Saturday, 23 August 2008

Faithfulness and programming

Catching up today in a wedding with a long-term church-planting missionary in Belgium whom I much respect, we talked a bit about ministry as modelling - how in a country churches may not grow as they could because those who minister have only had the one model of ministry for the past century. But that is the gospel modelled and gospel ministry modelled in a variety of ways - as Paul did among the Thessalonians. In the absence of this, people are so keen to turn to programmes and products, and serve them rather than use them. Perhaps this is because rather than moving between countries, living out the faith and ministering, in the way Paul commended, we see church maturity as 'We can do it on our own now, without outside help.' So the churches in one country then ponder, "Hm, how do we do evangelism?" and inadvertantly find their eyes drawn to the church in surrounding countries. What do they see? Programmes and products - not that that is what is predominant, but because it's most easily seen from outside. You don't see one-to-one discipleship, older Christians teaching a new Christian how to study the Bible, personal evangelism in the workplace, inviting someone to read the Bible with you, etc., etc.: you don't see those sorts of things from afar. Besides, programmes and products seem more manageable, tangible, and promise to deliver results. Long-term, patient personal ministry cannot be managed by a time planner, isn't countable or materially tangible often, and doesn't have a results tick-chart. And yet we're told to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ. Not, 'stay in one place because you're independent of outside help now, and put in place programmes to mark your progress'. Go and make disciples of Jesus Christ.

A missionary doctor working with Muslims writes a post which is helpful for all of us, whether 'missionary' or not: Nothing works, so try everything.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Not interested in the unpreachable

Some have recently suggested that academic theologians are not motivated by the gospel on the ground - the local church and church planting. Better, they say, not to attend a theological college / seminary for a few years, but to be trained up in the local church. Now leaving aside the practical questions (Is every minister equipped with time and gifts to train young men to be ministers in every regard? Is the Bible college student really in a bubble unconnected with local churches?), this struck me as having some genuine concerns, but vastly unfair and uncharitable to many academic theologians I know, or of whom I know, who are very much pastorally and evangelistically motivated, and entirely engaged in serving their local church. I have already mentioned one such (Pete Williams), and have just come across a good interview of Derek Thomas, who baptised me when he was a humble minister and now is a humble seminary lecturer and church minister: on The Pastor and the Academy. "Too often, a rift obtains between the work of the church and theological study. Pastors and seminary students often feel the need to choose between one or the other. Derek Thomas, both pastor and professor, joins us to talk about the relationship between the pastor and the academy." Much of use to listen to.

Should the madman rule?

Chris features a report on the opening debate from the Edinburgh festival, Hitchens' vs. Lennox on The New Europe Should Prefer the New Atheism. Looks like a good debate - I'll be looking out for the recording if it's produced. In Nietzsche's language, one could rephrase the debate: the madman should rule. Though I'd think for Nietzsche that if the New Europe actually consisted of his new men, the question wouldn't need to be asked.

The dogma is the drama

Sayers, again:

"[T]he history and the theology of Christ are one thing: His life is theology in action, and the drama of His life is dogma shown as dramatic action.

"For Jesus Christ is unique - unique among gods and men. There have been incarnate gods a-plenty, and slain-and-resurrected gods not a few; but He is the only God who has a date in history. And plenty of founders of religions have had dates, and some of them have been prophets or avatars of the Divine; but only this one of them was personally God. There is no more astonishing collocation of phrases than that which, in the Nicene Creed, sets these two statements flatly side by side: "Very God of very God. ... He suffered under Pontius Pilate." All over the world, thousands of times a day, Christians recite the name of a rather undistinguished Roman pro-consul - not in execration (Judas and Caiaphas, more guilty, get off with fewer reminders of their iniquities), but merely because that name fixes within a few years the date of the death of God. ...

[We are inclined to think of the history as:]

"The characters are not men and women: they are all 'sacred personages', standing about in symbolic attitudes, and self-consciously awaiting the fulfilment of prophecies. ... Sacred personages, living in a far-off land and time, using dignified rhythms of speech, making from time to time restrained gestures symbolic of brutality. They mocked and railed on Him and smote Him, they scourged and crucified Him. Well, they were people very remote from ourselves, and no doubt it was all done in the noblest and most beautiful manner. We should not like to think otherwise.

"Unhappily, if we think about it at all, we must think otherwise. God was executed by people painfully like us, in a society very similar to our own - in the over-ripeness of the most splendid and sophisticated Empire the world has ever seen. In a nation famous for its religious genius and under a goverment renowned for its efficiency, He was executed by a corrupt church, a timid politician, and a fickle proletariat led by professional agitators. His executioners made vulgar jokes about Him, called Him filthy names, taunted Him, smacked Him in the face, flogged Him with the cat, and hanged Him on the common gibbet - a bloody, dusty, sweaty, and sordid business.

"If you show people that, they are shocked. So they should be. If that does not shock them, nothing can. If the mere representation of it has an air of irreverence, what is to be said about the deed? It is curious that people who are filled with horrified indignation whenever a cat kills a sparrow can hear that story of the killing of God told Sunday after Sunday and not experience any shock at all."

Quote of the Day: gentle gospel?

Dorothy Sayers, introduction to The Man Born to be King, 1943:
[T]his story is a very great story indeed, and deserves to be taken seriously. It is often taken, and treated, with a gingerly solemnity: but that is what honest writers call frivolous treatment.

Not Herod, not Caiaphas, not Pilate, not Judas ever contrived to fasten upon Jesus Christ the reproach of insipidity; that final indignity was left for pious hands to inflict. To make of His story something that could neither startle, nor shock, nor terrify, nor excite, nor inspire a living soul is to crucify the Son of God afresh and put Him to an open shame. And if anybody imagines that its conventional presentation has of late been all that it should be, let him stop the next stranger in the street and ask what effect is has had on him. Or let him look at the world to which this Gospel has been preached for close on twenty centuries: Si calvarium,
si sepulchrum requiris, circumspice.
Let me tell you, good Christian people, an honest writer would be ashamed to treat a nursery tale as you have treated the greatest drama in history: and this in virtue, not of his faith, but of his calling.

You have forgotten, perhaps, that it is, first and foremost, a story - a true story, the turning-point of history, "the only thing that has ever really happened".

And that from a Roman Catholic.