual salvation and personal faith.

As it is eloquently put, matters of individual/corporate nature of faith are matters of emphasis. Individual salvation and personal faith are Biblical. In fact, the picture painted in Luke 17 goes a long way to show that simply being with those who are saved is no guarantee of salvation. But this is “only” an eschatological matter.

Practice of faith is an altogether different matter. Have you ever noticed the following verse:

For when two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.

Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

It is usually read as “there is no need for massive congregations to worship”, but it is two or three – not one: there is no talk of individual worship. Of course, there are other moments where, say, individual prayer is commended; but it is clear that community is important.

After all, all-consuming, all-pervasive relationships are at the heart of the Trinity. On top of that, Peter was anointed to build a church – and though the meaning of church may have evolved over the centuries; originally, it seems to me that this all-consuming, all-pervasiveness was present: ἐκκλησία, generally translated as church or assembly, but which etymology could mean “called out of”, is used in the singular. Out of the many who are called, the church of Christ is, in its very substance one. That alone should be enough to ignite our passion for ecumenism (although ecumenism in itself is another subject).

The early church modelled this community way of life by pooling all their resources, and by remaining inextricably linked even when they were not geographically co-present. There is an incredibly powerful sense of acting congregationally whenever Paul exhorts us to pray for all the saints (something that might be missed out because of the power of what comes before it!).

These elements, I feel, are far more powerful than the practical ones. The advantages of communal prayer, or the description of the Church as one body are helpful to convince oneself that it is worth doing; but let us not forget in this description that the Church is not just one body: it is the body of Christ.

From the perspective of the in-up-out triangle (1), then, the sense of community coming before the individual is very strong in the in and the up vertices of the triangle. Very importantly, these all-pervasive links between individuals which form the assembly are involving us: we are part of them. It isn’t like a different organisation we can distance ourselves from: we are intrinsically in the church.

But we haven’t seen that happen in the out vertex. Of course, the vertices of the triangle are not independent; so there will be elements of community shining through in our outreach. And we will do it with the support of our community. But the other whom we are reaching out to is not a community nearly as much as it is individuals; and this should not be forgotten.

(1) Yes, I have used Lifeshapes. I feel dirty now. But for those of you who don’t know it, it is about the direction of growth both for local churches and for individuals: in (fellowship, discipleship, etc.), up (looking towards God, worship, etc.) and out (outreach, evangelism, social justice, etc.)