Archive for the ·

Uncategorized

· Category...

Drinking coffee: evangelism revisited

4 comments

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?

Are Christian Unions detrimental to the furthering of the Kingdom?

11 comments

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.

Death is a bitch

2 comments

I wonder how you felt when you read this title. Which word shocked you the most? Was it the mention of death? Or was it the cursing?

Photo: Martyn Gorman, re-used under CC license

There is a certain rawness to cursing which cannot be carried across by polite language. Because curses, when unexpected, shock. Just like death: when it happens unexpectedly to someone close to you, it shocks you. And it wouldn’t do the bereft justice; it wouldn’t be kind or loving towards them to sweeten it up with polite words. Saying words such as “A passing is a difficult moment” is plainly repugnant to the pain that the bereft feel. Nearly as bad is “My condolences“: all of these make the suffering an abstract object and simply hide its reality, alongside death’s.

But death that surprises – sudden death: that has the same sort of rawness to it. The kind of shock that makes you go back and check in disbelief. The kind of shock that makes you want not to believe it happened. You are left completely perplexed: why did it happen? How is it fair? Where does that leave… me?

And there’s no answer to give to these questions, none that will bring solace. The promise of a heaven up there somewhere does not bring any form of answer to these questions – it is simply placing hope in a distant future, boxing in our pain with a hope that can never be tested, and with a hope that is, if considered independently of the rest of the promise, incredibly fragile.

So that’s why I picked this title: because I did not want to sugarcoat death into something that “just happens, and life goes on.” And, in more than a way, I think this title sums up perfectly what I want to say about death.

There’s more to that statement, too: death is a bitch. It has been submitted. We can look at death, and it will still bite, but it cannot hurt us – not really: death has lost its sting. This last sentence is far more offensive than the title, though: it appears to say that the pains that people feel at the death of loved ones is imaginary or faked. No, these pains are real.

But their truth is passing. See, the main stinging power of death is that it reminds us that we’re not in control. But death is not the victor; death is not the one in control; and neither are we. We don’t own our lives. The things that make us feel secure are just passing, transient illusions; until we realise they are not for us to hold on to. In giving ourselves over to the One who saves, we can see death for the submitted bitch it truly is; and that has the power to comfort.

And once death has lost its sting, we enjoy life eternal, and we enjoy it now.

Note: for any friends who may worry after reading this, I want to make abundantly clear that I did not personally suffer a bereavement. But I was told of someone getting run over and the pain was so visible it was impossible not to be moved.

Ecumenism matters

3 comments

Ecumenism is a big, scary word. Like predestination. Like transsubstantiation. Which means we can hide behind it. In an infamous Father Ted episode, Father Jack is taught to say “that’s an ecumenical matter” to stop him from answering any question. At the heart of ecumenism, though, is a very important idea: Christian unity.

Photo: E Gammie, reused under CC license

At the heart is the idea that there is one catholic (little c!) and apostolic church. Any church that adheres to the Nicene creed should adhere to the idea of ecumenism.
Any organisation that holds to the Bible should adhere to the idea of ecumenism. Because if we don’t, we are creating a culture of “us and them”, a culture where the others are not in communion with us.

But here come a difficulty: ecumenism is generally understood as bridging the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide (at least in the West). But where do we draw the line? What’s to stop us from being ecumenical with, say, Christadelphians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses? Aren’t we drawing the same sort of line when we’re considering some as non-Christians?

To answer this, I like to look at the liturgy used for the induction of a Catholic chaplain last week. It goes:

Will you acknowledge the richness and diversity of your individual Christian traditions? Will you seek to be more fully united in faith, communion, pastoral care and mission, only doing apart what cannot be done together? Will you, in obedience to the Word of God, pledge yourselves to seek and make visible the unity intended by Christ for His people?

The stakes appear to have been raised. It is unity “intended by Christ”. No, Christ did not necessarily suggest there should be only one church organisation – the prayer in John 17 is that all Christians be one in Him. But what the liturgy says is that this unity needs to be made visible.

Indeed, one of the most mind-boggling questions people ask about Christianity is “why are there so many different denominations?” The multiplicity of churches to go to, the multiplicity of the details in doctrine, etc. impedes mission quite heavily. Because it means people look at the details* rather than at what is at the core of our being.

Don’t get me wrong, ecumenism should not be just in order to show that we are together – it should stem from a real desire for Christian unity! That unity is between individual Christians, who are all one in Christ – and then moving up to organisations; rather than the opposite. But ecumenism does have a visible part. It is, beyond a nice fluffy feeling, something that we “do”. The rest of the liturgy tells us more:

  • it is not an erasing of differences between different denominations. It is not being “non-denominational”. Rather, it is embracing those differences and celebrating them – and beyond that, celebrating our unity around these differences.
  • it happens in all we do: mission, faith, communion, pastoral care. Only things that cannot be done together should be done apart (basically, holy communion rites or celebration of the saints). But in that way, ecumenism looks no different from what we normally do. That’s probably what throws people who try to “do” ecumenical things – they are not special things to do; just normal things to do together.

This is where we can start to answer to the question of where ecumenism stops. Because in all we do as Christians, God is central. We do all these things not in our own strength, but relying, giving thanks and worshipping God. In order to be able to do so, we need to be worshipping, basically, the same God: the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As long as this happens, ecumenism is possible – more than that, it should happen and be visible. Just because we do things a bit differently, is no excuse for not being ecumenical.

That would be an ecumenical matter” becomes, then, no excuse – rather, it turns into an impressively important matter, but also one that should flow naturally. After all, we do things together with people who believe in predestination – why not with Catholics too? ;-)

* Details can be important. Far be it from me to play down the importance of free will, or of how we see the Bible, etc. But doctrine is not at the centre of what we do – God is. (And yes, I realise that sentence is doctrinal in itself :-P )

My greatest fear

1 comment

My greatest fear is that I end up doing church.

Scarecrow
Photo: jcookfisher, under CC license.

Regardless of the number of activities I partake in on weekdays, of how involved I can get in church life, the risk is still there: that I consider church, small groups, Bible studies, etc. to be something that I do. Because there’s a fine line between that and those things being what I do. But also because it is much easier to constrain specific actions to specific settings. And finally because it can lead to dissatisfaction with myself and others, as there is always more that I, or they, could do.

And none of these are desirable prospects. What I want is for my faith and my belonging to the local and global church to be part of my identity. For these things to seep through everything that I do and that I am, but not to be the object of my actions. It may sound like a pedantic difference to make, but it is important to make it, because church is more than the sum of its parts: it is more than all that we do there.

That can be used as an excusenot to go on the rota. But it shouldn’t, because that in turn could lead to a reluctance to get involved – and the death of the excitement felt at first.

Rather than avoiding doing stuff for church, rather than simply trying to be church, here’s the key: remember that what you do is about, for, with and from God:

  • when you read the Bible for the congregation, don’t simply “do the reading”, thinking you have to get it done for the rest of the service to go on. Remember what it is you’re reading (it is from God). Remember why you’re reading the Bible (to tell the congregation about God). And with the help of the Holy Spirit, proclaim boldly the Word and make it alive. Take the time that is needed, because it is for God.
  • when you’re leading worship, don’t let the technicalities of keeping rhythm, etc. (I have very little clue what I’m talking about here!) overwhelm you. Remember who you’re singing about. Whom you’re praising. Where the songs come from. And that the worship is, again, with the help of the Spirit.
  • when you’re serving tea, remember what hospitality is about and whom we’re trying to emulate. Remember where the love you’re showing comes from (that, and the goodness of tea). Seek the presence of God and let it shine through you.
  • when you go out of church – keep on reminding yourself of that throughout the week, in all that you do. That way, what you do will never be about what you do.

When I remind myself of God’s hand in what I do, the words of Philippians 4 come alive:

the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, guards my heart and my mind in Christ Jesus.