Friday, September 19, 2008

Because suffering is not the problem

We all know that recent history (not to mention the ancient past) is littered the examples of governments which have been brutal and corrupt.  Why is it, then, that Paul is able to say
Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. Rom 13:1

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, for Christians, there are greater enemies than death.  Byron Smith has commented on this here, so I won't attempt a poor reproduction of his work.  I will simply make some observations about how this applies to the political sphere.

Firstly, we know Jesus submitted to the unjust judgments of a corrupt and broken political system.  He was falsely accused, had his life exchanged for the life of a terrorist, and horribly executed between men who were guilty as charged.  Was God out of control?  No.  In Jn 19, when Pontius Pilate, confused and frustrated, bursts out:
Don't you know that I have the authority to release you and the authority to crucify you?

Jesus replied
You would have no authority over me at all if it hadn't been given you from above.

Perhaps, though, Jesus is - as in so many other ways - unique, distinct, salutary but not exemplary?  And yet when Babylon, that most pragmatic of imperial powers, sweeps through Jerusalem and carries the best and brightest of Judah into exile, what does God command in Jer 29?
Build houses and live in them.  Plant gardens and eat their produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters.  Take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men in marriage so that they may bear sons and daughters.  Multiply there; do not decrease.  Seek the welfare of the city to which I have deported you.  Pray to the Lord on its behalf, for when it has prosperity, you will prosper.

Rev 13 is basic reading for a Christian political worldview. In it, a terrible government is described as a 'beast'.  It is given 'authority' by the dragon, Satan, who was thrown out of heaven. With this authority, the beast wages war on the saints of God.  Yet we know, already, that Satanic authority is only a chimaera and an illusion.  Satan may the the constituting agent of this government, but his power is ordered by Lord of Hosts.

Why does God allow this to happen?  Why does he allow his people to be persecuted, churches burned down, pastors murdered?  Because suffering is not the enemy.  Nor is death.

The bald truth is that God is on about laying an axe to the root of the tree of suffering, not pruning its branches.  God's purpose is to exalt his Son and defeat death and recreate the cosmos.  And along the way he uses suffering to shape his people and grow his church.

Stanley Hauerwas wrote
What we must fear as Christians is not our death at the hand of an unjust aggressor but how as Christians we might serve the neighbor without resorting to unjust means.

This is why Christianity produces martyrs, not terrorists.  Because there are greater enemies than death.  Stay tuned for Michael Jensen's work in this area!

Friday, September 12, 2008

On the danger of moralizing size

I thoroughly recommend this article by Tim Keller on the differences between churches at different stages of growth.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The valley of vision

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,

Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by the mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from the deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine.

Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty,
thy glory in my valley.

- from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions, by Arthur Bennett

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Did you choose your church for the wrong reasons?

Why did you choose to make your church your church?

And are you ready to repent of your reasons?

Here are some of the reasons that Christians have given me for making Barneys their home church. They love the music. They love the preaching. They love the informal style. They love having a family-friendly congregation with a kids’ ministry at 5pm. These are all good things – they’re just terrible reasons for a Christian to choose a church. Because they are all about what suits you. And that’s a terrible reason to choose a church.

That’s because the style, music and timing of a church service ought to be matters of indifference to the Christian, with one exception. They are a matter of indifference because, as the apostle Paul wrote, ‘to the pure, all things are pure’ (Tit 1.15). So long as I am praising Jesus, exhorting and being encouraged by fellow believers (Heb 10.24-25) and hearing God’s word taught faithfully, what do I care about the packaging – so long as the packaging makes church as effective as possible in reaching the lost.

Paul’s predominant concern about the ordering of church meetings was that they must be edifying and they must not be a barrier to unbelievers. However, when we choose a church because of time or style, or require that our church maintain that time or style because it suits us, we have forgotten entirely the missional character of church. Choose your church because it is committed to mission. That means that, at the very least, it will change its preaching style and music and time slot and whatever else necessary to be as accessible as possible to the outsider. It will be completely firm on doctrine; and completely relaxed on method.

For those of my readers who church at Barneys: what would this look like for us? What kind of church will you need to be part of to reach your friends with families? What about workers without children? Will you need to stop clinging to the evening and embrace a morning service?

What will Barneys need to change to be more effective? What will you need to do?

Love takes planning

One of the great recurring church discussions/debates/flameouts is whether welcoming and follow-up should be entrusted to the spontaneous exhibition of love by Christians. It’s always amazed me how strongly many of my brothers and sisters react to the idea of a Welcoming Team or follow-up systems and strangers.

I don’t buy it. I’m as much a product of the Romantic/Existentialist movement (spontaneity=authenticity) as anyone, but the sad truth is that many churches depend upon off-the-cuff engagement, not because they love too much, but because they love too little to get their finger out and plan.

If I’m in a church and it catches fire (one of the beauties of working at Barneys is that I can raise this example without being accused of deploying a hyberbolic rhetorical device) I don’t care how many of the congregation are willing to throw their bodies out of the window to create a cushion for my safe descent. I want to know that some paper-pusher has ensured their building is compliant with the latest fire-safety codes. I love paper-pushers.

God tells us to ‘consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds’ (Heb 10.24). The Greek word for ‘consider’ means to ‘to give careful, proper and decisive thought about something.’ Love is not just to be spontaneous – it is to be intentional and thought out in advance wherever possible. After all, spontaneity is only a matter of perspective – the only good works we do are the ones which God has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2.10).

For the last 10 years, Barneys has been operating a substantial ‘business’ (currently around $1M p.a.) off the back of Microsoft Access. Now, Access isn’t the work of the devil. I’ve got verses. But it is no longer sufficient to support the kind of internal processes that we need to implement in order to demonstrate considered love to the outsider. Access isn’t a tool which can help us at both the front and back door. And so we’ve decided to put our money where our love is and invest in a web-based church management system. It looks a little like Facebook, and I think it rocks.

What we hope this system will help us to do is plug some of the gaps. For a start, it will put all of the leaders, and ultimately all of our church, into an online community. It will enable growth group leaders to manage their groups online and for groups to have their own web pages to communicate and share. It will help us to track visitors and help move people along the path to being fully integrated and fruitful members of the community. No more missed emails and lost scraps of paper. It will facilitate information flow, which becomes more and more important as a church will grow.

However, it won’t tell our friends about Jesus. Which is cool, because there are some things only people should get to do.