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None dare call it racism

Fri, 07/03/2015 - 12:37
Language Undefined

I’ve been thinking about this article a lot this week. I’ve seen a number of racist, sexist and homophobic opinions from people who would swear up and down they’re not racist, sexist or homophobic. As Daniel Ames says in the linked article, “They’re not lying, they’re just wrong.”

But this is where I think Crystal Moten misses the point. As as soon as you call out behaviour as racist, sexist or homophobic, the perpetrators will think that you are talking about someone else, never them, because nobody ever thinks those labels apply to them. We evaluate these terms against our subjective feelings, and we find that we are absolved.

How else can you understand a sentence like “We believe prejudice to be Biblically wrong, but the whole plan of God shows that races should not intermarry”? (To pick a surprisingly recent example.) The person who said that does not think of themselves as racist. They check: No, I don’t feel any personal animosity towards black people, therefore I’m not a racist. Anyway, it’s not my fault; I’m just repeating the clear teaching of Scripture.

So I think we need to talk not about racism or sexism or homophobia but instead about discrimination, about treating people differently, which is an objective measure and nothing to do with personal feelings. We can then at least have a conversation about whether that discrimination is warranted or not. But if we talk about racism or sexism or homophobia, that conversation can’t even take place.

Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism

Something to be aware of

Wed, 06/03/2015 - 01:15
Language Undefined

The Japanese media and Internet is all aflutter at the moment about something which has become known as the 神社油かけ事件 (“incident of throwing oil on temples and shrines.”) If you’re working in Japan, you need to know about this, because you will probably hear about it.

The facts are basically these: an arrest warrant has been issued for a 52 year old US-resident Japanese man on suspicion of damaging property. He has been accused of attacking cultural properties, in particular shrines and temples in Chiba and other areas, by pouring oil on them. He has apparently explained that, as a Christian, he was purifying those shrines and temples from the evil spirits that are enslaving Japan.

It’s hard to defend someone who’s basically been caught defacing cultural property, but the media have been as merciless and cruel as usual. Memories of Aum Shinrikyo are still strong; when religion hits the news, the vitriol gets turned up to 11. The man’s public ministry has been scoured for anything salacious, anything that could be twisted and reinterpreted to label him a fundamentalist or cultist. Because of this I’m in two minds about naming him—I wouldn’t want a mistake to lead to my name all over the Internet—but the vicious nature of the Japanese blogosphere means that that particular ship has well and truly sailed, and the best thing we can do is try to say some nice things about him instead. He has been named as Dr Masahide Kanayama, who heads up an outreach called International Marketplace Ministry.

As far as I can tell, IMM Japan seems to be a pretty normal, orthodox ministry, although perhaps a little bit of a one-man-band affair with not too much oversight and accountability. It’s connected with the Back To Jerusalem movement; people who have no idea what that means have apparently decided that it must be a fundamentalist apocalyptic cult similar to ISIS. (I did say that the Japanese media gets merciless about religion in the news.) The aim of IMM is to train, equip, and send Christians as missionaries in their workplaces throughout Japan and across the world. It’s exactly the sort of thing the Japanese Church ought to be doing. More power to them!

Dr Kanayama is also (pretty obviously) on the more Pentecostal side of things, so we can unfortunately look forward to a chorus of Japanese Evangelicals distancing themselves from him and the incident. And I can understand the temptation. The public image of Christianity is being dragged through the mud right now, and we don’t want to get dragged down there with it. We want to defend the faith, defend ourselves, and keep out of the fray, so it’s an easy way out to say to people “No, he’s not like us”.

But actually, he is. He’s just like us. We may not be so daft as to literally anoint places with oil but I’ve worked with teams and with missionaries who have gone to temples and shrines to pray for the same things, for the same reason, with the same beliefs. One of the articles that I read about the incident argued that this is basically what you get from a monotheistic religion—they don’t respect other gods. And it’s true; we don’t. Dr Kanayama’s attitude to the spiritual realm is fairly mainstream amongst Christians.

We do, I hope, want to see this country become spiritually purified and turned towards God. Yes, that is a deeply offensive concept in a highly pluralistic society like Japan, and that’s why people are going nuts about Dr Kanayama right now. Yes, we need to be very careful and respectful in how we express what we want to see, and yes, (needless to say) Dr Kanayama got that badly wrong. But the worst thing we could do is pretend that he’s some complete oddball, that we’re not like him and that this isn’t what we want to see. Because that is precisely how Japanese society applies pressure to us to water down our faith and make it acceptable to the mainstream—acceptable, and totally ineffective.

Subject tags: theologyjapanmission

"You too ought to wash one anothers' feet"

Tue, 06/02/2015 - 09:52
Language Undefined

Have you ever attended a foot-washing ceremony? It’s one of those things that happens at Christian gatherings; it’s sometimes carried out by the leadership of a group, as an symbolic expression of their willingness to serve those that they lead. And it makes me really, really uncomfortable.

What makes me uncomfortable isn’t just that someone is fiddling with my feet. OK, I admit: that does make me a bit uncomfortable. My feet are not always in great condition and I don’t enjoy feeling obligated to bare them in front of others. In my case, and I’m sure in the case of others as well, an act of foot-washing serves more to evoke feelings of embarrassment and shame than blessing and service.

But that’s incidental; my real discomfort comes from what the act of foot-washing means, and what it has come to mean.

The first problem I have is that these foot-washing ceremonies can actually have very much the opposite effect to their overt intention. I think in many cases their job is not so much to represent servanthood as leadership. Foucault was right: power is everywhere.

To see what I mean, ask yourself the question: who is allowed to wash whose feet? Sometimes anyone can wash anyone else’s feet, which is great, but more often, the action of foot-washing will actually serve to reinforce a divide between leader and led. I’m not arguing here that there shouldn’t be a divide between leader and led, but I am arguing that this is absolutely not what Jesus was talking about when he commanded his disciples to wash each others’ feet in John 13. What he had in mind was the same mutuality as the command to “love one another”, which appears later in the same passage. So in a way we have taken a practice that Jesus initiated and turned it into its exact opposite.

The second problem I have is that the world has changed quite dramatically.

In Jesus’s day, people wore sandals, and the roads were dirty, dusty, and, well, animals passed by. By the time you got to someone’s house, your feet would be covered in poo. “Washing feet” would really mean cleaning off animal faeces and whatever other unpleasantness was picked up from the streets. It was, if you’ll pardon the pun, a crap job.

In that sense, my context of modern, industrialised Japan is about as far from the Biblical context as you can possibly get. There is strict sociological distinction between inside and outside space; different areas of physical space and different footwear have different levels of (ritual) cleanliness. Someone moves from the outside (wearing shoes) to inside (wearing slippers) to tatami-matted rooms (wearing just socks or bare feet). The upshot is that, compared to the Biblical Middle East, Japanese feet are—culturally speaking—clean.

And in most other countries too, even if we don’t have those cultural dynamics, let’s face it, our feet aren’t actually covered in mud and dust and poo any more. So what is the meaning of washing feet that are already clean? Something that originally was an act of service has now turned into something that is symbolic of an act of service—without actually being one!

It’s true that Jesus gave us an example to follow. We should do “just as I have done for you.” But as J Ramsey Michaels puts it in his commentary on John:

Just as there is no one way in which disciples “lay down their lives” for each other, so there is no one way in which they wash one another’s feet. Mutual love is the key, but this love may express itself in material help, deeds of kindness, forgiveness of wrongs committed, protection from persecution, even death in another’s place–all the things that God himself provides for his children.

Subject tags: theologyleadership

Falsehoods Christians believe about non-Christians

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 01:05
Language Undefined

“How can people be good without knowing God?” It’s a surprisingly common apologetic gambit, but I think it’s time that we put that canard to rest.

It sounds like a theological question, but I don’t think it is. If it were a theological question, it could be dealt with in theological terms: in fact, there’s an answer right there in the Bible. How can people be good without knowing God? “For whenever the Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, these who do not have the law are a law to themselves. They show that the work of the law is written in their hearts, as their conscience bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or else defend them.” Next question.

But it’s not a theological question. It’s a statement phrased as a question—I can’t think of a way that people can be good if they don’t know God—and that’s more of a statement about worldview than it is about theology. Specifically, it’s an admission of a failure to understand how non-Christians tick.

You won’t hear this question in places where Christians are a small minority. This is because in those places, Christians know enough non-Christians, meet them and interact with them on a daily basis, to know full well that non-Christians are capable of doing good without God. They work with them. They live with them. They marry them. They’re perfectly aware that non-Christians are not all horrendous evildoers who would be killing and raping if they knew they could get away with it. Here in Japan, let’s face it, the majority of people are nice, kind, considerate and honest. How can people be good without knowing God? Who cares—they are, so your argument is invalid.

So it’s really only in those situations where Christians have enough critical mass to form a self-contained echo chamber that such questions arise. People form their Christian communities, spend most of their time with Christian friends, eventually lose contact with the non-Christian worldview. At this point they fail to understand how people work, and so need to invent just-so stories to explain other people’s behavior from inside their own worldview.

In other words, what looks like an apologetic argument is actually the result of failing to interact evangelistically on a meaningful basis. Pretty ironic, huh?

And it’s not just about morality. There are a whole bunch of falsehoods that Christians tell each other about non-Christians.

One of the best sessions that I went to at a New Wine conference many years ago was run by an evangelist working within universities. I can’t remember who it was, because it was a long time ago now, but there are a lot of advantages to being an evangelist; you get to spend the majority of your time with non-Christians, who can often be more considerate and more pleasant to be around than many Christians can.

And because you spend the majority of time with non-Christians, you can’t so easy make sloppy assumptions about their worldview. The conference session ran through a few of the things that Christians think: that non-Christians are plagued by feelings of guilt, emptiness and incompleteness; that they are continually aware of their own sin and subconsciously seeking a solution to it; that they feel a “God-shaped hole” in their life; that if they appear to be happy, it’s only at a surface level in which they’ve managed to shut out their deeper feelings; and so on.

For any non-Christians reading, this is pretty common currency within the Evangelical world, because that’s what that worldview implies. But it’s clearly not true—and, you can argue, rather insulting too—and the evangelist patiently explained to us that it’s not true, and you are unlikely to make any headway in evangelism if you start with untrue assumptions about the feelings of the person you’re talking to. So these falsehoods may make us feel better about our own salvation, but they’re actively harmful when it comes to interacting with the rest of the world.

And yet, of course, it’s not just us. Any group which prefers its own company, preferences its own discourse and worldview over everyone else’s, and ends up only talking to itself about the rest of the world tends to make sloppy assumptions about how the rest of that world works. So if you ever hear a bunch of atheists complaining that all Christians just uncritically accept whatever they’re taught about their own personal Sky Fairy, you can say, yeah, I’ve seen that line of argument before.

Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism

The Narrow Gate

Wed, 05/13/2015 - 08:19
Language Undefined

I’ve been wondering recently what it means to be a Christian—who gets to call themselves a Christian? Do certain people call themselves Christians when they aren’t? And is there a way to tell them apart, without falling into “no true Scotsman” territory? Today I came up with a solution, and it’s not neat or particularly encouraging, but it may be helpful.

It’s actually very easy to be a Christian. Not very much is required. You can make a deathbed conversion, declare your faith in Jesus, never do anything else again, and you’re a 100%, honest-to-goodness Christian. So in that sense being a Christian imposes no moral, ethical, social or political strictures on anyone. The Bible talks about it like this: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Or like this: “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Or like this: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.”

That’s all you need to do. And that’s the scandal of Christianity, that it’s radically inclusive. Everyone is welcome. Bonhoeffer was wrong; there is such a thing as cheap grace. Being a Christian is easy.

Being a disciple, a follower of Jesus, though—now that’s a different story.

I don’t know if Jesus himself had this distinction in mind; maybe he expected everyone who believed in him to be 100% sold out on following him. After all, there wasn’t anyone called “Christian” while he was about. Maybe it’s a distinction that’s come about through Paul, filtered through the kind of “lifeboat rescue” view of salvation that NT Wright so carefully dismantles. But I think it’s a distinction worth making today.

Whereas the option of faith in Christ is open to everyone, Jesus was very clear that discipleship is a difficult calling for the few. He talks about it as being a narrow gate, which would be an odd thing to say if you expected everyone to fit through. He demands that those who want to be a disciple must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily”. That doesn’t sound like an easy thing. Bonhoeffer was right—when Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die.

Jesus called some people “unfit for service in the kingdom of God”, simply because they put their family before serving him; others were whittled out because they put their money before serving him. Disciples can’t serve two masters. Disciples have to serve others, to humble themselves, to avoid defilement, to look after widows and orphans… the list goes on, and we could argue some of the details but it’s hopefully very clear that this is no longer wide open and scandalously inclusive. Being a disciple does impact how you live. Being a disciple, unlike being a Christian, very definitely has moral, ethical, social and political dimensions for your life. Being a disciple costs.

You can choose Christ and have an easy life, but by goodness you’re in for it if Christ chooses you.

We believe, we hope, we assume, that one leads necessarily to the other—that someone who converts to faith in Christ would go on to make the step from there to walking the narrow way of discipleship. But it isn’t necessarily the case.

I had lunch with a pastor of a Japanese church the other day, and he said that his congregation had asked him, in so many words, to stop preaching to them about Christian growth. Discipleship, they said, was not something that they saw the need for. They were saved, they went to church every Sunday, they paid their tithe—they were doing their bit, and anything else was his bit. Why was he trying to make his job into their job? And from my experience, I don’t think that kind of attitude is particularly unusual here, even though one does not often hear it expressed so baldly.

In other words, the Japanese church has a lot of Christians but very few disciples. Getting Japanese people over the hurdle of faith and into the Church has been such a major challenge that we have been quite happy to stop there, count our converts, and give thanks—not wanting to push them too hard along the costly path of discipleship. If we push them too much, they might leave the Church, and how can that be better? And then we wonder why the Japanese church doesn’t multiply; why it’s so hard to get lay people involved in ministry; and all that. Well, why should they? What incentive do they have?

Tyler Edwards argues that the same process is happening in the Western churches, as consumerist tendencies push us towards an easier, more convenient, less demanding gospel. But I don’t think this is a cultural phenomenon, in Japan or in the West. Christian leaders over the centuries have bemoaned a lack of spiritual commitment from the masses in the pews. A hundred years ago, C T Studd complained that

“We Christians of today are indeed a tepid crew. Had we but half the fire and enthusiasm of the Suffragettes in the past, we would have the world evangelized and Christ back among us in no time.”

And Jesus said the same thing about the church in Laodicea back in the first century. So the distinction between “Christian” and “disciple” is not a new thing; it’s not about culture, or about consumerism, or even about how missionaries and pastors have failed to engage with people. If anything, it’s about the 80-20 rule.

Or more to the point, it is about the scandal at the heart of Christianity, or at least of our understanding of it—that Christ is open to all, that anyone can be saved… but walking through the narrow gate is strictly an optional extra.

Subject tags: theology

The mission of open source: Evangelism

Sat, 04/18/2015 - 07:08
Language Undefined

My professional life has two parts to it; the first part is as a software developer, and the second part is as a missionary. Sometimes I get to combine the two things and write open source software that powers the work of mission; but other times I’m literally getting out there spending time with people who are interested in Jesus.

In other words, I’m an evangelist, and that’s a term that has a lot of meaning in the tech community as well. Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond were amongst the first to be called “open source evangelists”, and these days all the big companies and projects in both open and closed source technologies employ brand and product evangelists.

An evangelist is literally someone who spreads good news. I honestly don’t know how much reflection that tech evangelists regularly do about their own praxis, but I do know that the question of how to best spread good news amongst different groups of people has exercised Christian missionaries for many of the past centuries. When I was training to become a missionary, I spent a lot of time studying missiology, which is the academic discipline of reflection on mission. For instance, David Bosch’s comprehensive history, Transforming Mission, evaluates the motivations for, reflections on, and approaches to evangelism from day one up until the present, and you know what—you don’t have to subscribe to the tenets of Christian mission to benefit from them.

When I moved from full-time programming into full-time mission, I was surprised by how many of the concepts that the open source movement has pioneered can be directly applicable to mission. (For instance, the idea that worse is better is being played out in the house church movement at the moment.) And while, sure, missionaries are not doing as well as we could be right now at spread the good news that we have, I’m sure that there are plenty of things which apply the other way around too. This is the first article of a series of three which will look at areas where I think the technology sphere might have something to learn from the developments in missiology over the past two thousand years.

In particular, I want to look at a change in the understanding of evangelism which has happened in the missiology world in the past fifty years or so. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the traditional mode of evangelism was propositional and objective: the missionary’s religion was presented as a matter of absolute universal truth, something to be presented through logical coherent arguments (the discipline of apologetics) and then the listener was challenged for a response. One popular approach was even called the “Four Spiritual Laws”—the underlying mindset being that these propositions that, let’s face it, some evangelist came up with and turned into an evangelistic package, were as universal and incontrovertible as the law of gravity.

This worked well for—or at least, whether or not it worked well, it was an inevitable product of the kind of modernist worldview prevalent in the Western countries sending missionaries at the time.

And, switching disciplines, it’s been a very common way for people to talk about their software products. We roll out benchmarks, feature lists, and the like, to show that our preferred software project is better than the competition, from which it logically follows that you must adopt our technology because it is the superior product. Computers are the most objective things there are, and the people who work with them tend to appreciate that objectivity.

But recently there’s been a trend within mission practice away from that objective style of evangelism towards a newer, more subjective understanding; partly this has been due to the cultural shift from modernity to postmodernity, but more to the point, it’s because the older method had some serious flaws.

For one thing, there’s now more of a realisation that evangelism needs to be highly contextual. Let’s take my context, of Japan. Japanese people don’t really have a cultural concept of “sin”. But the Four Spiritual Laws and other strategies are framed in terms of sin. In order to make that work in Japan you have to essentially first convert people to your mindset in order to convince them that they have a problem they didn’t previously realise that they had. I mentioned that evangelism literally meant spreading good news, but this method relies on telling people bad news—they have a problem. You will occasionally hear evangelists in Japan saying that you have to persuade people of the bad news before you can tell them the good news.

The newer approach starts with a deeper understanding of the culture and the people, in order to discover the “felt needs”—the problems that they’re already aware of. Vince Donovan, in his wonderful Christianity Rediscovered, writes about a Masai man who had committed a sin against his community and had been ostracised. He did not need a lecture about sin; he knew about sin. What he needed was forgiveness and reconciliation with his community. Donovan began to share the stories of reconciliation through faith with this man and his community.

In this new approach, the story—the testimony—is paramount. It is no longer about logical propositions, but about the experiences of the individual, shared problems which have been overcome. The testimony essentially has three parts: this was the problem; then I did this; now the problem is solved. With an emphasis on story, there is a need for evangelists to have a collection of good stories to tell—points of contact between their life and the lives of their listeners. As they build a witness of stories, so they have the ability to share those stories with others.

How does this apply to open source? I’ve mentioned that when sharing the merits of an open source project, there’s often an emphasis on objective facts, rather than stories. But felt needs evangelism starts with the question “Why does this do that my target audience needs? What problem do they have that I have already overcome?”

To pick a random example, I just had a look at the MongoDB web site. I don’t mean to pick on MongoDB—they’re better than many others—but I have to pick on someone to illustrate this. Before the fold on the MongoDB web site, I’m assaulted with figures about the size of the community, the number of downloads, commits, and so on. Further down the page, I’m told that MongoDB “makes it easy for you to store data of any structure and dynamically modify the schema”, that it is scalable, has robust tools, and so on. Down at the bottom of the page there are some case studies, which is a great start, but even they are pretty vague—“we couldn’t do what we wanted”, more or less; “MongoDB let us do what we were doing faster and more flexibly.”

Nowhere, really, does it answer the question “What is this thing and why should I care about it?”

Here’s a story.

I took over maintaining a legacy application. It had five hundred database tables in MySQL, and really, it was only dealing with four core concepts. A couple of external consultancy firms had looked at the application with a view to redeveloping it and, I kid you not, they both refused to take it on. It was just too scary. Each table had its own model in the web framework, and it was a nightmare to understand how the application worked, let alone develop new features for it.

It took my team weeks to work out what all these tables meant, and even whether or not they were still actually in use. Eventually we realised that most of the tables in the database were there to work around the fact that those four core concepts were actually documents, with all kinds of different properties optionally attached to them. What we really needed was a way to store, retrieve and index these documents as documents, not as hundreds of different relations. That’s exactly what a NoSQL database gives you.

After we moved the application to MongoDB, we had four concepts, four database tables, and four framework models. We could throw out so much code, it was easier to start the application layer again from scratch because a huge amount of the old code was just joining associations together. What’s left is actual business logic, rather than database scaffolding. Now we have an application that our developers can actually develop with confidence, rather than fear and dread. Oh, and it’s also much faster too.

Problem, solution, result. Hopefully it’s a problem that other people can relate to as well—I think we all know the many-headed hydra Database From Hell. And notice that explaining the problem and the solution means that you don’t actually have to separately explain what MongoDB is and why it’s relevant, because that’s already taken care of. Not only that, it puts that explanation into an example and a context that makes it easier to grasp.

Now here’s an interesting thing. There’s currently a reaction against felt-needs evangelism going on in the faith community. Some of the reasons for this are not appropriate for Open Source, but certainly one is: there is a recognition that sometimes the solution is costly, and the evangelist who focuses purely on the felt needs but does not express the challenge and costly nature of the solution does not present their good news fairly. In the case of open source, it may be that migrating to a new project will provide the user with a speed increase, but the cost of migration may outweigh the benefits. In my example, tearing down the project and starting again with a clean implementation was obviously the right thing to do, but that’s not always the case. In another case, I realised that many of the queries we wanted to do with our database, but couldn’t easily do, would be much easier with a graph database; but the effort involved in transitioning from an RDBMS to a graph database would be much more than the gain provided by having those queries available.

One more thing: I remember one of my teachers telling me that, to be a good evangelist, you need to be a good atheist. Often the people you send out to evangelise your faith (or your project) are the people who are right at the center of things, but these kinds of people aren’t necessarily used to thinking about things from the perspective of, as it were, non-users; they’re not the best at understanding the needs and the problems. The best stories come from from your new converts—people who used to think about a problem in one way, and now think about it differently.

What’s the takeaway from all this for technology evangelists?

  • Always start your evangelism from the perspective of non-users—what are their problems, what are their needs?
  • Make sure that somewhere you’re answering the question “What is this and why should I care about it?”
  • Collect simple stories from new users which demonstrate how your technology solves these problems, and put these stories front and center.
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about the situations where this technology won’t be the right thing. People need to know the cost.
  • Make your evangelism about people, not about propositions.

Next I’ll be writing about what it means to develop community, both in mission and in open source projects.

Subject tags: theologytechnologyevangelismopen source

On Counting Christians

Fri, 04/10/2015 - 22:13
Language Undefined

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the state of the church, UK and internationally. Eddie recently noted that “the decline in church numbers will place many Christian institutions at risk”; linked from that article is another one about how the church is growing. David Robertson says that the UK church is suicidal, but everything would all be fixed if we were only just a great deal more fundamentalist. (Despite all the evidence that the UK is less and less willing to listen to illiberal voices.)

But is the church actually declining and does it matter? When I see these surveys quoted, I assume that the methodology is suspect, not because I know anything in particular about the methodology but because pretty much any methodology you could possibly use to answer the quest is suspect. Certainly church attendance and self-identified Christian numbers are going down, and they’re the only numbers we can really count: the number of bums on pews on a Sunday morning, and the number of those who call themselves Christians either on the census or on some survey. I don’t see any problem collecting and interpreting statistics—I do it myself—but I wonder if we need to be a bit more cautious about the conclusions that we draw.

Church attendance is a theologically suspect category to begin with. We don’t attend church. We are the Church. I know, this is kind of a lost cause, but it’s important. Because Sunday morning attendance—typically measured by reports from the larger, traditional denominations—only gives you part of the picture. One of the things I have spent the past four or so years trying to convince my colleagues of is that you can be a Christian without turning up 10:30 on a Sunday to a building with a cross on the top; and no, this doesn’t mean, as the traditional false dichotomy goes, that you’re trying to live out your faith in isolation from the Church and have hence missed the point of the whole thing. No, there is another option, and it’s pretty common.

Alan Jamieson did a lot of research on those leaving Evangelical, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches and found that significant numbers of them have maintained their faith—and in many cases are growing in their faith—despite having left their denominational structure, and still continue to meet and worship with each other but in more organic, simple communities outside the established “churches”. George Barna has similarly been using his research and polling to investigate house churches, and found growth and vitality in those movements too.

In other words, a fall in the number of Sunday worshippers—a decrease in the size of the “church”—does not necessarily correlate with a decrease in the size of the Church. It can tell you other useful information about the state of particular denominations and their cultural appropriateness; but given that there is a trend in many areas of Western society away from large, traditional monolithic power structures towards smaller, independent networks, it may not actually tell you anything that (hopefully) you did not already know.

And as usual, the reasons why people come to church may have less to do with their relationship with Jesus and more to do with the nature of the church. Tim Suttle, who wrote the book Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church Growth Culture put it like this:

If pressed about my church’s growth strategy, I usually say it is to get smaller and die, to continually decrease the amount of time, resources, and energy we spend trying to have the ultimate church experience, and to spend more time actually being faithful. Nowadays, faithfulness — not success — is our only metric.

How do you count the people who are coming for the faithfulness, not for the experience–should you count attendees, or disciples?

But equally, the number of those who self-identify as Christian is also less clear than it might appear. Sure, gone are the days when “Oh, I don’t know, just put down CofE” was the standard answer to a religion question on a survey form, but does that mean there are fewer Christians? Actually, I rather welcome a fall in self-identification numbers because it gets us closer to truer picture. If people no longer feel the cultural, historical tendency to call themselves a Christian, then perhaps the remainder who do are actually those who believe it. And I imagine that that proportion has been fairly steady all along.

And that bring us the biggest problem of all: you can’t actually measure what people believe, or how it affects them. Jesus said that the world would know his disciples not by their church attendance or what they say about themselves, but by how they love each other. As far as I’m aware, there hasn’t ever been a head-count of Christians based on the criteria that Jesus actually set for us.

The Bible abounds with reminders that what you claim about yourself is not enough: “not all those who are descended from Israel are truly Israel”; “the Lord knows those who are his”; “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven”. It ought to be clear, then, that this is not a question with an easy answer.

I don’t think these statistics are totally meaningless, and I do think Christianity in the UK probably is in decline. And yet I think Tim Suttle gets it right. How do we respond to a decline? Does it make us want to pray more, teach more, disciple more, evangelise more, send more? Hopefully it does. And yet, with or without statistics, isn’t that what a faithful Church was supposed to be doing all along?

Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism

By the renewing of your mind

Thu, 04/09/2015 - 12:05
Language Undefined

The other day I was having a coffee and a chat with a local pastor friend. He’s recently taken over a congregation which has told him—in so many words—that they don’t agree with the idea of Christian growth. They don’t see the point of discipleship. It’s not something that they want. They come to church on Sunday; they pay their tithe; they’re doing their duty, and what more should the church expect of them? Should he not be focusing more on his duty of pastoral care and preparing sermons, rather than trying to get us interested in all this mission and personal discipleship stuff?

I was pretty shocked at the time to hear of these attitudes, but later I realised that it’s only shocking because it’s so baldly expressed. You’ll find precisely the same attitude in most Christians, although they’re more careful about how they express it.

Over the past fifty years or so, there’s been a lot of important work done in the area of how our culture shapes our Christianity. Theologians have come into contact with Christians from other parts of the world and have discovered that they don’t all think the same way. And that being the case, it raises interesting questions about what factors have shaped the inherited Christianity of the West. Whereas in the past, we saw our theology as normative and the theologies of Africa, Asia, South America and so on as novel and exotic, there’s now more of an understanding that all theology is contextual and that all expressions of Christianity are modulated by culture, even those of the West. When we talk about, for example, Jesus’s death as taking the punishment for sin, we now realise that we are talking out of a background of specific Western models of forensic legal process that may not relate to justice systems in other cultures. So this is progress.

But I think we’re missing a trick. We now understand very well that our cultural background is an integral part of our expression of faith, but I don’t see that anyone has pointed out how much our ideological background shapes our expression of Christianity.

What I mean is that you can take a politically liberal person and make him a Christian, and he will naturally gravitate towards the ways that the early church had all things in common, that the prophets spoke to structural and corporate injustices, and so on, and you will produce a politically liberal Christian. If you take a politically conservative person and make him a Christian, he will naturally gravitate to those passages in the Bible which condemn particular actions and speak about the moral responsibility and obligations of the individual, and you will produce a politically conservative Christian.

Each person has found theological justification for what they believed all along, and in neither of these examples has an encounter with the Bible fundamentally challenged the way that they see the world. For just as when we look at the Bible we see those parts which naturally resonate with our own cultural background, we also see those parts which resonate with our a priori ideologies.

To take the obvious examples of the day, if you already thought that that women and men were equal in status and gifting, then egalitarian theology would naturally be your cup of tea; and if you already thought women and men were different, then it would be utterly unsurprising if you were to be drawn to complementarian theology. It’s quite possible to be wholly sexist and wholly Christian, because you can always find ways of interpreting the Bible which provide a normalizing narrative for that sexism—just as it’s possible to find ways of interpreting the Bible which state that homosexuals do not deserve to be treated the same as heterosexuals.

I believe that an encounter with the Bible should change us. If it doesn’t, we’re just reading it in order to reinforce and find succour for our own prejudices, and I’m not sure that’s what the Bible is for. But for it to change us, we need to be both open and aware of the depth of our own preconceptions, and to honestly and earnestly desire the Bible to speak into the established patterns of our thinking.

And yet, based on the experiences of my friend above, I do wonder how much we really are ready for that to happen. Are we not all, to some degree, happier to find a justification for what we believed all along, rather than to think about the radical message of Jesus could actually interfere with our own core beliefs about how the world works?

Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism

Christianity without weakness

Mon, 04/06/2015 - 08:48
Language Undefined

In both the UK and the US at the moment, there is something of a public debate about how Christianity should be defined and interpreted.

In the UK, this started with some ill-advised remarks from our Prime Minister to an Evangelical radio station; in particular, that “Easter is all about remembering the importance of change, responsibility, and doing the right thing for the good of our children,” which is a strange way of seeing a festival that celebrates the resurrection of one man from the dead.

The backlash—for instance, the Guardian’s editorial—often made the same mistake, replacing one set of trite value statements with another: liberal Easter is about “the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities.” Even Michael Gove’s Spectator article, amazingly fortuitously timed to remove some of the heat from the PM, fails to mention Jesus, his resurrection or even any of his teaching even once, preferring to see Christianity primarily in terms of the mission of the beati possidentes to their benevolence upon the poor have-nots, and the “unique and valuable nature of every individual.”

The tone in the US is quite different; the usual Evangelical hysteria about marginalisation and persecution has led to Indiana’s government passing a law essentially allowing you to discriminate against people if you feel your religion requires you to. “What Would Jesus Do?” becomes “Who Would Jesus Turn Away?” (This despite the fact that Jesus gave clear and unequivocal instructions about how to protest people whose behaviour disagree with.)

In both countries, there’s an election imminent, and it would be foolish to think that had nothing to do with it all. But I was particularly struck by one particular reaction in the US:

Coulter then launched into rant criticizing Christians for not pushing back against “bullies” on “the left.”

“The fact that these Christians would rather get praise from The New York Times and Nicholas Kristof by changing bedpans of Ebola patients in Nigeria, rather than stand up to The New York Times and fight against abortion and fight against these bullies…

O’Reilly then lamented that “there are no clerics in America — zero — who put themselves out to defend the Christian faith.”

Because you know, nothing says “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek” quite like standing up and fighting for your privilege. And yes, sure, it’s Fox News, and it’s some of the blowhardiest blowhards on Fox News. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the doctrine of many American Christians is far more influenced by opinionists on Fox News than by their pastors.

More to the point, I think the Christianity portrayed by O’Reilly and Coulter—and to a certain degree, of Cameron, Gove and the Guardian—is indicative of a particularly dangerous syncretism: a worldly Christianity, which shuns weakness and seeks to cling on to power so that this power can be wielded over others—even for what we regard to be the public good. Cameron believes in “the power of faith to forge a better society”, while Gove is keen to ensure that those who do their acts of righteousness should be seen and honoured by others.

It’s the most seductive point of attack for Christianity, precisely because the idea of rejecting worldly power, acclaim, and authority, and instead pursuing quiet victory through weakness and meekness is so utterly counter-cultural. It’s so out of our daily experience and our understanding of the entire social order that it’s very easy to conclude, even subconsciously, that Christ can’t possibly have meant that. I’ve read Matthew 5:39 (“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”) with people, and had them immediately say “But of course, Jesus wasn’t saying that we can’t defend ourselves.” It’s too far out of the box, and so it’s the first thing to go.

And yet it is precisely glorification through weakness which we celebrate at Easter—“Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles”; it is Christ’s victory through weakness rather than strength which gives rise to idea that we can “delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Perhaps the closest commentary to the mark came from Giles Fraser, who said that

Christianity, properly understood, is a religion of losers – the worst of playground insults. For not only do we not want to be a loser, we don’t want to associate with them either. We pointedly shun losers, as if some of their loser-ness might rub off on us. Or rather, more honestly, we shun them because others might recognise us as among their number. And because we secretly fear that this might actually be true, we shun them all the more viciously, thus to distance ourselves all the more emphatically.

In a world where we semaphore our successes to each other at every possible opportunity, churches cannot be blamed for failing to live up to this austere and wonderful message. The worst of them judge their success in entirely worldly terms, by counting their followers. Their websites show images of happy, uncomplicated people doing good improving stuff in the big community. But if I am right about the meaning of Christ’s passion, then a church is at its best when it fails, when it gives up on all the ecclesiastical glitter, when the weeds start to break through the floor, and when it shows others that failure is absolutely nothing of the sort.

A Christianity that fights for its faith, demands its rights, and wants to stand up and be counted is easy to swallow; but it has completely missed the point of how Jesus interacted with the world. And so I do not think it is unreasonable to say that a Christianity without weakness is no Christianity at all.

Subject tags: theologyevangelicalism

Dog or monkey?

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 08:34
Language Undefined

The place where we stayed this week had both a lot of international guests and a couple of spidermonkeys. So I managed to overhear these two conversations, which managed to neatly sum up a lot of cultural differences in parenting:

Western baby: “Dog!”
Western parent: “That’s not a dog, it’s a monkey!”

Japanese baby: “Dog!”
Japanese parent: “Yes, it is a little bit like a dog, isn’t it?” (「そうだ、ちょっと犬見たいよね。」)

There’s so much in this. For one, you never contradict people directly in Japan; you find a compromise that protects the relationship.

Second, there was a good article in Japan Harvest recently about Japanese attitudes to truth. It quoted a mother saying, “If my son says his toy car is a snake, then it is a snake to him.”

Subject tags: japanculture