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Methodists Working With New Frontiers

When I was training for the ministry, I remember bridling in one lecture at the assertion that when we chaired meetings, we had to stay neutral. Weren’t we there to give a lead? But rules of meetings took precedence over leadership, apparently.

I found myself in this position last week. I had to chair a complex discussion at my Addlestone church about some proposals to develop our relationship with the local New Frontiers congregation, Beacon Church.  They had recently taken over from some Salvation Army people the running of a toy library that hires our hall. They also wanted to run their debt counselling service from our hall, and they suggested starting a post-Alpha course Bible study group on our premises.

This situation would be a problem for some Methodists. While Methodism and New Frontiers agree on core gospel issues,  there are some areas of Christian belief where we are at opposite ends of the spectrum. We are Arminian, New Frontiers have big Calvinist influences. We are egalitarian when it comes to gender relationships, they are complementarian. My friend Dave Warnock regularly documents these differences, especially the latter one, with some passion.

But despite the potential pitfalls, the story of last week (and the negotiations leading up to our Church Council) is one of grace on both sides. There had been a gap of several months between the old toy library finishing and it restarting, but during that time the rent to us had mistakenly still been paid. There were errors on both sides, and the new manager suggested that each party took a 50% hit. Our Church Council would have none of it. It decided to refund 100% of the overpayment, and calculated there had been a further overpayment which it wished to give back. We knew that although we were not rolling in money, the toy library needed not to be short of funds.

As to the debt counselling, my small and to some extent quite elderly congregation rejoiced that our friends wanted to use our premises. (Beacon don’t have any of their own, and we are located in a prime position in the town.) So yes, have the church hall free of charge for an experimental three-month period. Don’t start until you’ve publicised it properly, but this is a serious social need and if we were younger and fitter it is what we would have wanted to have done. If you can do it on our premises, then God bless you.

And the Bible study? We’re not there yet, because the exact proposals are not firm yet. However, Tom, the senior pastor, has assured us that he will run any study material past us first to ensure we are happy doctrinally with it, and is only too happy if the Methodist deacon and I participate in the group.

Neither side has changed its core convictions. If we debated them, neither of us would convince the other. We would both passionately cling onto what we believe, and to why we think the other party’s views are seriously wrong. However, grace and love can make a way. I hope that is what will continue to characterise the relationship, and will make for a positive witness to the community.

So I was sitting in that meeting straining at the requirement to be neutral. It had some advantages: it made me ensure I was as scrupulously fair as possible to all sides of the debate. But inside? I rejoiced when the Church Council voted as it did.

Being a good (neutral) Christian, though, I had to  be sure I didn’t smile.

Worshipping At Home

As I said yesterday, I determined that since I would be housebound today I would find other resources for worship. I’ve never been happy with Songs Of Praise because a series of hymns does not of themselves make an act of worship. Likewise, the Sunday service on Radio 4 has never connected much with me. It always contained more elements of worship, but has always felt liked a précis to me.

I thought this would be a good discipline for myself to find some worship. I also thought it would be good, given the number of elderly church members who end up being temporarily or permanently housebound and reliant on whatever the airwaves bring.

Having said that, given that I was eschewing Songs Of Praise and the Sunday Service, I was looking at other delivery methods: digital TV and Internet streaming. 

This morning, I opted for TV, knowing that most of the streamed Internet sources I’d found were from North America, and time zones meant they woulnd’t be viewable until tea-time. So, going through the ‘religion’ section on the Sky TV electronic programme guide, I avoided the obvious prosperity filth from Kenneth Copeland. Likewise, I steered clear of glossy Hillsong pep talks from Brian and Bobbie Houston, and I didn’t go near Ed Young, the man who infamously put out a video complaining about sheep-stealing pastors when he sets up new churches in an area without checking with the existing ministers.

But there was something British on UCB TV, and I opted for that. AT 10 am they were showing ‘Days Of Wonder’ from New Life Church, Hull, with Jarrod Cooper. Cooper wrote the popular worship song ‘King of kings, majesty‘, which I have found a helpful, humble and orthodox piece for services.

The opening credits showed Cooper walking (around Hull?), whilst linking the programme to the church, giving a subliminal hint that New Life Church equals Jarrod Cooper. He is the senior pastor, but I’d hope he wouldn’t want to give out a message like that. There may have been an intention to communicate something else, but I have to say that is a ‘viewer response’ reading.

Then Cooper introduced the show briefly, and I thought he said we were then going over live to worship at the church. However, that clearly wasn’t the case. We went straight into his message, which was video edited for the length of the programme.

The skeleton of his talk was fine and worthy, but I was concerned by some applications. It was a sermon about the supremacy of Christ, and although he referred to biblical passages as he went along, I didn’t hear an opening passage he was expounding. Colossians 1 would have fitted nicely. He preached about the supremacy of Christ in four areas: over the church, over creation, over wisdom, and I’m afraid I’ve forgotten the fourth point.

In supremacy over the church, he was uncontroversial but what he said needs hearing. Christ is head of the church, not the Pope, not the pastor and not the trustees.

As to supremacy over creation, this is where it all started going hyper-charismatic. He only – as I recall – illustrated this from the miraculous: the feeding of the five thousand, the translation of Philip in Acts 8 etc. He spoke of a five hour car journey taking two hours. Now I don’t have any theological problem with the miraculous, but I have a pastoral concern here about balance. I am all for expanding people’s faith – often the problem I encounter in myself and others is an insufficient level of expectation about what God can do. However, if you only accent the miraculous in talking about the supremacy of Christ over creation, you are setting up other believers for a fall, when not everything works out in the Christian paperback blockbuster way they’d hoped. Furthermore, Christ’s supremacy over creation is about ongoing issues like the upholding ogf the universe by the word of his power. I have to admit, something could have been edited out, but I was left with this concern about balance from what was shown.

When he got onto the supremacy of Christ over wisdom, I got more than concerned. Don’t misunderstand me: the basic point is both sound and important. As someone who enjoys the intellectual side of faith (but sees that as an opportunity for worship), I wholeheartedly agree that all our thinking must be submitted to Christ. Yet what we got in this section of the sermon was just some bashing of left wing stereotypes. “The feminists [they’re all the same, aren’t they?] have a problem with Ephesians,” he announced. Onto the usual stuff about headship and submission and that the male/Christ headship is based on sacrificial love. Well, yes, but what is headship? Didn’t Paul say that the great mystery he was speaking about here was about Christ and the Church, in which case he’s using an illustration from the marriage patterns of his day rather than making male headship normative? Has Cooper ever read any egalitarians? Yet he sees fit to bash them.

A little while later, he announced that “Global warming is the latest religion of the Left”. Well, apart from the sloppy language – the point is, nobody adores global warming, they are devoted to reversing climate change – I thought, oh no, he sounds like the American Christians who deny the overwhelming scientific evidence. But we shouldn’t be bothered, he said, because one day God is going to roll up this planet like a blanket. If I’d had my copy of Tom Wright‘s ‘Surprised By Hope‘ to hand, I swear I would have thrown it at the TV screen. I had hoped that British evangelical-charismatics were better informed on this one, thanks to the efforts of TEAR Fund and others, but the message isn’t getting through to some of the troops.

The service ended by cutting to brief footage of prayer ministry time at the end of the service. Cooper was praying with a man who was deaf in one ear. After prayer, the man said he could hear now in that ear. I do hope and pray that is still the case. I remain convinced that it is important we ‘show ourselves to the priests’ and offer evidence to society of healings. I do believe God heals today, but we have to think about how we present those claims.

Finally, the broadcast concluded with “Buy my CD, please!” A long commercial for Cooper’s current CD. It was no different from the adverts at the end of the Brian and Bobbie Houston or Ed Young shows, it just came with an English accent, not an Australian or American one. 

What about tonight? I watched a whole Sunday service online from Saddleback in California. I was much more favourably disposed towards this, although it wasn’t without its problems. The major issue I had with it is that – like Songs Of Praise – it really didn’t contain several critical elements of worship. The order of service went as follows:

Opening worship song
Notices – these included plugs for a church classic car event and the Saddleback Comedy Connection. Huh?
Two more worship songs 
Rick Warren‘s sermon
Post-sermon prayer
Mention of where resources were available to help with follow-up to sermon
Closing song, which didn’t seem to be for congregational participation.

What’s missing? Plenty. Let’s start with prayer. No adoration – well, you could say that was included in the songs. But no confession and assurance of forgiveness – I think that’s pastorally essential. How many people are coming to worship with burdens and need that assurance? Also, no intercession, so the church didn’t function in her priestly rôle. Finally, no Bible reading before the sermon. There were plenty of individual verses in the sermon. It was a topical sermon, rather than an expository one.

The worship songs were mainstream typical ones from the likes of Tim Hughes and Joel Houston. It was a bit liked watching a truncated version of Spring Harvest big top worship. Charismatic songs without the display of charismatic gifts. 

What about the sermon? I was much more comfortable here, even if I disagreed with the occasional comment and it was too long, around seventy-plus minutes. Worshippers get a sermon outline and it was available on the website, so that helped in following what Warren had to say. He is an engaging, warm speaker with a genuine pastoral heart. The issue was less with the seventy minutes than the seven (or eight, if you count the conclusion) points he made. There was too much to take in. Yes, again you could take it away with you, but it was a lot to work on. It was the third in a series called ‘The Jesus Model’ (what kind of model, I don’t know). This one focussed on Jesus as a model for stress management, making for a timely and relevant subject. Some will talk about ‘the curse of relevance’, but I think Warren wanted the people to apply their faith to life for it to make a difference. I took some notes ready for this blog post (and for my own personal benefit, I’d like to think), and so what follows is a summary of the thoughts that struck me from the sermon.

Warren began by referring to the new film ‘Terminator Salvation‘. The synopsis says that the grown-up John Connor. in fighting the machines as part of the resistance, has a ‘purpose-driven life’ (yes, really!) and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. However, said Warren, only one person has ever truly had the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, and that was Jesus on the cross. (Brilliant illustration! If only my people knew what Terminator was!) Because of that, he above all knows how to help us with stress.

1. Identification – know who you are. If you don’t know who you are, then society will try to label you. Don’t take your identity from brand names. (Warren meets Naomi Klein?) Don’t fall into the twin traps of either copying or comparing. He could have said a little more about our identity being in Christ as beloved children, I guess, but great start. 

2. Motivation – know who you are living for. You’ll always disappoint someone. Whoever you’re dependent upon for your happiness is your god. ‘Nobody can pressure me without my permission,’ he said – not quite sure that’s right, although I can see what he’s getting at. 

3. Vocation – know your calling. He used the familiar Saddleback SHAPE analysis to emphasise that everyone has a calling to ministry of one form or another. If you don’t clarify your calling, you’ll fall victim to the tyranny of the urgent, rather than getting on with the important. 

4. Concentration – focus on what matters most. If Satan can’t make you bad, he’ll make you busy. ‘You can fill your life with good things, or you can waste your life on good things.’ ‘This one thing I do, or these forty things I dabble in?’ ‘Is what I’m doing right now fulfilling my calling?’

5. Meditation – listen to God. A quiet time, yes, but more. Warren stresed the importance of extended silence. We have to strip away to give God a chance to speak to us. He talked about meditation as being like a worrying away at a biblical text. 

6. Collaboration – join a small group.  You were never intended to handle stress by yourself. To say you don’t need a small group is either arrogance or fear. Jesus needed a small group, and he was perfect! 

7. Recreation – take time to recharge. Sabbath-keeping is in the Ten Commandments for a reason, and remember Jesus said the Sabbath was made for humans, not the other way around. When Psalm 23 says ‘He makes me lie down in green pastures’, remember that if you don’t take sabbaths, God may well make you lie down for your own good, but it mgiht take something serious like an illness to slow you down to do it. 

His conclusion was about salvation in terms of Jesus’ invitation to take hiseasy  yoke upon us and discover that his burden is light.