Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Larry on his friends

Thanks to Sean the Baptist posting these words on his blog and reminding me of another great Larry Norman song

Well my life is filled with songs
But I just could not get along without my friends
And I'm happy now, but when this good life ends
I know a better life begins ...

... And someone died for all your friends
But even better yet, he lives again.
And if this song does not make sense to you,
I hope His spirit slips on through, He loves you.

'Song for a Small Circle of Friends'

Larry Norman 1947-2008

Well the sad news today is that Larry Norman has died.

It's hard to estimate how big an influence he had on me as a teenager and young Christians. He was a major reason that I came to faith in Jesus at all; he was the reason I joined a band and gigged around the North West; he's the reason I wrote the kind of songs I did.

But much more important than any of this, he was a model of rebellious orthodoxy that I hope I will never tire of following. Larry Norman always seemed to be saying that being a follower of Jesus was not synonymous with middle class respectability and drab, uncreative conformity. For that alone, I will be eternally grateful.

But then there were the songs. He wrote vibrant, witty, tuneful and rocking stuff - his early 1970s output is among the finest music committed to vinyl. I remember getting the digitally remastered Only Visiting this Planet and crying. Yes, some of it sounds of its time now, but Why don't you look into Jesus, the Outlaw, I am the six 0'Clock News and The Great American Novel are still amazingly effective. He is the best lyricist the church has produced in over a century by a long shot.

Martin Joseph rehabilitated his Six Sixty Six on his recent Deep Blue album. It represents one of the things I never got about Larry - probably because I didn't grow up in US dispensationalist circles - which was his eschatology. For this reason I never really liked I wish We'd been all been ready - though it had a pretty tune.

But he was always more than that. My best memory of him is seeing him at the Co op Hall in Leicester. I was a late teenager, there with my youth group. In those days there was no separation between the star and the audience and during the break I found myself standing next to a shy and polite Larry Norman who listened and responded to my gauche attempts at conversation about chord sequences before resuming a brilliant set - just him and his tiny acoustic guitar.

He's a towering figure. I'll miss him.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The slow road back to wellville

Well, here I am still struggling to throw off this flu bug. It's left me feeling drained with a tightness across my chest and a bit of hacking cough. Still, life goes on...

Nearly finished Rob Warner's book. The second half - on the theological changes - has been fascinating. I was particularly heartened by his account of the adopting of the new basis of faith by my old Alma mater, London Bible College, under its now former principal, Derek Tidball.

I found the accounts of the various bases of faith a tad dull and dis-spiriting, the latter because it seems to confirm that evangelicals are pathologically obsessed with circling the wagons and keeping out the enemy - even when the enemy turns out to be Bible believing Christians with a slightly different take on some arcane point of doctrine.

For a movement heading for the rocks - and potential oblivion - shuffling who sits where on the poop deck seems a calamitous waste of resources!

I've been preparing some thoughts on how we do mission for delivery to Spurgeon's students in the morning. I'm looking forward to it - it'll be the first work I've done for a week!

And my spell-checker has returned - thank you blogger central (or whoever you are)!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Struck by the lurgy....

Well, I've struck down by the winter fluey-cold and completely wiped out for most of the past week. And what's worse, I've been so thick-headed that I haven't been able to read for any length of time.

I have discovered BBC iPlayer, however, enjoying re-runs of Torchwood and Freezing - and a particularly wonderful k d lang gig recorded at a church in North London (not sure if it's Union Chapel or not). She was on great form, her voice pitch-perfect throughout and the band were full of invention.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The nest is emptying

It's all go here. My younger daughter is off to Australia in the morning so it's been packing and ensuring that she's got everything she needs - though as we never tire of pointing out, she is going to a first world country with shops and stuff!

I'm sure I'm not old enough to have a daughter of an age to go off down under for eight months. But it seems I am. With her older sister away at university, our nest is going to feel somewhat empty and quiet.

I took delivery this morning of a print to order copy of Edwin Hatch's The Organisation of the early Christian Churches and found to my surprise that there are hand-written annotations all over the text. Thinking these were in pencil, I got a rubber and started to rub them out. They are not in pencil; they are printed. It's extraordinary.

I have emailed the supplier to see if they can throw some light on it. Judging by the notes that I can read, this original reader, apart from having lovely handwiritng of a clasic kind, thought the book was pretty good!

I also received Eckhard Schnabel's Early Christian Mission (both volumes) as a gift from IVP (for reading some stuff for them and being an all-round nice person!). It's probably not something I'd have bought my self (the price is somewhat off-putting), but it looks fascinating and extremely comprehensive. I shall enjoy dipping into it.

Now I'm off to prepare a roast dinner - a last supper before my second-born heads off to the other side of the planet.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

So, what am I for, exactly?

Following yesterday's post on bible reading, I've been doing a bit of that with various people through today and making some interesting discoveries (and rediscoveries).

Our women's bible study group was getting its teeth into 1 Corinthians 11 this lunchtime - actually it was our second week of looking at it and we haven't yet really got down to a close reading of the text (maybe next time)!

Rather we've been talking about how we read the bible. And I must say I find myself a little perplexed at how some people are socialised into the world of Bible reading in our churches.

It seems that we feel we can't read the Bible like we read any other book. All our critical faculties, it seems, have to be left at the door. I know the Bible is inpsired. I know it's God's word. I know that if we take it seriously, it's dynamite.

The trouble is that we're schooled not to take the Bible seriously. We either treat it as a promise box - lots of things God's going to do for me because he loves me - or we treat it as a rule book, full of 'do's' and 'don'ts' and commands that we have to follow or else. We seem not to be able to read it as a story. And this has to be learned behaviour because it's not an obvious way to read anything.

Surely this is what ministers are called to do something about. After all, we're not called to run churches - the members do that, making decisions as they gather together, appointing leaders from among themselves to put those decisions into effect (well, at least how Baptists are supposed to do it). We're not called to be priests, representing our people before God and God to our people - we believe in the priesthood of all believers, so all can preside at the Lord's table, all can baptise, all can share their insights and use their gifts; supremely each of us can lead each of us into an encounter with the living God.

So what are we for? I used to tell a previous church that my role was to be theological consultant, helping them to read scripture and apply it to their lives; telling stories of what they could be like if they grab hold of God with both hands - and then supporting as they do that and fear the wheels coming off completely!

And I think today that God's been reminding me that that is a key part of my job - if not my whole raison d'etre. After spending time reading the bible with lots of lovely people today, I also realise it's the part of my job that I really love the most.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Are we reading the Bible more or less?

One of the staggering statistics in Rob's book are the numbers showing the decline in the sale of Bible reading notes over the past 20 years. In 1985 Scripture Union was selling 199,593 copies per issue (that's each quarter of the year). By 2000 that figure had halved to 98,380.

Church leaders often lament what is sometimes called 'biblical illiteracy' of their congregations. This is probably unfair. And it's probably true that sales of Bible reading notes aren't a surefire guide to Bible reading.

Having said that, however, I was interested to see that the Bible Society has done some research on Christian attitudes to the Bible and found that 35% of non-leaders read their bibles every day (you can do the maths for what that says about the proportion who don't). I'm not sure it's much of a comfort that 56% of non-leaders use the bible in their devotions 'frequently' (undefined).

SU and other bible reading note publishers might be heartened by the fact that 43% use notes of some kinds - though not much.

And we're all heartened by the fact that non-leaders do not find Richard Dawkins a threat to their confidence in the Bible - though, actually, I'm really not sure what that says about us at all. How many of those asked had heard of Richard Dawkins and why would the musings of a noted, high profile atheist make any difference to our confidence in scripture?

One of the findings in the executive summary caught my eye. 'The Bible is regarded as an important driver of spiritual growth; however its use in this respect should also be regarded as a corporate as much as an individual pursuit. People also need encouragement and assistance in developing their ability to understand and apply the Bible,' it says.

I find this very heartening. In the early church studying the scriptures was a collective activity because of literacy rates and because gathering together to support and encourage one another was the key to creating healthy Christian communities.. I think coming together to read the Bible and learn from one another is a key in our generation to growing not only healthy disciples but alsovibrant churches.

Last night we did a good deal of reading the bible and reflecting on it in groups, having had some input from the front (perhaps a little too much!). People shared their insights and i think found it a really helpful of understanding and applying the Bible. There was a real buzz about the place and a sense of engagement with God as well as the scripture.

We'll be doing it some more.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Money to burn?

I read the section on the decade of evangelism in Rob's book yesterday.

The startling statistic is that the evangelistice initiatives of 1994 - Jim, Minus to Plus and On Fire (which passed me by!) - cost British churches a staggering £8m. Add to that the costs to churches and individual Christians off flying back and forth to Toronto to get the blessing (one estimate I read put this at many millions) and it's clear that we've got money to burn...

When I was reflecting on the decade for Building a Better Body, my conclusion was that it was very fad driven, one initiative after another with no real idea of what we were trying to achieve. Over a million people left the church through the decade - which makes for an interesting definition of evangelism.

But I wonder if we've really learned the lessons of all that. As Barry Linney said 'Rather than listening to those outside [the church], we were still only speaking to them after listening to our own heartbeat.' Has anything changed?

And has anybody got any idea why the spell checker on my blogger has ceased working?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

More thoughts on Rob Warner

I am continuing to enjoy Rob Warner's Reinventing English Evangelicalism. I think it almost ranks with Pete Ward's Growing up Evangelical for its ability to give narrative shape to significant moments in my life.

I have particularly enjoyed and winced at Rob's description of Spring Harvest and his account of magazine publishing. Some of his insights are worth pondering long and hard.

For example, 'the multiple-choice approach of Spring Harvest's programme introduced many evangelicals to a comodified concept of worship and teaching: the autonomous individual makes an independent selection from the programme and may come to expect a similar autonomy in choosing local church activities.'

He adds that the Spring Harvest diet is therapeutic rather than theological and has led to the increasing ghettoisation of evangelicals. it is hard not to share his scepticism when he suggests that far from equipping evangelicals to live more effectively in the world, Spring Harvest has contributed to the creation of an evangelical family that 'looks less like a community gathering for advance than a remnant withdrawing into subcultural segregation.'

He is wonderfully acerbic on some of the music to have come out of this subculture in the past decade (joining Pete Ward and Nick Page) suggesting 'while singing songs that herald an army mobilised to take the land, Spring Harvest's evangelicals functioned increasingly as a gated community, a ghetto on holiday.'

I shall be at Spring Harvest this year working on the pastoral team as I have done for the past five years, seeking to help particpants make the most of any encounter with God that they have during their week away. But I know exactly what Rob means!

His analysis of evangelical magazines also looks spot on. As the launch editor of Christianity in the autumn of 1996, I am one who contributed to the demise of the evangelical monthly!

Our aim had been to produce a magazine that reached beyond the ghetto, found its way into news agents and Smiths and addressed the world through the prism of a carefully thought-through broad evangelical theology. What were we thinking!

Christian publishers were not prepared to invest the sums required to create such a product and Christian readers were not prepared to support it. Both seem to have opted for the easier task of talking to the converted and reinforcing their prejudices about the world and the church.

Rob is spot on when he says: 'Evangelical faith, at least in Britain, appears to have entered upon a consumerist trajectory, privately engaging but publicly irrelevant. The quest for an evangelical meta-narrative has been aborted in favour of inspirational entertainment. The secularizing process has produced evangelicals whose faith is compartmentalised and privatized according to the prevailing cultural pattern. Perhaps it is the evangelicals, to adopt Postman's polemical description of TV, who are 'amusing themselves to death.'

This might be a slight hyperbole but it contains enough truth to send us to our knees and our bibles in search of a genuinely culture-transforming expression of faith.

The importance of being equals

One of the things I love about Matthew 18 is its realisim about human motivation and assurance of God's grace.

When the chapter opens, the disciples have clearly been hurumphing about Jesus appearing to make Peter top dog in the team (16:18-20), something that could have been reinforced in what just happened (17:24-27) where Jesus miraculously provided for his and Peter's temple tax (what about us? you can almost hear the rest saying!!)

Their question about status is met with a discourse about equality of relationship among the disciple group of which a child - a completely status-free entity (interestingly refered to as 'it' in the text) - is the prime, indeed only example.

And it all leads up to a wondrous word of grace, the democratisation of authority in the community of believers, the sharing of Peter's gift in 18:18-20 where each and every disicple is given the same right to tie up and untie as Peter was given in 16:18-20.

As Dick France in his consistently excellent and in sightful commentary points out, the key to grasping these words is to recognise that Jesus speaks in future perfects. That is to say what we bind or loose will already have been bound or loosed in heaven. In other words our authority is that God graciously condescends to disclose his will to us as we gather together to ask him (that is the thrust of the prayer pericope in v19).

And all this has to do not with people - the binding or loosing is not about the including or excluding of people since the object of the binding or loosing is neuter - but with things or issues. Indeed what Jesus probably has in mind here are the actions of those wandering or sinning that he's already referred to. God graciously gives insight into what's right and wrong so that we can speak that truth into each other's lives and thus keep one another sharp and on the right track.

And he does this through being with us in our tiny insignificiant little groups in all his glorious resurrection authority (28:20; see 1:23).

Isn't this fab?!

And it raises the question why we bother about our status and where we fit in the church pecking order and whether we're doing better than the bloke who sits next to us on a Sunday morning.

The beatitudes have already reminded us that we bring nothing to the table but God gives us all we need to live. And here Jesus calls us to earth those values in the way we look out for one another. Truly, as Wesley so memorably put it, we are called to 'watch over one another with love'. What greater status could we ever want than that?

Monday, February 04, 2008

Off to a flying start

We had a really good day yesterday. Our new look evening programme attracted a good number, evenly divided across the two services - 67 at the first, 58 at the second.

Not only did the two services go well, they both felt relaxed - all the tension associated with people not liking aspects of what we do had evaporated to be replaced with an expectatncy and spirit of co-operation.

Let's hope it continues.

Next week we'll have post cards for the two congregations to take away to invite their friends to come along. It's my prayer that we'll grow the congregations in both time slots over the coming weeks with people returning to church after a long absence or those who've never been before.

Thanks for Catriona for her comments on Matthew 18 - yes, I wonder what Jesus meant by treating people like tax collectors? More on that tomorrow. I'm off to the men's Bible study to begin looking at 1 Corinthians 15 - mind-blowing!

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Ringing the changes

It's the first day of our new Sunday pattern - and I'm quite excited!

We meet as normal this morning. Then this afternoon we have a classic-style service at 4:45 and a more contemporary, fluid one at 7pm.

A number of people have said they are coming to both which kind of defeats the object but also suggests that folk are not unwilling to try to new things which is good.

I'm slightly apprehensive that the church will feel emptier at these two services than it used to at the evening service - but that is one of the reasons for doing it: offering a predictable gathering that people can bring their friends to without fear of the service not being what they expect. So we're hoping that some who have dropped off in the evening because it's been neither fish nor fowl over the past year, will start coming again and that people will friends to explore what the Christian faith is all about in a gathering they will find accessible.

My aim is that twice the number will be gathering across the two services than came to one. I'm not sure when I'd like to reach that target but this time next year would be good.

I've been getting the home group notes on the next section of Matthew that we'll be reading together. It's the discourse on relationships in chapter 18. Some of the text is tricky but I have found it incredibly stimulating as I've actually been forced to ask what the text says (and what it doesn't) and discovered that it speaks very clearly into our journey towards expressing membership in a new way.

I'll blog on it properly when I've got my head around it, but suffice to say that often people refer to this passage as being about church discipline and yet it seems to be much more about mutual care and taking responsibility for one another's discipleship. Jesus calls each of us to be attentive to one another, offering gentle care and correction as we travel together.

Watch this space...