Monthly Archives: August 2009

On Youth And The Aging Of The Church

Trawling through the emails that accumulate while we are away on holiday is a massive task upon return. This time the inbox had inflated to 1400. It’s therefore a task I undertake in several phases over a period of days. That meant it wasn’t until a couple of days ago that I saw one that had come in before holiday but which I had left: the fortnightly Serious Times Update from James Emery White. And his 30th July column was a great thought-provoker. Following a report on his own denomination, he ventured into the debate about why the Christian Church in the West is aging. He listed the usual suspects:

Some blame a secular society; some blame traditional approaches to ministry; some blame new forms of individualism that lead Christian young adults away from institutions in general; some blame the lack of evangelism.

Then he added something to the conversation from his own experience:

The natural flow of the church is to skew old. Left to itself, that is what it will do. It will age. You take your hand off of that wheel, and that is what will happen. This is not the only natural flow of the church. Left to itself, the church will also turn inward and become outdated.

He describes how he has seen this happen in churches previously (and still) seen as ‘hip’, including his own. He goes on to outline some of the intentional steps churches must take to model the importance of younger generations. Some of them are only applicable to larger churches with several people on staff. To attract young adults, you have to hire young adults, platform young adults and acknowledge young adults. But even if some of these do not work in small churches with just the one minister (who may also be shared with other churches), White’s main theory is that churches must deliberately model the acceptance of younger generations by using them in leadership. It also means embracing some of their technology, an idea that greatly appealed to me!

And that’s where I thought it might be worth having a debate on this blog. No-one can doubt the problems many churches have reaching younger generations. While I am not sure White would necessarily approve of some positive discrimination or affirmative action description of his suggestions because I’m sure he’d still only want to hire and platform young adults of suitable gifting and character, should there be some kind of bias towards them? Would it help to invest a disproportionate amount of energy in young adults?

On the one hand I have seen churches where everything had to be tested by whether the elderly would accept it and could participate in it. If they could not take part, an event did not happen – even though there might already be other activities in the church programme that catered for older generations.

Furthermore, it was not so surprising to see the growth in the 1990s of youth churches, especially given that some of them arose out of historic denominations where the emphasis on tradition had alienated younger Christians.

But on the other hand, our wider society is arguably one biased towards youth and it could be said that by valuing the elderly, the church is making a prophetic statement about a marginalised group. Unless, of course, that is the only group the church is dealing with.

I have a gut feeling that White is telling us something important. What do you think?

links for 2009-08-29

Sermon: Pharisees, Disciples and Tradition

Mark 7:1-23

“Who has used up all the handwash in the bathroom?”

Debbie asked the question, but she knew the answer.

“I did!” said Mark.

We should be pleased that our son is very good at washing his hands after going to the toilet. It’s just that he doesn’t think one squirt from the liquid soap dispenser is enough. He doesn’t accept that with water its effects will multiply. So he pumps the dispenser about three times on each occasion.

Our only problem on hand washing with Mark comes when I have to take him in a public toilet and he thinks the electric hand dryer is going to be too noisy. Only one thing is allowed to be loud in this life, and that is his voice! So confronted by a noisy hand dryer, he may want to dry his hands on his t-shirt instead, and complain vigorously if I don’t do likewise.

It’s easy to read today’s Lectionary Gospel with modern eyes and think it’s a story about hygiene. In which case, we would be as offended as the Pharisees and the scribes at the actions of Jesus and his disciples. In a time when we are even more concerned about safe, healthy practices in our churches due to swine flu – witness Anglicans and Catholics not using a chalice for communion and some Christians not wanting to share The Peace – this story may seem even more disturbing.

But the background is different. The religious lawyers of Jesus’ day had taken the Old Testament laws, imposed their own interpretations on them, and then made those interpretations a binding tradition on all Jews. Washing your hands before eating bread was not about physical cleanliness but about  avoiding ritual defilement. And that seems to be something that never worried Jesus too much. After all, he shared table fellowship with ‘sinners’, making him unclean in the first place.

So the issue here is this: what shall we do with tradition? Is there still a place for it? Do we overturn it, like angry teenagers? What is its place, if any, for the disciples of Jesus?

What, then, is tradition? Put simply, tradition is the wisdom and truth that generations hand down to succeeding generations. Here’s an example. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s great chapter on the Resurrection, he speaks of passing on what was handed down to him. You could more literally translate it not simply as what was ‘handed down’ to him but as what was ‘traditioned’ (to coin a word) to him.

At its best, then, tradition is a good, helpful and even necessary thing. Truth and wisdom is handed down to us. Then it is our responsibility to hand it on to the following generations.

But because tradition is the means by which we hand something on, it cannot be the be-all and end-all in itself. If you like, tradition is a goods train, but it is only the train, and not the goods. What is important is that the goods get to their destination.

And that’s why when the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus’ day made so much insistence on the regulations they had devised, they were putting all the stress on the train and not on the goods.

John Wesley said there were four sources of truth for Christians. They were Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. But he was clear that Scripture trumped all the other three. Tradition, then, for Methodists, has to be about the ways we hand on scriptural truth. If it faithfully conveys the biblical gospel, though, then tradition has done its job.

The problem comes when tradition gets ideas above its station. There was a story that illustrated this in the new issue of Christianity Magazine:

A church I know is dying from hypocrisy. And although I’m watching it from a distance, it’s still painful. The congregation is small, though very faithful, and the minister is a natural evangelist. But whenever someone is converted through an Alpha course or pub ministry they don’t stay in the church for long. The members soon show them that they are inadequate for their new faith: they know nothing about the depth and traditions of Christianity; the fumble their way round the Bible and prayer book; they don’t have the gravitas or decorum for respectful worship; and those who have children can’t control them properly. The old faithful, who are becoming fewer in number, can’t understand why the new believers don’t make more effort to be like them and to support the church like they do. They can’t see that they are suffering from that peculiar form of hypocrisy identified by Jesus – doing all the ‘right’ things for all the wrong reasons. And this results in repelling people from God.[1]

What are we to do, then, if we are to stop tradition being used to damage people, as Jesus clearly thought was happening in his day, and was obviously happening in the church I have just mentioned?

I think there are two measures we must take. I have hinted at the first, but to underline it, let’s return to the Bible passage. Hear the words of Jesus again:

He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,
“This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
   teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
 Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!’ (Verses 6-9)

Jesus quoted the Scriptures and accused his opponents of abandoning Scripture (‘the commandment of God’) in favour of human tradition. So our first remedy must be to place tradition under Scripture, not outside or above the Bible.

If we’re going to place tradition under Scripture, then we need to do two things. The first is that we need to soak ourselves in the Bible. The second is that we then need to subject our traditions to biblical teaching, and ask whether they do indeed carry the Gospel into our world, or whether they contradict it.

That’s why I’ve spent much of the last four years urging people into spiritual discipline, including Bible reading. It may be using daily Bible reading notes as I do. It may be using our imagination to enter the situation and the characters as Ignatius of Loyola taught. It may involve persistent chewing on whatever grabs us in a particular passage. But whatever approaches we take, the bottom line is that if we are serious about following Jesus, we will be serious about immersing ourselves in the Bible.

Then, when we do, we can examine our traditions. Do they convey the Gospel on a two thousand year journey into today’s world, or do they turn ‘human precepts [into] doctrines’ (verse 7b)? You could raise a lot of embarrassing questions about the way we do church without a lot of difficulty. A lot of the things that consume our time or tie us down have very little to do with the Gospel and should be open to all sorts of criticism. Are we in danger of Jesus quoting the same words from Isaiah about us that he did about the Pharisees and scribes: ‘In vain do they worship me’ (verse 7a)? Would he tell us that we ‘abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition’ (verse 8), even ‘rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep [our] tradition’ (verse 9)?

So – the first thing we need to do is place tradition underneath Scripture. This means we soak ourselves in the Bible and then examine our traditions carefully in the light of the Gospel.

But I said there were two measures. It’s not enough only to place tradition below Scripture. Why? Because you will have come across those kinds of Christian who know their Bibles well but lob verses of Scriptures at others like hand grenades. You’ll know how people have been wounded by other Christians cutting them to shreds with the Bible. So while, for example, I hold a traditional Christian view that the only place for sexual relationships is in marriage and that marriage is between a man and a woman, I am also aware of the way homosexual people have been damaged by the church.

Our second measure, then, is this. Having placed tradition under Scripture we must then guard our hearts. Jesus, in quoting Isaiah, says it’s a matter of the heart:

This people honours me with their lips,
   but their hearts are far from me (verse 6b).

Where were the hearts of those who criticised Jesus and his disciples? Far from God. It’s the danger we face, too. If we do not stay close to God, then it doesn’t matter whether we are issuing edicts of tradition or firing bullets of Scripture, if we are not in close and vital contact with God, we’ll achieve nothing for the kingdom of God, however zealous we are. More likely we shall cause pain and put people off church, rather like the elderly people at the church I mentioned earlier whose actions have driven new converts away.

So how do we guard our hearts and draw near to God? I am reading a book called ‘Wrestling with God’ by an American pastor, James Emery White. On Friday, I read the chapter entitled ‘The Distance of God’ where he discusses many reasons why people may feel far from God. By no means all of them are our fault, but he asks some people, ‘What are you doing to stay close?’ and suggests some basic activities that will draw us closer to God:

  • Are you praying?
  • Are you spending time reading and reflecting on the Bible in order to apply it to your life?
  • Are you involved in worship?
  • Are you connecting with people whose relationship with God challenges and encourages your own?
  • Are you engaged in some kind of ministry to others?
  • Are you carving out time for spiritually oriented reflection?
  • If the answer to any of these queries is ‘no’, then there’s no wonder that God feels distant. Our relationship with God must be nurtured and developed. We can begin a spiritual life, but we must also develop it. God continues to ask the question, ‘Who is he who will devote himself to be close to me?’ (Jeremiah 30:21)[2]

Most or all of us are people who have begun a spiritual life, mostly many years ago. What is each one of us doing to develop it? We cannot be complacent. We cannot stand still – because we won’t remain where we are, we shall slide backwards, further away from God. There is great danger to our souls if we do not develop our spiritual lives. I have to challenge myself and say, just because I have followed certain spiritual practices for many years, am I still in a vital, living relationship with God, or have I drifted into stagnant water?

We are faced with a challenge, then: those who fail to nurture their spiritual lives become Pharisees. Not only do they waste away spiritually themselves, they hurt others by their harsh application of tradition.

On the other hand, those who do develop their life in the Spirit are disciples of Jesus. Feeding on Scripture and intentionally growing their relationship with God, they are like the image  in Psalm 1 of a tree by the water.

Which, then, are we: Pharisee or disciple? It’s our choice.


[1] David Instone-Brewer, ‘New Testament Scandals #9 Hypocrisy’, Christianity, September 2009, p52.

[2] James Emery White, Wrestling With God, p53.

links for 2009-08-28

Today, I Have Mostly Been Thinking About Buildings …

… because two issues have been on my mind. The first is that a major upgrade to our church hall should be finished in time for rededication on Sunday. We have spent a lot of money bringing it more than up to scratch for disabled access, and implementing some necessary refurbishments at the same time. We shall have good reason to say a public thank-you to the man who has seen the scheme through from vision to completion.

But finding a form of words to use for rededication is difficult. There is an order of service in the Methodist Worship Book for the dedication of a new church building, but it doesn’t fit what we need here. (Not that the denomination should provide a liturgy for absolutely everything.) Even if that service did have some resonances, much of the wording assumes that church = building. And I don’t think so.

The second also revolves around some joyful news. I have been asked to conduct a wedding. However, the couple requested they have a low-key informal wedding in a country house or similar property. The trouble is, English and Welsh law won’t allow that. As an ‘Authorised Person’, I can only conduct Christian weddings in registered religious buildings. The law that allowed weddings in public places other than register offices and places of worship specifically limited those ceremonies to civil weddings, that is secular ones where no religious content is allowed. I’m fairly sure that’s because the Church of England saw the move as a threat to their ‘business’, but it means I’ve had to disappoint the couple concerned. As far as they were concerned, if their Christian friends were present, then wherever they were, they were ‘in church’, because church = the people.

Before the last General Election there was a White Paper before Parliament proposing changes to marriage laws, where the deciding factor would not be registered buildings but registered celebrants. As a minister in a mainstream denomination, I would have become a celebrant, and if I deemed a venue suitable (and it met certain otehr minimum criteria), then I could have conducted a wedding there, rather like the Scottish system. The White Paper died at the election, and hasn’t been resurrected. We are thus left with a church = buildings assumption built into the marriage law of the land.

None of this is to deny the necessity of buildings, or to romanticise the church = people equation. I know of churches planted in Uganda that have been desperate for their own buildings for the pragmatic reason that they needed to get their people out of the intense heat. And just as I know what a burden it can be in an historic denomination to have to maintain a building, I also know of issues with ‘new churches’ that find  the hiring of buildings difficult. Lugging equipment in and out of a school every Sunday can be a drain. That isn’t viable with the predominantly elderly congregations I serve – although neither is it easy for them to find enough able-bodied people to take care of everyday maintenance.

The other side of the coin, is of course, the idolisation of buildings. I have seen church communities so devoted to their bricks and mortar that you wondered who or what was being worshipped.

And maybe worship is the issue. Buildings are not masters but servants. Where we worship them, God is not worshipped – whatever religious activities we conduct within them. When we recognise them as servants, they are in their proper place. Treating buildings as servants becomes a healthy framework for our decisions about them. Is what we are proposing to do a way in which the building is used to serve God and serve other people?

Even then, we have to watch our hearts for additional or ulterior motives. There is no doubt on Sunday morning that when we rededicate our church hall there will be a major element of service about that. It is used by many community groups. At the same time, the fact that it is brings in necessary income for us. I like to presume that the offering to the community takes predecence in our thinking over our need to raise money. (We have invited our hirers to the service, and we shall pray God’s blessing on them – the dancers, the pre-school, the silver band and all the others.)

For if it were to be the latter motive of balancing the books, then we would need to think seriously about our motives. If our overall aim was about our finances, then I’d start thinking of Jesus’ words in Mark 8 that those who want to save their lives will lose them. I don’t see why they can’t be applied corporately, to churches, not just individually. Many churches are obsessed with self-preservation, and how they view their buildings can be one sign of this sickness. However, those aiming for self-preservation, and whose reasons for using their building reflect this, are the churches most likely, according to Jesus here, not to be preserved at all.

So by all means let’s have buildings. We need them. Let’s ensure they are our servants, not our masters. And when they are used as inanimate servants, let’s be careful to watch our motives. May God search our hearts.

links for 2009-08-27

Bible Sunday 2009

Bible Sunday 2009: Count On It

Bible Sunday 2009: Count On It

The Bible Society have today published their resources for this year’s Bible Sunday. The suggested date is 25th October, but churches can decide another day if preferred.

There is a huge amount available: an introduction, a talk outline, Bible foundations, post-talk material, resources for Junior Church and youth groups, prayers, a sketch, a five-minute video, a song and a newsletter. Still to come is a film for youth groups. Excellent stuff, as usual. The material for churches in England and Wales can be downloaded here, and links for Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Australia can be found here. General information is here.

Assisted Suicide

On and off there is a huge debate in British society about assisted suicide. It has recently been debated in the House of Lords again. Paul Roberts links to a powerful piece by disabled rights activist Clair Lewis. Please read it.

Freedom Fries And The Lockerbie Bomber

I don’t want to comment too much on Kenny Macaskill’s decision to free the Lockerbie bomber, apart from this. It seems crueller to send a man dying of cancer back to Libya than to a Scottish hospice, even though the latter would have meant a police guard. The decision may not be as compassionate as it looks.

However, I do want to say how daft the anti-Scotland reaction is. To boycott Scottish goods is as ludicrous as renaming French Fries ‘Freedom Fries’ after 9/11. To see just how ridiculous it is, check out this superb bit of satire.

Interview With the Pakistani Spectator

I’ve been interviewed by a journalist from the Pakistani Spectator about my blogging. You can read it here. The journalist, Imran Haider, has faithfully reproduced my replies to his questions, so thank you Imran for your professionalism and integrity.