Reflections on Encountering Church, the recent Christian Research UK findings, and one change I would like to make to the United Reformed Church.

29 09 2006

According to the recent church census carried out by Dr Peter Brierley the United Reformed Church is losing church members at a higher rate than any other denomination in the United Kingdom. The Overall rate of decline is at 15% whilst the Catholic Church declines at 14% and evangelical churches decline at just 9%. The good news is that this is an improvement on the last figures which revealed that 65% of churches are in decline and only 21% of churches were growing now only 50% of churches are in decline and around 36% of churches are growing. However, I take the Rev Dr David Peel’s point that using such reasoning in 1880 regarding the rise of horse drawn transport would have suggested that by 1920 London would have been buried in under a foot of horse manure![1]

It is nevertheless a serious issue but it is not the be-all-and-end-all we may still remain confident in God who has sustained his church for the past two thousand years. It also cannot be denied that Christianity worldwide is growing phenomenally. However, these facts should give us cause for some serious reflection on our life and witness:

I am concerned that we have in the words of Richard Church, ‘no theology of conversion’. This is not a plea for an evangelical interpretation of conversion. It is an observation that we find it difficult to articulate the change that occurs in a person when they accept the Father’s forgiveness, commit to following to Jesus Christ, and surrender to the power of the Holy Spirit. The gospel is not primarily about life after death it is about beginning life again today. Indeed, I believe Christian Aid got it right (in more ways than one) when they said ‘we believe in life before death’.

The URC is good at working for social action and justice but it is weak at the task of evangelism, sharing the gospel of God’s love and salvation with those yet to believe. In Christendom culture the church could assume basic knowledge of the Bible and Christian beliefs, in our post-Christendom world we can assume no such basic understanding. I do not believe that we should ignore social initiatives or direct money away from these projects into evangelistic events rather we should invest in church ventures that combine these aspects of Christian faith.

The task of evangelism must no longer be seen as the responsibility of a few within the church the ‘ecclesiola in ecclesia’ (church within a church). Evangelism must be seen as the responsibility of the whole community to make evident the reason for the hope that they have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15). This is not simply an intellectual discipline but a practical, emotional, and communal practice.

It is clear that Christian faith concerns the whole person not the autonomous individual but a person with relationships, friends and family. We must be aware that to confess faith in Jesus Christ can sometimes mean a person disassociating from existing communities and sub-cultures or being shunned by their existing network of friends. It is imperative therefore that the Christian fellowship be prepared to take responsibility for such radical change in lifestyle.[2]

In our settled so-called ‘Christendom’ we had little need for apostolic, prophetic, or evangelistic offices in the church. This is reflected in our ministerial appointments; often ministers are people called to pastoral and teaching ministries (a model we find in the pastoral epistles) rather than apostolic, prophetic or evangelistic ministries (found in the earlier epistles such as Ephesians). We need to appoint more apostles, prophets, or evangelists to restore, mentor, and encourage these ministries within our local churches.

[1] Peel D, Encountering Church (London: United Reformed Church, 2006), p.8
[2] Kallenberg BJ, Live to Tell; Evangelism for a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), p.32

(here’s something I wrote today- let me know what you think- its not polished it is very URC but I think the insights can be applied elsewhere)

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Political or Spiritual?

28 09 2006

I wrote this piece for the in faith column of our local Sunday paper for this week. I wonder if you have any comment.

The War against Terror is approaching its sixth year. Following the atrocities or the 9th of September 2001 the response made by George Bush was not long in coming. Invasion of Afghanistan in order to Osma Bin Laden (still free), the Invasion of Iraq to chase Weapons of Mass Destruction (still not found), the heartbreak of terrorist murders in our capital and the more recent action of Israel against “terrorists” and the Lebanese people (not spoken against). The War against Terror has brought more terror, murder, destruction, widows, orphans and death as the cost of the U.S to “protection” of its people. The unequivocal support of our Prime minister, Tony Blair, and the Labour government in meeting terror with terror has caused many to despair over the blinkered use of violence that has caught up the innocents in its enormity.

Before the Labour Party Conference in Manchester last week I joined with the tens of thousands of people who converged on Manchester to show their opposition to the continuing fruitless use of violence to combat terrorism. But I was dismayed to see among the organised groups attending from Islamic, Socialist and Marxist groups, few Christians. I was dismayed because my belief is in the responsibility we own as people of faith to speak out. We are to stand with those who are subject to the oppression and violence of others. Christianity, Judaism and Islam share a common foundation in the faith of the Hebrew prophets. Isaiah said, in the way of the prophet to speak for God, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:15-17 NIV)
While you may think that such protest is unavoidably political, I would argue that to protest is unavoidably spiritual. Our religion must be substantiated by our view of the world and how we treat those who are oppressed by the actions of others.

The most powerful impact of the march against the War for me was when the shouting and drum beating stopped and we held a mass “die in.” In those minutes I reflected on the loss of life of innocents seen as “collateral damage” by the hawks of Washington and Westminster. I thought of my own children and how precious their small lives are to me. I mourned for the loss of life taken by the fear, hatred and violence of people who would better serve their cause by seeking peace through dialogue with their “enemy”. I prayed for a better world free from violence and fear for the widows and orphans made by terrorists of all descriptions. I prayed for a world free from violence and fear for my children to grow up in. If this is political it is also spiritual and necessary to follow the command of Jesus “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” (Matthew 5:43-44 NIV)

By Martin Hill





Something cutting edge from the heart of Methodism

14 09 2006

I’m having an amazing time here at Methodist Church House. I’ve just had a really great conversation with Jonathon Green of the Sanctuary, at Methodist Central Hall. I’m really impressed with his vision and ideas for building the Christian community in the centre of London. He is open to people from a vast number of traditions although he comes from an Evangelical Charismatic background originally. His diversity of experience and approach to uncompromising openness is really inspiring (may be my heart is softening to some emerging church practitioners).

I am really pleased I picked up the phone today, so often a call just depresses me or turns me off the whole fresh expressions thing (sorry Graham and co if your reading this) but this was different. I look forward to meeting up with Jonathon in October and I’ll let you know how it goes. For now, I recommend you either visit the website or drop by Jonathon’s blog to check out whats happening.

Every blessing,
James





vindicated – the amazing blog of kyle potter

11 09 2006

vindicated – the amazing blog of kyle potter:
“When a church says it’s ‘relevant,’ I assume they are less faithful to the proclamation of God in Jesus Christ.

I think they mean to say, ‘our sermons and expositons of the Scriptures appeal to the values and lifestyles of people in our society.’ I don’t think the Christian proclamation is very appealing to the typical American lifestyle or its values, and it shouldn’t be. ‘Relevant’ means, ‘we’re offering you a way into what you think is a good or better life,’ and ‘Jesus makes good things better.’ Has anybody seen that recent popular devotional book, Just Add Jesus? That’s just the kind of stuff I’m talking about.”

Friends,
let me recomend the amazing blog of Kyle Potter-
I find he writes with wit and humour covering a wide range of topics.





‘There but for the Grace of God go I’

8 09 2006

I was thinking about our age of ‘naming and shaming’ and political scandals. Is it right that the press expose the private lives of politicians and celebrities to the world? How we should, as Christians, respond to such revelations?

It was a few years ago, when I first heard a young Liberal Democrat politician asked to comment on a Conservative politician’s public indiscretion on Newsnight. It was the sort of question politician’s dream of, the opportunity to rub the opposition’s nose in his or her own mess. You can imagine my surprise then when the aspiring politician replied ‘there but for the Grace of God go I’. It was that answer and no other that won my respect.

I think that sometimes it is not the publication of the truth that disturbs me but rather my own ugly and pious response to newspaper revelations. Rita Skeeter is not a complete work of fiction news writers do play with the truth. Sometimes they publish gossip and scandal, or the truth but with lewd details that indulge our own unspoken pretence towards self-righteousness.

We need to resist the temptation towards condemnation and self-righteousness, proclaim the Gospel of grace, recognise that the wages of sin are death, and that the cross calls us to forgiveness and reconciliation to one another and to God.

What do you think? Am I going soft?





Pilgrimage of Faith

7 09 2006

I was reading interface this afternoon a website designed to promote dialogue between Christian faith and contemporary culture and I was struck by a debate about the Pilgrimage of Faith. For those of you who are not Methodist, Pilgrimage of Faith is the debate about different Christian people’s attitudes towards homosexuality. I have copied my observations about the pilgrimage of faith below:

Christians of all persuasions are struggling with this journey of faith discovery and we are held together on this journey not by a shared understanding of our destination but by our love for one another. As an evangelical this love leads me to recognise that the division of the church is a greater sin than homosexuality. I recognise liberal Christians feel that the church not recognising homosexuality as an integral part of human nature is equally sinful but continue to seek the unity of the church. However, this means that both conservative and liberal Christians must live within a wounded church.Living within a wounded church is a painful experience it is also an opportunity for growth in humility and discipleship. I hope that whether we are liberal or conservative we can treat those we meet with love and learn from them as they seek to discover what it means to follow the living Lord Jesus.

I wonder what you think about being part of a wounded church? How has your church managed differences over opinions of homosexuality? Can the church bless lifelong homosexual partnerships? Can the church remain indifferent to such an integral part of a persons identity as sexuality? What can we say about homosexuality from the Bible? Are we too focused on issues of sexuality and too unresponsive towards issues of justice?