Night of the living dead

30 10 2010

In some senses my return journey to Brixton at midnight last night was not dissimilar from any other. Most nights of the year there will be the odd person looking half dead and zombified through an over-imbibing of alcohol. But yesterday was a little more grotesque.

I’m sure it has not escaped your attention, but this weekend is halloween.

Halloween - John Althouse Cohen

Halloween, the one time of the year when all those people who have laboured hard at producing bizarre latex products and tubes of fake luminescent blood, finally get to see the fruit of their labours for 48 hours or so. Slashed throats. Bullet holes in foreheads. Blood-stained t-shirts and women dressed as if witches have some kind of supernatural allergic reaction to non-revealing clothing! Again, not an uncommon Brixton weekend experience.

But why do people enjoy dressing up like thoroughly depressing, undead beings? What is it that people find so attractive about the idea of making yourself look like you have just undergone a grotesque murder, but still lived to drink yourself silly in celebration?

Is it an obsession with defeating death? Perhaps a dissatisfaction with the intangible idea of floating souls escaping a physical world, and a wish for something more concrete? Dead bodies still able to walk, talk, touch. Is it simply macabre, or is it a deep heart cry – a longing for resurrection?

This halloween, why not spend a moment reflecting on this puzzling little section of Matthew 27. How does the gospel of the death and resurrection of Jesus connect with the wannabe-zombies strolling our streets this weekend? I like this little passage. I’d quite like to see this take place… though if it happened this weekend, I’m not sure anyone would notice:

‘And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.’ (Matthew 27:51-53 ESV)

D.A. Carson – Pastoral Pensées

23 08 2010

The new edition of Themelios is out. As always, some interesting, relevant, thought-provoking articles and reviews… (and some less so!)

Most of all, I enjoyed this: D.A. Carson’s Pastoral Pensées: Motivations to Appeal to in Our Hearers When We Preach for Conversion.

‘Most of us, I suspect, develop fairly standard ways, one might even say repetitive ways, to appeal to the motivations of our hearers when we preach the gospel. Recently, however, I have wondered if I have erred in this respect—not so much in what I say as in what I never or almost never say.’

There have been a large number of articles, books and popular preachers who have encouraged us in recent years to think about the many strands of the gospel, and how we can apply each of them to the hearer as is most apt. Equally, there have been a number of articles, books and popular preachers who have favoured one model over another, or indeed over all the others (such that one particularly high-profile book on the atonement argued until its authors were blue in their faces that ‘penal substitution is the primary atonement model, but of course we believe in all the others as well!’ and then proceded to articulate each of the other atonement theories, practically disregarding their subtleties and describing all of them as in such a way as to make them sound just like penal substitution under a different guise!)

I feel that for all our talking about the many strands of the gospel, when it comes down to making an appeal, we still don’t quite get it. I still don’t get it. I still rely on tried and tested appeals, phrases, metaphors and methods. I fail to ask what my audience member might be thinking and feeling at that moment and instead preach a formula.

So for that reason I found Carson’s article helpful and enlightening. In it he surveyed eight possible motives we can and should appeal to in our hearers:

  • Fear
  • The Burden of Guilt
  • Shame
  • The Need for Future Grace
  • The Attractiveness of Truth
  • A General Despairing Sense of Need
  • Responding to Grace and Love
  • A Rather Vague Desire to Be on the Side of What Is Right, of What Is from God, of What Is Biblical, of What Is Clean, of What Endures.

I don’t intend to repeat all he said. Read it for yourself. But let me offer a couple of comments and some further reading:

  • I’d never before thought of ‘The need for future grace as a category of its own apart from Guilt and Shame…
  • ‘A Rather Vague Desire…’ deserves more thought. I wonder how many of the people I encounter fall into this category rather than any of the other seven? I’m also not entirely sure how I would tailor my appeal to them any differently than to those in the ‘Attractiveness of Truth’ camp.
  • ‘Burden of Guilt’. Carson writes:

‘I specify “the burden of guilt” instead of “guilt” because I prefer to use the latter for one’s moral and legal status before the holy God. In other words, one may be very guilty and not feel guilty, that is, not labor under any burden of guilt. If one is in fact guilty but feels nothing of the burden of guilt, the objective guilt is not a motivation for conversion. Until one cries, in these words or something similar, “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight” (Ps 51:4), one is not strongly motivated by the burden of guilt. On the other hand, that guilt, rightly perceived, can be a crushing burden and thus a powerful and desperate motivation for relief.’

I found this a fascinating distinction. Guilt is objective, but oft-unperceived. The Burden of Guilt is a feeling we can appeal to.

It strikes me that this is the one most of us fall back on regularly. But I doubt whether it is always the most effective. I remember preparing a talk a year ago for a student guest service and I had agonised over it for ages. When I took a step back, I realised that I was spending 70% of the talk trying to engender a feeling of ‘Burden of Guilt’ in people who had not the slightest perception of their objective Guilt. As a result, it simply came across as doom-mongering.

Now, sometimes that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I remember in an old job that a colleague of mine would, every day, just take some of the chocolate that was lying out in the kitchen, not realising that you were meant to pay for it! (As if the Civil Service has a habit of being exceedingly generous to its low-level grunts?!) I wondered at first how they didn’t seem to feel guilty about it, until I realised that nobody had ever explained the system; how much it costs, where to put the money etc. So I told them of their objective Guilt, which engendered a Burden of Guilt and led to a solution.

I’m sure there are a hundred and one less trivial examples, not least relating to salvation. But in general I feel that we depend solely on the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach because we know no other. And more often than not, it falls flat, because that’s just not where our listeners are at. Often our gospel is so small that the only way we are able to preach it is to lead someone to the point where they think ‘I feel so guilty‘ and then say ‘Hey, I have an answer to that‘ rather than addressing the real questions and emotions they had in the first place!

Enough said on that before I labour the point. I’m not asking that we abandon the ‘Burden of Guilt’ approach. Just don’t unthinkingly take it as your default.

His concluding statements (expanded from these below) were a helpful check to keep the conversation in balance and limit knee-jerk reactions.

  1. We do not have the right to choose only one of these motivations in people and to appeal to it restrictively.
  2. On the other hand, we may have the right to emphasize one motivation more than others.
  3. Nevertheless, the comprehensiveness of our appeal to diverse motivations will reflect the comprehensiveness of our grasp of the gospel.
  4. To put this another way, all of the biblically sanctioned motivations for pursuing God, for pursuing Christ, say complementary things about God himself, such that failure to cover the sweep of motivations ultimately results in diminishing God.

I still feel we have a lot of work to do on this. We have the theory in place, but have to regularly fight the flesh and the temptation to rely on safe, easy, road-tested formulae. Ultimately we will serve people better if we genuinely engage with their emotions rather than fling a series of propositions at them and hope one hits home.

I’d encourage you to read Carson’s article and see what you think, especially if you’re a preacher. And to put flesh on the bones, check out this excellent paper by Andrew Wilson from Kings Church Eastbourne on ‘The Essential Gospel.’ It will really serve to model some of what Carson suggests.

In defence of bland testimonies

20 08 2010

I love baptisms. I love the powerfully enacted death-life-buried-raised-exile-exodus drama. You know those funny little travel towels that frequent flyers use? The ones that come the size of a pellet and expand to about 50x their original size when you dip them in water? That’s baptism right there; densely compact metaphor and meaning, the enormous salvation story crammed into a simple symbolic action. Just add water and the story bursts into life; larger than you ever thought possible.

One of the things I enjoy most is hearing people’s stories. Actually, that’s not true. I often enjoy hearing people’s stories. But there is one thing that does irritate me just a little; the ever-growing trend of people feeling the need to downplay their story. Many people consider their testimonies to be boring and hardly worth telling.

Seriously… How many testimonies have you heard at baptism services prefaced with a rather apologetic ‘my story’s not very interesting…’? There seems to be an assumption that unless your early years have been filled with wild promiscuity, mindless violence and perhaps a spell as a drug-mule, the account of how you came to Jesus isn’t really worth telling.

I understand why people think like that; I was raised in a Christian household, never shot anybody and went to church from a young age. But here are four reasons why I believe we should be proud of our ‘bland’ testimonies and not downplay them:

1. Such thinking has a tendency to glamorise the ungodly.

It is stirring to hear stories of people being redeemed from the darkest of lifestyles. But often I fear it is easy to enjoy those stories for the gossip they uncover rather than the grace they reveal. There’s something almost titillating about hearing about people who were engaged in stuff you only see in the movies. When somebody says ‘my testimony is quite boring’ they very often mean that they wish they could spice it up with some tales of dubious escapades.

That is to glamorise the ungodly.

It really is incredible when someone is saved from a life deeply entrenched in sin, but if it leaves us thinking ‘I wish I’d sinned more before I was saved so I could have a better story to tell’ then we’re not far off the wrong thinking Paul addresses in Romans when he writes ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!’ (Romans 6:1-2)

Let’s not blur the lines. Let’s not value ungodliness and devalue godliness. Or as Isaiah puts it, ‘Call evil good and good evil, put darkness for light and light for darkness, put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.’ (Is 5:20)

2. Such thinking fails to recognise and appreciate God’s grace

The truth is that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) and the fact that any of us can be redeemed is a miracle of grace. What’s more, if you have been born into a Christian family and raised in a good neighbourhood that in itself is a demonstration of God’s grace.

Paul, addressing the Areopagus, said ‘The God who made the world and everything in it […] gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.’ (Acts 17:24-27)

God allots the time and place of your dwelling, which means that having a positive Christian upbringing is God’s gracious provision for you. Don’t despise it, because you could find yourself despising God’s grace. You were put where you were at the plan of the Creator, that you should seek God. He designed and hand-crafted your upbringing in order to bring you to Him.

That’s not boring; that’s immeasurably kind!

3. People need to hear that Christianity is relevant to normal people

It is an oft-cited charge that Christianity is a crutch for the weak or that people whose lives are especially ‘messed up’ are more susceptible to an offer of grace. If there is any hint of truth in this accusation, then it will be significantly undermined by the testimony of someone who has no obvious need for a crutch.

People need to hear that Christianity is not just for the destitute or the needy. The testimony of someone who is strong and independent in worldly terms, but deeply aware of their need for Jesus will speak powerfully to those who doubt that God has anything to offer them.

4.  Telling your testimony is a first step towards preaching the gospel

Many people find it difficult to speak about the gospel with their non-Christian friends, but the fact is that one of the easiest ways to begin is by telling the story of how God has changed you personally. If we are ashamed of our testimony, or fail to see the providence of God at work in our lives then we will struggle to converse with our friends, and ultimately will find it difficult to share the gospel with them.

Many of your friends are likely to be similar to you in some ways and so will be able to relate to certain aspects of your story far more than they would to a dramatic conversion testimony. If we downplay our own experience we risk missing opportunities to evangelise.

So can I implore you to be proud of your testimony. Enjoy telling it. Don’t apologise for it. It is a demonstration of God’s grace and a powerful tool for sharing the Gospel. Whether you were saved on a Damascus Road or in a Sunday School class, God deserves to get the glory and we should never diminish it.

Michael Green: Thirty Years that Changed the World

2 08 2010

I’m not sure I’ve written a book review since the early years of secondary school, when I summed up The Hobbit thus: ‘The dragon was cool, and I liked Gollum’s riddles.’

So don’t expect too much from my book reviews. Think more Richard and Judy than New York Times

And so here, my review of the last book I read, Michael Green’s Thirty Years That Changed the World.

The book is essentially a thematic study of the book of Acts, looking at many of the key principles and practices that played such a vital role for the early church, and then applying them to us in the modern day.

On the whole, I enjoyed the book. I like Green’s style, and appreciate that he takes seriously charismatic gifts and the spiritual dimension. Knowing a little about the man, I could imagine him preaching, living, ministering and pastoring people with the same sort of levels of zeal he was describing in the early church. In other words, he lives what he preaches… and I appreciated that.

For me, the standout chapter of the book was right at the beginning: Bridges and Ditches. Green began by looking at the advantages and disadvantages that the early Christians faced in terms of preaching the Gospel both to Jews and to Gentiles. This was a fascinating chapter. It was a succinct picture of what life would have been like in those first thirty years: the particular aspects of Roman and Greek culture that aided the spread of the Gospel, and the major stumbling blocks that Jews and Gentiles would have faced in coming to Christ. There were many comments and quotes I’d heard before, but also a good number of insights I had never previously appreciated.

Chapter 6: What of their Message?, picked up some of these themes again, and looked at how the Gospel message directly challenged people’s mindsets and lifestyles. Chapter 7 was less enlightening, but rounded off this theme well, by looking at the early church’s approach to apologetics. These three chapters together were worth the price of the book.

In my opinion, there were a few weaknesses. Firstly, its repetitiveness. Due to its thematic nature, there is a great amount of overlap between the chapters. Even a cursory glance over the chapter titles (Approach, Lifestyle, Message, Apologetics, Methods, Church Planting, Pastoral Care, Church Life, Leadership, Hardships, Holy Spirit, Priorities) hints that this may be the case. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the chapter on priorities feels like a ‘greatest-hits’ amalgam of approach, lifestyle and methods!

The second weakness was that I’m not 100% certain for whom the book was written. It feels very much like a collection of challenges and mild rebukes from one older evangelical to younger evangelicals. And thinking back to a few churches I’ve attended in the past, some of his comments and encouragements really hit the mark. But, if I can say this without sounding too arrogant, many of his observations just don’t correlate to my present experience.

When he critiques worship for not being dynamic, or churches for not preaching the word, or having the sermon as the shortest element of the service, something to be got over and done with quickly, I smile (gratefully), knowing that on the whole, that is not my experience in the family of churches to which I belong. Newfrontiers, seems to have got hold of the strategy of targeting key cities and places of cultural influence, in the pattern of the early church. Green draws this out as if it’s a fresh revelation, which to many I’m sure it is, but again, I am grateful to belong to a movement that thrives on this understanding.

Regularly Green talks about ministry in the Spirit, including signs and wonders, and laments that it’s something that is seen regularly in the two-thirds world, but rarely in this country. Again, I rejoice that I belong to a church that sees regular demonstrations of God’s power, encourages people to be filled with the Spirit, and seeks to exercise spiritual gifts. I think his slight generalisations are designed to wake up slumbering Churches. They make me grateful to be in a ‘generally awake’ movement.

That said, a number of his challenges did impact me and make me rethink genuinely how much of a priority I make of: caring for the poor, prayer, the down-to-earth pastoral side of church life, and being willing to face opposition. In a long section on ‘visiting’, spanning everything from door to door evangelism, to regularly visiting parishioners, Green provokes us to rethink whether, in trying to build large, slick churches, we have lost this aspect of church life, which was so vital in the early days. Maybe we’ve got better at putting strategies in place for discipleship and pastoring? Or maybe we have replaced genuine support with structures and systems?

The ‘Gospel in the open air’ section was painful and made my toes curl with embarrassment. ‘We laugh at the man on the street corner shouting verse from the King James Version at the passers by,’ writes Green. ‘It is an embarrassment.’ (p121) I agree. But then: ‘But open air work can be done imaginatively.’ Fair enough… I realise I have an inbuilt prejudice toward artistic evangelistic endeavours that are shoddy, half-baked, public, cringe-worthy and patently un-cool. They wouldn’t reach me, and so I have little faith to engage in them myself. And I’m aware that some of my prejudice needs to be ironed out – so I did find the chapter provocative – but what of Green’s so-called ‘imaginative’ techniques that work well (p123):

  • Holding up an unusual object that catches people’s attention
  • Using posters that you gradually unveil
  • Standing on a chair in a pub and spout rubbish until everyone is listening, then preaching the gospel
  • Jugglers using the ups and downs of the balls to explain the ups and downs of life, and how Christ can catch you in any situation
  • Using sketchboards

And my personal favourite…

  • ‘I have found circle-dancing to Israelis folk tunes a marvellous way of drawing a crowd.’

Suffice to say, his examples didn’t give me any more faith for this sort of open-air ministry. But I have taken his point, and his final challenge was a good one: ‘We have become too respectable, that is the trouble, and respectability and Christianity are bad bedfellows. Until we take to the open air we may not be taken seriously by the man in the street.’ (p126) Whilst I may still want to quibble that respectability gains a hearing from a different kind of audience, the kind of person that would not be seen dead near a living statue, I do acknowledge that there are many who will be attracted by the down-to-earth quirkiness of open-air ministry. And I thank God that some people have the faith and gifting for that, whilst simultaneously breathing a sigh of relief that ‘juggling the gospel’ isn’t a requirement for all believers!

All in all, a helpful book. I enjoyed it. I think the early chapters particularly will become a pool that I can dip into, alongside F.F. Bruce’s The Spreading Flame, for a picture of early church life. Green brings Acts to life. That shouldn’t be too hard; it’s a book brimming with vitality and intrigue. But commentators have become adept at quashing the fresh, radical, Spirit-driven nature of the book of Acts, and in that sense, Green’s portrayal was a breath of fresh air.