Christian celebrity

Recently I have read a couple of things which have made me ponder once again celebrity Christian leaders.  The first was the Facebook post by Bill Johnson, Senior Leader at Bethel Church, Redding, California, defending his decision to vote for Donald Trump.  He tried to do so from the Bible, and in my opinion failed miserably.  Yet such is his celebrity status in certain sections of the church, his decision to back Trump will have influenced the voting choice of a large number of people across the US.

The second thing I read was by a leader from the other end of American Evangelical Christianity, John Piper.  In responding to an email regarding a pastoral situation Piper also, in my opinion, was extremely poor in his use of the Bible.  Even more concerning in this case was that Piper gave an abstract theological answer to a very real pastoral situation, about which he knew very little, and the potential for damage to that individual from his choice of language was huge.

This adds to the stories you read of the demands placed by some big name speakers on conferences and events who ask them to speak, and the large fees commanded for their appearance, to reinforce my feeling that the Western church has a big celebrity problem.

I am not a celebrity Pastor, and please God I never will be, but my reflections on this issue over the years, and particularly the past few days, lead me to the following practical steps to avoid such a temptation.

  1.  Avoid the myth that size equals success.  Reconfigure your church building so it will seat no more than 200.  If it starts getting full, plant another church.
  2. Avoid the myth that popularity equals success.  Don’t pick your speaking engagements on the size of the attendance or the fee offered.  If you really are a gifted speaker the village church of 40 people may benefit far more from your presence than the conference of 10,000.
  3. Don’t try to provide pastoral advice unless you have taken the time to get to know the people and the situation.  If issues of geography make that difficult, refer them to someone closer to home.
  4. Be accountable.  Seek out those who will disagree with you and dialogue with them regularly, genuinely listening to what they say.  Make sure this includes people who will challenge your character and attitude as well as your theology.

This is my list at this time, others may draw up a different list, or disagree with my premise entirely.  But I feel it is important to have thought now about how to avoid the traps of celebrity, however massively unlikely it is to ever arise, because it seems all too easy to get carried along on the tide of “success”, only to be spat up on the shore and left high and dry.

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God is at work

God is at work among us.  I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me there was something special about our last two Sunday morning gatherings.  The presence of God was very real, and he spoke clearly to many.  I believe this is the latest stage in a movement of the Spirit which has been building since the summer.  Our Sunday morning series on Ephesians has been a catalyst for this: inspiring us, challenging us, and changing us. 

A month ago now we heard a rallying call from Steph preaching on the first part of Ephesians 2, reminding us of our high calling as a community who are here-and-now seated with Christ in the presence of the Father.  The next week we considered how the church is the temple of God, that he dwells among us as we meet to worship, with the challenge to consider how we prepare for Sunday mornings as a result.  And this has borne fruit as there has been a change in the atmosphere of Sunday morning in subsequent weeks. 

Then Peter reminded us from Ephesians 3:12 that we may “approach God with freedom and confidence,” and asked the question why so few felt able and willing to pray during times of open prayer in worship.  Service leaders have picked up on this, and encouraged us, and new life has been breathed into our prayer together.  Building on our successful Day of Prayer last month we are beginning to grow in this vital but struggling area of our life together.

Last week God moved many of us powerfully as we reflected on the sheer unimaginable scale of God’s love for us, and simply scratched the surface of what that means.  A very special service where God’s presence was felt in everything that was said and done.  There is always a sense of nervousness after such an occasion, as the next week can feel quite flat by comparison.  But this morning’s service too was special, and used powerfully by God in many ways, not least the challenge to humility towards one another as we make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.

And it hasn’t just been about Sunday mornings.  One recent week seemed to be particularly hard for many in the congregation.  But it was really encouraging to see how readily people rallied round to help those in need, and the love and support of the church community – a very tangible outworking of that unity of the Sprit. The doors that seem to be opening to work more closely with the Cherry Tree Centre and through them to the community of Swinemoor are another example of God at work.  And I’ve already mentioned the Day of Prayer.

All of which leads me to say God is at work among us.  I don’t know the fullness of the plans which he has for this stage of the life of our church.  But I do know that if we continue to seek and expect his presence with us in worship, to spend time before him in prayer, and to live out our unity in loving compassion for one another and the world, there is much more that he can and will do in us and through us.

“…being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Philippians 1:6

Faith and Works

While getting our boys ready this morning we were flicking through the Children’s Bible and came across the parable of the two sons, in Matthew 21.

There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

God challenged me directly through this about an area of my life in which I have been saying to God and people involved, “I will do this,” and meaning that, but in practice have not done so.

But then he led  me on from there to reflect wider about what this says about people’s response to God.  This is a little crude, because in reality there are scales and degrees, but I wonder if we can basically group people into 4 categories: those who say they will and do; those who say they will and don’t; those who say they won’t but do; and those who say they won’t and don’t.

The question is, how does God respond to these groups, and particularly the middle two.  The Protestant emphasis on salvation by faith not by our good works has tended to favour those who say over those who do.  But I don’t think that is correct.  In this parable, those who outwardly reject God but still do what he says, are seen as being in the right, whereas those who profess to follow God but their lives do not reflect this, are in the wrong.

And I would suggest the rest of the Bible backs this up.  To give just a couple of examples from the mouth of Jesus: Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven”; and against that the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:37-40 where the righteous are presented as having been oblivious to the fact they were encountering Jesus through their works, but the works are the reason they are welcomed into his presence.

In probably every church in the world there are people who profess to follow Jesus but whose lives consistently fail to bear that out.  Please note I am not talking about there being occasions where we don’t do the right thing – none of us are perfect – but where the whole basis and direction of the life is contrary to the teachings of Jesus.

And there are also those whose lives are lived in accordance with the love of God, even though they would not claim his name, or even actively reject him.  The Bible suggests this latter group are more in accordance with God’s will, but they are by definition not in our churches.  It is challenging to think that there are those outside the congregation who are closer to the kingdom of heaven than some of those inside.

Obviously my aim for myself, and my prayer for each one, is to be in the group of those who say we will follow Jesus and then live according to that desire.  But if I had to choose, I’d rather be outside the church doing God’s will, than inside but refusing to follow his call.

 

 

 

 

 

First year over

Today I received the marks for my last essay of the academic year, and so I have now officially finished the first year of my degree.

And what a year it has been.  I’ve been taught Old Testament by a vicar whose pioneering work with those on the margins gives real insight to issues of suffering and lament; New Testament by a man who manages to be super intelligent and teach us so much yet at the same time be genuinely excited by new insights from us students; Mission and Evangelism by another vicar whose years of experience gave perspective on how to (and how not to) put theory into practice.  I’ve grasped a (very) little New Testament Greek, and I’ve studied Church History at the rate of 200 years an hour!

In the course of the 33 Mondays at college I’ve also drunk well over 100 cups of coffee, and consumed similar number of slices of cake.  I’ve encountered God in times of joyful worship, and deep questioning.  I’ve had many conversations with people who will be friends and colleagues for life, and learnt much from their wisdom and experience.

Most of all I’ve had fun, and I’m looking forward to another 3 years!

 

 

 

Do we want a Christian Prime Minister?

With the Conservative leadership election under way the Christian press and social media have kicked into action.  Some are celebrating the fact that all the candidates profess the Christian faith.  Others are trying to reach a judgement on which of them is the ‘most Christian’.  Lots of prayers for God to raise up a “Godly Christian leader.”

But is that what we need?  Before the referendum a clergy colleague of mine cautioned, “Which of us would have voted for the Emperor Nero?”  Yet it was under Nero that the church was persecuted, Paul was imprisoned, and as a result the gospel spread to the ends of the earth far more quickly than it was doing in more peaceful conditions.

And the same is true in the modern world.  One of the fastest growing Christian populations in recent times is in Communist China, where the church is still oppressed, greatly limited in its activities, and under the constant watch of a suspicious government.  Meanwhile in the West, with freedom of religion and a succession of leaders who have claimed to be Christian, the church is declining numerically and to a large extent in spirituality too.

Which is not to say I would suggest praying for an oppressive dictator to lead this country.  It is just to question whether an active Christian leader would necessarily be the most advantageous for the Christian gospel.

I thank God when our political leaders act according to gospel values.  In recent days some leaders have taken a stand to engage with and welcome minorities in our society – most notably Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Sadiq Khan (Muslim).  Some of our leaders seem genuinely concerned for the plight of the poor and working for a more equal society – at the lead here are Nicola Sturgeon (Atheist) and Jeremy Corbyn (Atheist).  Meanwhile a previous Christian leader, Tony Blair, has been condemned for involving the UK in an unnecessary and possibly illegal war.

There are of course Christian leaders doing good things too.  He doesn’t get much air-time but I like a lot of what I hear from Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats and Evangelical Christian.  But the point is that selecting a leader who will be best for the gospel, the church, and the country, is far more complicated that looking at their self-declared religious affiliation.  How a person lives and governs is more important than where they say their loyalties lie.

So I am not praying for a Christian Prime Minister.  What I am praying for is the person who God knows will be the best for the cause of his gospel.  I pray for a leader who will work for justice, equality, and peace, the values of the Kingdom of God, whether or not they can be found in a pew on Sunday morning.

 

EU Referendum – a response

In my posts on the Referendum I tried hard not to come down on one side or the other.  My reason for this was a strong belief that as a Christian minister my role is not to tell people where to put their ‘X’, but rather to open up a Biblical angle on the issues to enable people to make their own decision under God’s guidance.

But now I cannot influence the outcome, I feel at liberty to say that I think the British public have made the wrong decision: wrong economically, wrong politically, but most importantly wrong spiritually.  In the short term I believe Brexit will damage the church’s ability to fulfil our calling to bring hope for the poor, relief from suffering for the oppressed, and the message of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ to the world.

Like many Christians, over the past few weeks my prayer has been “Your will be done.”  So how do I respond now?  Has God’s will been done?  Am I wrong in my understanding?  Where is the message of hope for those who feel angry and hurt today?

As I reflect on this I think I unwittingly preached the answer last Sunday as we looked at Psalms of Lament, and particularly Psalm 137: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”  Because the will of God being done is not the same as a pain free life.  Jacob and his family going down into Egypt to 400 years of slavery, the people of Judah being carried off into 70 years exile in Babylon, the early church being scattered by persecution: these were all horrific experiences for those involved, but each was used by God to bring about his will.  I’m not saying that God caused the suffering involved, but in each case it was the means by which he moved his people on into the next stage of their relationship with him – the people of Israel formed into a nation in the land God had promised them; an idolatrous people brought back to the living God; a Jerusalem focussed church pushed into fulfilling God’s call to witness to the nations.

And the ultimate example, Jesus who in the garden of Gethsemane prayed more fervently than anyone before or since that God’s will be done, and God’s will was that he should endure the cross in order to open up a new level of relationship with God made available to people of every nation.

So my hope for today is that God’s will is always to work all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28).  The times of suffering and lament have so often been the beginning of a new movement of God.  Exile is followed by restoration.  Crucifixion is followed by resurrection.  And so too may Brexit be followed by a time in which the church discovers again and anew the calling which God has given us to bring the gospel to the nations, and learns in a new way to sing the Lord’s song in a strange land.  Then our prayers will have been answered, and the will of God will truly be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Europe, in depth

This might be my last post on the EU referendum, maybe one more if I find an issue I feel strongly about.  This time it’s not me, but Baptist Minister and head of the Northumbria Community, Rev Roy Searle.

You can find his thoughts here.  It’s quite long, but worth a read for a more in depth view on the issues, including the historical place of Christians in the EU and Biblical reflections.

Please note I’m not endorsing everything he says, just offering it as a useful inclusion to those still pondering which way to vote.