Monthly Archives: July 2008

NoiseTrade

Dan Edelman at the Cerulean Sanctum blog recently commended a new website called NoiseTrade. It’s a site for downloading music from quality independent artists. All the names I recognised there were Christian.

One leading light is the estimable (if not indeed prophetic) Derek Webb.

You can either give the email addresses of three friends and download whole albums in MP3 format, or you can pay whatever you want. I downloaded stuff by Webb, Waterdeep, Jeni Varnadeau and Sixpence None The Richer.

I had technical problems with the last one, but NoiseTrade sorted me out.

This is a wonderful site, a galaxy away from what Bill Kinnon calls ‘Jesus junk for the jaded masses’.

About these ads

Holiday Clubs

When my sister and I were growing up, Liz had a school friend along the street called Kerry. She began to attend church with us and showed some interest. However, although her parents didn’t mind her attending Sunday School or youth fellowship, they very clearly told her she wasn’t to get in too deep. Kerry drifted away. Without reaching her parents, it was difficult to reach her.

I often think about that story when considering outreach to children. Churches find it easier to put on something for the children than for the parents (or adults in general). The grown-ups are a harder proposition.

Naturally, that kind of thought is with me now, in the holiday club season. Our daughter is attending the club at the local parish church this week, and will attend ours next week. I noticed on Monday morning when registering her just how many families we recognised from the estate, often from the school. Very few were known to us as Christian families.

Both the parish church and our church will attempt to make some connection with the families. The Anglicans will have an open evening on Thursday. We end our club each year with a musical that the children have rehearsed during the week. We pack the church with parents, grandparents and siblings. We follow that with a free barbecue.

But the lingering question for me is one of reaching all generations. Reading Jason Gardner‘s book Mend The Gap recently, this came home to me all the more forcefully. He is very strong on the idea that it’s dangerous to separate off children’s and youth ministry from the rest of church, as if that is cross-cultural mission and adult ministry isn’t. All of it is, in Gardner’s opinion. Moreover, there is the question of family. The family has an important rôle in spiritual growth.

So I think that I – like a lot of ministers at this time – have a critical challenge to face. How will we link in our holiday clubs to inter-generational ministry? We run these clubs to try and make a spiritual impact on young people. However, realistically, without being cynical, many of the non-Christian parents are glad to see us as an affordable summer holiday activity that helps them with the difficult problem of what to do with the kids for six weeks. With those conflicting aspirations, it shouldn’t surprise us that we often make little headway, even when we’ve built relationships with the children over several years.

What to do, then? We have an educational task to engage in with our churches. We have strategies to consider in the locality. Parenting courses might be one option – so long as we don’t come across as know-alls but fellow-travellers who struggle with the issue. We also need to avoid the stigma now attached to them, because they have been used in courts as a sentence for parents of errant children. But we have to find approaches that connect. Steve Chalke said many years ago that church is like a family: we do some things together, and a few things apart. In youth ministry, I think we’ve become expert at the latter and need to do more on the former. What do you think?

UPDATE, 31ST JULY: Mary Roberts emailed me this morning with details of CARE For The Family‘s initiative Engage Today. There is a website, a monthly email and a day conference to encourage churches to help families in their communities. She sent me the copy of the first email from a few weeks ago, which features links to a couple of articles. One quotes a survey from The Sun newspaper, in which 85% of its readers said that family was the most important thing in their lives. The other describes the work of the Community Action Team (CAT) set up by Honiton Community Church. They offer the marriage course, parenting resources, prisoner support and debt advice.

Christians Or Disciples?

Should we call ourselves Christians? Brian Jones thinks not. Michael Spencer weighs in supportively of Jones. Interesting debate in the comments on both posts.

New Search Engine

Yesterday, the BBC reported the launch of a new search engine, Cuil. It has been designed by former Google employees. Last night I tried it but it just returned errors. This morning I tried again. Now it works. However, it returns some interesting results. Searching for my own name (vain, I know!) turned up decent results – the usual mixing up of me with an Aussie rock musician. But it also attached an interesting photo to the result for my blog. Evidently I have turned into a Railtrack employee!

Today’s Sermon: The Expansion Of The Kingdom

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Matthew
13:31-33, 44-52

Introduction
I have vague recollections of learning something about the missionary
journeys of the apostles in Sunday School. I know that, because I have a clear
memory of drawing a picture showing Peter waiting for a train to take him on
the next stage of his journey.

But if you asked who the first missionary in the Bible was,
you’d be wrong to say Peter, still less Paul. And you’d be wrong to say Jesus.

You’d have to travel back into the Old Testament. Was it one
of the prophets? Well, Jonah was a reluctant missionary, although he went in
the end, even if he did so in poor grace. But it wasn’t him.

Any ideas? You have to go all the way back to Genesis
chapter three, where God comes looking in the Garden of Eden for Adam. ‘Where
are you, Adam?’ The first missionary in the Bible was God.

The books of the Bible are written under the inspiration of
God the missionary. The great story of Scripture reveals the missionary heart
of God. The plot of the story is about the mission of God to restore lost
humanity and heal broken creation.

And if that’s the case, then it wouldn’t be surprising if
many apparently smaller details were soaked in this theme of mission. The parables
we’ve heard from the Lectionary today certainly come under that description. The
parables of the mustard seed and of the yeast point us in one direction about
the mission of God. The parables of the treasure hidden in the field and of the
pearl give us another important picture for God’s mission. Finally, the parable
of the net thrown into the sea gives us a third image of God’s mission.

1. Mustard Seed and
Yeast

One of the areas where Debbie and I disagree about food is on the subject of
fast food. She has a fondness for Kentucky Fried Chicken. I think it’s
disgusting. Sometimes, for the sake of family peace, however, I have to relent
and I suffer one of these meals that everyone else loves. It’s just not British
fish and chips.

Moreover, when you go in to order your – ahem – ‘meal’, you
may be asked whether you want to ‘go large’. Going large in KFC parlance is
equivalent to McDonald’s ‘supersize’ option that was so discredited in the film
Super Size Me’.

Going large, or supersizing, is just want we want to happen
with the kingdom of God. We want its massive expansion. We want the world to
find faith in Christ. We want the sick healed. We want justice for all,
especially the poor. That’s the going large of God’s mission.

So we plan our big projects – our missions and festivals. We hype up our institutions. We
elevate to celebrity status some of our most deeply admired Christians. Then we
wait for the magic to happen.

And it doesn’t. God has a ‘going large’ plan for his mission
all right, but it doesn’t work like that. Laser light shows, massive budget
advertising – none of these seems to be on his agenda. God is not disadvantaged
by a lack of famous, powerful or wealthy people. God starts with mustard seeds
and yeast. He wants to see a large tree that will host the nests of many birds,
but he starts with the seed. He wants to give bread to the world, but knows it
starts with a small amount of yeast to ferment. God’s ‘going large’ starts
small.

What does that mean for us? Look around at our small
numbers. Consider the difficulty we have in keeping some things going. There are
vacancies in key church offices. There are tasks we struggle to cover. Should we
despair? No: we should laugh. God never called us to keep an institution going.
He called us to be what one author calls ‘The Mustard Seed Conspiracy’. In our
smallness as a church, in our weakness and insignificance as individuals, the
world may laugh but God says to us, ‘You are my mustard seeds. Plant the Gospel
in the world and let me grow it. You are my yeast. Let me cast you into the
dough that bread for the world may rise.’

None of this is an excuse not to grow. This isn’t some
reason to stay a small private religious club. I don’t mean that for a moment. But
it is to say this. We don’t have to be like the large churches around here
before God will use us. God’s plans are not limited to Christian Growth Centre,
Central Baptist Church or any of the other big names. He has plans for mustard
seeds and small quantities of yeast. Today is a day to believe that God has
kingdom plans for us in his ‘going large’ vision for his kingdom throughout
creation. It starts small, but if we trust him enough to take risks with him in
the world, then who knows what he might accomplish through us?

2. Treasure and Pearl

So God’s mission means a ‘go large’ vision for his kingdom. Yet to our surprise,
he starts with the small and the insignificant, rather than the big and the powerful.

Now, stay with that ‘go large’ idea a bit more. Wouldn’t you
think God would make it easy to enter the kingdom? Next surprise: he doesn’t.
The kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like treasure hidden in a field and like an
expensive pearl.

Hold on a minute: we are used to supermarkets enticing us
with that unlovely abbreviation BOGOF: ‘buy one, get one free’. We are used to
the idea that people who want to be noticed will give away something free. So
pop stars like Prince and McFly have given away copies of
their latest CDs with the Mail On
Sunday
. The newspaper gains heightened circulation; the musicians work a
deal that gets their music to many more people than usual.

And isn’t there a sense in which the Gospel too is a free
offer? Yes, there is. Christ died for the sins of the world while we were still
sinners and before we knew the love of God. His sacrificial love is
unconditional.

But – although the Gospel is offered free, it costs us
everything. The forgiveness of sins is free, but following Jesus costs
everything. The person who finds and hides the treasure in a field sells all he
has to buy that field. The merchant sells all he has to buy the valuable pearl.

We can be sure of this: the kingdom of God is not a
commodity to be given away. It is not something to be sold like groceries or
entertainment. When we treat it like that, we lose the overwhelming value of
it. God’s kingdom – seen in following Jesus – is so valuable it calls for a
radical decision about our lives. No bargains are to be found here. No price
reductions. No special deals.

So that might make the kingdom of God like luxury goods that
don’t reduce their high prices for anyone, and don’t like being sold through
shops the plebs frequent, like Tesco. And Jesus
does compare it here to treasure or a pearl.

But no, that thought doesn’t work, either. It’s not as
though God has set a particular high price that only the wealthy can pay. He has
set the same high price for all. The kingdom of God costs everything we have –
however much or little that may be.

Therefore, as we share in the mission of God, we aren’t helping
it ‘go large’ by inviting people to be consumers or to take up a hobby. On
Jesus’ behalf, we are only inviting the serious. It’s like those job
advertisements where the prospective employer says, ‘Time wasters need not
apply.’ The kingdom will spread through creation not by an army of couch
potatoes but by a dedicated group who will sacrifice selfish dreams and vain
ambitions as well as material wealth.

Does this make the kingdom a miserable place? Oh no. It is
with great joy that the man sells all he can to buy the field where he has
hidden the treasure, and it is with joy we sacrifice to be part of the kingdom.
Joy drives our sacrifice, because we have been captivated by the extraordinary
love of God in Christ.

3. Net
Let’s recap: God wants his kingdom to ‘go large’, but he works with the small
and insignificant rather than the rich and powerful, and he only opens it up to
those who will joyfully sacrifice for it, not merely those who want a cheap
deal on heaven. Now, here in the final parable – the parable of the dragnet –
God shatters our expectations again.

How so? Like this. Again, take our assumption that God wants
his kingdom to spread to everyone and throughout creation – what I’ve called ‘going
large’. Once more, he doesn’t set out to accomplish that aim in a manner we
might expect. Surely an all-powerful and all-loving God could just co-opt all
and sundry into the kingdom? The parable of the dragnet starts out like that:
it catches ‘fish of very kind [lit., ‘race’]
(verse 47). Job done, you’d think.

But no. The sorting process begins. Good fish are kept, bad
ones thrown away (verse 48). And Jesus says this image speaks of a sorting out
between evil and righteous people at the end of the age (verses 49-50).

Why is this essential to the spread of God’s kingdom? I
think it’s because the kingdom of God is a place of righteousness and justice. If
God’s kingdom is to spread, then it means that his reign is not only exercised but
also welcomed and accepted. It doesn’t mean that those who do are perfect
people, but they are the ones who are willing to live under the reign of God. Final
judgment, then, is both blessing and tragedy: it is the blessing that no more
will rebellion and evil oppose the purposes of God. It is also blessing in that
those who have followed the ways of God and becomes disciples of Jesus are
vindicated.

But it is also the tragedy that God sends those who oppose
him to the destiny they have effectively chosen for themselves. It may be
unpopular to speak about that aspect of judgment today, and I am not advocating
Victorian fire and brimstone preaching tactics. Indeed, I belong to that school
of thought that sees the images of a ‘furnace of fire, where there will be
weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (verse 50) and similar language as metaphors.
For me, the final victory of God’s justice means the abolition of evil, that is,
annihilation rather than conscious eternal torment. But how dreadful it will be
to meet the living God in all his holy love and realise our lives have been a
rejection of him.

What does this mean for us? I believe it is the serious and
sombre side of the joy I talked about earlier. It is a joyful thing to discover
God’s love and follow Jesus. But is also the only sane way to live, however
crazy the world thinks we are. It’s sane, because being a disciple of Jesus,
learning his ways and copying his life, is to go with the grain of the
universe, as God has designed it. The majority may dismiss our lifestyles as
silly, pointless or even dangerous, but they are the ones sawing against the
grain.

Conclusion
These parables have taken us across a lot of territory, but all are held
together by the vision of God’s kingdom and the implications for the mission of
God in which we share. God’s kingdom will embrace all creation, but just
because the vision is panoramic, does not mean he chooses the loudest and
flashiest of advocates. We are his mustard seeds, his yeast. We, the small,
weak and uninfluential are his primary human agents.

And the large vision comes at a price. God will not cut the
price to gain a sale. Somebody once said that if we encountered the rich young
ruler today, we’d offer him a deal on just selling a percentage of his
possessions. Not Jesus. Following him costs everything – whatever that means
for each one of us. We need to reflect that in our lifestyles and our message,
but it’s worth it.

And it’s all worth it, because following Jesus aligns us
with the destiny of all creation under the reign of God. What the world calls
foolishness is ultimate wisdom. And that is the goal to which we invite people.

Catching Up (Continued)

Continuing from what I wrote yesterday, re:fresh08 ended with a united act of worship in Central Park. A reliable estimate of the attendance is 2,500. We had a service that attempted to blend everything from new church to Catholic (nothing terribly emerging or all-age, but what they did manage was quite an achievement). Steve Chalke challenged us to be followers of Jesus after the pattern of a Kirkegaardian parable, which contrasted two different kinds of geese: those who fly and those who sit around feeding themselves, just being fattened up for slaughter. A very powerful parable, capable of all sorts of applications beyond the positive one that Steve made.

Since then, I’ve been trying to deal with some things that have hung around for a while – not least some of my work for Ministry Today. I wrote up some minutes and some book reviews. Here are some highlights of the reviews:

Rob McAlpine, Post-Charismatic: McAlpine explores a number of the dodgy trends that have infected charismatic Christianity, such as the Latter Rain movement, heavy shepherding and prosperity doctrines. His analyses are unsurprising if you’ve grown up with a theological education in a mainstream denomination, but he lays out a positive spirituality for engaging with the charismata in a humble, biblical way. I read the book before I encountered Todd Bentley and the Lakeland healing revival issue. It was illuminating to have read it first.

Jason Gardner, Mend The Gap: a brilliant analysis documenting the growth of adolescence as a phenomenon, with biology now defining adulthood rather than economic independence, and the desires of many social forces to keep people as perpetual adolescents. Gardner argues against separating out youth ministry from the rest of the church as if that ‘s cross-cultural when all we do is cross-cultural today. He advocates cross-generational worship, study and fun in church and family life, and recommends some useful resources to that end.

Richard Burridge, John (The People’s Bible Commentaries): a popular commentary at the level of William Barclay or Tom Wright’s ‘For Everyone’ series. This is a lightly revised edition of the 1998 original, and is currenly being used for the Bible Studies at the Lambeth Conference. Burridge translates scholarship into popular language. He separates the Fourth Gospel into 107 small sections. Each gets two pages, finishing with a prayer. This structure makes it useful for personal devotion and small group use. No-one who has studied theology academically could use it as a first commentary on John, but it is still a very acceptable support volume. Some months ago I preached a couple of sermons where I used it for preparation. Each time it made a difference to what I preached.

What have you been reading recently that is worth a recommendation?

Catching Up

The Chelmsford Christian Festival finished on Sunday. While we didn’t achieve anything like the hoped-for level of ticket sales, there were many wonderful memories.

On the first night, local band Electralyte supported YFriday, the Geordie rock worship band. Highlights included the way YFriday generously praised Electralyte, publicly wishing them well with their new album. No competitiveness. Also, the way Ken Riley of YFriday explained the background to the writing of their song Everlasting God with Brenton Brown. No triumphalism, but a story of God drawing near in desperate suffering.

Another night was devoted to a more ‘urban’ theme, reaching out to people from rougher backgrounds. Support act was the south London hip hop artist Jahaziel, who has a remarkable testimony. Teenage lads walking through the park where we had our marquee were drawn in to hear him. Some would have got up on stage and rapped with him, given the chance. The event managers let them in for a bargain price.

Jahaziel was followed on stage by two guys from Tough Talk. One guy, an East Ender (goes down well in Essex) and ex-bouncer told his dramatic story of deliverance from violence and drugs. He did so in episodes, punctuated by feats of power lifting by his colleague, who progressed from two hundred to five hundred pounds. Then we learned this guy was the British power lifting champion. He told his story of being brought out of a lifestyle dedicated to drugs and the occult while working in the city.

Tough Talk trailed the fact that they were going to invite volunteers from the audience up on stage to try a spot of bench pressing. Nine people volunteered. Two were from the lads who’d drifted in. Every participant won a prize. They were given books of Tough Talk testimonies. I hope and pray the lads from the park will read those books and be impacted by the stories.

The other night I’d like to write about was totally different again. We had asked our guest speaker Steve Chalke to use his television skills to interview five Christian ‘celebrities’ around the theme of ‘success’. All told stories that blew conventional notions of success into pieces. Cameron Stout, winner of Big Brother in 2003, came across as very much the ordinary unpretentious guy who follows Jesus.

Anne Atkins, the author, commentator and agony aunt got way beyond her media image of the right wing moralist. There is so much more to her. She talked of her family: one daughter has battled mental illness, a son has Asperger Syndrome and for a year they were split up and homeless as a family, despite her husband being an Anglican vicar. Success for her was keeping the family together.

Then we met Yazz, famous for hit singles in the late eighties like ‘Doctorin The House’. But she can’t bring herself to perform her massive hit ‘The Only Way Is Up’, because it reminds her of a painful period in her life. She discovered the dark aspects of the music industry, and her marriage dissolved. Only in the last ten years is she finding healing through faith in Christ. (And by the way, her debut ‘Christian’ CD is astonishing – see the review here. You might just recognise the reviewer’s name.)

In the second half of that evening, Steve interviewed Jo Gambi, the first woman to climb the ‘seven summits’, with her husband Rob, the first Australian. They were the first and fastest married couple to do so. But their adventures only began when Rob had his second bout of cancer.

Finally, we met Henry Olonga, the former Zimbabwean Test cricketer who was courageous enough to oppose Robert Mugabe publicly. His story linked personal faith and social justice. Certainly, the whole evening busted any fairy story notion that ‘since I became a Christian, all my troubles ceased’.

More on what I’ve been catching up with over the next day or two.

Winning

On Monday morning, it was our daughter’s school sports day. Being owed time for working some days off, I took the morning out to watch her with Debbie.

The school had been split into sixteen teams, each representing a country and taking an Olympics theme. Rebekah had been allocated to Portugal.

Wearing her red and green, she was lined up to run in the very first race. We thought she was quite quick. Certainly she is when she runs to school. Off they set. Except that Rebekah didn’t realise what the starting signal was. She didn’t begin running until everyone else was ten yards down the track.

Then it got worse. Her plimsoll fell off. She has very narrow feet. She stumbled to the line, comfortably last. We wondered how she would take this.

We saw the answer in her next race. In the spirit of an egg and spoon race, the children had to balance something on their heads. If it fell off, they had to stop and replace it before continuing. Well, Rebekah was determined that the object wouldn’t fall off. So she ambled down the track, talking happily with her friend Sam. They were oblivious to where they came in the race. They just took in the sunny weather and enjoyed each other’s company.

And so she continued all morning. Whether running, jumping or throwing, she did what she did and didn’t worry whether she was the fastest, highest or strongest. She just enjoyed herself. Her only real distress was that she misplaced her water bottle.

We waited for the head teacher to announce the results. We stood near the Portugal team. China came sixteenth. More countries were announced, until we realised that Portugal was in the top eight. The top five. The top three. Portugal became visibly more excited. ‘They’re going to be so disappointed when they hear they’re second,’ I said.

But you’ve guessed. They were first. The older children were delirious. Rebekah and the smaller ones had to have it explained to them. They were called up to the head teacher to receive their medals. Rebekah was still more concerned about her lost water bottle than her medal. But later the significance dawned on her. When we collected her from school that afternoon, she came out of her class with it around her neck. She hung it on the door handle of her bedroom. Last night I found her sleeping with her medal. Rebekah, who seemed to be a loser, was a winner.

God’s ideas of winners are different from the world’s, as I shared in a school assembly on Wednesday. Not the fast, strong, powerful or wealthy. The Beatitudes make apparent losers into winners. Those who love, sacrifice and put God and others ahead of themselves are winners, in Jesus’ estimation.

I thought the boys might find all this kind of talk of caring a bit girly. So I told them a story. I asked who used Internet Explorer to browse the web, and who was cool enough to use Firefox. Just a few, sadly. But I talked about one of the Firefox developers with Mozilla. I read an interview with him a couple of years ago in .net magazine. He explained his reason for involvement with open source software. It was so that the poor and disadvantaged could have access to the same kind of things as those who shell out huge sums for proprietary software. That was an expression of his Christian faith. I suggested that developer was a winner in Jesus’ eyes.

Let’s reinvent winning. Too often in the church we are tied to secular concepts of victory.

Tough

That’s how ministry is at present. We are bang in the middle of our Chelmsford Christian Festival, my responsibility being to oversee the prayer ministry. In the run-up and since it has started, an avalanche of pastoral problems has hit, like no sequence since coming here. Without being hyper-spiritual, I shouldn’t be surprised. I can’t go into detail here, but it has involved people being hurt, people falling out, people imagining hurt, people facing enormous crises, all in quick succession. I am no demon hunter, but I believe in the reality of the demonic, and believe that at present there is a concerted effort to move my focus away from the festival.

Gobsmacked

Yes, I know, I should be ‘holy’ and call it ‘Godsmacked’, but that it is what it is. Anyway … I have a sabbatical early next year. (Can’t wait.) The Methodist Church is excellent in insisting her ministers take sabbaticals, but doesn’t provide massive funding for them. I had booked two courses: one at Lee Abbey on photography and creation, another back at Trinity College, Bristol, where they now teach the ordinands something about the relationship between personality type and ministry style. Both great courses.

But I had hoped to take another one. I wanted to sit in on a week’s residential at Cliff College to study alongside some of their MA students. I knew that would overstretch the official budget. When I have talked about the sabbatical, I have said that going to Cliff would depend on whether my accountant obtained a juicy tax rebate for me this year. On Friday, I received an email from Theresa Phillips, the postgraduate administrator at Cliff. Someone has paid for me to do the week. I am stunned by this sign of love. I am grateful to God, and to the person. I think I know who it is, but clearly s/he wants to remain officially anonymous, so i’ll keep it that way, with a letter for Theresa to forward onto the person.

I won’t get into all that ‘restores your faith in human nature’ nonsense, but the kindness of God through his people is a wonderful thing to behold and experience.

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