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Sermon: Unwrapping Discipleship

This Sunday, I get to preach at one of my colleagues’ churches. So I’m reverting to the Lectionary for one week only. There are a few things in this sermon that have appeared before, notably in the first point. Please excuse that if the odd bit is something you’ve read from me before.

Matthew 4:12-23

Both Debbie and I had our main Christmas presents after the big day. I had asked people for money or vouchers that I could put together so I could buy an Amazon Kindle e-reader. Debbie followed a similar route, and when she had finally weighed up the options and dismissed the idea of a new phone, she ordered a new camera. Like me, she ordered her present online from Amazon.

Being cheapskates – or as we like to think of it, good stewards – we ordered both products on Amazon’s free Super Saver Delivery. Effectively, that means second class post. Amazon gives you an estimated date by which your order should be with you.

I had ordered my e-reader first. I memorised the due date. I counted down, like a child. The due date came. And went. I phoned the local sorting office to see whether it was there and got a jobsworth who really couldn’t be bothered. Eventually, it turned up two days late, left outside the front door by the postie, even though we weren’t in. Debbie’s camera was a similar story. Apparently it was all down to a backlog they were still trying to clear since the snow of November and December.

We waited for the time of fulfilment and were disappointed. In that respect, we were like the people to whom Jesus came. Matthew tells us that his house move from Nazareth to Capernaum was fulfilment of the prophetic hope (verses 12-16). Just as Debbie and I (OK, particularly I) were wondering when our packages would come from Amazon, so God’s people were wondering when the Messiah would come and inaugurate God’s kingdom. Now, at last, the package arrives, and he’s called Jesus.

So – if the package has arrived, if Jesus the Messiah has come, bringing the kingdom of heaven – what do we do when we unwrap him?

The first action is repentance. The opening tone of Jesus’ message is,

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. (Verse 17)

What is repentance? We know it has to do with being sorry for our wrongdoings, but there is more to it than that. If it were only feeling sorry but without any change of heart or change of lifestyle, it would only be remorse. And remorse doesn’t change anything – apart from maybe persuading a judge to give a more lenient sentence in response to mitigation.

Repentance is bigger than that. In the Greek of the New Testament and even in English it means ‘a change of mind’. It means to ‘rethink’. Those of you who know French will recognise where the English word ‘repentance’ comes from. Remember penser, to think, so repenser is to rethink, to change your mind. The Greek metanoia is similar. When we repent, we change our minds about the way we live.

It’s like doing a u-turn in a car. We know we are going the wrong way, so we change our minds and our direction. Repentance, then, means a change of mind, so much so that we are sorry enough to change our actions.

So that unpacks one problem we have in understanding repentance. It is not simply being sorry, it is a change of mind that leads to a change in our actions. That is why it is also not the same as condemnation, which simply tells us how terrible we are but leaves us desperate and desolate about ourselves. Repentance brings positive change and hope.

Another problem we have with repentance is that we associate it with conversion and the beginnings of Christian faith, but not always with the ongoing life of Christian discipleship. Yet we do not make all the changes we need to make in our lives all at once, when we first encounter Jesus Christ. We don’t even make all the essential changes before we die.

My point is this: repentance is not a one-off change of direction, it is an ongoing process in our lives. One of my favourite stories to tell about this involves the Local Preacher who was always the most popular preacher among my youth group in the church where I grew up. John Evill was born in Wales in 1902, two years before the Welsh Revival. He preached like the revival was still going on. In one sermon, he asked the congregation: “Have you been converted?” Then he added, “I’ve been converted – many times.” His point wasn’t that he’d regularly slipped back and denied Christ, it was that time and time again Christ had to call him to change.

So it is with repentance. It is a change of mind that leads not simply to one change of action, but to repeated changes of action in our lives, until our dying day. Paul tells the Philippians that God who began a good work in them will complete it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Or, as the t-shirt slogan puts it:

Please be patient with me. God hasn’t finished with me yet.

When we unwrap the kingdom Jesus brings, then, the first thing it involves is a lifestyle of ongoing change, reorientating ourselves to the ways of God from our selfish ways.

The second thing we do when we unwrap the Jesus package is we follow. Having turned around, we now start positively and actively going in our new direction, the direction in which Jesus is travelling. To Simon Peter and Andrew, he says,

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people. (Verse 19)

Then he calls James and John and we read,

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. (Verse 22)

I find the nature of Jesus calling these fishermen to follow him utterly amazing. For one thing, I am staggered by their immediate decision to leave their family businesses and go with him. Some people have said that they may already have known Jesus in the area, but it’s still quite a decision to go off like that. Why would they do it?

Here’s one theory. As I’m sure you know, it was common practice for Jewish rabbis to call certain young men to follow them, learn their teaching and emulate their lifestyles. However, they tended to pick the cream of the crop, those who showed promise from a young age. If you got as far as getting into regular work – as Simon Peter, Andrew, James and John had – then you certainly weren’t among the elite. You were among the rejected. You were among those who were not considered up to the task of following a religious master.

But Jesus sees it differently. He calls these men. To him, they are not rejects, they are people who are every bit as capable of following him as anybody else. Why? Because – as the old catchphrase puts it – it’s not your ability that matters, it’s your availability. You don’t need great gifts and talents in order to follow Jesus, you just need to be willing to say ‘yes’ to him. And that’s what these four guys do.

So imagine you are one of them. Imagine you have been passed over by other rabbis as not good enough. Now this one comes along when you are at an age when you no longer think such an opportunity exists and he says to you, “Follow me.” What does that do for your self-esteem? I like to imagine the four young men striding off from their boats with their heads held high and their chests puffed out.

Translate that into our church context. One of the things that saddens me as a minister is the time many church members speak of how inferior they feel to ministers. “You can do {X, Y, Z] because you’re more learned than me,” some say. However, in Jesus’ eyes, it’s not the alphabet soup I have after my name because I spent six years studying Theology that matters. It’s whether I say ‘yes’ to Jesus. I hope I can bring benefits to people by sharing my learning. But what matters in the end is one simple matter that puts everybody on an equal following, regardless of gifts, talents, opportunities, wealth or privilege. It’s this: will we say ‘yes’ to Jesus? All we need to be concerned about today is whether we are saying ‘yes’ to him in the places where he is calling us to follow him.

The third way we unwrap Jesus is by imitation. Hear again the final verse in the reading:

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Verse 23)

The playwright Murray Watts tells a yarn that might explain how some of us feel about this verse:

An evangelist was so successful, he converted his own horse. He decided to develop his ministry with animals and took his horse to market, to exchange it for another. A farmer came riding along, on a very old horse, and the evangelist begged him to swap animals. The farmer looked at the fine fettle of the evangelist’s horse and agreed, delighted with his bargain. As he mounted his new steed, the evangelist explained to him about the horse’s religious zeal. The farmer looked at him incredulously.

‘It’s no good shouting “giddyup!” or “whoa, there, boy!”’ the evangelist went on. ‘To start, you have to shout, “Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!” and to stop you have to shout, “Amen!”’

The farmer now realised that he was dealing with a nutcase, but he decided to humour him. The horse was in excellent condition and he accepted. As the evangelist trotted away on the famer’s ageing horse, the farmer shouted ‘Giddyup thar!’ to his steed. There was no reaction. He whipped the horse, but there was still no reaction.

‘Go on tharr! Get going!’ he screamed, digging in his heels. The horse refused to budge. The farmer scratched his head.

‘Perhaps that old preacher wasn’t so crazy after all,’ he thought, ‘oh well, no harm in trying.’ He took a deep breath and shouted: ‘Praise the Lord, hallelujah!’ Immediately the horse galloped off. The astonished farmer clung on for dear life as it sped along the road.

‘Whatever its religious quirks,’ he mused, ‘this is some horse!’ On and on the pious creature went, crossing fields, jumping gates. At last, hearing the sound of the sea in the distance, the farmer knew they were approaching the cliffs of Dover.

‘Whoaa there, boy!’ he called. ‘Whoaa there!’ He yanked the reins. The horse sped on regardless. ‘Silly me,’ thought the farmer, ‘I’ve got to say that special word.’

‘Blessing!’ he shouted. ‘No, that’s wrong. Faith!!’ he called, urgently. ‘No, that’s not right either.’

The sound of the sea came nearer, and try as he might, the farmer could not remember the right religious word. Suddenly, within yards of the cliff edge, he remembered.

‘AMEN!!’ he screamed. The horse stopped, inches to spare. The farmer mopped his brow and, lifting his eyes to heaven in gratitude, murmured, ‘Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!’[1]

Maybe when we hear that Jesus went around preaching, teaching and healing, and when we realise that the call of the disciple is to imitate the teacher, we might feel like we are riding an out-of-control horse. Are we about to go over a cliff?

Disciples of a Jewish rabbi knew their call was to imitate the way their master lived. Some took that to considerable extremes, and if I mentioned specifics some of you might cry out that modern cliché, ‘Too much information!’[2]

So those first disciples of Jesus, watching him teach, preach and heal would have been making mental notes. This was their vocation, too.

But it contains scary aspects for us. Some of us are nervous about ‘proclaiming’ our faith. We would not feel able to ‘teach’ the faith. And as for healing people, well where do we begin?

I think there are two keys to embracing this. The first is to recognise that when we become disciples of Jesus, then we receive the Holy Spirit into our lives. And the Holy Spirit brings all sorts of gifts to us that we did not previously have. If we are open to the empowering of the Holy Spirit, then we shall find ourselves equipped for Jesus-like tasks that we would otherwise be unable to do.

The other key is this. Only together are we the Body of Christ. You will contribute some gifts towards copying the ministry of Jesus. Your friend will offer other gifts. I will bring different gifts of the Spirit.

So yes, imitating the ministry of Christ is daunting – but only if we view it purely humanly. If we put ourselves at the disposal of the Holy Spirit, all sorts of things become possible that previously were never even on the radar of our imagination.

Let’s pray.


[1] Murray Watts, Rolling In The Aisles, p 90f, story 153.

[2] See Michael Griffiths, The Example of Jesus.

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A Novel Approach To Missional Church: Mike Burke’s ‘Daydream Believer’

No, not that one.

I first met Mike Burke at Trinity College, Bristol between 1986 and 1989. He was a guitar-toting, wisecracking Anglican ordinand, and I was a Methodist wondering where on earth God was calling me. When we left, we all had to pen fifty words about ourselves for a magazine sent to college supporters. It was no surprise when Mike wrote that he had fulfilled an ambition to get U2 played in college chapel.

Then we lost touch. He went off to his curacy in Sheffield, and I returned to the dark bowels of Methodism.

Years later (2001, I think), we bumped into each other again at an Evangelical Alliance conference in Cardiff. By then, he was a vicar in Gloucestershire. This time, we kept in touch. Often it was Mike sending me emails that I found ridiculously funny and my wife (who doesn’t share the same sense of humour) found ridiculous.

In recent years, Mike has come out of parish ministry. He now networks for the Church Mission Society with local congregations. He has used his creative gifts to turn the difficulties of traditional church life today and the need to find new forms of missional church to reach today’s cultures into a witty and poignant novel.

It makes sense from my perspective to communicate missional thinking in a narrative format. Much of the literature talks about the importance of story, so let’s use story! The only other example I have ever encountered in this field (perhaps there are others) has been Brian McLaren‘s ‘A New Kind of Christian’ trilogy. However, McLaren has in my opinion more of an agenda for revising classical theology than Mike does. Moreover, the American church situation is considerably different from the British contexts.

I know I’m biassed, but do read Mike’s book. You will find a healthy and humorous dose of reality, right through to the inner thoughts of the clergy. If you’ve ever wondered, then buy this!

Oh, and his first cultural quote is from Pink Floyd’s ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. You can’t go wrong.

My one gripe would be with Highland Books, the publisher. They seem to have laid off a proof reader in place of a computer spell-checker. It was The Forsyte Saga, not the Forsyth Saga (Brucie, you can have a rest). A quantity of paper is stationery, not stationary. Something you can’t quite catch is elusive, not illusive.

Although I have just linked to it on Amazon, they were unable to fulfil my order, but I went through Amazon Marketplace to the trusty Book Depository, who sent me a copy quickly.

The Kindle Has Landed

Well, despite the rank amateurism of the Royal Mail, my Amazon Kindle arrived yesterday. The Royal Mail lived down to their standards: we were out when they called with the day’s post, and the Kindle box was left in a stand we keep outside the front door for flower and plant seeds. No card through the door telling me where it was, no attempt to take it safely back to the sorting office. I was fortunate that Debbie noticed the box with the big Amazon logo. No temptation for opportunist thieves there, clearly. (And we’re still waiting for a digital camera for Debbie, which is also overdue, so who knows what will happen with that?)

So what’s the Kindle like? There have, of course, been numerous debates about the pros and cons of e-readers in comparison to traditional books. One good article and debate can be found here, for example. They say you can download the first chapters of books as samples. That’s not always strictly honest: you often get the foreword, preface and part of chapter 1.
But I was persuaded to part with cash for a 1993 book by my former research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, called ‘The Theology of the Book of Revelation‘. Nice light reading, you’re thinking. Well, what Richard doesn’t know about eschatology and apocalyptic isn’t worth knowing, so anything he writes on this is worth the price. He also writes fluently.

However, I had a particular reason for purchasing an electronic version rather than a physical one. Here is the text of one customer review on Amazon:

This is one of the most maddening books I’ve read recently. The author’s work cannot be faulted (five stars for the theology); the problem lies with the editing of the book. If it is intended to be used as a textbook rather than read from cover to cover like a novel, it needs a really good index. It doesn’t have one. Worse still, in my 2002 printing, there is no biblical index at all. Trying to find out what the author has to say about any particular verse or passage in Revelation is like looking for a righteous man in Babylon, or, anyway, a needle in a…. I’m sure Cambridge University Press could have done better than this, and the author deserves better from them.

The problems clearly aren’t the author’s fault, but the publisher’s. The lack of indices had held me back from buying it before. However, with an electronic version it is at least searchable for any verse, word or theme I want to research. Does Richard have an opinion on a particular passage? Hold on, let me just do a search and I’ll find out. The Kindle (or another e-reader) is ideal in these circumstances.

My one curiosity with the Kindle edition of the book – and this is what I find maddening – is that it seems to have downloaded without a contents page to tell me what the chapters are.

More generally, the Kindle reading experience is good. The e-ink screen is much more naturally like paper than a bright screen on a computer or smartphone. Moreover, I found myself reading at a good pace. It’s difficult to be sure, given the fact that you don’t get page numbers, only a percentage of how far you are through the book plus some ‘location numbers’. Yet my perception is that I was reading slightly faster than a physical book. I don’t have the gift of speed-reading, so this is an advantage for me.

So my early impressions are favourable. I think the big danger for me could be with just how easy and fast it is to download a title. I could end up spending more money than I should.

Amazon And The Royal Mail: A Parable Of Customer Service

So I did what I said I’d do with my Christmas money. I put it all together and ordered an Amazon Kindle e-reader. I placed the order on 28th December. Amazon emailed me that day with the good news that they had dispatched it that very day. Not being in a desperate rush for it, I opted for their free Super Saver Delivery, and they said it would be with me by 5th January at the very latest. That is, yesterday.
Enter the Royal Mail, entrusted by Amazon to deliver the Kindle to me. No sign of it by today. All we do know is they are in the habit of leaving various packages on our doorstep without bothering to ring the doorbell. With no Kindle having appeared by today, the day after the deadline, I wondered what to do.

Amazon’s website asks you to check with your local delivery office that it isn’t waiting there. When I finally got through to them, I basically got the “No, guv, not possible, everything that comes in here goes out. Goodbye” response.

Ringing Amazon was totally different. Their representative apologised, and told me that if the Kindle hadn’t turned up by the 13th I could ring again and they could then treat it as a lost package. They would then send out a replacement and upgrade my delivery, free of charge.

Which company impressed me? I think you can guess. The Royal Mail employee disdainfully said, “Amazon shouldn’t have told you to ring us, they know there are delays.” Not our fault, no chance, we’re not even going to consider it, we won’t offer to check, no criticism of us is ever justified.

Amazon were quite different. That’s £109-worth of kit (well, £111 with the VAT increase this week) they are willing to replace, just like that. My one gripe is that they use a service like the Royal Mail where you can’t track a package. I’m seriously considering upgrading to their Amazon Prime service, although I feel too mean to pay the annual £49 fee. Maybe you get what you pay for.

An unwillingness to be self-reflective and accept criticism, as it seems was the Royal Mail’s attitude, is something we display as individuals as well as institutions. It can be because we fear the acid tongue of the critic, who may take advantage of our error and crush us. So we try to wriggle out, justify ourselves and defend the indefensible. I’m rather good at that. Maybe you are, too.

And while automatically accepting the criticism and trying to put something right may also not always be wise – it can be done for the sake of a quiet life – it may be more Christlike. He ‘took the blame’ and put things right for the human race, if not all creation. While some elements of Amazon’s business may not always be that moral, on this occasion it seems to me they were the more Christlike.

The Writing Industry And The Digital Revolution

We know the decimation of the music industry in the face of digitisation. A whole industry looked for a beach full of sand and buried its collective heads.

Thankfully, there are some signs that in the world of writing and publishing, there are some more visionary leaders. Take this Guardian interview with John Makinson, the head of Penguin books. He knows that devices like the Amazon Kindle and the Apple iPad are changing the landscape, now that Amazon’s US operation sells more e-books than hardbacks. He envisages all sorts of added value content in ebooks. Steve Ballmer knows that Microsoft needs to play catch-up. What are the pros and cons? A few thoughts:

1. Carrying around 3500 books with you on one small device, such as you can with a Kindle, has to be amazingly appealing.

2. Being able to search a book, rather like you do a Word document or a PDF, must also be a terrific advantage.

3. There is a clear focus from Makinson and others on the core issue, which is the promotion of good writing, rather than holding up soon-to-be-outdated structures. See Clay Shirky’s recent thoughts about newspapers and jounalism: the question isn’t protecting papers with paywalls, it’s a concern for journalists. Hence why I refer to the writing industry, not the newspaper industry or the publishing industry, even if what we are talking about is new forms of publishing.

4. More negatively, will we take in less cognitively this way? It’s generally accepted that people absorb about 25% less information on a PC screen than on hard copy. Will the same be true for 6 inch screens, even with e-ink?

5. What about the financial implications for smaller publishers, given the cash flow problems of independent publishers or the well-documented difficulties of Christian bookshops and publishers? Will they simply have to persist with print while the rest of the world marches on, or will this finish them off?

What do you think?

Cleverness Is A Gift, Kindness Is A Choice

I never thought I’d be using Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, as an illustration of the difference between talents and character, between the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. But the graduation speech at Princeton University shown above is certainly an example. He might seem a surprising choice, given this recent article about Amazon’s ruthless business methods and this one about the effect of their low download prices on musicians, though. Surely the difficult decisions that individuals have to make in favour of kindness need also to be made corporately.

Yet sin will always be a problem. This is where it becomes more than an issue of choice: it is about needing to co-operate with the renewing power of the Holy Spirit in all areas of life. And that is not an instant thing. It is acquired with practice, as Tom Wright argues in Virtue Reborn. Bit by bit, we train ourselves to behave and react differently, until holiness becomes more of a habit. It takes time to acquire Christlike habits. Perhaps that is why Paul refers to ‘the fruit of the Spirit': fruit doesn’t just appear, it takes time to grow.

Bezos’ speech above is only short and cannot cover all bases in twelve minutes. A longer exposition might explore a relationship between gifts and character, such as using gifts with character. It might also take on the thought that although gifts are given, we still need to work on crafting them. But whatever the failings of Amazon as a company, his call at the end of his speech to students to make a difference in the world with kindness is a welcome one. It might not be what we expected from a billionaire entrepreneur, but it is a breath of fresh air.

Making A Good Move

Some months ago, another Methodist minister who is soon to move circuits said he was reading a book to help him prepare for that change. It was entitled ‘Making A Good Move‘ by Michael J Coyner, an American Methodist bishop. I set out to track it down.

First stop, Waterstone’s online.  A friend had given me a gift voucher for them at Christmas, and so I ordered from them. Unfortunately, this is not the first time I have found that Waterstone’s gaily advertises books, only to have a problem sourcing and supplying them. They seem to have a particular talent in this respect for American Christian titles. If you can’t sell it, don’t plug it, is what I say.

So off to trusty Amazon, who had no problem getting something published by Abingdon Press. These last few days I have had the pleasure of reading it. Not often would I say, “I wish I had read this years ago,” but this is one of the few books I would put into that category. I wish it had been published when I began in ministry (it wasn’t), and I certainly wish I had known about it before I moved to my current appointment.

The book is short (117 pages), which makes it pricey on the British market, at a list price of £11.99, but every single one of those pennies is well spent. Coyner has an easy writing style, which makes it quci reading. Almost too fast, in fact: it’s important to stop and reflect on his advice before diving into the next chapter. He covers everything from farewells in the place from which you are departing to your first year in the new appointment and your spiritual survival kit. In between, he looks at your first impressions, your early priorities, what style of leadership you might adopt and why, along with many other vital areas.

There are certain minor areas of difference between Coyner’s context and mine that can safely be reinterpreted. Few Methodist ministers in the UK will inherit a church with other paid staff. His examples of outreach are all grounded in the ‘attractional’ rather than the ‘missional’ model that I favour. (However, in fairness to him, that conversation had hardly started overtly ten years ago when the book was published.)

The one area I felt the book lacked was in the opening chapter, ‘Leaving Well and Letting Go’. Coyner only writes about situations where departing pastors have had a happy experience of the churches they are leaving. If he ever writes a second edition, then a section for those who are going because it had been an unhappy experience would be invaluable to many.

Having said that, I agree with Brian Bauknight who says in his blurb on the back cover, ‘Making A Good Move should be in the library of every pastor.’ If you are about to change appointments, you might well find this title a brilliant piece of last-minute reading.

Amazon Recommends

I thought you’d like this. I was surfing Amazon, looking for Val Doonican CDs for a relative. Well, OK, it was for Debbie. Her taste and mine, well … although she says she wants this in order to introduce such gems as ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat’

to the children. That’s her line, anyway.

Now I don’t worry too much about the relevance of what Amazon suggests you might be interested in as a result of your searches and purchases, but I thought this was good: one of the suggestions for those looking at Val Doonican was …

Human Conditions by Richard Ashcroft, former lead vocalist with The Verve.

So given that Val has in the past covered Simon and Garfunkel (59th Street Bridge Song – Feelin’ Groovy), The Commodores (Three Times A Lady), Tim Hardin (If I Were A Carpenter), Bette Midler (Wind Beneath My Wings) and so on, perhaps we can now await his versions of The Drugs Don’t Work or Bittersweet Symphony.

Which made me think: can you suggest any other unlikely cover versions you’d like to hear? After all, if Rolf Harris can do Stairway To Heaven …

Christian Books: Amazon Versus Christian Bookshops

I’ve decided to draft a few thoughts after Phil Groom‘s comment and pingback on the last post. Please pitch in with your own thoughts.

I write as a punter, not a professional in the booktrade. I am a ‘professional’ who needs to keep reading Christian theology.

What is in favour of Amazon and the online stores? First of all, price. Stipends for most ministers are OK but not great (I’m not moaning, I knew what to expect), and this means being careful financially. The discounts available online are broadly, although not always, better than is available in a typical Christian bookshop. It’s important to note, though, that discounts online are not necessarily about being able to afford that on high volume titles, because that is not usually the case with Christian books – unless you count The Shack, I suppose. I am sure that most of the religious hardbacks and paperbacks sold at Amazon would fall within the parameters of what some commentators call ‘the long tail’, that huge array of low-selling stock that they specialise in, rather like online CD and MP3 sites doing well on back catalogue. Furthermore, I can use a price comparison site like Bookbrain to check prices if something has been published in the UK. 

Second is range. Some Christian bookshops are very restricted in what they carry, not only as a function of only being able to afford small premises, but on theological grounds. And yes, I say that as an evangelical! The days may be gone when Michael Saward could caricature Christian Literature Crusade as Constricted Literature Crusade, but it’s not long since I discovered an evangelical bookshop that didn’t stock Eugene Peterson. I really don’t want Joel Osteen or Joyce Meyer: I know they sell and realise there are economic necessities involved here. I think it’s a moot point why that tat sells: is it the advertising power of certain Christian companies, and/or is it pastors promoting nonsense in the pulpit? (That alone is worth a debate, I think.)

But this is not simply about theological narrowness: sometimes the work I want to read is not published in the UK, so the ability of an Amazon to get stock from, say, the States, is a distinct advantage to me. 

What works in favour of the conventional Christian bookshop? It may be a truism, but it’s worth restating: Christian bookshops can (or should) be a ministry, with a certain atmosphere and ambience, whereas Amazon and their ilk are businesses. (Not that I’m having a go at business.) A Christian bookshop can win me over by the personal qualities of the staff, not just the discounts. Some work hard on this, a few don’t.

A few examples from personal experience: when I trained for the ministry in Manchester, the local SPCK shop had a terrible reputation with theological students. It should have been our first port of call, but it had staff who were like the Christian version of Bernard Black in the TV show Black Books. Two disgruntled former employees left and set up a rival operation called St Denys. They knew they needed to reach students, and set about to do so. Good coffee was offered to every visitor. Students producing ID received 10% discount. The staff were theology graduates, and knew the field and gave good advice.

Similarly, my old friend Brenda Franklin at CLC in Chatham when I served in the Medway Towns was the exemplary Christian bookshop manager, and followed a difficult situation. She knew the trade and knew her faith. She always went the extra mile to trace a book. She was familiar with new titles, had read widely herself and could give an opinion. Most of all, she set up a specific scheme to reach out to local church leaders with monthly newsletters. While I didn’t often order expensive academic doorstops from her, I ordered more than I would have done if I had only wanted to save money. You could say that what she did wasn’t rocket science, but having come across the odd Basil Fawlty (as well as Bernard Black) in Christian bookshops, the Brendas of this world are a delight. 

My other example of excellence in the ministry of a Christian bookshop would be a current one: Jo Jones at the ‘Guy Harlings bookshop’ in the Chelmsford Diocesan Resources Centre. You’d expect Jo to have a good idea of what clergy are interested in, and she does. She knows it even more as one training for ordination herself, but I guess that means sadly for us we’ll lose her from the shop before too long. This is the first appointment in which I have ended up taking school assembiies. Jo has been brilliant for her knowledge of useful books. They would have been available online, but the advice couldn’t have been, notwithstanding the customer reviews on websites, which don’t count for as much in my eyes.

One last thing to mention before throwing this open is the rise of Christian online stores. I guess the most prominent one I know for books is Eden. They seem to have a wide knowledge of the church scene, across all sorts of traditions. They also sell CDs, DVDs and other resources. There is a reasonable discount, which I appreciate, although the postage costs are a disincentive and have driven me back at times either to Amazon or a local bookshop. I can’t get advice from them.

Wider than books, I should also mention Cross Rhythms Direct. Their main speciality is CDs, with some DVDs, and they have recently branched out into books but are far less confident there. CR began as a print music magazine for the Christian scene. The CD prices are the most competitive I know for Christian music, although you can opt out of your discount to give to a worthy cause. Many of the CDs have reviews, but that is where I need to make a disclosure: I am one of their CD reviewers!

Well, hopefully that’s enough to get a discussion going. What are your thoughts? Over to you!

Christian Resources Exhibition

As trailled yesterday, I drove to the Christian Resources Exhibition today. Why do a round trip of around 150 miles once a year? Isn’t it just today’s equivalent to the moneychangers in the Temple?

It could be, but I don’t use it like that. I asked a treasurer at one church and stewards at another what they might like me to look out for, so I took a list. That helped me focus on where to spend my time and where just to smile and walk on quickly. I did end up talking to other people, not least some companies I hadn’t previously seen on the church website scene, but I could largely concentrate and easily not lose time on some stalls.

What was I seeking? Two of my churches face problems now in having a musician available for every service. I obtained some details about electronic reproduction of hymns and worship songs. Hymn Technology were plugging their HT-300 Hymnal Plus, and that might well be a good solution for one of the churches. DM Music (whom I’ve used for various things in both previous circuits) are still selling affordable MIDI file players from Roland. We bought one for a church in my last circuit. They have become more sophisticated now and will also handle MP3s, but are good for churches on a tight budget. The guy was also honest, in that once I said we owned a Yamaha Clavinova keyboard, he said we didn’t need the MIDI player if it were a modern Clav; we just needed to buy the MIDI files of the particular hymns and put them on a USB memory stick, because today’s Clavs have USB ports and we could play the files that way.

My other search target was unsuccessful, though: one church wanted information about communion kneelers and pulpit falls. I could have obtained all sorts of information about vestments and the like, but not about these. I’m sure we’ll track down what we want through other means, though.

There were a few personal interests I wanted to look up. I always like the bookstalls, but resisted this year. Partly that was because I have several books piled up from the sabbatical, partly it was because brutally in an Internet age the deals weren’t that good. I know that will sound awful to some Christian booksellers who will rightly point out that Amazon is not a ministry, but a minister whose wife is not in paid employment only has so many pennies and cost becomes a real factor for us. (And I do support the local Christian bookshops whenever possible: the Diocesan Resources Centre is a mine of information; the other bookshop is the local agent for IVP’s Leadership Book Club, so they get some orders from me, too, when the good books aren’t too Calvinist!)

I also wanted to see the stall for the Essex Christian Healing Trust, on whose committee I serve. They were at the show for the first time, and getting encouraging responses. It was also pleasing to see them in a section with other healing ministries, with whom there was an evident good rapport rather than competition. 

I took my rucksack as a disincentive to those exhibitors who want to thrust large plastic bags into your hand. There is a certain environmental unfriendliness to the exhibition in that respect.

But one aspect of the CRE always makes it a pleasure. I always bump into old friends, I just don’t know who it’s going to be from year to year. Today, I saw three old friend, all of whom had connections with my last appointment. Adam used to be the curate at one of my ecumenical churches; he’s been an incumbent for several years now. Bernard was my technical whizz at another church, always able to come up with some amazing Heath Robinson contraption to solve an electrical problem. And Peter, a pastor, missionary and international evangelist. He travels to Uganda, India and other places, eschewing the big conurbations to take the Gospel to obscure rural areas.

Yet this year, there was one other meeting with a friend. Someone I’ve known through blogging for a few years, but never met before. Dave Warnock. It’s funny how you have an image of a person before you meet them, and find you’re wrong. In Dave’s case, I did have an image: there’s a photo of him on his blog. Somehow, though, I’d wrongly projected that into an idea of him as taller and thinner than he is. (No, Dave, I’m not saying you’re fat, just that I was wrong.) And somehow from his writing, I didn’t expect such an extravert!

It reminded me there are all sorts of ways in which we wrongly extrapolate in church life and outside. How tempting to fill in the missing details, only to be hopelessly wrong!

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