Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Ultimate Individual-Consumerism!

As the recent lockdown neared there was a surge in people using online shopping options. Whether it was groceries or other items, the online retailers struggled to keep up despite their incredibly efficient logistical operations, with robot equipped warehouses and gig economy delivery drivers.

In many ways this lockdown steers us yet further to the Ultimate in Individual-Consumerism: a cultural trend that has been in the making for some years now. We, as individuals, have a pantheon of online consumer options at the swipe of our fingers. We can pick and choose, and flit from one provider to another to get what we want at the best (usually lowest) price. If you don't like even the tiniest detail of your existing retailer, then just skip to another for next time. Furthermore automated supply depots mean that there are barely any humans in the chain of delivery - it really is just all about YOU!

As with any cultural development, churches and their members have to wrestle with it. Some may find themselves in too deep (technically called 'syncretism'), others may isolate themselves off but in doing so effectively be left behind. It is the classic question of how to be 'in the world but not of the world' (John 17:15 - 21).

An irony of the current lockdown is that it may steer some believers further down the individual-consumer route. We had already the growing trend of people commuting ever greater distances to attend the 'big well resourced church' that has professional quality production in all aspects of its gatherings (or should I say 'worship events'?). Now in lockdown none of us can physically attend, and so a myriad of live-stream options have sprung up very quickly to allow virtual attendence.

Of course there will be value in these, and no doubt the Spirit will be at work. Just as I can be spiritually moved by listening to a worship album, people can find encouragement and nourishment from such options. Yet the risk is that now people can act as individual-consumers with regards to their worship or message input more than ever! Didn't quite like the message today (in either content or style)? No problem, next time flit to another!

The end result may not just be virtual attendence, but a reduction to a virtual spirituality coupled with a near total loss of community.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Deconstructionalists Rejoice!

For a good few years now some have been resonating with thinking that comes with the so-called 'Post-modern Mindset' - thinking that leads to some serious questions being asked about how we do faith and church. This kind of thinking is also often known as 'de-constructing' because it involves taking apart structures that have been in place for years (even centuries) and assumed to be fixed and solid. Upon de-constructing it is found that the underlying assumptions perhaps weren't so good after all.

One of those structures has been the fixed weekly Sunday gathering that many seem take as if it was the definition of church. This thinking is often exposed by language such as 'we go to church'. A common symptom is a high degree of focus on the Sunday gathering, and the high level of importance placed on it.

Another symptom is that people seem to confuse taking someone 'to Jesus' with taking them 'to church'. That is not to say that taking someone to a church gathering will not be helpful towards someone meeting Jesus, but we should pinch ourselves and remember our task is first & foremost to take someone to Jesus. Of course the church aspect should then follow, naturally arising in discipleship.

Now don't get me wrong! I still believe that gathering is important (in fact very important). Hebrews chapter 10 verse 25 makes the case for not giving up on meeting together. But Deconstructionalists ask whether the Sunday gatherings should bear the weight we put on them.

Now, with our Covid-19 lockdown scenario, our Sunday physical gatherings are simply not possible!

So Deconstructionalists Rejoice! The arguably dubious tower of over-inflated-importance given to Sunday gatherings is demolished! Now (presumably) is our chance to highlight the importance of individual and in-the-small discipleship practices and experiences (an importance that needn't exclude the complementary importance of gatherings, when they become possible again).

Interestingly churches have rushed to attempt 'live streaming' of their services, so that people can gather virtually. There is value in these, I am sure ... but if the Deconstructionalists are right (or at least their thinking has merit), then I fear that the live streaming efforts might be missing a valuable learning point that this strange season affords us.

Friday, 13 March 2020

An Alternative Pandemic

We live in uncertain times. The spread of an unseen threat has set governments and policy-makers scrambling to make appropriate decisions. The media has to walk a tight-rope of helpfully informing versus inadvertently stirring panic. The reaction of the public shows some disturbing signs (e.g panic buying).

The whole covid-19 virus outbreak scenario raises some interesting questions. Among them are questions about the sustainability of our developed nation's economies, our dependence on trade and people simply being out and spending!

For Christians, remember that the concepts of virology and being effective witnesses of the good news of Jesus go hand in hand (see my post 'Go Viral' from 2015!). Yes we want to play our part as good citizens in preventing the spread of harmful viruses such as covid-19, but equally we want to be caught in the wind of the Spirit in spreading the good news of Jesus and His Kingdom!

That means being ready and willing to tell of that good news whatever the circumstances. It means being tenacious, jumping beyond the limits and inoculations that society may try to put on gospel-witness.

It means also helping people discover the grace of God but then not limiting them to some kind of faithful holding-pen, but rather releasing them in their God-given calling such that they are able to witness to Jesus themselves to others!

Let us do our bit to limit and prevent the spread of any kind of harm.

Let us do our bit to spread that which is good, and persist with it.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

Kingdom or Church

Recently I asked some small groups to think about the Kingdom of God and the church, which led them to do a classic 'compare and contrast' exercuse. I'm pleased to discover in their feedback that they seem to have 'got it'!

For in the Kingdom the focus is unashamedly on Jesus, whilst in the church that is not always so.

The Kingdom is inherently spiritual, while the church is inherently an earth-based gathering (albeit one that hopefully intends to be a spiritual people).

The Kingdom is perfect (by definition). The church remains imperfect.

The Kingdom is wherever God is at work, seen through what God is doing, or glimpsed in the people where God is present. The church can too easily be focussed on one place, one set of practices, or one set of traditions.

The Kingdom is of God. It is aligned to His will. The church can easily be of people and influenced by their will.

The Kingdom is about the Living Word (Jesus). The church can entrap itself in its own incomplete understanding of the written word (the Bible).

The Kingdom somehow has a way in for those on the margins. The church can inadvertently exclude those on the margins.

The Kingdom focusses on the key issues for God and His relationship to the whole of creation. The church can end up focussing on the key issues of society without discerning the limitations of this endeavour.

So Kingdom or church ... which would you choose?

Join a church and love it - but remind yourself and your fellow church members to keep your sights on The Kingdom!

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Two Contrasting Peoples

Genesis chapters 11 to 13 give us an insight into two contrasting peoples and two visions for humanity.

The first is of a people who highly self-organise. They build: a city, and with it a tower that 'reaches to the heavens'. This is about being self-sufficient, of setting themselves up despite (or even in spite of) God. It is all about them and what they can do.

Note there is nothing necessarily wrong with organising or building: people will form community and will organise themselves - that is okay. Yet the tower is the give-away: they think they can reach themselves for the heavens, i.e. that sense of more, of something greater, of perfection. They instinctively know that there is more to life, but they are mistaken in thinking they can achieve it for themselves. Their attitude betrays the intrinsic problems of self-organisation of fallen humans - it has a capacity for becoming a greater evil than the sum of the individuals.

The intervention by God, and the ensuing confusion, is called in Hebrew 'Babel'. Or another name: 'Babylon' - symbolic for that which stands against God. It is a name that then echoes through the grand arc of the Bible story right through to the book of Revelation.

The second is Abram and the long-range promises of God. Through him God will make a people, who themselves will be blessed and will be a blessing to others. They will range far and wide, such that they can be salt and light to the whole world.

This is a vision of people walking rightly with God. It is through these people that blessing comes, that proper connection between 'the heavens' and the earth. Note how these people do not always have to cling to certain land or territory: Abram is initially commissioned as something of a nomad. He is also prepared to give up land (see chapter 13 verses 8 to 10), for he already understands something of God's abundant provision wherever he might have to go.

Ironically there is a sense of Abram's descendants being scattered, through which wide ranging blessing will come. This is in contrast to the first set of people who were forcibly scattered to thwart their efforts. Scattering in itself can be blessing or it can be a curse!

Into the lineage of Abram eventually comes Jesus. And he too is of the 'scattering will lead to worldwide blessing' kind of mindset!

So now, for us Jesus-followers in our churches, who stand in the line traced from Jesus and in fact all the way back from Abram: which vision are we called to sign up to? The highly self-organised one in which we build fantastic structures that appear to reach up to the heavens ... or the confidence in being scattered as those who walk rightly with God through which blessing to many may come?

Thursday, 21 November 2019

An Illogical Fear

Yesterday it was reported that a primary school had backed down from a court case regarding school assemblies. The school had assemblies of a Christian nature, and at least one set of parents requesting not only that their children be withdrawn on these occasions, but that the school provide suitable staffed alternative provision. Court action by the parents was backed by an organisation called Humanists UK.

What is interesting to me in this kind of case is not so much the rights aspects, nor the lament that Christians may have about the loss of religious input into schools. Those aspects go part and parcel of living in a 'post-Christian' culture that is increasingly secularised.

No - more interesting is the apparent felt need by humanists to go to court in the first place. If a humanist is also a devout atheist, then logically they have nothing to fear from people praying or even their children joining in with prayer! For surely if God is non-existent then prayer is nothing - a mere pointless and fruitless exercise. At worst it is simply misguided and perhaps irritating - but something that an atheist parent "who knows better" can easily explain to their children.

The need to go to court perhaps suggests something more: an illogical fear giving rise to the felt need to assert a 'humanist religion' in schools. Depending on how far and how vigorously that is pursued, it could of course become an 'evangelical faith' of its own, and itself end up infringing the legitimate human rights of those who do believe in God and the power of prayer.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Digital Babylon

The term 'Digital Babylon' offered by Kinnamen and Matlock gives incredibly helpful language for our contemporary context. For a great insight, watch this YouTube video:
The digitally connected experience that we are now immersed in is akin to the people transported to the foreign land of Babylon - a place that is largely Godless and with a number of competing thoughts and experiences.

Yet despite these surroundings true faith is still possible - God can still be known, and He is still active. The sister term 'Resilient Disciples' is equally helpful - people who learn to be faithful and forthright in their faith despite the surroundings.

Remember that Daniel and the other greats from that part of the Old Testament did their faith within the foreign system! They lived different yet did not isolate themselves off. They even had high ranking positions in the regimes that sometimes (but not always) overtly acted against faith in God.

Let us not build fortresses to contain adherents, but let us do our mission out their in the wild of Digital Babylon, seeking to be and to make resilient disciples who can thrive even in such a foreign land. For this is the way of God - who is still working, still transforming, and still drawing forward in His salvation purposes.