Arguing People into the Kingdom?

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

I am a big social media fan, and as an Enneagram 8, I love an argument. I have been reading a lot of Richard Rohr recently, which has allowed me to realise that that online argument is probably not as important as I like to think it is!

But one thing I have tried not to do, is argue with people of no faith.  Most of my responses are to Christians who, in my opinion, are talking nonsense (I am also prone to talking nonsense sometimes). I genuinely believe that we cannot argue people into the Kingdom of God, and that ridiculing or baiting people of no faith is counter-productive and an unbelievably bad witness.

But I have seen two examples recently, one was a Facebook friend who posted a rather trite Christian Meme (you probably know the type I mean), one of her clearly not-yet-believing friends commented with a facetious comment about fairies, and within a few minutes another (this time Christian) friend piled-on, there was an attempt to “prove” God existed. Luckily, the argument was defused, but I wondered if there might have been a better way to handle this.

I recently had an article published in a local paper, about why our church had opted to move online during Lockdown 3.0. I tried to avoid the comments section as my local paper’s online edition can get rather toxic. But my wife did look and saw an ex-church member had commented. The comments section contained a few comments by the “usual” commentators, mostly saying that religion was a nonsense, and “you may as well stay closed”. But this ex-member, who is theologically in a different place to me (probably why he is an ex-member) weighed in with a proof text Bible verse and with a few comments aimed at “the atheists”, which probably didn’t help things!

But it made me think, how could we be better at using social media when we face opposition. Sadly throwing proof-texts at people will never work (they won’t read them for a start) nor will trying to “prove” them wrong. The answer to me comes back to when Jesus faced opposition, he very rarely tried to win the argument, but often found better ways of engaging with people. He would often meet a question with a question, and let his opponent find the answer!

My advice is, next time someone replies to you with “you may as well believe in fairies” or “Jesus wasn’t real”, rather than trying to prove or to win, maybe the offer should be to further dialogue, to meet face to face for a coffee, to listen and learn about why they feel so hurt by Christians, let down by faith or so angry at church, maybe there is story here that needs to be heard?

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Have we forgotten the poor?

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

One of my former Deacons used to pray “break our hearts for what breaks yours”. I remember while prayer walking Devonport, where I minister, with him and seeing the poverty and knowing that it breaks the heart of God. A few days ago Carl Beech Tweeted “There are two conversions in the Christian life. Conversion to Christ and when God breaks your heart for the poor.”

Over the last few years the church (like much of society) has had a focus on gender and racial justice and issues on human sexuality, and quite rightly so, but in the process the issues of class have been forgotten. The working class have been forgotten by the church and not just the poorest. A point made eloquently by Canon Gary Jenkins in a recent blog post on the issue (https://www.psephizo.com/life-ministry/where-are-the-working-class/)

It is my experience that the church is becoming increasingly middle class, to the point where the working class feel that they don’t see people like themselves, not just in the pulpit but also in the pews.

This plays out in church planting. Most new churches are clone churches in areas of similar socio-demographic areas or in “student” areas. With very little church planting into deprived or marginal communities (estates or inner-city). You see this in books, conferences or festivals where most of the speakers/writers are from “successful” suburban churches or para-church organisations, very few from small or inner city churches, very few indigenous non-tertiary educated speakers or writers get the same profile.

So areas like Devonport are not just “de-churched” they have become unchurched, while there are 5,000 people here, there are only two small churches, one with under 10 regulars; if you found that in any other part of the world, you would call the people of Devonport an unreached people group. And yet we exist in the United Kingdom.

The wonderful poem in Philippians 2, which Paul uses to explain who Jesus was (so we could be like him), includes the wonderful phrase “When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!” (MSG). As Red Letter Christians we focus on the words of Jesus, but sadly we don’t get many words of his in the Nativity account, but actions speak louder than words we are told! So what does the incarnation of Jesus teach us?

As we begin preparation for Jesus coming at Christmas, it is good to look at his first coming. Before he is even born he is an outcast, rejected by his own family and the people who do visit are not royal dignitaries, as befits a King, but dirty, smelly shepherds! They were considered not just working class, but an underclass, they were irreligious people who worked hard, broke the Sabbath and ate what they could (for a full explanation of the scandal of the Manger read David Instone-Brewer’s recent article in Christianity Magazine – http://www.biblecontexts.com/2020/11/the-first-christmasfamily-argument.html)

I wonder what would happen if some dirty, smelly shepherds turned up in most churches on a Sunday morning, how would they be treated?

The problem is most Christians have not been converted twice, just the once, they have not understood that when Jesus said he came to preach Good News to the poor, that he meant it, and that as followers we were meant to do the same. We have not understood that to reach the poorest, we can’t do that at arms-length, because Jesus didn’t do mission in that way, instead he incarnated the Gospel.

So what do we need? We need Christians to live, work and worship in marginal communities. Not for a few years but for decades. Incarnating the Gospel, being salt and light, living out the Kingdom of God among the poorest in our nation.

 

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How Can We Sing The Lord’s Song In A Strange Land?

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

All around the country many pastors are constantly checking with Government guidelines to see how and if they are able to meet them. While there are moments where we are having to try an interpret the rules each week, there are some things that remain consistent, one of those is congregational singing. Some people are enjoying new a creative ways of doing worship, (we have been doing reflective “not sung” worship services for a few years  now – so we have got used to it) while others are finding it much harder, one minister said on a facebook group “I have never ever led worship without singing”.

But it is not just pastors, churches are having to get used to services without sung worship and some people just don’t like it. Someone I know said this to me, on why he will not be attending, “with no singing I doubt I would (come)…. (I can’t) understand how your church like virtually all the rest are  not bothered about singing”. The criticism is a little unfair, as I imagine most church leaders are bothered, but just know that the guidelines are clear.

Now I do not believe that God caused the pandemic, but I think that God can use the Pandemic to teach us. We are a church in Exile,  we are in a strange land, because we have lost the familiar of what our worship used to look and be like, whether that is hymns or choruses, choirs or guitar and drums, most worship involved singing. We are learning to not sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. See Psalm 137.

So what is God trying to teach us? I think we have become too reliant on worship as an activity we do “in church” together, we have become used to doing worship rather than, as Paul writes in Romans 12 offering our bodies, our lives, as worship.

Amos 5 (and we have to be careful not to assume that Amos is talking to us directly) says that the worship of the people of God had become detestable because unless worship led to an outbreak of justice, unless it radically changed our perception of the world, then worship was something that God “despised”. Has our sung worship become so detestable to God that he needs to force us to stop singing?

Author Stephen Mattson said this on Facebook recently “Worship isn’t always a hymn or song or sermon. It’s often a protest, an act of civil disobedience, a march, or a night spent in jail.”  People have told me that God needs our sung worship, maybe God doesn’t need it at all, maybe the point of worship was to break the chains of injustice. Maybe what  God wants from our worship is not what we think he wants.

Jesus said in Matthew 25 that when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, house the homeless, clothe the stranger or visit the Prisoner, we do it for him. Maybe this is exactly the type of worship we should be offering to God. Maybe this is exactly what Paul was talking about offering our bodies.

When people said that the churches were closed, I refuted that, we never did close and yes many went online, but many also discovered that the church could be a place for real good.

During lockdown many big “worship” led churches have found themselves becoming food banks or clothes and food distribution centres. Pastors were walking dogs and doing shopping. The Youth Worker connected to our church was cycling around the local area delivering food. My fear is, that when things eventually go back to normal, when Exile ends, we will just go back to singing the old songs in the old ways. Will all the efforts that have helped so many people just cease?

 

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Live, Work and Worship

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

In his book on American Politics, Jim Wallis says when he asks about Poverty, the key verse Christians quote is John 12:8 “The poor you will always have with you.”, he says that the church has accepted poverty as inevitable and unchangeable. But Wallis goes on to talk about how the verse is not about acceptance of poverty by proximity of the church, and Christians to people who are poor. A better translation is “you shall always be among the poor”.

We often make excuses for not doing anything about Poverty, so we will quote Blessed are the poor in Sprit from Matthew’s Gospel, ignoring the fact that Luke’s Gospel does not say that. And while we have made a whole theology of conversion of Jesus’s conversation with Nicodemus in John 4, making it universal for us to be “born again”, we say the conversation with Jesus and the Rich Young Man in the Synoptic Gospels, where the man is told to sell everything, give it away and receive from God in order to follow Jesus, is specific to that individual.

While many in the church are involved in alleviating the causes of poverty through food banks, soup runs or debt relief counselling, the reality is that these are often niche groups within the church, and more and more staffed by volunteers not from churches.

Sadly, the church in our inner cities, in sink estates and especially in “traditional” post-industrial white working-class areas is either dying or dead. More and more churches are focusing on big “centres”, either in student, suburban areas of cities or in market towns. This has left poorer urban and rural areas devoid of churches, and where there are churches, they are often small and elderly, with very little ability to reach out to the people around.

The current Covid crisis is going to make this worse.

Christians who were called to be among the poor are now among the middles class, often doing disembodied outreach programmes or giving financially, but not doing anything to be among the poor on a day to day basis.

If you look at many of the great Revivals, they often begin in the margins, among the poor. It is where John Wesley preached, it is where the Welsh and Azusa street revivals began. If we want to see God truly move in our nation, we need to inspire Christians to live, work and worship among the poor. This may mean giving up our comforts, not living in our “dream” home, or taking that “dream” job or going to the latest “cool” church, and it might mean living in a Downwardly Mobile way, living counter to our culture (Romans 12:1-2).

Jesus was often found among the crowd (ochlos), the rabble, the unwashed. He had no home or possessions, relying on the charity of others. He died the death of a thief and was buried in a borrowed tomb. He became one of the poor. Paul writes in Philippians 2 that he became a slave. If we want to truly follow Jesus, then why do we think that we are allowed to live differently from him?

 

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Church Generosity

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

We are in a world that has stopped growing! Up until the last few weeks, our world has been based on Growth, exponential growth. But a small virus has prevented us from growing, over the next few months the world economy is likely to contract to a level unseen in almost a century.

Sadly many of our church models have followed the world, in believing that growth is the most important thing. But we have forgotten that growth without reproduction is fairly pointless. Even church planting models – like HTB “resource” churches are not based on new growth but breathing life into dead things.

Most church growth models intend to reach new people, by making their services attractional. This often include a focus on professionalised worship, simple teaching, wide use of social media, high quality children’s work, and emphasis on Millennials and young families. And while this does indeed attract people from outside church, the unintended consequence is high levels of transfer growth.

What this means is that often there is a drain from small inner city or rural churches to city centre and town centre, so while the churches in the centre do grow, the cost is paid by smaller churches that cannot match the “quality” of these highly resourced churches.

So while church growth models are commendable, they also come at a time when the church as whole is in decline. We need something better!

So I believe we need not church growth but church generosity, churches need to give away rather than hoard, and while many churches do give circa 10% of their income away, I wonder if we could think about Tithing (a tenth) in a different way. What about it every year, churches looked to give away a 10% of their people. So how could that look like?

  • Churches between 100-200 people could give 10% of their membership to a smaller, struggling church (including their giving) to help enable that church to engage in strategic mission in their area
  • Churches over 200 could give 10% of their people to plant a new church, 20 members could be a sustainable small church in an under churched are
  • Churches of 500+ churches could plant several churches in their local area, or a mix of church planting and assisting a small church locally

I wonder if we saw Church Generosity as the aim, the result would be a Kingdom of God focused Church Growth strategy, seeing the whole Church grow!

 

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Sabbath, Gleaning and Jubilee

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

Like most people the words Corona Virus seems to be the only words on my mind, I have already heard of people dying, family members who have symptoms and even a couple of people in my church have been self-isolating with a suspected case. But there are three words that have been circulating in my head and they are Sabbath, Gleaning and Jubilee. I believe these ancient words, which go deep into the old testament law, speak into our current time.

Sabbath

We have been living in a 24/7 world which is built on a model of continuous growth, but suddenly we are told to stop doing what we have been doing. To slow down and stop. Our world is going through a global sabbath, and it comes at a great cost to human life. But in the process pollution is being lifted, birds song is being heard, canals are getting cleaner, policemen are serenading people in the street, we are learning to appreciate shop workers, cleaners and doctors. We are connecting with people who we wouldn’t normally speak to. I know we will go back to the way life was, but maybe we can learn a lesson that we don’t need 24/7 as much as we thought we did. It is good to pause and stop, to appreciate the small connections we make each day.

Gleaning

While stock-piling has been headline news, many others are buying extra, but not for themselves, there are stories of generosity of people as well. Foodbanks who were struggling are now full, other smaller local food banks have sprung up for those who require emergency food. People are taking take aways to their elderly neighbours.  The pictures of empty shelves do tell us that there are many people out there who are living selfish lives, but there are hundreds of stories that we will never see, of people stock piling food to give away.

Jubilee

Too many people have bought into the lie that Capitalism and Democracy are Christian values, they are part of our Western Christian culture, but the fact is that the Bible references neither of them. But, even for many well-read Biblical Christians , Capitalism and Christianity go hand in hand together. Many will politically argue for a small state, low tax economy, as if that is what the Bible states. The Bible writers would have no concept of Capitalism or Socialism as economic systems. But we have somehow missed that. We often do not think it is for Governments to balance out wealth, hoping Multi-millionaires and Billionaires will voluntarily give away their excess, and while this does indeed happen, the financial impact of this global problem will mean that the redistribution of wealth, the release of debts and the balancing out of our society will have to happen. If the Bible offers one economic model, it is that of Jubilee. I believe that we will have no other option in the next year than to see a Jubilee happen.

Three words: Sabbath, Gleaning and Jubilee

 

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