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The Easter Number One?

When I was a young Christian, I wanted contemporary Christian music covered on Radio 1. When they covered the Greenbelt Festival, I was delighted. I wanted them to play Christian music, but I was embarrassed at the infamous attempt by Christians to get the band Heartbeat into the charts with their song ‘Tears From Heaven’. It was when well-known evangelical-charismatic preachers started saying it was the right thing to do that it was obvious something was wrong. It wasn’t their area of expertise, and one of the campaigners, Colin Urquhart, had one of his offspring in the band. I still wanted Christian music on ‘secular’ radio, but never understood just how much the BBC had to chase the coat tails of the commercial stations. Nor did I understand the irony of getting what was or should have been a counter-cultural message to have a mainline hearing.

Skip to my mid-thirties. I’m in my first appointment as a minister in the town of Hertford. A bunch of us are running youth worship events in the town, in church halls, a disused shop and eventually in the local night club, Zero. We call our event ‘One@Zero’. Some of our number have been going down to Littlehampton in Sussex to witness a youth worship event called ‘Cutting Edge’, led by what was called the Cutting Edge Band. That band morphed into Delirious? The teenagers at our event and we leaders followed them with interest and enthusiasm. When they started releasing singles in order to get into the charts, we all went and bought them. In fact, Hertford’s local independent record/CD shop, Tracks, used to supply a weekly Top 10 sales chart to the local newspaper. So we piled in there to buy them in the week of release. When ‘Deeper’

was released and made number 20 nationally, it was number one in the Hertford chart.

As they released more singles, we bought them. They had a few more to make the lower end of the Top 20, roughly comparable with other cult bands of the time. Nevertheless, the influential Chris Evans infamously refused to book them for his hit TV show TFI Friday, and Radio 1 still shunned them – something Q Magazine covered sympathetically at the time. It got to the point that the band called one of their albums ‘Audio Lessonover‘, an anagram of ‘Radio One Loves Us’. The singles eventually stopped, and they concentrated on their huge influence on the contemporary worship movement with evangelical-charismatic Christianity and beyond. I guess Christians shouldn’t have been surprised the band didn’t become the hoped-for darlings of the Smash Hits crowd. But you live and learn.

Or do you? As Steve Turner says in his poem ‘History Lesson‘:

History repeats itself.
Has to.
No-one listens.

Because it’s happening again. Only in a different way, powered by social media. The principles of Clay Shirky‘s ‘Here Comes Everybody‘ are being applied by Christians. Facebook groups have sprung up, not orchestrated by Delirious? (who recently split up, anyway), but by fans. The first one I saw was called ‘Anyone up for getting a No. 1 for Delirious?‘ The founder, Steve Jeffery, describes his motives this way:

So some dude managed to get Rage Against The Machine to No.1 for Christmas. Is anyone out there up for doing the same thing for Delirious? If you are then join this group. You need to download the track between the 29th Mar & 3rd April, the track will be History Maker, will all need to buy it from iTunes (or other download outlet) in the same week.

Please only join if you are actually going to commit to spend 75p on iTunes to make this happen. Spread the word and join now! I think it would be a great gift from us fans back to the band if we can make this happen!

You can see the social media connections. This is a people movement, like those who couldn’t face another saccharine X-Factor winner having the Christmas number one, and who successfully gave Simon Cowell a bloody  nose by supporting a Rage Against The Machine track.

The second group – with, at present, more followers – is called ‘Christian music topping the UK charts!‘ This too is motivated by the people power of social media, as they make clear:

Although this initiative has not derived from the band I have been in touch with their record company (Furious Records) and they are more than happy for this initiative to take place and are excited to see how it unfolds!

Those two campaigns are specific, and apparently time-limited to getting people downloading the track ‘History Maker’

during Holy Week, so that Delirious? get the number one slot on Easter Day (which may not be commercially significant in the music industry, but obviously is for Christians).

To these must now be added a (so far tiny) group with a longer aim, ‘Christian chart music for a year‘, who say

Christian music seems to be lacking from todays chart – yet there is some cracking stuff out there. We intend to try and push for at least one christian artist in the UK Top 40 every week for the next year. We’re not bothered about number one’s.

We want to inspire debate. To have DJ’s questioning why they are playing christian music. For people to talk to each other about their beliefs. To see churches swell with people who are curious. To say that we have a voice and that we are being marginalised. This could be an icebreaker to openly talk about your faith with someone else.

Approximately 5000 people buying the same track in a week will secure us a top 40 hit. Please help to spread the message of Jesus.

What can I do?

1. Press the “Become a Fan” button up top there.

2. Tell all of your Christian friends. (Click “Suggest to friends” to the left)

3. Post your ideas and suggestions in the forum (click the “Discussions” tab)

4. Support the single of the week

These are interesting reasons. Despite my background in remembering past failed campaigns, I don’t want to say anything cynical, especially since some of these campaigns are attracting young Christians and I don’t want to be negative in a way that damages their faith, or alternatively so puts their backs up they become obstinate. Instead, I would invite discussion around a number of themes.

Firstly, how are we going to engage in the proposed debate? It is a laudable approach, though – better the conversational approach in an Internet campaign, I think. Therefore the debate needs to be peaceable, not confrontational.

Secondly, let’s tease out the concern about Christians having a voice and the fear of being marginalised. That is an ongoing worry for many Christians, and is being heightened by the looming General Election in the UK. Will we be listened to? We have a right to be heard as members of a democracy. What we don’t have is any right to special status. Indeed, Jesus warned that only a few would take the ‘narrow way’, and the biblical images of exiles, of strangers in a strange land, are uncomfortable ones that we may have to embrace (without that in any way meaning that we should be silent). If the campaign becomes one about Christian rights, I think we can be sure there is a real sense in which we will not gain a hearing, because we will alienate people – just the opposite of what is desired.

Thirdly, if this is to be an icebreaker, let’s make sure our conversation is ‘seasoned with salt’.

Fourthly, let’s think about what constitutes good Christian witness. It won’t simply be Christian music in the charts – and especially at a time when the charts are less and less important. It will be about the kind of people we are. We still – even more – need to earn the right to be heard. We all need to be ‘history makers’ by our loving involvement in the world, so that people care about what we say and sing about.

Sermon: Missional God

Matthew 20:1-16

Introduction
What kind of book is the Bible? Some see it is a book as rules. Others say it is God’s love letter to us. 

Me, I see it increasingly as the story of God’s mission. (Which means that any rules tell us what pleases the God who loves us and has saved us. And which means that if it is a love letter, it is addressed to the world, not just God’s favoured ones.)

No, right from the beginning, God is on mission. And he is on mission in a particular way. God does not shout from a distance, expecting us to come where he is. From the start, he comes onto our territory. He is the first missionary, coming walking in the Garden of Eden, calling out, ‘Where are you, Adam?’ In the Incarnation, Jesus is ‘the Word … made flesh [who] dwelt among us’. In this parable, the landowner keeps going to where the workers are, rather than expecting them to turn up at his vineyard.

So God is a missional God, and this sermon attempts to explore some characteristics of our missional God.

1. Sovereign
The missional God is the sovereign God. ‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?’ he says to those who complain (verse 15a).

What do we mean when we talk about God being sovereign? Some of us get nervous, because we know how this has been used in history. In the Calvinist tradition, affirming the sovereign God has been used to advance the idea that God chooses some people to be saved and others to be damned. That’s not what I mean.

The sovereign God can do what he chooses, but what does he choose to do? It will be consistent with his character. The sovereign God wants his reign to be accepted everywhere, and so he reaches out to all. If he is truly sovereign, then he wants that reign to be embraced universally. Not all will accept the summons to his kingdom. Some will resist and face eternity without him. But it is his will that none should perish. And so, just as the landowner in the parable keeps going back to hire more labourers, so God keeps searching for more people who will turn from their former ways to follow his Son.

What does this mean for us? We are called to share in God’s mission. If God wants his reign to be embraced by all people in all places, then this is fundamental to the nature of the Church. Christianity is a missionary faith. Mission is not something we leave to those who are keen. It is something for all of us.

Yesterday, I was at Synod. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference were with us. Our current President, Stephen Poxon, is Chair of the North Lancashire District. His District has twinned with three overseas Methodist Conferences. One of them is the Methodist Church in Uruguay. There are only six hundred Methodists in Uruguay, spread across twenty-five congregations. A Uruguayan Methodist visiting the UK said to Stephen Poxon, ‘There’s something I don’t understand about British Methodism. Back home, every single Methodist church has a community project. Why isn’t that so in British Methodist churches?’

I think that Uruguayan Methodist had a point. If the missional God wants to see his sovereignty acknowledged everywhere, then mission has to be our top priority, even our defining characteristic as the church. 

Some of the famous quotes from the last century really come into their own here – like when William Temple said the church was the only organisation that existed for the benefit of those who weren’t its members. Or when the theologian Emil Brunner said that the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. We are a missionary church, or we are no church at all. That much is certain if the missional God is sovereign.

2. Generous
The missional God is generous. ‘Or are you envious because I am generous?’ he says to the moaners (verse 15b). 

What does it mean for the missional God to be generous? In the parable, it’s quite clear. He has promised a day’s wages to everyone who comes and works for him. The surprise comes at the end when he gives just as much to those who have worked for less than a day. He doesn’t give them what they’ve earned – which wouldn’t be enough to live on – but what they need – namely the rate for a whole day.

On the surface, this makes it sound like God is a socialist: ‘From each according to their means, to each according to their needs.’ But capitalists like this parable too, because the landowner is free to do what he likes with his wealth. Jesus didn’t tell this parable in order for people to fit it into the political philosophies that would come two thousand years after his hearers.

No, the Gospel is a message of divine generosity. All we need for salvation has been provided for us in Christ. In his Incarnation, he lived our life. In his death, he took away the sins of the world. In his Resurrection, he began God’s New Creation. We have everything we need in Christ. It has been generously provided in Christ, at immense personal cost.

God is on a mission to share his generous love. We are called to share the message of divine generosity to all people. But here’s the issue: the spirit of the message needs to fit the content of the message. So a message of God’s generosity needs to be couched in a generous spirit.

However, is that how we are perceived by non-Christians? One thing the Vice-President of Conference said at yesterday’s Synod was this. He talked about having visited the Greenbelt Festival for the first time. While he was there, he encountered a seminar led by a cross-party group of Christian MPs. Together, they explained to their sorrow that in Parliament the Christian Church is generally assumed to be a critical organisation. We are known far more for what we are against than for what we favour.

Might it be that if we want to encourage people to embrace the generous love of God, we need to adopt a generous attitude towards them? Debbie and I try to get involved in the community that centres around our children’s primary school. We have tried to befriend two or three single mums, who have each had two children by different fathers, and they have not married the fathers. Then there are two families where the husband and wife have recently split up. In one case, we can understand why the wife kicked the husband out. In the other case, we can’t. But we have tried to be available and demonstrate Christian love to them.

There are some Christians who think the first thing we should have done was condemn sex outside marriage and divorce in these cases. I want to make clear that Debbie and I believe very strongly in the sanctity of marriage. There is a time and a place for talking about right and wrong. But how will people have a chance of believing in a generous God if we do not offer a generous spirit towards them? Believing that our missional God is generous calls all Christians to undertake acts of selfless, sacrificial and unconditional love in the name of Christ for those yet to discover his love.

3. Merciful
Our missional God is merciful: ‘So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’ (verse 16)

Mercy is at the heart of the Gospel message. It is a message of God’s loving mercy for sinners. In Christ and Christ alone we have the forgiveness of sins and new life. Such is the mercy of God that he sends his Church everywhere in his Name to proclaim and demonstrate the mercy he longs to extend to all. 

I expect we’re all used to speaking about the mercy of God like that. But when Jesus has the landowner say that the last will be first and the first will be last, the culture of mercy is extended further. That mercy is so fundamental to God’s kingdom that notions of order and rank are outlawed. One commentator on the parables puts it this way:

‘Earlier Jesus taught that there are degrees of punishment in hell (Lk 12:47-48); now he makes plain that there are no degrees of reward in heaven. The perfection of the life to come, by definition, does not allow for them.’

No superiority, no rank in the kingdom: we all need the mercy of God in Christ to enter the kingdom of heaven. The idea that because I am a minister I am more important is anathema to the Gospel. I should not expect to sit at the front of church like some worldly dignitary.

The early Church recognised this radical application of the Gospel: they even elevated slaves to the rank of bishop. They did not care for the world’s way of status. The Good News changed all that. Sometimes I see it in today’s Church, other times I don’t.

What does this have to do with mission? When we are obsessed with title or power, we start valuing some people less than others. While there may be certain ways in which the older approaches to rank and status are passing away today – such as the decline in respect for the Royal Family – other forms of the problem rise up to take its place. So we have an obsession with celebrity that seems to be about the kind of people our culture claims to be more important than others.

Now giving people differing value undermines the Gospel. God’s love in Christ is every bit as much for the least and the lowest as it is for the most and the highest. A true proclamation and living-out of the Gospel will have nothing to do with mimicking the world’s love of status. Nor will it fall into that contemporary trap, the making of Christian celebrities.

Rather, it will be counter-cultural. God loves all people, and that means he loves the poor and the obscure every bit as much as the rich and the famous. The Gospel is for our neighbours and the poor of the world.

One last example from yesterday’s Synod. Stephanie and I attended a workshop about mission opportunities in schools. It was led by a young woman from the Luton Churches’ Education Trust. Forty churches in Luton support this trust. It employs over twenty staff to work in secondary schools and with local teenagers. They don’t just do the normal schools work of RE lessons and assemblies. They also work with the sort of young people who are shunned or despised – those with ADHD, or who self-harm. As far as they were concerned, these children were as valuable as the gifted ones with the A* grades. That makes Gospel sense.

Conclusion
This parable leaves us in no doubt that God’s heart beats a missionary rhythm. If we are truly to be the Church of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, then mission will define what we are about. We shall have a passion to take the Gospel everywhere. We shall proclaim God’s generous love in Christ with a generous spirit. And God’s mercy for all will mean we are as interested in sharing that love with the broken as with the headline-makers.

I nearly included today’s Old Testament lesson from Jonah in the service. It’s the part of Jonah’s story where he complains to God that the sinners of Nineveh have repented at the sound of his preaching, and received the grace of God. If we have the heart of Christ, then may we not be moaners like Jonah. May we be people who rejoice when the missing find their way back to God. And may we press on with the Gospel, that there may be many more occasions for such rejoicing.