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Going off on a tangent

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It’s happened to me many a time: I pick up on something said in a sermon, and that opens up a whole new track of thought which may well be unrelated to the sermon. Today, someone mentioned to me that they had to force their attention back onto the sermon. It’s natural to feel that tinge of guilt. After all, you came to church for the service, and part of that service is the sermon, so you really should listen to it attentively, shouldn’t you?

tangent

Photo: Wikimedia user Cmglee, reused under CC License

If you’ve ever felt that guilt, here are a few questions you can ask yourself:

Is the sermon the only way, or the best way you can find out about God?

This is a serious theological question. Sermons are useful; this much should be true (or else there’s little point in listening to them altogether). Still, if there are other ways in which God talks to you – if you believe that the Holy Spirit is still inspiring you (and not simply whoever is preaching), then why should you dismiss tangents? After all, it might well be that your attention is drawn to a specific point of the sermon through His inspiration. Struggling to focus back onto the sermon is then denying this power!

Are all the members of the congregation meant to receive the exact same experience?

We are all different in the way we understand, or at least relate to some truths spoken in sermons. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that dismissing parts of the sermon as “not for me” is right, or justified. But when something speaks to you and you start connecting dots, that’s when you’re properly hearing the sermon. Refusing to do so on the basis that you might miss out on the next bit is playing it safe. Because, when you think about it, you’re not giving what you hear space to affect you.

Is the sermon addressing your mind, or is it directed at your heart and soul too?

I don’t know about you, but my mind can follow a sermon more easily than my heart can grasp its implications. This is also true for going off on a tangent, mind you – as my mind will make leaps and bounds that sometimes even defy basic logic. Still, when I go on a tangent, it is usually because something that was said resonated within my heart and soul.

So if you see the sermon as feeding you holistically, I reckon following the tangents isn’t that bad a thing to do. But then, you might see a sermon as something that’s only meant to feed the head – or as an exercise where structure and curricula that span many weeks matter more than how the sermon transforms you.

Is it even possible to hold on to everything?

Sermons are fast. Very fast. The traditional structure is three points; but that’s generally for 15 minute sermons – 45 minute talks are usually replete with sub-points. That means going through three (or more) deep issues in under 5 minutes each. Now that’s a very quick pace, so I shouldn’t worry if I missed some part of it. Better to hold on to one thing well than to fill your pockets with tons of crumbs. (yay for mixed metaphors!)

Now, that being said, there are some practical considerations to take into account, too:

Will you use what is discussed in the sermon for further discussion (for instance, in small groups?) 

If so, then it might be crucial that you can recall what is being said – especially if you’re meant to lead such discussion. But in most cases, there are ways to catch up.

Is there a way for you to listen back to the sermon later?

Most churches now provide either transcripts of sermons or audio recordings on their website. So you can always catch up on what you missed because you went off on a tangent. And even if they don’t, why not simply ask the preacher for their notes?

What are your thoughts drifting towards?

I don’t mean this post to be an all-encompassing excuse to allow my thoughts to drift towards my lesson-planning, or towards my grocery shopping. My thoughts do sometimes jump to these mundane tasks – but it is easy to see that such thoughts are completely unrelated to what was said in the first place. Maybe in such cases, it’s worth focusing back on the sermon!

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.

The pastoral imperative

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I recently read a couple of books on ordained ministry. The more modern ones, and the blogs I read, have rightly identified leadership as a key skill and a key task ministers will have. It is something I’ve found difficult to reconcile with the representative role of the minister, which seems to seep through every part of their ministry. Leadership, after all, is a highly secular term and can happen independently. Until it hit me:

Christian leadership is not simply leadership in a Christian context. It’s not even some form of new and improved “Leadership+”. It is intrinsically different, because the greatest commandment is this:

 

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’”
(Matthew 22:37-38)

Crucially, the Great Commission comes after this. What this means is that our leadership and teaching needs to happen in this context and this way. The first point is obvious, but sometimes needs reminding in a world where skills are increasingly labelled and compartmentalised: God sets the course, not us. However we might lead, we strive to do so as representatives of God. Secondly, in Christian leadership, we cannot afford not to treat people holistically in all circumstances. When teaching, when leading, we need to consider them as the same as when we’re counseling.

Photo of a sheep

Photo by Linda Bailey, reused under CC license

Sermons are not dissociated from the rest of church life. People don’t suddenly become empty vessels, ready and anonymous receivers. When preaching God’s love for them, there is a need to make sure that the entire congregation is understanding that; and if there are some who are at a stage in their life where they cannot respond to it, the minister cannot afford not to find them, through that sermon or through another means.

This pastoral imperative is not restrained to specific times or tasks – it has to permeate the life of the minister.

Crucially, though, pastoral care does not mean sugarcoating the truth, or leaving people comfortably sitting where they are. For one, we are not setting the agenda – God is. But let us also remember that being a pastor, i.e. a shepherd, includes leading sheep from one patch to another. Being pastoral means being a leader.

How do you (practically) integrate teaching and pastoral care?

When and why did we start dissociating leadership from pastoral-ness?