As promised earlier in the week, here are the bones of the first session in our series called Why Follow Jesus? The idea of this series is that we run ten sessions in our usual morning services exploring the Christian faith. This is followed by the opportunity for those interested to go to lunch locally to continue the conversation started at the service.
So here's session one (it was preached on Sunday 11 January - though this is not exactly the preached version; audio of that will be posted here soon)
Is faith a sensible option in a secular world?
This week an advertising campaign was launched that will appear on the sides of 800 buses around the UK. It says: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy life.’ Just after Christmas, The Times columnist Matthew Parris, wrote a piece suggesting that Christianity was the answer to Africa’s deepest needs. Here’s a flavour of what he wrote: ‘As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God. Missionaries, not aid money, are the solution to Africa's biggest problem - the crushing passivity of the people's mindset...Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.’ It’s strange to note that Matthew Parris is one of the supporters of the bus campaign!
Why faith? Ridding ourselves of the shackles of religion was meant to set us free and lead to us enjoying the good life. But a glance around us tells us that hasn’t really happened. A 2009 survey of 16-25 year olds by the Princes’ Trust found a quarter of them felt depressed, that most felt the present was worse than the past and that they had little to look forward to. A study by Canadian sociologist, Reginald Bibby, found that those who did not believe in God—a majority of Canadians—were less likely to be generous, feel loved, enjoy family life or show concern for others. In short, secularism does not seem to have delivered what it promised. Faith, on the other hand, according to surveys, is likely to lead to people feeling happier and more contented, to pay greater attention to the needs of others and be honest in all their relationships. Interestingly, that’s what atheist Matthew Parris says works and is needed in Africa—but why not here?
Which faith? Our supposedly secular society is actually awash with spirituality. Our fascination with things beyond the material world is obvious from the TV schedules with shows like Demons and Most Haunted fixtures in prime time. Surveys repeatedly say that 70% of people claim to believe in God, 51% believe in life after death, 32% in the resurrection and 52% in heaven (though only 28% in hell). So faith appears to be alive and well in 21st Century Britain; the question is ‘which faith makes sense of the world in which we live and brings access to the good life?’ Not surprisingly, Christians argue that following Jesus is the way to find answers to life’s deep questions and a rich and rewarding life both here and hereafter. That’s what this series of studies is about, but here’s a little taster of why:
1) cosmology: the question of where we come from, the origin of the world and life itself is one of the areas where the secular view and Christian faith are often said to clash. The big bang and evolution are said to contradict faith-based understandings of human origins. But there is a huge number of scientists who disagree—Paul Davies, John Gribben, Allan Sandage and Francis Collins, all pioneers and leaders in their respective fields, all argue that faith and science work together not against each other. The Bible views the universe as the creation of a caring God who is involved in its day-to-day life and who can be found as we look at and reflect on the world (Psalm 8, for example; Colossians 1:15-20)
2) convictions: Christians believe that it is Jesus takes us to the heart of the way things are. Not only is he God’s agent in making creation (Colossians 1:15-20), he is also the one who shows us clearly what God is like (Colossians 2:9) and who sorts out our lives and gives us direction (Colossians 2:19). So we believe that as we follow Jesus, as we listen to him, we begin to see things from his perspective and they make better sense than they did before.
3) contentment: Christians believe that it is in following Jesus that we find the possibility of change, of becoming the people that deep down we have always longed to be and that it is this which leads to a truly satisfying and fulfilled life.
It's been really busy over the past week or so. January always does this to me - all those things I put off in the run up to Christmas catch up with me!
We've started our new series in church on Why Follow Jesus? and later I'll blog on our first session which went down really well with people - so I thought it was worth sharing with a wider audience.
We had a second messy church yesterday which was a riot (I think they are supposed to be!). Lots of families, good breakfast and chat, singing songs and doing craft. It looks as though it's caught quite a few people's imaginations and I hope it'll become a fixture in our programme. We have a particularly committed and gifted couple heading it up.
We also had a very well attended church family meeting talking about, among other things, charity registration (Oh joy! Oh rapture!). Everyone responded very well to the prospect of adopting a new governing document this year; hopefully it will be as straight-forwards as these things can ever be.
I've been listening to Dear Science by TV On The Radio and Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective. Both excellent. I've somehow managed to miss these bands - they've been around a while - though I gather this new work from Animal Collective is their best to date. Check 'em out.
...and in relation to my previous post, I've just taken delivery of a CD and DVD by Compassionart, the brain child of delirious front-man, Martin Smith. On it a number of high-profile worship song writers turn their talents to composing a set of songs highlighting the plight of the world's poor.
Profits from sales of the CD, the accompanying book and copyright payments when the songs are sung in church will go to projects across the world helping some of the most vulnerable citizens on planet earth.
There's some good and eminently singable songs on the record - so I've no doubt we'll be learning some of them at our church .
And the accompanying website is inviting people of all kinds to get involved in making art that changes lives and raises awareness. That can only be a good thing. So check it out here
Lovely to see Richard Dawkins and co doing their bit to revive God's profile in the post-Christmas lull. just when the Holy family disappears from our high streets, God returns on the sides of buses courtesy of an alliance of atheists (you couldn't make it up, could you?)
Lovely too that the Theos think tank and the Churches Advertising Network have contributed money to ensure the campaign gets on as many buses as possible.
It's interesting that atheism only has an 'eat, drink and be merry' philosophy. The ad doesn't suggest that because there's probably no God we should get on and help the poor, volunteer at a refugee camp, feed the hungry, sit with the grieving or anything positive.
As Matthew Parris, one of the early supporters of the campaign, said in the Times recently, Christianity is what Africa needs if that continent is going to overcome many of its problems. Interesting that he doesn't apply his incisive logic to the UK!
So the ad is entertaining - after all, it's the brain-child of a comedy writer - but is it really offering a serious lifestyle choice that will make a tangible difference to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable on our fragile and warring planet?
Started the day today with a group of schools workers who'd asked me to go and give them an overview of Mark's gospel on which they are basing all the assemblies they're doing this term.
It's the kind of thing I love doing - sharing the fruits of scholarship with an audience that doesn't usually read scholarly material.
The best part of it was a conversation I had afterwards with a young women who asked where I got my information from because she really wanted to follow ideas up and get answers to some of her questions about how we read and understand the Bible.
It confirmed that I want to write the social history of the New Testament book that I'm still negotiating on because as I was suggesting things for this woman to read, there was nothing that covered the waterfront for a mid-level audience.
She also confirms that there is an audience for this kind of material among people in our churches. This suggests not only that we need more books for such folk (and web sites and interactive learning aids, etc) but also that our preaching needs to tackle these issues in a slightly meatier way. I think we sometimes feel that our congregations are afraid of facts, history and debates about how to read texts. In fact, many of them are eager for such stuff and we owe it to them.
So, I'm going to start writing it anyway...
Actually, I've got to start because I'm teaching the course on which it's based in Sri Lanka this summer and I need to revise my entire set of notes - so I can kill two birds with one stone.
It's snowing! Looking out on my street pavements are white and snow flakes are sticking to the branches of trees. it's lovely.
Finished my Ministry Today article - it should be in the next issue (which is nice) and launched our first new series of 2009 - a six month journey through Mark's Gospel. Our other new series kicks off next Sunday.
I've reached the first working Monday in January - apparently the worst day of the year (but then BBC Breakfast was in hyper-panic mode this morning!) - feeling in need of a holiday!
I think 2009 is going to prove challenging in a number of ways. Over the weekend I had my first conversation with a church member who is beginning to struggle as a result of the economic downturn. I'm sure there will be many more as January unfolds.
Our family service yesterday asked us to get into groups and talk about the kind of church we think God wants us to be this year. it was interesting talking to people afterwards to hear how many groups talked about pooling resources to help people through difficult times. We need to find ways of not only keeping such ideas alive, but also making them a reality in practical ways.
I'm a passionate follower of Jesus. I'm a husband and a dad. I pastor a church in a London suburb. I'm the author of nine books, most recently The World of the Early Church: A Social History (Lion Hudson 2011), Discovering Galatians (IVP 2007) and Building a Better Body (Authentic 2007)and five other books