Monday, November 23, 2009

Justifying mission - as if that's possible!

My anonymous conversation partner asks a range of salient questions about why the church should have a high street presence that go way beyond the mechanics, so I thought they deserved a response of their own.

I guess my starting point is that Jesus is the person who gives my life meaning, purpose depth and a sense of direction. And that Jesus urges me to share what I've found with other people.

Now I know that the church as we've inherited it is not a great vehicle for commending the message of Jesus to a sceptical world - hence my desire (expressed lots of times through this blog) to find other models of community and outreach. In this I am part of a big conversation with lots of other followers of Jesus.

So, when I say that the aim of being on the high street is to engage people in dialogue about Jesus with a view to introducing them to his way of living, I do not envisage many of them turning up at my church (or any other for that matter). Rather I envisage new styles of gathering growing out of those encounters, meeting there, in people's homes, in pubs, clubs or restaurants, being small and always involving the consuming of food and drink - much as Jesus did, in fact.

I agree that Christians have a chequered history. But I would suggest a visit to Sri Lanka and conversations with Christians who've been burned out of their homes and seen their land and churches stolen from under their noses by Buddhist monks before succumbing to the myth that Buddhism never did anyone any harm!

I am not going to give a point-by-point defence of the church, however, because everyone can tell stories of bad encounters, of people being badly treated and casually written off by church-goers in ways that are inexcusable. And it's happened in my church despite my best endeavours to prevent it and I'm deeply saddened by it.

But I would say that none of this - painful though it's been to me and I've no doubt to others - stops me from believing that Jesus remains the most important person who's ever lived, the only absolutely true and faithful representation of God on earth and the one whose message can and does genuinely bring life, hope and joy to millions of people around the world.

I believe the gospel to be the key to unlocking the good life of justice and equality that the world is crying out for and so I want that message to have a clear high street presence where it can shine in the neon darkness. I believe it to be a message of substance that needs to be sounded out amidst the clamour of the consumerist god which is leading our culture well and truly up the garden path to disillusionment, debt and despair.

As to whether the Christian message is sustainable over the long haul, I'd say 'yes'. It's sustained me for 35 years and a colleague I was talking to for 50 years this coming Sunday. And I could line up a room full of other witnesses who'd say the same. But, of course, it's not a question that can be answered at the start of walking with Jesus because he invites us to come and see if it's true. It's an adventure of faith we take with him and in company with others who support and pray with and for us.

It's that that I want to see on our high streets so people at least get a chance to see Jesus clearly and decide for themselves whether he might be offering the rich life they're hankering for.

Sorry if this sounds like a sermon - I am a preacher, after all...!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the full response. But I have to take issue with your headline.

Of course you have to justify mission. To the ordinary person in the high street any kind of faith is an extraordinary thing. And the promulgation of that faith is equally extraordinary. So it does need to be justified.

I have read and re-read your post and I know what you're saying. I've met many Christians who say the same thing. They are enthusiastic about their faith, about their relationship with Jesus and how it defines them as people and how it anchors them in life. And that's marvellous.

But. You're a vicar and you would say that wouldn't you? I might say that my work gives my life meaning, purpose and a sense of direction. That would be equally true.

It still doesn't answer the question about why the ordinary man in the street should convert to Christianity, or to Islam, or to Sikhism or whatever. It's not the fact of mission per se. I can see why the recruiting of fellow members is vital to the survival of the church.

But in these days where organised religion is discredited and seen as old fashioned, you've got to demonstrate why it makes a difference. I know that all the political parties are harking back to a bygone era of church on Sunday mornings somehow curing the ills of society. But that's not Christianity, that's just having a moral code. You see it in all kinds of religions all over the world. People like to have a set of rules to adhere to - and its the shifting of those rules that causes people pain. It's not the lack of believers.

I'm glad that your faith has brought you so much. And for all the 35 years or 50 years of faith, I can show you people whose lives have been destroyed by religious belief. And I'm that ordinary guy in the high street who might well drop into your centre.

Yes, there are different ways of doing things and the status quo needs to be challenged. Sure, old styles of church should be consigned to the past and new, creative ways can be developed.

But you still need to address the fundamental apathy of most people. They're just not interested and they don't see a personal faith in Jesus as interesting or relevant. They wonder how you can be so sure that Jesus is: "the only absolutely true and faithful representation of God on earth and the one whose message can and does genuinely bring life, hope and joy to millions of people around the world." Wouldn't a Muslim be equally vociferous about Mohammed? What about other religions? How can you claim that you have the monopoly on the truth? I can't get my head around that. It's an intellectual response, and I'm afraid faith requires an emotional one. Most people can't make that step.

simon said...

Yeah, the headline was ironic; of course mission needs to justifying but as your response indicates justifying it to the sceptical is a tall order.

I hear what you're saying about apathy and arrogance. It's just that I disagree with you.

What I have seen Jesus do in a whole range of lives has led me to believe that he is uniquely able to change people for the better.

I agree that that is a faith statement. I hope I make it as gently and graciously as possible but I am going to make it because I believe it to be true.

And no, a Muslim would not say the same things about Mohammed as Christians say about Jesus. we believe Jesus is divine, God incarnate. No Muslim believes that about Mohammed.

So, not all faiths are the same. I believe the Christian faith offers a different quality of life to consumerism or lots of other faiths and I believe people have a right to hear that and decide for themselves whether they believe it or not.

As to apathy, I agree there's a lot of it about but again I have seen apathetic people get excited about Jesus when they came face to face with him as he really is.

I do agree with you that the political parties' approach to Christianity is based partly on nostalgia and wishful thinking. But there is also a recognition that as these parties have worked with Christian groups up and down the country, they have seen levels of care, professionalism and outcomes that have not been matched by other kinds of providers - hence their enthusiasm for partnerships.

Anonymous said...

But surely justifying it to the sceptical is exactly what you've got to do?

It's all very well making a claim gently and graciously, but to the ordinary folks beset by all kinds of belief systems and faiths, it is just a claim. I know that you'll say the changing effects of becoming a Christian should be proof enough, but you can see all kinds of lives changed through illness, crime, hardship, success etc etc.

What you're asking is that people choose one particular faith over another, without - and I use the word advisedly - proof. You want them to adhere to the principles laid down in the Bible and to accept the doctrine of your particular aspect of Christianity and you want them to do this in the face of challenges from science, from their peers and from the media?

That's what I mean about the fundamentals of Christianity. I am sure a community-focused centre on the high stret, to be mission-based etc etc, is a truly worthy thing to do. Honest.

I guess my concern is with what lies behind it. And what happens to those people who convert? Sure, their lives are going to change, and sure, they're going to be welcomed into the church. But what's going to happen after that?

I know I'm a cynic and a sceptic about these things. I've been through the whole evangelical church thing, as well as the C of E. There's some wonderful people and the dedication and service of those is extraordinary and truly awe inspiring. But then I've seen the same sense of dedication and service outside of the church and in other religions and other walks of life.

What I still fail to understand, is why Christians think they have the monopoly on all this?

I'm not knocking your faith Simon. That would be wrong of me and downright rude. But if your high street presence is going to stand a chance, I think you'll need a pretty rigorous and intellectual defence of it. Otherwise, you'll be on a hiding to nothing.

Jonathan said...

The Apostle Peter tells us that we must always be ready give an explanation of the hope that we hold, and so to some extent I agree with you Anonymous, however there comes a point where the believer has to say, well, this is me, this is my faith, and if you're not convinced, God bless you.

I'm reminded of the blind man who had his sight restored by Jesus. As it was on the sabbath, some religious leaders used this to prove Jesus must be a sinner, so they bombard the healed man with questions, to which he replies "all I know is this, once I was blind, but now I can see".

If we fail to convince hardline skeptics, so be it, that's not the primary task of the church. And I'm not sure we need to convince the skeptics in order to justify a place on the high street. One can think of any number of organisations that divide opinion that have a high street presence. Art galleries, new-age emporiums, Ann Summers to name a few.

Why do we think people should follow the teaching and example of Jesus, why should people orient their lives around him? We say it's because there is no other way to live a complete life, no other way to know true peace, no other way to be connected to that which is truly divine, and no other way to discover true life, a life that begins now and never ends.

Ultimately this is about faith, and that's something we can't package and sell, something we can't quantify and value, something we can't make money from.

Take us or leave us, but here we are.

Anonymous said...

Jonathan said: "Ultimately this is about faith, and that's something we can't package and sell, something we can't quantify and value, something we can't make money from.

Take us or leave us, but here we are."

So my question again is: what are you trying to do? If faith is something you can't package and sell, quantify or value, why should anyone take any notice? And why would anyone want to join in?

If you're competing for the public's attention on the high street, that's absolutely what you've got to do.

I think St Peter had it about right. As for not convincing hardline sceptics, that's fine. But what about the "floating voters"? Or the not-so hardline sceptics? Don't they deserve a robust answer?

The "take us or leave us" attitude which you express flies in the face of logic. Either you have a mission or you don't. Take us or leave us? So far, most people are leaving you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you anonymous you have made me think a great deal
I suppose in the end you can give well argued cogent reasons why there might be a God and its true apologetics is a declining art today (not a dead one as books like "Who Made God ? " demonstrate) but however convicing the logic there is still a need for a step of faith
Of course we musnt bash people over the head with faith but as I think you are implying we must give robust reasons for it
and prech it with love but also with urgency