Friday, July 28, 2006

Off to Camp

For the next week Claire and I will be at a camp in Filey (east yorkshire coast) looking after/trying to teach Christ to 30+ 9-12 yr olds, many from non-christian homes.

No doubt there will be stories to tell upon return.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Church (not Charlotte)

Have a look here for an excellent article on 'why plant churches?' by Tim Keller.

General argument = Church Planting is the best way to be true to the great commission, to renew and mature the church at large and to reach new communities.

I can't help but agree.

All of which is not to deny the great need for energy and resources in existing churches. It is merely to recognise the fact that we should always be seeking to break new 'ground' with the gospel (new communities, new ethnic groups, new cultures and sub-cultures) and that means planting new churches.

I've also heard recently the concern expressed that 'church planting is just the latest fad' (just like 'seeker-friendly church' was all the rage a while ago and before that small groups and so on). This article gives good reasons for suggesting that it isn't (in terms of the basic God-given gospel mandate which amounts to a mandate to start new churches) and therefore that it certainly ought not to be (in terms of our own godly planning and appropriate gospel-strategising).

In recent decades evangelicals have been fascinated with the 'revival meeting', the evangelistic 'crusade' and the para-church organisation (none of which are necessarily bad of course); at various times all of these have been regarded as the correct strategy to spearhead mission activity and Christian renewal. This has often gone hand-in-hand with an impoverished doctrine of 'church' which has surely in turn aided the proliferation of an individualistic understanding of Christianity and helped drive a wedge between discipleship and evangelism.

Time to put 'church' back in The Church methinks.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Piper at the gates of Coleraine

We heard John Piper preach at New Horizon Conference in Northern Ireland last night and again at a church service in Coleraine this morning. And what a joy it was to hear preaching that was
  • Pastoral
  • Applied
  • Passionate
  • Rigorously bibline
  • Calvinistic
  • Doctrinal
That is, preaching that spoke not only to the mind but fed the heart with Christ.

Speaking at New Horizon on the difficult issue of suffering (under a general heading of 'sorrowful yet rejoicing' from 2 Cor 6:10), Piper kicked off with looking at the question 'why does such a world as this exist?' (with all it's tragedies and heartaches).

In answering he didn't hold back from robustly defending the sovereignty of God (even over evil and tragedy) - a controversial move when preaching to a relatively broad congregation. However Piper made his case clearly, biblically and with the tear-stained eyes of a pastor who has known suffering personally. I for one felt he managed to powerfully and joyfully present the (sometimes) hard truth of God's sovereignty in suffering without being cold or glib.

His basic overall answer was that the messy world we live in is worth it because of the glory of God revealed in redemption as a result, and gave examples of suffering christians in his home church who had come to see and rejoice in this fact amidst their sorrow and pain.

This morning he was in even more familiar 'Piper-esque' territory than the night before - preaching on the relationship between God's total passionate commitment to his own glory and self-exaltation, and his love. We think God is loving because we imagine he 'makes much of me' whereas Piper's basic definition is that 'God is loving because he frees us to make much of him'. (Think about it for a while and if you're not sure, add a comment/question).

Good healthy stuff.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Where have all the good men gone? Thoughts on Superman Returns

We went to see the new Superman film last night so don’t read on if you want to avoid any plot spoilers.

Superman Returns is a thoroughly enjoyable example of comic-book cinema with more than a little subtlety and style. As well as being a good two-and-a-half hours of effects-packed fun (some of the aerial shots were breath-taking) Superman Returns is also laden with nods to the gospel story of Jesus Christ and knows it. The basic portrayal of Superman is as an only Son sent by his Father to bring salvation to earth, but people on earth don’t think they need a saviour and so on – there’s even something of a cross/resurrection parallel.

However, that’s not the most interesting thing the film made me think about. What struck me was the rather muddied morality of the main characters - even Superman himself (here would be a good point to turn away if you don’t want the plot spoiled, really!).

One of the central themes (surprise surprise) is Superman’s relationship with Lois Lane; she has apparently moved on with her life during his five-year absence and is living with her long-term fiancĂ©e with whom she is raising a child. Superman is slow to recognise this fact and makes moves to re-ignite the passion between himself and Lois. That said, they both stop short of an act of betrayal, although this is mainly due to Lois, not Superman. In this respect the film should be highly commended for bucking the all too common cinematic trend to justify almost anything in the pursuit of ‘true love’.

However, what this does mean is that the modern Superman is no longer the purer-than-pure hero-figure of yesteryear but has an emotional/personal life that reflects something of the murky complexity of modern relationships. This is a complexity in which Superman himself is culpable - he is at least emotionally prepared to mess around with someone else’s girlfriend. Superman's complex relational life is further developed when it emerges that Superman is the father of Lois’ child – something he only discovers towards the close of the film. Lois and Superman evidently had some sort of sexual relationship – despite which Superman left for his five-year sabbatical without saying goodbye to her, unaware she was pregnant with his child.

To an extent all of these are things that Superman learns from during the course of the film – all part of his adjusting to being an alien living on earth, never able to fully participate in domestic normality. Consequently there is a sense in which Superman himself has grown emotionally by the time the credits role.

However, in public, Superman is perceived by the citizens of Metropolis as thoroughly good - at one point it is even claimed he never lies. In addition, the film portrays him as someone whose goodness can inspire humanity and thus bring to fruition our inherent capacity for goodness. The salvation he can bring to earth is more than rescue from natural disasters and evil masterminds – it is the transformative power of a good example. This is in sharp contrast with the bible’s understanding of the human predicament and the salvation we need. Biblically speaking, in our hearts we are God-haters and addicted to sin - this in turn manifests itself in our broken relationships, irresponsible behaviour and willingness to hurt others in pursuit of our own desires. These are facts that no mere example can overcome, however noble. It is ironic then that Superman Returns pictures a saviour for humankind who himself seems tainted by the same problems of ‘human’ nature from which the bible says we need saving.

The Flaming Lips once sang;

‘Tell everybody waitin’ for a superman
that they should try to hold on best they can.
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything…
It’s just too heavy for a superman to lift’

It seems the Superman of Superman Returns is similarly ill-equipped for the task of saving humanity from the weight of sin-sickness. And that’s ultimately because the bible has a fundamentally different understanding of the human condition to our culture at large, not to mention Hollywood. We need a Saviour who really is thoroughly good in a way in which we are not, even in the details of his relationships, not just to be our example, but to be our substitute and representative before a thoroughly good and just God.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Imagine there's no Lennon...

Apparently a Church of England school has made the news by preventing John Lennon's 'Imagine' from being played at their school concert (click here for more details).

The article suggests the controversy was over the line 'no religion too', although, thankfully, the headteacher expresses it more theistically - he says they concluded the song was not appropriate because 'We are a Church school and believe God is the foundation of all we do'.

Nice to see an institution (school) within the institution (the Church of England) making a stand for a change. Nice to see some people involved still believe there is a God and that it's possible to say inappropriate things about him.

Never really liked 'Imagine' anyway - I've always thought 'Jealous Guy' is a better sample from the former mop-top's solo catalogue.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

On the Joys of Greek study

Today is a day for Greek.
  • A day for trying to memorise 50+ verbs and their principal parts.
  • A day for realising you've forgotten more Greek vocabulary than you thought possible.
  • A day for subjunctives, perfects, articular infinitives and participles of attendant circumstance.
The hottest July day on record and I'm inside studying Greek (ok, so I'm about to go outside and study, not the hardest afternoon of my life for sure, but I'm going for the sympathy vote here). A good day for remembering why studying NT Greek is worth it. Here are six reasons (if you are disappointed I couldn't get seven, you need to get out more) I can think of off the top of my head for three years of Greek-graft.

1. Knowing Greek means I can access, understand and evaluate the more technical commentaries on the market.

2. Knowing Greek means I am no longer a victim to those who do know Greek and use it for their wily purposes (I can make a measured assessment when someone 'pulls Greek' to try and prove a point).

3. Knowing Greek means I am more likely to spot the nuances even in english translations of the New Testament and understand the translation choices they've made (why do/don't they translate a particular phrase in a particular way etc.).

4. Knowing Greek should help me spot the particular emphases and stylistic properties of the different NT authors (e.g. what are Paul's favourite words and why?) and the different NT books (e.g. what phrases/grammatical constructions keep cropping up in Hebrews) in ways that english translations simply cannot.

5. Knowing Greek was apparently one of the boosts to the Reformation (studying Romans in Greek helped Martin Luther rediscover the gospel) and the achievements of the Puritan century and a half that followed.

And, in my view, the clincher...

6. Knowing Greek makes sense given the reality of a personal walk with the Lord. If I were married to someone from Estonia, you can bet I'd make the effort to learn Estonian, even if my wife spoke great english, simply because there would be a level of understanding my wife that would be unavailable to me except in Estonian, given that her thought patterns, humour etc. would all be shaped by that particular language. In the same way, although God does not 'speak Greek' in the same way (it's not his 'native tongue' - I don't think all the business of heaven is conducted in 1st century AD Greek), in a very real way God does 'speak Greek' - he has chosen to use Greek, with all its particularities, idioms, peculiarities and thought patterns, for his written revelation of himself.

Conclusion - Knowing Greek is by no means an essential for gospel ministry (but then again, the absolute bare essentials are really very few). That said, the real advantages are many. As in all things the issue is not 'what is the bare minimum on which I can get by in serving God?' but 'how far can I reasonably go in serving God?' - we should strive for godly excellence not mere survival. Since I am somebody who can do foreign language learning I should learn Greek since, whatever the trials along the way, it will be worth it.

Rats, that means away from the computer and back to the books...

Monday, July 17, 2006

Proverbial stuff

Anybody know anything about the book of Proverbs? I am preaching from it twice in August (chapters 8 and 9) and would appreciate any or all of the following;

Commentary recommendations
Your own wise thoughts (see what I did there?) or personal insights from previous study

Help especially appreciated on the shape/structure and purpose of the book (since, to quote Matt Bellamy from Muse, 'time is running out').

I should add that I have already read 'Gospel and Wisdom' by Graeme Goldsworthy on the issue of wisdom literature in general and its relation to Christ (though obviously I have much more to learn about that).

Embryonic forms of sermons/ thoughts in progress may well appear here in the near future.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Summer in the city 3 (technically 4 - not sure what has happened to my numeracy skills).

More from summer in the city. People first then learning.

1. People

I have to say that I have honestly been very surprised at the willingness of people in Sheffield city centre to talk 'God'. Every day it seems there have been many meaningful conversations had where a great deal of gospel truth has been discussed. I have also been surprised at the number of these conversations which have led to people promising to come to church on sunday and/or to read a gospel. If even a small percentage of these contacts are able to be followed up then the week may well prove by God's grace to have been a very fruitful one. That's one in the eye for my cynical heart then (mixing the metaphors I know, but see Ephesians 1:18).

I also have to say that I have been delighted by the team of people I have been working with, who have displayed joyful Christian servant-heartedness as well as more than a little giftedness at engaging in meaningful conversations with strangers. I have been challenged, humbled, enriched by my brothers and sisters this week.

Finally, the two evening events were well-run quality affairs in which many good conversations were had. The only possible negative is that both suffered from low-attendance. This was particularly striking given the emphasis permeating the whole 'project' on church-centred evangelism. The question it raises in my mind is how to encourage more involvement without resorting to the spectre of motivation by guilt (a non-starter if we take the gospel seriously). Having said that, there have also been many people who have given time, love and massive amounts of energy to the week and I'm sure this is evidence of the gospel at work. Praise God.

2. Learning

I think I've learned lots of things this week and been reminded of many others, here are a few pithy summary quotes from the Philippians teaching;
  • Joy is not the absence of sorrow but the conviction that the gospel is true in the face of sorrow, in the midst of sorrow.
  • Feelings are a notoriously fallible guide to reality but they are susceptible to truth which can affect, arrest and transform them.
  • We must allow the gospel to be the priority in our mutual engagement. Gospelling one another is the key to growth and perseverance.
  • When mutual gospelling permeates the fabric of normal everyday life the gospel no longer seems aline, strange or twee and talking of it within and without the company of believers becomes natural.

And, the final thought to close the blog;

  • We will only see the tawdry nature of our this-world trinkets when we see the captivating and intoxicating beauty of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Summer in the City 2

Here are some highlights from the summer in the city talks on Philippians;

1:12. Paul is in prison but doesn't want or need sympathy from anyone: to him this is the best of all possible situations

  • vs13: The Emperor's guards had heard the gospel due to his imprisonment
  • vs14: Christians in Rome had taken their responsibility in the gospel seriously
  • vs15: Even those who preached the gospel out of rivalry caused him to rejoice because it meant the gospel was preached

In other words he had a gospel attitude - 'for me to live is Christ, to die is gain'

1:27-30. These verses are the central exhortation of the letter. Paul basicallt tells the Philippians that the gospel is their citizenship and must define their identity, culture, lifestyle. As such he brings everyone into the work of 'contending for the gospel'. The Church is God's mission strategy.

2:5-11. Christ himself is the supreme example of gospel living.

Then, finally, the one that 'got' me;

2:12-18. Gospel living with a gospel attitude in a gospel community means no complaining or arguing. How beautifully, crushingly simple.

It seems Paul's (and God's) gospel strategy (churches living and proclaiming the gospel) would hardly sell millions of books. Personally speaking, it is so easy whilst at bible college to lose sight of the centrality of the local church and ordinary christians living ordinary lives in a gospel way in God's mission plan. Philippians provided a welcome reminder of this biblical truth.

Also (still personally), and regarding the stuff on complaining and grumbling, the bible describes itself as a two-edged sword - sometimes it feels more like a baseball bat. Today I felt well and truly (and lovingly) bludgeoned.

Summer in the City 1

As I write this it's early tuesday, day four of Summer in the city (see previous post). Things have been going very well. The average day consists of

Training in the morning: Including excellent teaching from Steve Timmis on Philippians and then seminars

Cold Contact in the afternoon: Including questionairres, worldview surveys and videoing. We've also got a stand outside the drop-in cafe we're running for the week which has tracts/bibles etc. on it.

Cafe in the evenings: With a variety of different events and speakers throughout the week. Tonight a guy is telling the story of his trekking over Japan's 100 largest mountains in one year (a major feat they tell me) - account which includes some of his own testimony.

Things worth reporting (and giving thanks for) so far include
  • Some excellent conversations being had on cold contact. One guy (a committed atheist who apparently has a christian girlfriend) sat and talked with one team member for over two hours this afternoon.
  • Many people taking copies of a gospel and also many people taking tracts to read.
  • Church members inviting friends to events later in the week.
  • Good relationships being established quickly in a team characterised by servant-heartedness.

What a privilege to speak to people about Christ.

What a privilege to be involved in God's plan to bring the nations under the Lordship of his Son.

What a privilege to serve alongside such great brothers and sisters.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Summer in the City

One of the other things noticeable in Martyn Lloyd-Jones' biography (click to see previous blog) which made him stand out from his contemporaries (and sometimes incurred their disaproval) was his distaste of big evangelistic campaigns. This arose out of a conviction that the local church in it's ongoing witness to Christ and gospel-fuelled communal life is God's primary means of reaching the lost (although this did not prevent him from preaching at University missions etc.). The danger is that Christians trust in the 'bigness' of the occasion to bring results and not God's word, spoken by God's people in the power of God's Spirit. Or, people equate evangelism with big missions and gospel witness is neglected the rest of the time, especially in the pulpit.

And let's face it, many of us have been involved in 'big mission' evangelism projects that suffer because they are not rooted in the ongoing witness of God's people. It seems Lloyd-Jones' view may have practical as well as theological arguments in it's favour - to what extent does 'hit and run' evangelism work?

From today I'm going to be taking part in 'Summer in the City' - nine days of mission organised by several churches in Sheffield. It's a mission that has been organised with an acute awareness of the primacy of the local church in God's own mission to his world, whilst seeking to exploit the benefits of churches working together. The actual events and activities are specific to each church taking part (i.e. no big 'stadium-fillers') and are rooted therefore in the ongoing, relational, long-term witness of that particular church. Each morning will consist of time in God's word with the whole of the team across all the churches involved, and some practical training seminars. You can find more information on the website of our sending church, including a timetable for the week.

As for me, Ill be trying to update this a few times during the week with news of what's been going on. Prayers appreciated as always.