Category: Inspiring Discipleship

Equipping Missional Disciples at Bristol Baptist College

This post by Lindsay Caplen was originally published at Seventy Two

Calling all lay leaders, preachers or indeed anyone wanting to be a more fruitful disciple of Christ in today’s rapidly changing world.

Leadership, especially church leadership, can sometimes feel like a ministry of ‘spinning plates.’ We dare not stop to reflect on what we are doing because we can’t afford for any plates to smash. This course offers the opportunity to breathe, to think about what we are doing, why we are doing it and whether there might be a better way.

It also gives the opportunity to gain Biblical, theological and practical knowledge, to grow in our fruitfulness as disciples of Christ and to be part of a supportive learning community.

Over the three years, you will gain a solid grasp of the Old and New Testaments, whilst learning more about faithfully and effectively communicating their meaning in ways that help those you serve grow as every-day disciples. You will learn about God at work both outside and inside the church and reflect on how that might shape how God’s people live.  Together, we will think about why it’s important to exegete both culture and Scripture and we’ll find out what on earth that means! We will explore why leadership character and spirituality are at least as important as leadership skills and we will consider how God’s people can effectively pastorally support, care, equip and disciple one another (and those in their communities) in sickness and in health.

Having completed the course, we anticipate that you will have grown in your discipleship, developed a deeper knowledge of God and the Scriptures and learned a range of skills affording you the ability to serve more effectively and with greater confidence as you step out and serve God in your church, community and your everyday life.

How does the course work?

The course is held in Bristol Baptist College on eight Saturdays a year over 3 years. It’s a rolling programme so you are able to join at any point and to do as few or as many modules as you like. We’d love you to be with us for all of them!

The course is taught at ‘Access’ level, so please don’t worry if you don’t have previous qualifications. Short, manageable assignments are set to help you think through and ‘ground’ what you are learning, though, should you prefer, you will be welcome to attend without doing any assignments. Successful completion of all 12 modules including assignments will result in a Bristol Baptist College Certificate being awarded along with the opportunity to receive it at our annual Valedictory service.

We have sought to keep costs as low as we can and believe that £60/module represents excellent value.  We suggest that prospective students approach their church for support with funding and regular encouragement wherever possible.

To find out more, why not click here https://www.bristol-baptist.ac.uk/community-learning/emd/

And/or contact our EMD administrator at community.learning@bristol-baptist.ac.uk

 

 

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Moving Beyond Tribal Boundaries: Part 2

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

I start this blog at the place I finished part one, ‘The Failings of Tribes’:

Here’s where I’m at…

I am done with tribal boundaries and the exclusion they foster.

I am done with tribal boundaries and the small god they defend.

I worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God. A God of love, inclusion and God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.

In this blog I hope to build on this conclusion. I hope to offer a practical way forward based on my own reflection and experience. This practical way forward is not new and many of you may already be doing it without even realising it. I am simply trying to articulate where my theological meandering has led me.


What I’ve been calling tribal boundaries, Paul Hiebert, a Missiologist and Anthropologist, would call a ‘bounded-set’. In his article ‘Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,’ he speaks particularly about what makes a Christian, a Christian and argues that for many this category is defined by a boundary in which you’re in or out. Hiebert says:

‘For example, some define a Christian as a person who believes (gives verbal acknowledgement to) a specific set of doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and so on. Some make such lists quite long and add on specific doctrines of eschatology or soteriology. Others, convinced that true “belief” is more than a mental argument with a set of statements, look for the evidence of belief in changed lives and behaviour. A Christian, then, is one who does not smoke or drink alcohol, and so on. We would make a clear distinction between a “Christian” and a “non-Christian.” There is no place in between. Moreover, maintaining this boundary is critical to the maintenance of the category.’[1]

I find Hiebert’s description of a ‘bounded-set’ helpful in explaining how we traditionally categorise who is a Christian and who isn’t. His categorisation is painting with broad brush strokes and was written long enough ago that many may take a more nuanced approach today. However, I still think there is a lot of truth in what he says.

For those, like myself who are more visual learners, this image may help. The ‘bounded-set’ says that a Christian is one who fits within the circle. You are a Christian if you believe the right things and behave in the right way.

 

Hiebert’s refection is borne out of his mission work in India and his encountering of a worldview that is completely different to his own as a white, American man. His exploration leads him to be very critical of the ‘bounded-set’ type of categorising. Namely, because his Indian friend’s worldview is so different, they would never fit within these neat demarcations

Hiebert would argue that we need to look beyond the ‘bounded – set’ and move towards a ‘centred–set’, in which the focus is not being ‘in or out’, but on the direction of travel. A ‘centred set’ is dynamic and diverse. There is no uniform way to think or behave. The focus is upon whether you’re heading to the centre or not. We are drawn together in purpose and focus. For example, we are all heading towards Jesus. He is our centre. He is the purpose we journey towards, despite theological differences and differences in the way we behave.

Let me earth what I’m saying with a practical example. My friend, Steve Jones and I, started a community called OPEN last year during the pandemic. I only realised recently that we are organised in a way that would be similar to the language of a ‘Centred Set’, something to which I am very grateful to Steve for pointing out. We are travelling together in the same direction. We have the same purpose and focus.

Our direction of travel is defined by our values. Those values are:

  • Open minds – We wish to create a space where people can think and ask questions of all things pertaining to faith in God, without being given prescribed answers.
  • Open hearts – We wish to create a space where people can experience the indescribable love of Jesus.
  • Open to all – We wish to create a space that is truly inclusive and open to all. We have a particular heart for those from the LGBT community who have often not found many places in which this is the case.
  • Open to change – We wish to create a space that is dynamic and one we can explore together whether online or with one another in the flesh. It’s also important that OPEN can end if the time comes. We may just be gathering for a season and that’s OK.

What I have discovered as we’ve journeyed together is that we are not only held together by our direction of travel, our willingness to hold to the four values, but by our relationships also. We trust one another and put these relationships first. Too often have I seen ‘doctrine’ and a desire for some false integrity held over and above genuine relationships.

There are two very clear advantages to this way of gathering and being. 1) Firstly, difference of opinion isn’t feared and discouraged but welcomed and encouraged. We love questions and believe God is made bigger as we learn from one another, being challenged to think beyond our own presuppositions. 2) Secondly, people aren’t excluded for thinking differently. Many of us that gather are, but by no means exclusively, more ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ (both terms that are hugely inadequate, but will have to do for now) in our thinking, but this doesn’t mean you can’t journey with us if you’re not these things. Like I said before, the focus is relationship and direction of travel. If you’re willing to go on an adventure with us, respecting and treating equally the people you disagree with and the beliefs they hold, then we’d love you to come along for the ride.

Our OPEN community has changed me, as I now have a space to think, question and disagree, without fear of exclusion. I have found friends, companions to journey with, towards the centre, towards Jesus.


Let me summarise what I’ve tried to articulate over the two parts of this blog:

I’m done with tribal boundaries.

I’m done with the exclusion they create.

I’m done with a small god owned by particular tribes.

I want to journey to the centre, to Jesus, with others.

I want to journey with a diverse bunch of people who will challenge me with their questions and beliefs.

I want to worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.

 

[1] See Paul Hiebert’s article: Hiebert, Paul G. 1978. ‘Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories’. Gospel in Context 1 (4):24-29.

 

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Old Wine

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

I am writing this from a new café. Someone described it recently as the new “destination” café. To be honest, it is so new, they only have filter coffee, as the new coffee machine is not working, but everything else is all carefully designed to be a destination.

I usually write from a café down the road, but wanted to try out the new place, because I am stupid enough to fall for the flashy newness! The café down the road is great and serves great food and good coffee. The café down the road is where the locals go. If I go, there I will end up in conversation with someone.

I have been here 20 mins, and nobody has spoken to me yet, apart from to offer me a drink. People here are working on the laptops or talking on their phones. Too busy to talk to people.

I am the kind of person who falls for flashy and new. As a Marketeer in the past, I know that “new” is a word that people are excited by. Jesus said a few things about the old and new wine, but what often strikes me is that he said the old wine is good! And in fact, people will pay a fortune for a vintage, aged wine, so experts know that old wine is better!

So, although I know the cafe down the road serves, currently, better coffee, has a more community atmosphere, and is cheaper, here I am sat in a new café.

We have the same attitude with church. A few years ago, a new church plant opened in the city centre, it was a from a big national church movement, cool, and with all the “features” people wanted. I met at an ex church leader and asked where he was now, he said, “it’s a cliché, but I go to…” and named the church.  He added that he and his wife could sit with each other while the kids got looked after, but it was said with such a sense of reservation.

What is interesting is that we have just received into membership two people who have left that church. They started following us online, during Lockdown, and while we do not have the flashy newness, what we did have was integrity. After we started meeting in-person again, the wife said she had learnt more in three weeks than she had done in three years at the other church.

You see the old wine is good! Not that we are that old either (we were only planted 22 years ago, but always as a community church in an area of high deprivation and incredibly low church attendance).

I wonder what Jesus thinks of our churches today. I wonder, when he took 12 individuals and assorted hangers-on and started a movement that would become “the church”, or when Peter and the other disciples were overwhelmed by the Spirit at Pentecost, I wonder whether they realised that 2,000 years later we would end up here? A time when people see church as something to consume, to experience rather than to live? When people will drive past dozens of churches to attend the new “destination” church?

So while I love the flashy newness of the new café and if I need a place where I can work in where nobody will disturb me, I will be back  but  next week I will be in my usual café where the coffee is better and cheaper!

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Wow, God can do big things! 

This post by Rachael Warnock was originally published at Seventy Two

This title is a friend’s response to being told that I am to be ordained soon.

God can do big things indeed!

I am small, but God is mighty. He has consistently moved in, through and for me in ways that I could not expect. On this journey and adventure with him God has closed and opened doors. He has provided the resources he knew I needed and has faithfully sustained me. God has made a way, sometimes in the wilderness. He has been the one in whom I can trust. 

God can do big things with even our small offerings. When we give ourselves to God and his work, including our imperfections, then we can expect God to move! 

I find myself at this point on my journey with God because he moved through a small local church. They offered their resources- time, support and equipping. They allowed me to explore and serve. I experienced an authentic community through hospitality, generosity, joy and struggle.  God’s presence and leading was gifted  through this family and the local small community too. 

I encourage you to find out about your smaller local churches. What’s going on? What are they doing amidst the local community? How could you pray for them or join in? What are your gifts and what could you offer? Could you gift them simply with your attentive presence? 

Do not underestimate what God can do in the smallness and with you too! God wants to be closer to you, to build you up in humility and through those around you. 

God’s doing big things with the small things. He’s raising up those who don’t look like worldly leaders, he’s renewing the wastelands and the desert spaces too. 

I will make a pathway through the wilderness.

    I will create rivers in the dry wasteland. Isaiah 43:18-20

God’s restoring, mighty, impacting presence is all around, we just need to look in all the right places! 

How is God moving in you currently? How is God prompting you? How can you be more open to him? God is speaking to us, nudging us and cheering us on in our everyday ordinary lives and communities, if only we humbly pay attention. 

 

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The Fuelcast: Ruin

This post by Alex Drew was originally published at Seventy Two

The pandemic has left many feeling overwhelmed or in great hardship. None of us know what the future holds, but Alex Drew of @WeAreSeventyTwo brings us words of reassurance – God promises to be with us every step of the way.

 

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Truth and the Absence of Relationship

This post by Rob May was originally published at Seventy Two

People love a conspiracy theory. Lockdown has outed a few more.

So, to Covid, the vaccines and Christians.

Most of our church members have been positive about the vaccine celebrating, with those already vaccinated and encouraging those not yet vaccinated to go for it. But there are a few who struggle. Some are uncomfortable with how quickly it has been developed and are worried about its safety. Others struggle because of a similar vaccine developed some years ago linked to aborted foetal tissue. Then there’s a third group. These are people suspicious the vaccine is part of a global conspiracy. End times indicators are everywhere possibly involving Bill Gates, the mark of the Beast, the complete fabrication of Covid 19, one world governments and the involvement of almost the entire global health care system. Neither mainstream medical science nor majority theological opinion accepts this view and cannot seem to sway this small group. I probably should ignore it, but it’s got me thinking. I am increasingly bothered by it.

Over lockdown I received links to two YouTube videos from two different church members. One video was from a group of ‘medical experts’ claiming Covid didn’t exist and the vaccine was not what we thought it was. The second video presented by a ‘theological expert’ put the biblical case for the rise of a one world government, the coming of the anti-Christ and the imminent outbreak of the persecution of Christians.

Now neither church member had any direct personal relationship with either ‘YouTube expert’ yet they trusted their perspective and promoted their argument. And all of this despite the fact they also have access to their own ‘experts’ who they already know personally.

Like many churches, we have a number of ‘medical experts’. These include a consultant at the Royal Marsden, a professor at King’s College, a retired GP and a doctor training in public health. We also have some ‘theological experts’. A vice-principal of a theological college, two other ministers with theological degrees and a couple of church members with graduate level theological education. Now, our ‘medical experts’ in the church would be the first to point out their expertise is limited and they are not specialists in viruses. Our ‘theological experts’ are also aware of the limits of their expertise. But together they are more than capable of guiding anyone in our church through the complex ideas and conflicting arguments. They would also all disagree with the ‘YouTube experts’. The virus is real. The vaccine is necessary and as safe as any other vaccine. We are not entering the Great Tribulation and Bill Gates is not the anti-Christ.

But what bothers me is not which group of ‘experts’ is right or wrong. My concern is an ecclesial one and a distinctively Baptist one.

The church members who sent the videos worship every week with their own ‘experts’. They share communion together, say the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed together, have watched their children grow in faith together, shared fellowship together over coffee, pray together and have committed to being church members together. To my knowledge none of the ‘experts’ in church have ever sought to do them harm, to lie or to deceive them. I am not aware there has ever been a significant falling out.

So why would you trust the views of someone you have never met rather than the views of someone you not only know, but are supposed to be in covenant fellowship with? Why are real Christian relationships abandoned?

Sadly, and in very simple terms, it’s just easier. It’s threatening to dialogue with someone who knows what they are talking about, who knows more than you know but who you also know disagrees with you. It’s hard listening to someone who is not going to make it easy for you to go on believing what you want to believe.

But what bothers me more is not so much that ‘they’ do it but that I also do it. We all do it. The issues may be less obvious and we may have clever strategies for hiding our differences but it’s still the same issue. We struggle with one another in church but it’s just easier to avoid the difficult conversation. We know we are a community of sinners with very different experiences of life. Conflict in church life is surely inevitable but for most of us we avoid it. The one community on earth who should be extraordinarily good at this kind of thing is far too often not very good at it at all.

In chapter 3 of Dan White’s Subterranean: Why the future of the church is rootedness, he explores the disconnect between the transfer spiritual information and the relational health of the local church.

‘Our current unquestioned approaches to transferring spiritual information are brutal on the virtue of practice. Practice is the inner quality of being formed and informed by the bumps, bruises, and baptism of application. Practice is at the soul of being a Jesus-follower but more so it becomes the material for credibility for the people of God.’ (p.35)

A serious disconnect has been created between spiritual knowledge and spiritual formation. Church members spend years together listening to sermons and sitting in Bible studies without the need to actually get to know one another, let alone truly love one another. White calls this the absence of ‘immersion’. ‘Immersion’ is a ‘full-bodied participation and practice in the information we encounter.’ Thankfully, many people do get to know one another and we have seen the depth of love shared between church members during the pandemic. But this has not been universally shared. It means that I can believe an ‘expert’ I have never met without any awareness that at the same time it says something deeply profound about how I understand the nature of my relationship to another ‘expert’; the one whom I worship with and who is my sister or brother in Christ.

The internet has made the world an extraordinary place. The freedom and availability of information is mind-boggling and much of it is to be celebrated. But it is a complex world in which we benefit from ‘experts’ to help us navigate these complexities. In a world increasingly suspicious of ‘experts’, who do I trust? But the ‘experts’ I need most are not those who know more than me but the ones who love more than me. Not the ones who are the first to tell me what is right and what is wrong but the ones who choose to walk with me in a broken world.  Who will help me when I am tempted to avoid differences rather than to embrace the differences, that I might become more Christian and we might become more like the body of Christ.

Maybe it’s culture’s veneration of the autonomous self, society’s suspicion of ‘experts’, the collapse of truly meaningful relationships, the democratisation of knowledge all creeping into church life, hidden in plain sight. Maybe it’s not. But it still bothers me.

 

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Twelve Steps Towards Freedom – Rewilding with Jesus

This post by Dave Gregory was originally published at Seventy Two

I like a bit of wildness!  I wonder what image that conjures up in your mind?  Coming into my 60th year, perhaps of an aging rocker doing air guitar while head banging to loud music!  But while rock music is part of my eclectic musical tastes, that’s not what I mean.  I mean wild nature.

As we edge towards the end of another lock down, perhaps like many, you have enjoyed being outside, although with the cold and wet weather of winter that has been more of a challenge than last spring when we had our first lockdown.  Many people have appreciated the natural world more over the past year, whether it be your garden, a local park or walking along local footpaths into the countryside wherever you live.

Different things in creation appeal to different people.  For some its bird spotting.  For others, its wildflowers or trees, or the wild animals that you might catch a glimpse of scampering through the hedgerows and woods, trying to escape your gaze.  For me, it’s wild places and wild landscapes.

I’m on sabbatical at the moment.  I had hoped to take some time walking a long-distance footpath, but lockdown has restricted me to some local walks out into the Hertfordshire countryside.  Very pleasant and refreshing, but you wouldn’t call it wild.  Very tame in fact.  Lots of farms, stables, and grassy field for grazing, although I am a still wary when I cross a field with cows in.  My mind keeps drifting back to my last sabbatical in 2013 when I walked St Oswald’s Way in Northumbria, from Lindisfarne to Heavensfield on Hadrian’s Wall.  There was wild coastline, wild moors and even some wild cows!!

Wilderness and wildness are not always comfortable places.  I remember walking alone through a particularly dark forest in Northumbria on a very damp day looking for a place to stop for lunch.  Having found a sheltered place with a few rocks to sit on, I decided against it.  It felt dark and oppressive and I moved on to a more open, lighter if wetter spot to take a break.  And another time, walking across the flat, featureless moors of Kinder Scout in the Peak District, becoming edgy as the path petered out and deciding to return to the security of the well-defined path around the edge.

Perhaps at the heart on the unfolding climate and environmental crisis is that we are not comfortable with wilderness and wildness.  We like to tame the world, reshaping it to our needs and security.  Wild places are disappearing.  Back in 2013, I visited BMS worker Laura-Lee Lovering who lives in the small town of Nauta in the Peruvian Amazon where BMS has a mission centre.  Looking in the forest one day she commented that local people preferred the ordered cultivated land to the wild jungle.  But that ordering and taming has an impact.  This week, I read on the BBC that half of UK wildlife has decreased over the past 50 years and their habitats have been squeezed by modern life.

This uncomfortableness with wildness is found in the Bible.  Richard Bauckham in “Bible and Ecology” suggests the Bible distinguishes between two different types of land – cultivated and wild places.  Places of security and places that are dangerous and full of threat, unfit for human habitation.  No wonder we want to tame them.  Yet, as we remember during the season of Lent, Jesus spent time in the wilderness;

“he was in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals.”  (Mk 1v13)

Jesus faced threats in the wilderness.  From Satan and his temptations, perhaps all about finding security and taming the wildness of God’s purpose for Jesus.  Do we face the same temptations today in our drive for security today?  Taming the wilderness so it fits our needs and lives.  Yet, in doing so, we ignore that this is a part of creation that God makes for the wild animals.  Many of the drugs that we use to treat disease such as COVID come from extracts of plants that are found in wild areas like the Amazon.  Cutting down the rainforests may seem to bring security now, but what might we lose that will bring us security later in the face of new threats such as COVID.  There are even suggestions that COVID skipped from wild animals to humans because we increasingly encroach on wild areas.

In the wilderness, Jesus was “with the wild animals”, but I wonder if he was threatened by them?   Or does this express the freedom that God in Jesus wants to bring between the whole community of creation, between human and non-human?  Freedom that Isaiah speaks of as he looks for God’s future where;

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.

They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.  (Isa 11v6-9)

What knowledge might we learn from Jesus being “with the wild animals”?  And how can we put it into practice?  That will depend upon where you live, or where your church building is placed.  Many people put out food for the wild birds in the gardens.  Perhaps you could sow some seeds that will attract butterflies.  Or make a simple “bee house” for your own or church garden to encourage these insects that play such an important role in sustaining plants that we rely on for food.  If your church has land or a graveyard, how might you manage it to provide a home for wild animals.  Or you could ask questions about new housing developments locally; how they might provide a home for wild nature as well as people.  Maybe there are conservation projects you could support locally or further afield – check out the BMS World Mission Carbon Offsetting tool that supports tree planting projects in Northern Uganda.

This Lent, take time to rewild yourself!  Spend time with Jesus in the wilderness, with the wild animals.  Take a walk around your garden, in the park or out into the countryside.  As you go, you could pray this prayer – it’s also available on the Baptist Union Environment Network (BUEN) YouTube channel – seeking God’s peace for the whole of his community of creation.

A Prayer for Lent – Wilderness and Wildness

Jesus, we are not comfortable with wilderness;

it’s wildness; its otherness beyond human imagining.

We seek order, control, taming it to fit our imagination, needs, our security.

 

Yet, you were in the wilderness.

Lord of all things in heaven and earth,

In whom, through whom, for whom all things were created;

Tempted by, yet overcoming our fear of the wilderness and

wildness of God.

 

Jesus, we are not comfortable with the wild animals.

We cage them behind bars or within documentaries;

Push them to the margins by our urban life,

trapped in ever decreasing wild reserves.

 

Yet, you were with the wild animals.

The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,

yet not its wildness, lying with the wolf;

Living the harmony of the community of creation

that God brings through you.

 

Jesus, of the wilderness and

the wild, tame our fears;

May we be made anew,

in you, through you, and for you,

seeking God’s shalom between the

whole community of creation.

Amen

 

This blog is part of a series from Dave Gregory. To see previous blogs in the series, please click here.

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Is there enough evidence to convict you?

This post by Michael Shaw was originally published at Seventy Two

I remember a few years back, I assisted at an Alpha course. We had the usual big first session, which included a meal and a testimony. The Testimony was a businessman who had come to faith. The location was in the commuter belt, so many of the guests would probably understand. His testimony was a powerful one of rejection of God, until a final acceptance BUT he ended by saying what a difference God had made to his life. He said he still had all the things he used to have – powerful job, sports car, money, home and even his yacht but he also had God as well, the icing on a very abundant cake.

Now this may well have gone down well with his audience, who of course would be unwilling to give up their wealth. But I left feeling slightly disturbed; didn’t Jesus tell a rich man who loved his wealth to give it all up? This was what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”, it is not the sacrificial lifestyle of Jesus, it is a ticket into heaven, without having to pay the cover price! And sadly, many Christians have fallen down this trap, Jesus and church community have become a bonus to their lives, rather than something that shapes their lives.

I was reading the Northumbrian Communities “Celtic Daily Prayer” as I do most days, one of the morning sessions was a reflection on Acts 4:15-21, where Peter and John are put on trial. The reflection quoted from a book by Arthur Burt and he said, “if you were arrested for being a Christian, is there enough evidence to convict you?”. This phrase stopped me in my tracks!

If I were arrested, what evidence would there be? What witnesses could they call, what would my bank statements, my browser history tell them. If they were to do a stake out, with hidden cameras around my house, what would they learn? Would my life present enough evidence to make a case, to take me to court to convict me?

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel there is a court case, a trial. The goats and sheep are separated. They seem to be unaware of any difference, but Jesus knows! He divides them along simple lines. Not about were they moral enough, did they lead good lives, were they good church attenders, did they try to convert people, but simply – how did they treat the “least of these”. Were they genuinely good news to people who are mostly used to being excluded or ignored? (ps I am fully aware of the hermeneutic that this is about how non-Christians treat the “brothers”)

In the Gospel of John, when we read the story of the calling of the first disciples, what impressed them most was that he was a “man of complete integrity” (John 1:47 NLT). Christians are called, like the disciples, to not just believe in Jesus but follow him. The evidence of following Jesus, is not in whether we believe the right things or say the right things, but whether we live in the right way.

So , “if you were arrested for being a Christian, is there enough evidence to convict you?”

 

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The Failings of Tribes: Part 1

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

[To honour confidentiality, I have refrained from mentioning many details in the following story. My vagueness at times is intentional. However, I don’t believe this takes away from the impact of the story.]

I’m at a conference. I love conferences. There’s always so much coffee to drink and so many people to meet. As an extrovert this suits me perfectly. This particular conference was for ministers, so being a minister myself, I’ve always found it a great source of encouragement and solidarity, being with people who I could relate to on so many levels.

During the conference we were told about an evening session on the second night in which we could share stories, the good, the bad and the ugly, of our ministries. I had been asked to share, as at the time the church in which I ministered was going through a very difficult period and they believed that my experience may be helpful for those gathered. At the very least it would be a chance for me to be prayed for.

So, there I am, stood in front of all these other ministers, anxious and if I’m honest, fearful. I shared about our church’s struggle, but as part of that I had to share how I had changed my mind on a certain controversial theological topic. I shared with tears in my eyes, laid bare and completely vulnerable. The only thing I remember from sharing was the reactions on people’s faces. Some, those who generally agreed with my theological position, were doing all they could to show they supported me and were with me. The faces I remember most though were the ones that dropped: unable to look at me. I felt their disappointment. I felt their rejection.

Two people offered to come and pray for me. Neither of whom mentioned me in their prayers. They prayed for the church and that they would be guided into what could only be articulated as their understanding of theological orthodoxy. Not once did they pray for me.  They didn’t pray for the person they had been laughing with earlier. The hurting human standing next to them.

After that meeting a few people ignored me and didn’t want to or didn’t know how to talk to me. I was no longer a part of their club. The changing of my mind had excluded me from their tribe. I had crossed an invisible boundary that I didn’t know existed. Only an hour before that we were friends, now I represented the allusive enemy, the opposing viewpoint.

That night I rang my now wife; my then girlfriend, who was and is quite simply my rock. She is an endless supply of support and strength. We start talking about our days and I tell her about the evening session and what I shared. Within seconds I was in floods of tears. I felt so rejected and excluded. It felt as though many of my relationships were fragile, based entirely on what I read and ultimately, what I believed.

I feel it’s important to note, before moving on, that my tears were a drop in the ocean of tears cried by those who know constant rejection from the places in which they should find sanctuary, welcome and love: the church. This blog has been written with these people in mind. The excluded, the marginalised, the ones that don’t fit in because they think differently or act differently. It is with their faces, their stories and their tears, firmly secured in my heart, that I write this blog.

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So, let’s talk about tribal boundaries.

For the sake of clarity, let me explain what I mean by this. By tribe, I mean the people you agree with, find solidarity and community being around. In the Christian world this could be your denomination (Methodist, Anglican, Baptist…), your Spirituality (Charismatic, Liturgical, Contemplative…), your broader theological tradition (Evangelical, Conservative, Liberal, or somewhere in between…) and your narrower theological convictions (Creationist, Evolutionist, Affirming, Traditionalist, Complementarian, Egalitarian…). We could mention hundreds more, and we could probably argue for ever over the lists I’ve just made, although this would distract from the point I’m trying to articulate. A tribe is a group of people you find solace with, who think like you, act like you and see the world in a similar way to you. These tribes have boundaries that mean you’re either in or out. Most tribes, it would be fair to say, would be a mix of the above categories.

In a funny way Rob Bell captures what I mean well, when he describes the tribes of the Ancient Near East.

‘In the ancient Near East, your tribe was your family, your bloodline, your home, your identity – your tribe was everything. And everyone belonged to a tribe.

You worked for your tribe, as did everyone else in the tribe. You accumulated possessions, fought battles, made alliances, all in the name of tribal preservation. And if you did something unacceptable, something shameful, it reflected poorly on your tribe.

Tribes existed for their own well-being and preservation. (You see the humour in that last sentence, right? Like anything has changed in thousands of years.)’

I think it’s fantastic that Rob Bell acknowledges at the end of the quote that nothing has changed, ‘in thousands of years.’ Tribalism has and always will be a very human thing.

At this point I must nuance my very negative portrayal of tribalism. Tribes are natural and not necessarily bad at all. We are drawn to people like us. People who share our beliefs, our values and our world view. This is what, in my opinion, leads to the beautiful diversity of our faith. It’s impossible to say Christians believe a, b and c, because the breadth of beliefs in denominations is huge, let alone across broader traditions, such as Evangelical and Liberal. Or geographically: East and West. We are a diverse bunch of misfits, who find solace in the company of those like us.

The problem for me with tribes is that more often than not they exclude the other, as I have shown in my experience at the minister’s conference. Also, equally as problematic, they have a tendency to make God small, as we’ll go on to explore now.

Ultimately, tribal boundaries dictate what God is like and how God is to be experienced. Often this leads tribes claiming a certain ownership over God, making God small. Richard Rohr put this far better than me in his book, ‘The Universal Christ’:

The Christ is always way too much for us, larger than any one era, culture, empire or religion. Its radical inclusivity is a threat to any power structure and any form of arrogant thinking. Jesus by himself has usually been limited by the evolution of human consciousness in these first two thousand years, and held captive by culture, by nationalism, and by Christianity’s own cultural captivity to a white, bourgeois, and Eurocentric worldview… [Jesus] came in mid-tone skin, from the underclass, a male body with a female soul, from an often-hated religion, and living on the very cusp between East and West. No one owns him, and no one ever will.’[1]

You may not agree with everything Rohr says and that’s fine, but I hope you’d agree with his last sentence in regard to Jesus, ‘no one owns him, and no one ever will.’

Jesus never fitted into categories or stayed within the boundaries of tribes. In fact, he had a habit of blowing tribal boundaries to smithereens. Let me throw out some examples:

  • The Pharisees got regularly rebuked by Jesus for their strict tribal boundaries; the hundreds of extra laws they placed around God’s law.
  • Jesus was the Messiah, but not as any understood the title Messiah. No understanding of the Messiah could contain him. There were aspects of the title he owned, but much he didn’t. This is why, particularly in Mark’s gospel he comes down so harshly on those that try too early to define who he is (see Mark 1:40-45 for an example of this). This is regularly referred to in biblical criticism as the Messianic Secret. Jesus wants to redefine this highly politicised title in all that he’s doing and therefore, needed time to do this.
  • Jesus constantly ignored the tribal boundaries around appropriate company. The famous criticism thrown at Jesus being, ‘why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (Mark 2:16). This isn’t the behaviour of a Rabbi. This isn’t the behaviour of a religious Jewish man. In first century, Palestine, the company you had at your meal table was hugely important. Your guests reflected on you and your values. So, in order to maintain good standing in the local community, you made sure you ate with the socially acceptable. The ones who were like you: part of your tribe.
  • Jesus refused to hate and treat people as second-class citizens. Again, challenging cultural norms of the time and placing himself firmly outside the tribal boundaries of appropriate behaviour. He spent time with Samaritans (the enemies of the Jewish people), treated women as equals and welcomed gentiles (non-Jews). All of which was deemed unacceptable.

There are hundreds more examples I could give. The point is this, no tribe could adequately describe him, and no tribal boundaries could contain him. ‘No one owns him, and no one ever will.’

If all of this has been a little confusing, let me spell out in one sentence what I’m trying to say: strict tribal boundaries nurture exclusion and make God small. I would love to say that my experience at the minister’s conference is an anomaly. I would love to say that the rejection I felt was rare and unprecedented in Christian circles. However, the very fact you’ve got this far into my blog means you probably know all too well, that it isn’t.

Here’s where I’m at…

I am done with tribal boundaries and the exclusion they foster.

I am done with tribal boundaries and the small god they defend.

I worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God. A God of love, inclusion and God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, 35. I must add that Rohr makes a distinction throughout the book between Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the human nature of the Second person of the trinity, is culturally bound, whereas Christ, the divine nature is universal. The ‘Christ mystery’, his oft used phrase, has always existed and is present in all people and things. I do not think you need to agree with him here for his quote to still be valid. I felt, however, that this was important to mention as it does further expound what he says.

 

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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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