Tag Archives: church life

The subversive act of breaking bread

Last night (Wednesday), a group of about 25 people gathered in a large room in a house in the London borough of Lewisham. We engaged in speech and acts that represent a challenge to the way the world works. It was symbolic, it was simple and yet it carried in it a breath of quiet power that brought some to tears.

What sort of underground meeting was this? This was church in the raw. We are an ecclesiastically liberal church, so there is no need for ceremony, for robes, for procession, for chanting or any number of things that distract and get in the way. We were merely a small community of people, drifting in at the end of the day to gather together.

There was some general friendliness, catching up on the events of the week, before the person who had called us together on this crisp evening at the start of autumn spoke to us from the book of Acts about a time of refreshing. There was some sung worship and a time of open prayer, where anyone may speak. One person sung in tongues and an interpretation was asked for. After a minute or so, an interpretation was sung back.

We then moved to what our church (and many others) refer to as breaking bread. Some call it mass, others Eucharist, still others communion and some call it the Lord’s Table. Each has their merits and connotations. In a small, private gathering such as this, some things are easier than in a bigger, public meeting. There was an encouragement that if people so wished, they could pray prayers of confession. Why this is a good thing, I don’t want to go into here. Maybe another time. Sometimes people will do so, sometimes they won’t.

Whatever prayers were said and what people asked forgiveness for shall, of course, remain private. But one by one people went to the table in the middle of the room and prayed their prayers of confession and asked for forgiveness. Then they took the bread and the grape juice, the symbols of Jesus’ body and blood, and partook of them.

Breaking bread is an act of obedience and could well be said to be one of christianity’s oldest practices. Every act of obedience is also an act of rebellion; it just depends on which you focus. For to obey God in breaking bread is to rebel against the world. Some may see the rejection of religion as a rebellion against (a non-existent) God, but while that is shouted, it echoes a quiet whisper of obedience to the world of the way things are, to the zeitgeist of passive indifference to the cross.

On the mountain where Moses encountered the burning bush, God asked Moses to remove his footwear for God’s presence there, at that time, made it a holy place. In that room last night, the spirit of God moved amongst the gathered saints and that place, at that time, became a holy place.

To speak of holy things is an act of rebellion against an unholy world.

To break bread in communion, in remembrance of a crucified Messiah subverts the hero narrative that our culture longs for and preaches to us every day.

We closed with a song of declaration, “I believe in Jesus“. This statement of belief is not only a positive affirmation, but it flies in the face of received wisdom, of “common” sense, of the assumed way of being that pervades every strand of our society.

As we left that place, some 2 hours later, we breathed in and out, our act of rebellion done behind closed doors. But as we continue to breath the spirit of God, we can go about spreading not only the message of defiance, but the positive message of joy and hope that Jesus brings.

Book Review: Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

After several recommendations, I pushed this up my reading list, but that’s something I’m quite glad of. It’s now 5 years since I was first introduced to Bonhoeffer when I read The Cost of Discipleship whilst hiking around the Julian Alps of north-western Slovenia. Following up with Letters and Papers from Prison, probably no two books have had a greater influence on the direction of my discipleship in recent years.

This is a very short book, running to a little under 100 pages in the edition I read, made up of 5 chapters. From the off, as with The Cost of Discipleship and much of the later parts Letters and Papers from Prison, Bonhoeffer metaphorically picks up the reader by the lapels and gives them a firm shake. One of the difficulties with reading Bonhoeffer is that he writes quite concisely. Each sentence packs a lot into it, but it is also of such a quality that one cannot help but be drawn in. You keep reading and want to keep reading, but at the same time you want to stop and ponder the points made. So even though it’s relatively brief, I had to force myself to take longer over reading it than I normally would.

He opens with a chapter on christian community where the key point is that this is life lived in Jesus, not just a life lived unto Jesus. So we are reminded of the participation we have in all aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry. This is further expanded on later on and remains a running theme throughout the book. Bonhoeffer is keen to stress the difference between the christian community, what it means to be Church, from what it means to be any other gathering of people. In so doing, he is a strong advocate of community bound by spirit and has fairly short shrift for those who would try to view church community as any kind of social or anthropological construct.

Following up on this quite general opening, he moves onto some specifics when he writes about the day spent with others. Here, he is very family focused, almost to the extent of being assumptive that a christian’s life will be within a family, and that that family will have a fairly rigid routine. While I would recognise the great value that there can be in routine (what a friend of mine refers to as Holy Habits) I am sceptical about when a routine becomes a rule or goes even further and becomes a ritual. Nonconformists, myself included, will sometimes speak of a dichotomy between a living faith and a dead religion. What we mean by this is not that anything that could be spoken of as religious is inherently bad, but it is where the ceremonial has taken over and things are done for the sake of doing them. As one anglo-catholic friend of mine puts it, “You’ve got to have the dressing up, the chanting, the smells and bells. Otherwise it’s just not proper religion”. Now Bonhoeffer doesn’t go to that conservative extreme, but he is quite prescriptive.

He stresses the use of Psalms in worship, though he gets a bit tangled up at times. It’s noticeable that he takes a very “high” view of scripture – higher than mine, though I hope to have a piece written on this fairly soon. While he doesn’t venture into talking about inerrancy, one gets the impression that, were the question put to him, it’s a view that he might well endorse.

From the day with others he goes on to speak of the day alone. This is much more akin to the world I live in. Though he doesn’t make a huge about-turn from the previous chapter; it’s much more a continuation, noting that families are separated from one another by their work for most of the day. The main thing I got out of this chapter was the need for faithfulness in all that we do and what is meant by the phrase “pray without ceasing” – something I try to do in my work, but freely admit that I often fail in it. Although Bonhoeffer doesn’t speak of balance per se, there is a sense here that that is what he aiming for. Or maybe it’s rather that he is giving a model for a well-rounded, complete christian life.

The penultimate chapter is simply entitled ‘Ministry’. I had feared that this was just for those in church leadership roles and would have nothing for people like me whose employment is found in the secular arena, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this fear was unfounded. In fact, I could hardly have been more wrong. What Bonhoeffer does is to look at various ways in which members of a community can minister to one another. Though brief, it is a marvelous exposition of the Petrine principle of the priesthood of all believers. There is no restriction based on whether someone is ordained or not. The ministries he goes into include holding one’s tongue, meekness, listening, helpfulness, bearing with one another, proclaiming and authority. Without recapitulating the whole thing here, I found it refreshingly challenging, like a cold, strong wind on a hilltop shortly before the break of spring.

The book culminates with a chapter mostly about confession. Here, as throughout, Bonhoeffer remains faithfully reformed. He opposes the idea of one person bearing the load of hearing the confessions of a whole congregation, but rather that that whole congregation should listen, on a small scale, to the confessions of one another. Though he doesn’t use the modern term “accountability partner” it is a concept which fits snugly within Bonhoeffer’s view of church. All this is to prepare for what Bonhoeffer sees as the culmination, the ultimate expression of church: communion. He doesn’t go into the theology of communion so doesn’t state here whether he takes a functionalist or symbolic view.

It is a truly beautiful vision of church that Bonhoeffer presents here and one that many christians possibly ache for, even if their expression of that vision isn’t worded quite so eloquently. I would reiterate my point that it is possibly a bit prescriptive and my take would be that each church community may find their own tweaks to this model which are more helpful than a one size-fits-all approach. An interesting point to note is that the model is seemingly only very loosely based on a biblical model. While Bonhoeffer takes a high view of scripture, this isn’t an exegesis, but any biblical backup is rather piecemeal. I get the impression that much is borne out of experience, but his own background is well disguised in the writing. He doesn’t say what he has tried and found helpful or unhelpful. Instead, I may try that myself as I would encourage you to read Bonhoeffer, consider his wisdom and perhaps try a renewed expression of christian community.

Theology – an idealistic view

After noting in my last review that the author had a rather idealistic view of how physics works, I thought I might take a lesson from that and give a similar-styled view in relation to theology. I wouldn’t pretend that this is how theology works, rather a sketch of a manifesto for how it should work. The seed of the idea goes back to a conversation I had some months ago about whether it was possible for theology to be a purely academic subject.

Then, as now, I would love for there to be healthy circularity in the relationship between theology and church life. Because of this circularity, where one starts might be arbitrary. So let’s first have a think about community.

Being a christian does not just mean giving assent to a set of ideas or subscribing to a creed. Nor is it just about living as part of a community. Both are involved, but one without the other will be an anaemic form of christianity. The shorthand terms for these are orthodoxy (correct view) and orthopraxy (correct practice). My idea is that these two need to held in balance. To emphasise one over the other leads to a lop-sided faith. With all due cautions over the relative terms (see here), I have found that those who identify as liberal christians will tend to emphasise orthopraxy whilst those who are more conservative will place an emphasis on orthodoxy.

The theologically informed Church

Churches need to be theologically informed. Without sound teaching, the risk is not only that false teaching may creep in, but there is also a risk that there is a wrong emphasis in what is taught. As Kurt Willems has recently pointed out, churches which constantly emphasise teachings on single issues are those one should be cautious about. Though not a church, anyone who occasionally reads the fundamentalist e-zine, Charisma, will be familiar with the constant stream of homophobic and Zionist output. The misplaced emphasis (leaving aside how much I disagree with the content of those views!) means that the form of christianity that emerges is rather cross-eyed (no pun on cross intended). The gospel may be right in front of your nose but you look from one fringe to another and portray them as the most important thing, then the message of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection gets sidelined.

“High” and “low” perspectives

So how about theology? The study of the bible inevitably has to start with a view about the bible. Whether one chooses a “high” view or a “low” view of scripture is a thorny issue which I shan’t attempt to explore in any great depth soon. For now, I think it best to pick a place on the spectrum and work through to see if it comes up with a coherent picture.

My own view is that I am at the “high” end of the spectrum but do not advocate the idea of inerrancy. Too often, discussions about how one views the bible focus on the question of authority. This is, in my view, unhelpful. If one accepts the idea of God (how might one get to this point?) then it would seem to follow, given centuries of christian teaching, that God is the ultimate authority. In the great commission, Jesus gave authority to his disciples. To some, this is the origin of the idea of apostolic succession, whereby a christian order of priesthood is established. For more on this, see here. To others, it is the origin of the idea of apostolic authorship, whereby the criteria for inclusion in the canon of the New Testament has to be that the author came from a list of apostles. While this may serve to understand the exclusion of the Shepherd of Hermas or the Epistle of Barnabas (both of which were included in the Codex Sinaiticus) it does give rise to some awkwardness over the inclusion of the books of Revelation and Hebrews, as well as the epistles labelled John and the pastoral epistles, whose authorship was disputed much later.

Instead, the question to which “the bible” is the answer is: “What is the earliest and most reliable source of information regarding christianity, its origins and aims that we have?”

Exegesis

Given this, where might one start with the more academic work of theology? Surely, it has to be with the task of exegesis: the task of bringing out of the texts what the author(s) meant to say to the audience they intended to read/hear it. To do so with integrity requires a study of the languages the texts were written in and an understanding of the cultures in which and to which they were written. This why theology is not really a solo discipline in and of itself, but in a similar way to geology being a hybrid of mostly chemistry, physics and geography, so theology is a hybrid subject, requiring mastery of the use of many tools.

One may question whether the task of exegesis is ever complete, though to remain stuck within this would prohibit progress, so we must at least come to tentative conclusions and move on, bearing in mind the need to possibly revisit the exegesis and alter it. So what is the next step? Well, there are many possibilities. This is why theology is such a rich subject, as, having put together the ingredients of the cake and properly baked it, we may slice it in any number of ways.

One could look at particular authors and try to understand their particular views, in relative isolation from other biblical authors. Or one could look at themes that emerge across a range of authors and develop a theology of these ideas, as seen from the perspective of many authors. However we set off, we need to not lose sight of the heart of the gospel nor the direction it heads towards. What should hopefully emerge from such a study is the idea of doctrine. To some, the idea of doctrine is foundational. Though it is important, I would argue that it is an emergent idea from the foundation of the writings themselves. After all, the development of systematic theology is a relatively modern phenomenon, not found in any of the writings of the bible. One might even go so far as to say that the notion of systematic theology is itself misguided; after all, Jesus was asked some very straightforward questions to which he gave rather unexpected and totally unsystematic answers. I think part of the reason is that what we are talking about is life. And life cannot be boiled down to an axiomatic approach without destroying the richness of variety that exists within and between cultures across centuries of civilization.

So if we have doctrine can we draw a straight line from that to application? I would argue not. The reason for this is that we live in a very different time from the communities out of which the writings of the bible came. So if we combine an understanding of those cultures with a correct understanding of the doctrine, then, and only then, can we make sense of the practical applications.

An example

To give a particular example, if we look at 1 Timothy 2 and take it as face value, then the bible is very clear that women are not allowed to teach. This would mean no pastors, no vicars, no “priests”, no bishops, no housegroup leaders are allowed to be women. But to take a passage in isolation from the positive affirmation of the role of women in the early church then the simplistic maxim becomes less black-and-white and more something to be worked through. If one then adds into the mix the cultural background in which Timothy lived, that of Ephesus, with its cult of Diana led by a female priesthood, then one can understand that there might be a time-and-location-specific reason for the way Paul wrote. The counter-argument includes Paul’s characteristic appeal to the Torah, specifically to the order of creation. At the risk of getting unnecessarily sidetracked, I shall leave further exploration of that particular issue for another time. I intend only as an example of the kind of ways of thinking that I believe are healthy.

The great cocktail

To return to the main point, then. Imagine a set of tubes. We have two input tubes and one output. The two items feeding in are doctrine (having been properly prepared) and community of the local church. When these two are mixed, what we should end up with is a realistic, Christ-centred practicality. That mixing is the job not so much of the academic theologians, but of our church leaders, whether one refers to them as pastors, priests or vicars, they are the great cocktail mixers who have the tough job of holding these two inputs in balance whilst remaining relevant to their own church community and indeed, the wider, unchurched community around them.

Coming full circle

So having made the point that churches need to be theologically informed, and how that might look in practice, how about the other way around? In short, it’s about theology being informed by the life of the Church. Without it, what we risk is turning the study of theology into a purely academic field, devoid of life.

So when it comes to the issues that affect the life of the Church and its members, which are in essence the issues that face humanity, then ivory tower thinking will not do. All the time, there are pressing questions which are asked both within christian communities and asked of them by the rest of the world. How might we respond?

This is where get to glimpse that theology is not a static subject, restricted only to the study of ancient texts. Within the bible, we see how doctrine interacted with the needs of the community, both Jewish and christian, and we have examples of how it has worked, but mostly how it hasn’t. I would hope that we’re good at learning from the past, if only just to make brand new mistakes. But my hope would be that good theology, informed by the Church it seeks to serve, helps to restrict the range of mistakes we might make.

To go back to my example above, for centuries it might well have been unthought of that women might have leadership roles within churches, just as one might take it for granted that slavery is a fact of life. Yet changing societies put pressure on churches to re-examine what we think, and such re-examination is no bad thing. Differing hermeneutics have given rise to people defending the use of slavery, though again we need to be conscious of differences in cultures, in that the kind of slavery against which the abolitionist protested was quite different from that present in the Roman Empire in the 1st century. Likewise, the feminist movement gave credence to the thought that there is no good reason why a woman shouldn’t hold to the same roles as a man. Today, I can’t think of any churches that advocate slavery, though the issue of women in leadership continues to be an issue for some.

In so doing, though, there needs to be care taken not to simply jump on a bandwagon. What sometimes worries me with churches that have more liberal social values is that sometimes they seem to skip the good theology part and jump straight to conclusions. In other words, the idea that “Jesus was a liberal” is taken as axiomatic, rather than the product of exegesis. It for such a reason that I cannot agree with Vicky Beeching’s anachronistic example of this, “Jesus was a feminist“.

Conclusion

So what we need is a Church that is theologically informed. A Church that is familiar with the texts which are the best source of information about the origins, ideas and communities of our belief, both as a matter of history, but also as a matter of everyday practicality, living as an example of a renewed humanity between pentecost and parousia. At the same time, theology as a study has to be informed by the Church and the many church communities that comprise it. There needs to be something of an urgent hotline whereby the very real issues christians face throughout the world can be addressed by those who have the gift of understanding, in order that the Church may be soundly led and guided.

Of course, this is all idealistic and doesn’t necessarily reflect the real world. I would hope that some of this is faintly familiar, though I guess many of you have other insights borne out of your own experience of church life and theology.

So, what do you think? Does all this sound reasonable, pie in the sky or just setting off on the wrong track?

Church: a simple act of generosity

Christians can be very opinionated people. You probably think the same of me, and you’d be right. One topic, among many, that we have an opinion on is “what church/Church should be”. This may be phrased as “what church/Church should do” or “what church/Church should look like”.

The questions that we ask say a lot about us. So there’s no really “neutral” way of asking such a question, as it inherently betrays what we think the answer may be.

While we can all have our pet theories about the answer, I was struck by something incredibly simple on Sunday. Our housegroup leaders were going to be away this week, so a couple of people from the housegroup just said “why don’t we just meet up anyway?” We exchanged phone numbers and fixed a time and place. It wasn’t complicated, just an act of friendship, despite the fact that, being quiet, it’s fair to say that few people know me, fewer still know my name. For someone else to open their home and invite me is an extraordinary act of generosity.

Such acts are not the be all and end all of what it means to be church, but we can all start somewhere. If we take just one aspect of the parable of the dishonest manager as our starting point, especially

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much

Within the church, we have loads of opportunity to serve each other. I wouldn’t suggest that this is the sole or even primary purpose of the church. But it provides a great practice ground where we can learn to be generous to one another so that, as we grow in maturity, we can be more generous to our neighbours (in the Good Samaritan 0r Good EDL member sense).

Institutional church – an analogy

On Wednesday, this question was posed on Twitter:

The following exchange was:

This got me thinking.

I’m happy for an institution to exist which supports the church, but I would hesitate to regard the two as equal. In the early church, when the apostles started to find their work hindered they delegated responsibility. The seed was sown for an organisation to help the body.

I view it as one might scaffolding. It can be a bit ugly, certainly not as beautiful as the building beneath. This can put people off; though they may glimpse something of what is within, it’s often masked by steel, or plastic that flaps in the wind. It’s firmly attached to the building, but it is not the building. It’s sometimes staffed (manned?) by those who occasionally shout at one another, or give unhelpful comments to those passing by.

With a large church, it’s an unfortunate necessity, borne not out of theological imperative, but of practical need.

Some churches may try to be inside-out, giving a beautiful presentation to the outside world, only for some to be bitterly disappointed when they enter, finding building works going on indoors.

Picture by Peter Broster, used under creative commons license

Picture by Peter Broster, used under creative commons license

All analogies, have their failings, as does this. But might this ring a little true in your experience? I’m just musing here.

On leaving churches and remaining united

This post has been heavily edited and rewritten over the last week (not least the title, which I’m still not sure is the best it could be). There is much that has been left out which was on my heart but which I’m not convinced was wise for publication just yet. I hope that what remains is coherent and kind.

A little over a week ago, a friend posted a link on Facebook to the blog of an American pastor entitled 5 Really Bad Reasons To Leave Your Church. The post prompted a lot of interesting responses, some on Facebook, some on the blog itself. I wrote a first draft of a response in the weekend following, but couldn’t quite it right, whether that be in tone, in detail or in length. I found myself going off on all sorts of tangents. The best response was one of the first, where Hannah Mudge (@boudledige) engaged directly with the points raised in the article and looked at the analogy of escaping from an abusive relationship.

I queried the author about whether or not he thought there were any good reasons for leaving. I could not help but think of my own reasons and those given by a friend from the opposite end of the ecclesiastical spectrum from myself, The Artsy Honker. Where I got bogged down in my first draft was trying to recapitulate those, rephrasing my own past reasons in terms of Aaron’s post.

After a week of reflection, I think the lingering idea that has stuck has been that of emotional engagement. It takes a lot of courage to speak up about reasons for either leaving or considering leaving. If we view church as a family, then we can never “truly” leave, but we can move out of home and move in with others. So when I talk about leaving a church it’s never about giving up one’s faith. I am firmly of the idea that there are times and circumstances when it is right for someone to move on. At that point, one has a choice about how to go about it. One could just slip out of the door one Sunday morning and never come back or one can talk through with a pastor/minister/vicar (however you want to phrase it) the reasons why. Whether that means a face to face conversation or a written communication, that is up the individual and whatever is most helpful.

In any such conversation one has to bear in mind the well-being of the other party. I would hate to leave a church in any kind of a bad mood. If there is any critique to be given then this should be done graciously, with the aim of ultimately building up one another, or encouraging them. Likewise, if a church leader disagrees with such reasons, this should not be done in a condemnatory way. I think this was my issue with Aaron’s post, as it came across (bearing in mind, he’s American, so it may it not have translated well across the Atlantic) as unloving, judgmental and indicative of a pastor’s hurt pride.

Nomatter how good our intentions are, one thing we have to bear in mind is that we are fallible and get things wrong. If I try to be sensitive to someone else’s feelings as I move away then I may not get it right; I might say a word out of place or fail to mention something I should have done. The unity of the christian Church (as a whole) is vitally important. Yet we have different local gatherings for a wide variety of different reasons, whether they be because one favours a particular tradition or a hierarchical structure, while another is more liberal about such things.

Since moving to London last summer, the church I have settled at doesn’t meet on the 4th Sunday morning of the month, for reasons to do with the building we hire. What that allows me is the opportunity to be more ecumenical and visit another church in the local area, sharing fellowing one month with the united reformed church, another month with the methodists and just yesterday I went to an anglican church. I would love it if people from other churches dropped into us once in a while so we express a common identity in Christ, rather than living in parallel worlds which inhabit the same neighbourhoods, as can often happen. 

Book Review: Post Charismatic? by Rob McAlpine

Post charismatic? is a book about the charismatic movement in modern christianity, about some of the harm that has come about as a result of it and where it how a healed future might look. This is summed up by the subtitle, which asks 3 questions:

Where are we?
Where have we come from?
Where are we going?

McAlpine acknowledges from the outset that he writes from a North American perspective. So while there are strong echoes with my experience here in the UK, there are some areas McAlpine writes about which are less familiar.

The book is split into two parts. The first is a brief history of the charismatic movement; the second is a sort of manifesto, an outline for how a post-charismatic church might look. One thing need to be made clear, though. Post-charismatic is not to be confused with non-charismatic. McAlpine at all times embraces a fully trinitarian view whereby the Holy Spirit is a real and active part of the Godhead; this is not an advocacy of cessationism or a sort of non-charismatic trinitarianism whereby the Holy Spirit is paid lip-service but largely sidelined, as one may find in the more conservative traditionalist churches.

The history section is done in a very odd way. McAlpine goes out of his way to avoid a comprehensive history. Instead, he picks a few small episodes, noting where some terminology or praxis has been used which is also echoed elsewhere. The aim behind this is that readers will recognise some features and then apply the wider narrative to their own situation.

I have a problem with this approach, as it encourages a kind of ‘guilt by association’ whereby, for example, a church has preached on “touch not the Lord’s anointed”. In the chapter on ‘covering and authority’ this is cited as an excuse for not questioning authority. Yet abuses of power take many different forms, which McAlpine overlooks, using a very limited number of examples as though these were synechdoches for the whole charismatic movement.

What is present is generally good material. There are some notable exceptions. He states on page 31, “There are many well-known people in the Pentecostal movement whom you won’t read about here. People like John G Lake, Smith Wigglesworth, Kathryn Kuhlman, David DuPlessis….[M]y intent is…to trace the historical roots as they pertain to the developing theology and praxis of the movement, not to write an exhaustive historical account.” This may seem to simply be a matter of constraint on writing time and page space, though such obvious omissions which are incredibly important to the modern development of the charismatic church look rather suspicious. It’s a little like someone writing a history of American politics and choosing to omit Jefferson, Lincoln and Nixon.

The reason for these omissions become clear once you realise what McAlpine’s agenda is, which is not explicit. One notes from the back cover that, “Rob McAlpine has ministered in various settings, ranging from house churches to pastoring and church-planting within the Vineyard movement in Canada and the United States.” So the author is part of the Vineyard church, the home of the Toronto outpouring, the one movement whose consequences and impact on pentecostalism has caused more harm than any other. Yet in the few instances where it mentioned (downplayed) McAlpine is swift to say that it wasn’t really the Vineyard church that started it.

It’s always interesting to note who is referenced, either in support or in opposition, by any author. Two names crop up with regularity that are spoken of with unmitigated praise. They are John Wimber and Wayne Grudem. Grudem should be a name familiar to most, as the author of one of the widely used books of systematic theology, as well as, more controversially, his book claiming that capitalism is not only compatible with, but is supported by, the bible. However, if you do a little digging around, you will find that Grudem has spoken strongly in favour of a particular network of churches. Can you guess which one? Yes, Vineyard.

What about John Wimber? It’s not a name I’ve ever come across before, it’s never mentioned in any churches, so one has to do a little more research. Though I had my suspicions given that he the way he was quoted was almost in the same way that christians sometimes quote Jesus, or how catholics quote the pope. One soon finds out that Wimber was a church leader in a particular network of churches. I think you can have a reasonable guess as to the way this is heading in.

What we end up with is a whitewashed version of history where examples have had to be contrived in order to make a relevant point without talking about the Toronto-shaped elephant in the room. That should not mean, though, that the cases discussed are wholly irrelevant. There is much that is good here regarding things like the “prosperity gospel“, claims about healing, spiritual authority and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It’s the manner in which McAlpine has gone about it which detract from me wholly recommending the book.

The second half, the practical proposals for how the church might be reimagined in the light of past abuses, does contain much which is creditable. However, given the undue emphasis that is given to a Vineyard viewpoint, this must be taken with a great pinch of salt. Some other churches get mentioned early on, though the likes of New Frontiers, Ichthus, Kingdom Faith, and Elim are pushed to the margins.

In conclusion, for what is included, it is a good book, with some realistic and practical suggestions. For what it leaves out, though, it presents a distorted view of recent church history in order to exonerate the author’s own church. It could do with a re-write that not only includes case studies (for there are none here, McAlpine writes in generalities) but also tackles “charismania” head-on dealing with the likes of Toronto and Todd Bentley, possibly also the cult of the New Mystics that has emerged recently. I would also remind potential readers of the book that it is US-centric. If writers in the UK, South Korea or Nigeria were to write a similar book, then it would take a different shape. However, I know of no other books of a similar nature that are not cessationist (one might think of Strange Fire); so perhaps this is just the first of a flurry of such books dealing with a great need that has arisen within the Church.

Tradition

I’m attempting this as another post from my phone, written over the weekend and edited in my lunchbreaks. Hopefully, that means it will be short. We’ll see.

Tradition is one issue about which I am quite passionate. On the few occasions I choose not to bite my tongue, I invariably get a torrent of abuse for doing so. This usually happens on Twitter which, due to the character limitations, is rarely the best platform for nuanced discussion. Taking shortcuts in the thinking or using alternative, shorter, words can lead to misunderstanding, which, in my view, is probably the leading cause of disagreements and arguments. It is therefore my hope that I may avoid such unnecessary unpleasantness here.

This should not be seen as any sort of attack or dig at particular groups or individuals. That’s not the sort of thing I would do. Instead, the motivation for speaking out is the hope that it will prompt others to think and have a reevaluation. Though as the post will hopefully go on to show, this may be a bigger obstacle for some given the subject matter.

What do I mean by tradition? Roughly speaking, it’s the practice of doing something on the basis that it has been done before, repeatedly, and for an extensive period of time. This might be done by an individual for a number of years or it could be done by an identifiable group over centuries.

Most traditions are, I believe, benign. Some are helpful, some are unhelpful though some may be positively damaging. I would hope that that statement is relatively uncontroversial. Where we might all differ is on which traditions fall into which categories. Part of the difficulty is that many traditions are ingrained within various cultures to the extent that the traditions help to form a significant chunk of that cultural identity. To question the tradition may be seen to call in question that cultural identity, or even to attack it. If an individual feels strongly identified with that culture then in order to defend it against a perceived attack, the individual will feel compelled to defend the tradition. Please bear this in mind when considering critiques of those traditions which you have a vested interest in. It is not a wholesale attack on on a person’s identity; though if considered rationally it might to lead to some reconsideration of the use of tradition within a given community.

To give an example of a tradition that I would consider benign, having the family and friends of a wedding party sit on a particular side; bride’s family & friends on the left, groom’s family & friends on the right. There’s no functional purpose to this and though it may a cause a little consternation for those who are friends of both, there is neither any great reason to stick to it, nor is there any pressing need to depart from it.

Though I may write about tradition in general, I will often have in mind tradition within the church. As a nonconformist, I do have the luxury of not being tied into any one tradition. Though I have qualms about those who identify themselves through their tradition (or else use the term ‘christian’ as a synonym for their particular tradition), that is not to say that any and all traditions are inherently wrong, misleading or unhelpful. Part of the reason they develop is because of their helpfulness to a particular community in a particular society at a particular time.

Yet that specificity is the seed of why I don’t wholly embrace one tradition or another. The very nature of tradition carries with it a normative overtone that may not translate across cultures and centuries, resulting in a community that can be anachronistic or simply ill-fitted to the society in which it finds itself.

It often strikes me as odd that those who are most passionate about quite radical reform within our present western culture are often those who most strongly defend their own brand of traditionalism. If the church is to be at the heart of God’s plan to renew creation, surely the church has to be the first to change. There is a strange irony here, though. Of the many -isms and -ists that pervade our lexicon, christianity seems to have its fair share. One I recently came across is one that could be used a fair description of me: restorationist (though if you click the link you’ll see it’s quite a jumble). Broadly speaking, though, I hold to the idea that the modern church should have the same aims as the early church. So in some respects, I could be seen as an ultra-traditionalist. Though I would contend that that’s not quite the right way to look at it, as I would not advocate replicating the praxis of the church as it existed then, but rather advocating that a modern praxis should have recognisable echoes of the early church.

The advantage the non-conformist has over the traditionalist is that of picking and choosing what lessons from the past we can best learn from. One need not, say, accept and bind ourselves to everything that is recognisably  anabaptist, yet that does not mean we cannot look at their beliefs and practices, adapting the most helpful of these to our present circumstances. In other words, tradition is not something to be adhered to and defended in the face of prevailing circumstances and evidence; and it should certainly not be used as a substitute for scripture. Yet it can be regarded as a useful resource which may be used to help us understand where we have come from and how others have understood scripture, without having to adhere to the lessons of the past unquestioningly.

I’ve tried to talk in generalities here, though if you want more specifics, see other posts I’ve written on liturgical chanting, priests and saints. I hope that clarifies my position, though please do let me know if anything was unclear if there are any points you think I’ve overlooked.

Guest Post: ‘Consumer Culture’ in the Church by @redjules

While I’m taking a blogging break, I’m hoping to host some guest writers. Today, Jules Middleton takes the reigns. Jules works for a church in West Sussex and can be found on Twitter posting as @redjules. She blogs at Apples of Gold. Please do go and have a peek at what she’s up to.

Picture courtesy of roland (Creative Commons)

Picture courtesy of roland (Creative Commons)

Consumerism:

1: The protection or promotion of the interests of consumers

2: The preoccupation of society with the acquisition of consumer goods

‘Consumer Church’ seems to be a bit of a buzz phrase in Christian circles at the moment and not in a positive way. So what on earth is it and is it really all that bad? Well, in simple terms it means that people treat church like any other area of their life –  as consumers. I rather like definition No.1 above, but can we as the church, be seen to be protecting or promoting the interests of our consumers? or are we, like everyone else, more on No.2: preoccupied with the acquisition of consumer goods, or more like the acquisition of consumers as far as the church is concerned!

Let’s face it, we live in a consumer-led age. Much of what we see or encounter daily, is designed to feed our ‘inner consumer’. Our culture teaches us that we need ‘stuff’ and there’s no avoiding it. Modern marketing is so clever isn’t it? It’s gone way beyond TV ads appealing to our personal desires, you know: ‘you can be the perfect Mum if you buy this brand of nappy’, or ‘you will be the best date if you buy our brand of aftershave’. Ever noticed how ads on Facebook & other sites pop up related to a website you have just looked at? spooky, huh? Not really, it’s just very clever marketing.

Of course, it’s not only ‘stuff’ that we consume. We consume information at a rate faster than any generation has experienced before. At the click of a button, we can find out pretty much anything we want. We can communicate with people in the remotest areas of the world just with a few simple taps on our phones.

Our lives revolve around what we need, what we can get and when we can get it. Sounds a bit negative maybe? Well just ask yourself, how often do you buy online rather than going to the local shop? How often do you get frustrated that you can’t get an appointment at the doctors as soon as you’d like? How often do you get annoyed with being on hold for more than 20 seconds, or when you don’t get an instant reply to a text or email?

My first job was the glamorous world (not) of Superdrug on a Saturday. The manager told me on my first day ‘the customer is always right, even when they’re not’. This has really stuck with me, but recently I’ve begun to wonder if we, as a society, haven’t taken that to the absolute extreme. We have created a world that we expect to serve us, and not only that but we want to be served and we have got used to it.

So then, why should we be surprised when people take the same attitude to church? As church leaders we find it frustrating when people don’t ‘join in’, when they regularly attend without giving anything back. But in a way we have made a rod for own backs, as the more contemporary forms of church have developed, so have people’s desires for different ways of doing church. Many have become disgruntled with their local church and have searched out more – because they can, and, because that’s what society teaches them to do. Just as once, people might have complained about the local grocers not having the brand of pickle they prefer and instead driving to the big supermarket out of town, now, we have arrived at consumer church. We go where we feel we fit, where we feel we get what we need, where we can choose the brand of Gospel that we prefer. Because, we can.

So what are we all complaining about? If people are consumers, what’s the problem? Clearly, the message Jesus brought was about being the server, not the servee and if we go through life expecting things put on a plate for us then we are not giving a great example of who Jesus was, are we? But I would suggest that the fact is we do live in a consumer age so how can we make that work for us as the church? It’s a tough call to get people to walk against an existing and all encompassing way of life, so what can we do to embrace consumerism in a Godly way?

Well if you think about it, don’t we want people to ‘consume’ God’s word? Don’t we want people to take on board what we are preaching? Don’t we want to bless people with the services we put on? Many of the more successful churches are those that embrace consumerism and work it, for example using podcasts and video clips circulated online, so people can access them as and when they need; social media is used as a way of getting information out to people at their convenience; online communities, chatrooms and even interactive web-based church services make a place that is accessible to all; prayer rooms that are open 24/7 means people can find a place of worship to attend at any hour of the day or night; God TV and other channels provide all manner of teaching, worship and prayer at the click of a button, when we want it.

So I ask you to consider, in this era of one-click-consumption, is consumer culture in the church all bad? or should we be making it work for us? It is an ongoing issue in the church and one that is not likely to go away any time soon, so it’s about time we started thinking about it!

If anyone else would like to guest post here, do drop me a line.