Much has been said recently of the comments made by David Cameron regarding our status as a Christian country. Are we one or not? A group of eminent atheists disagree and have written an open letter proclaiming that we are not and that the UK was a largely non-religious society.
What to make of all this? As someone who follows Jesus it may surprise you that it makes me glad that Church attendance is falling. In years gone by the Church sat next to the Pub as a place where people made friendships and connections – both were societal hubs. Just as fewer and fewer people are attending pubs – leading to closures, fewer and fewer people are attending Church for traditional reasons and so church attendance is in decline.
Why does that please me?
It is not the fact that fewer people are attending church that pleases me, but that those who continue to attend are there to worship God, not out of a sense of duty, societal pressure or obligation. It also means that we as a church can no longer sit on our haunches and expect the masses to come to us. It is great to hear the gospel preached from the pulpit, but often it is now only being preached to the converted. It is much better for those who attend church to have genuine conversations with others in the day to day world than expecting the clergy or the experts to witness on their behalf on a Sunday morning.
The Church is being forced to look outwards and engage with the world as the world is no longer walking through the doors. We can no longer rely on programmes and initiatives within the church, but must speak up in the world, each of us bearing personal witness to what God has done in our lives. We must stand up against injustice and engage with the world rather than retreat to our pews and hold on tight until Jesus returns and we have an opportunity to stand out – to be the people of God in the places where people can see us, to have a community that is demonstrably different to the society around us and to necessarily rely on God to perform miracles and wonders among us.
This makes for more genuine relationships, a more relevant church and a greater reliance on Jesus. Are we a Christian country? If we are, it is less and less so. But that is not a point to despair; the end of Christendom can only mean that there is a vacuum for God to move in to. Bring it on, I say.
Last Sunday night I visited a church in Ashington. It was a different experience to what we are used to at Heaton – some might have labelled it more ‘charismatic!’
The demographic of the congregation was different, the style of worship was less self conscious (a good thing perhaps) and the preach was more testimonial – a witness to how God is at work today. The call to come forward to receive prayer was answered by many who recognise their need to be touched by and blessed by God.
It felt more chaotic, messier. It felt more honest, if I’m honest.
I don’t want to question the way we do church, and I am not questioning your integrity, but I do think we should all question how we ‘do’ church.
Is there part of me that comes to a worship service to be entertained, to see a slick error free performance from the band (formerly called worship leaders) and a cerebral, well thought out presentation replete with memorable power point slides? Do I come to church for a pick-me-up at the end of a hard week or to be amused for an hour or so before I get on with the rest of my life? Does Church feel like going to the theatre where I am the audience?
And this brings me to the crux of my ramblings: am I at church for what I can get out of it or am I there for what I can put in to it?
Church is for the audience of One. And that is not me.
Church is where I come to spend myself sacrificially in worship, through the sung part and other ‘bits’ of the service.
Church is where I come to participate, not scrutinise.
Church is where I come to be the most honest I’ve been all week.
Church is where I come to be abandon myself and become wholly God-conscious.
A little bit of the ‘charismatic’, the chaotic, an admission of the messy reality of life is no bad thing. Thankfully, we don’t need to go to all the way to Ashington for God to be at work!
The question I’m asking of me is, could there be room in the way that I ‘do’ church for a little bit more of God and a little bit less of me? Sometimes it takes a good look in the mirror to become less self conscious.
I’ll leave you to ponder that one!
A number of years ago I was in South Africa and decided that given the wonderfully sunny weather a dip in the sea would be splendid. My wife and I decided to go body boarding in the Indian Ocean. I’ve since learned that the sea I’d grown up with is quite different to an Ocean. I’d never been into an Ocean. I’d been in the North Sea, I’d been in the Irish Sea but I’d never been in an Ocean. Oceans are bigger, the currents are stronger the waves are more powerful. Until you’ve experienced it, you don’t appreciate it. So here I was on the beach, ready to go body boarding with my wife. We strolled confidently to the edge of the Abyss. In the first instance I couldn’t even get into the ocean. I couldn’t get beyond the first break – it kept spitting me back out on the beach. That should have served as a warning that really I wasn’t up to this. Jo on the other hand was happily paddling around in the water catching waves and having a great time. Driven on by pride eventually I got beyond the first wave. At some point prior to this I really should have considered that as well as having never swum in an Ocean, I’d never been body boarding either. So having struggled to get in to the water I then proceeded to try and get back out of the water; to catch a wave. Anyone ever tried that? It’s not impossible to do as other people have proved. But given my inexperience with a)Oceans b) body boards and c) swimming of any nature, I couldn’t do it. I was stuck. I was wondering how on earthI was going to get myself out of this embarrassing predicament. I started swimming harder. As mentioned, I’m not the world’s best swimmer and I quickly became really quite tired. My efforts weren’t really moving me any further to my goal. After a minute or so, my shoulders cried ‘enough’ and any hopes of forward propulsion were dashed. It was at this wonderful point that waves began to break on my head. Unbeknown and unseen to me I had drifted rather perilously to a lovely rocky outcrop and the waves were pounding them quite strongly. Spurred into action I started paddling once more, but with the waves now relentlessly ducking me under, fatigue and panic setting in I was in a no hope situation. Me and the rocks were soon to be united. I started taking in water and coughing and spluttering with the salt as it burned my throat and eyes. I was gasping for breath and in a lot of trouble.
Two lifeguards were in the water already and one came paddling over. Are you OK? He asked. Do you know what I said as I could barely keep my head above the water, hanging on for dear life to my body board? Do you know what I said? I said, ‘Yeah, I’m alright’. I wasn’t. But even when I was struggling here, possibly not an awful lot of time left before I got totally swamped and drowned, my pride would not allow me to admit my predicament. To say, ‘No, actually, I’m drowning. Could you possibly see your way clear to helping me get back to the beach?’ would have been the sensible option. But pride can do that to us – although the real peril of a situation is apparent, to admit it would be to admit fallibility. Thankfully he was persistent and along with his lifeguard buddy eventually pulled me to safety and the crushing realisation that I am not as self sufficient as I supposed before my foray into the briny froth.
Even in this perilous situation, part of me thought I could get out of it myself. Looking back it wasn’t going to happen – there was nothing in and of myself that could have saved me. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.
In this season of Advent, as we anticipate that most monumental moment in history when the Son of God was born in Bethlehem, it is a good thing to reflect on the whole story. Yes, it is a story containing wonder, angelic visitations, incredible miracles and great joy. Matthew and Luke’s accounts continue to amaze with the high drama of the great event.
If you study the birth narratives closely you will see on a number of occasions how Old Testament prophecies were fulfilled. How Jesus was born, where Jesus was born, who visited Jesus, even the gifts brought to Jesus, weren’t just co-incidental, but the culmination of a variety of messianic prophecies. One such is Jeremiah’s prophecy, in Jeremiah 31:15 quoted in Matthew 2:18, where Herod orders the slaughter of all the male infants in Bethlehem. We are, no doubt, familiar with the way the visiting Magi , having been warned in a dream, do not let Herod know where the Christ has been born. What then results, as a result of Herod’s jealousy and ruthlessness, is one of the most terrifying aspects of the Christmas story which rarely finds its way into our cosy Christmassy mindset. We should never forget that the story of the first advent has a dark side: jealousy, terror, brutality and slaughter. Herod was far worse than a pantomime villain. But the narrative also contains examples of great courage: The Magi ignoring Herod; and especially Joseph leading his young family in their flight to an unknown and inhospitable country, only to return after Herod’s death. It is also a fulfilment of prophecy that they returned to Nazareth (Matt 2:23), originally intending to return to Judah, then realising Herod’s son Archelaus ruled, and through a combination of fear and a dream, only then headed north back to Nazareth.
As we approach Christmas and enjoy all that accompanies it we should remember not just its wonder but its terror; not just its joy but its pain. As we make room in our hearts for the Christ who is the Saviour of the world we do well to remember the place he has in his heart for the least, the last and the lost.
When I were a lad being intelligent or intellectual were qualities that people scorned. Swot, geek or nerd were names no one wished to be called. That may well still be the case in some circles however I see a different pattern emerging. Most of us rather admire and even aspire to intellectual greatness. Perhaps this has something to do with the vast billions people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have amassed through their swotgeeknerdiness (or as others put it, business acumen!). The acquisition of knowledge is seen as a mark of cleverness and the ability to reason the zenith of intellect. I am not denying the usefulness of these qualities – knowledge and reason (perhaps when added together make wisdom?) are not to be scorned or wasted. I am questioning though, when it comes to matters of faith, are these qualities enough?
There are quantum physicists and evolutionary biologists aplenty who have weighed the evidence for the existence of God and come down firmly against – some to the point of militant or active atheism. But then there are others with equal academic credentials who have similarly weighed the evidence and come out in favour. Similarly for other key issues in Christianity – the resurrection for example – some noted scientists and historians after careful considerations are against the notion and others are for. The evidence is the same in both cases but opposite conclusions drawn. This is why I think reason and intellect – although key in our understanding of faith – can never be used solely as a basis for it. There must be more than this.
I think of Saul the Pharisee as an example. He was a zealous man, a scholar, someone undoubtedly clever, well reasoned and intellectual. His first response to news of the resurrection of Jesus was unbelief and indignation. The evidence, to his well reasoned mind, took him to a place of anger that anyone would even suggest Jesus had risen from the dead and his subsequent persecution of those in the early church confirmed his ire.
But what later became of Saul the Pharisee? He became Paul the apostle. His knowledge and reason fell to the wayside when he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. What he thought he knew and how he had applied his knowledge were obliterated with a question uttered from heaven ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’. I suspect had he been asked by another scholar of the day; ‘Saul, why are you beating up on the Christians?’ he would have been able to give a very reasoned answer. But here, his intellect was not enough and his reason had no answer.
If we raise the standard of intellect and reason highest, as if this is our only goal as humans, we miss out on so much that makes us human. Spontaneity is not rational. Spock would never do anything spur of the moment; it’s not logical. Smoking is bad for us, but millions of people ignore the evidence and happily, deliberately inhale poison up to 40 times a day. Sometimes these people are scientists! I drink fizzy drinks even though I know they are bad for me in so many ways. There is way more to being human than intellect, knowledge, rationale, reason and logic. As a primary goal in life, pursuit of intellect will cause us to lose sight of what it means to be human; we would lose sight of what we are, who we are and of who God is.
We can’t know God through our intellect. We can know about Him, just like Saul did, but knowing Him has a different quality. Before I became a Christian I knew a lot about God and my intellect said that on the balance of probability Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. I thought this way because it doesn’t happen all the time. People don’t come back from the dead three days after they died; it is not just improbable, it’s impossible. That’s what science says and my day to day experience said (and still says)the same thing. The historical evidence for the resurrection is more convincing to me and yet others remain unconvinced. If we left it there I would be an agnostic, the evidence in front of me could be taken either way. But I’m not an agnostic, anymore than Saul/Paul remained a Pharisee. The reason for this is that I encountered and continue to encounter God’s finger on my life. Against my experience of dead people I believe Jesus came back from the dead because I encountered Him on May the 5th 1999. This was certainly less dramatic than Saul’s encounter, but I believe that Jesus was speaking to me through His Word. I’ll save that story for another time.
My faith is not based on my intellect but on a relationship. Who I am, what I am is defined by this relationship. Atheists might hear the words coming out of my mouth when I say that but I’ve never encountered one who understood – no matter how intellectual or knowledgeable they may be! In brief, knowing stuff is important and reasoning stuff through is important but these should never solely be how we define our world. I had a lot of the evidence before that day in 1999 but it wasn’t until I encountered Jesus that I believed. Be an intellectual, by all means, but don’t lose out on being truly human in the process.
It was great to see so many of you participating in this on Sunday, and hear some of the stories on your return from your exploits. This church is full of creative and innovative people. It’s worth reminding ourselves why we did it:
I fully realise that faith sharing takes some of us out of our comfort zone and that the possibility of approaching strangers, especially for those of us with a more introverted disposition, is a bit scary. I’m not one who naturally finds it particularly easy to share the gospel in word and deed. But a primary calling on our lives as a community of faith in Heaton is to bless our local community. That’s why we did the festival and that’s why we did the £5 giveaway. And we will go on engaging in these enterprises because it’s at the core of what it means to be church today. It’s not our only missional responsibility, because all believers are called to be witnesses within each of our spheres of influence where we live and work, whether that’s in Darras Hall, North Shields, Cramlington, or indeed Heaton.
So, well done for those of you who had a go. Let us know your stories. And let me challenge those of you who didn’t participate on Sunday. You missed out on an adventure that was good fun, faith stretching, and spiritually fulfilling.