Sunday, 9 November 2014

Apologising for the Faith? Reflections on a Conversation with Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath clearly loves apologetics (check out the interview here), and so did I. The cut-and-thrust of defending the faith, the hours spent wrestling with life’s mysteries and condensing them down into easily memorisable sound bites (I found it helped if they could be reduced to no more than three points, which preferably started with the same letter, or rhymed).

I slowly began to realise though, that you can’t argue someone into a relationship with Jesus. Even if you convince them of the plausibility of the resurrection or the reliability of the gospels, their lives rarely seem to be transformed. Strange that.

So over the last few years I thought I’d try a different tack. It occurred to me that Jesus allowed people to experience his love (through healings, deliverance, miraculous feeding, showing them love, acceptance, etc.) and then invited them to join him on the discipleship journey.

So rather than trying to persuade our friends that it made intellectual sense to explore the Christian faith, we began to invite them to join us in experiencing Jesus.

Around this time we were beginning to explore Christian contemplative practices, so we simply began to invite friends to explore this with us. Together we imaginatively entered gospel stories, tried to listen to God through nature, and experimented with creative forms of prayer and meditation. As we grew in confidence we took small groups away on retreat days, and ran sessions in a local community centre and at a local community festival.

The results? Well, we have seen a handful of people come to faith, but just as significantly, almost everyone had a positive experience. Although from our viewpoint these experiences didn’t obviously move many people closer to Jesus, it did give them a rare positive experience of Christianity, and you can’t put a price on that!

I’m not saying there isn’t a place for apologetics. If friends have genuine questions about the faith then of course we need to be willing to share our understanding. But I’ve found that in our spiritually curious culture, a better place to start is by creating informal, creative spaces for people to experience something of Jesus. Experiencing Jesus is, after all, the very essence of our faith, so what better place is there to start?!

What’s been your experience of sharing your faith?


Friday, 24 October 2014

Whose Table is it, Anyway? Reflections on a Conversation with Sara Miles

If haven’t already, check out our interview with Sara Miles.

Sara was a hardened, skeptical atheist. Then one day out of idle curiosity she wandered into a Church, had a bite of bread and a sip of wine and God came crashing into her life. Her response was to take the principles of communion and set up a food distribution centre around the altar of her Church for anyone and everyone to enjoy.

Christianity is blessed with so many profoundly rich and deep symbols. Communion, for example says so much about God’s grace. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, you are welcome to eat at God’s table. Sara’s Food Pantry beautifully realises this vision in a very real, everyday way.

The problem I have with communion, however, is not the ritual itself, but those who administer it.

Surely by only allowing a minister/priest to administer this sacrament we are restricting who can eat at God’s table? To me this feel more like the High Priestly role in the Tabernacle/Temple of the Old Testament than the early church gathered around the dining table in someone’s home. The good news is surely that there are no longer any barriers between humanity and God, so why has the Church rebuilt some of them?

Sara disagreed with me on this point, which is strange as one of my favourite quotes of hers is ‘The Church doesn’t own communion. It’s God’s meal.’ Yet she is part of a church that believes that their community can only receive communion if they come to their priest.

As a Methodist pioneer this is a live issue. In one breath the church is telling lay workers like me to plant church’s, but in the other breath they’re saying we can’t administer communion.

With 80% of Fresh Expressions of church being lay led, the Church is going to have to decide pretty soon whose meal they think communion is.


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Back to our roots? Reflections on a conversation with Richard Rohr

When Nomad podcast started out we were definitely reacting against the institutional Church. We largely defined ourselves by what weren’t. That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s a really bad place to remain. As Richard Rohr said in our interview with him ‘You don’t go very deep or very far when you keep rejecting your past’, or as he later put it in even more emotive terms ‘You can’t keep hating your mother, you’ll never be a positive and mature person.’ True, literally and metaphorically.

There needs to come a time when rather than being defined by what you’re not, you become defined by what you are. My angst towards the institutional Church began to mellow when I began to form a Fresh Expression of church. As this new Christian community began to take shape I began to see the importance of staying rooted and drawing from my Church tradition (Up: towards God, Out: towards other, In: towards ourselves, and Down: towards the wider Church).

Being part of a wider community and tradition is vital when starting something new. It’s foolhardy to think that what we’re forming can’t benefit from what’s gone before, and doesn’t need the accountability of those who’ve been in the game considerably longer than we have.

Every teenager needs to move on from their grumpy, angsty rebellion, and learn to value their parents wisdom and experience as they head out into the world. And at 41 I’m just starting to realise the importance of this in my spiritual journey!


Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Who leads your church, the pastor or Jesus?

We had a fascinating conversation with Phyllis Tickle on the podcast this month. One of the questions I asked her was why she ended her trilogy on emergence Christianity with a book on the Spirit. Phyllis believes that a greater, deeper, engagement with the Spirit is essential as we enter this new phase of Church history.

Why? You’ll have to tune into the podcast for her full answer, but what struck me was the important of the Spirit in relation to authority. How do we come to decisions in our church?

I’ve been involved in churches that would say that they’re guided by the Bible (which usually means they’re guided by the pastor), and some that would more honestly say they’re guided by the pastor. And I’ve been involved in a church that would say they’re guided by the Spirit (which usually means they’re guided by the pastor).

Now that I’m involved in starting a small, emerging church, I’ve had to wrestle with how we make decisions. I love the Bible and wrestling with theology, but I’m no longer naive enough to think that this gives a blue print in how to run a church.  And I’m increasingly convinced that the answer doesn’t lie in handing decisions over to a ‘leader’. For one reason traditional leadership styles always seem to disempower everyone else and empowerment is at the heart of discipleship (why are 80% of the jobs in church done by 20% of the people? Because those 20% are in some sort of leadership role, and the 80% are the disempowered laity!)

The conclusion I’ve come to (and which Phyllis confirmed) is to engage with God’s Spirit as a community. The way we do this is quite simple. When we have a decision to make we gather in two or three small groups (there isn’t many of us!), talk through the issue, and then simply wait on God (using a range of contemplative practices). Then the next time we all get together we share what ideas, pictures, Bible verses etc. came to our minds and we try and piece it all together and get a sense of what God’s Spirit might be saying to us. Of course, it’s not always clear, it can be messy, but we’ve found that if we’re patient and prayerful, a sense of direction does slowly emerge. And as I look back over the last couple of years, there is a sense that it has been Jesus building his church, not me!

What’s been your experience of authority in church? I’d be really interested to know how you community goes about making decisions?

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

How not to be a ‘great’ man of God: Reflections on a conversation with Dave Andrews

Dave Andrews has all the hallmarks of a great man of God. Throughout his life he has courageously and selflessly followed Jesus. This has led him to serve the poorest and most marginalised in Afghanistan, India and Australia. And as with all great women and men of God, he’s encountered much criticism. He has been criticised for his inclusive approach and for his stand against the oppressive hierarchical power structures of the Christian organisations he’s worked with. But still he has carried on serving.

But what’s even more impressive is Dave’s rejection of the ‘great man of God’ status. With a story like his, and the books he’s written to resource the wider church, can come a certain status in the Christian world. The conference circuit beckons! But Dave says he has to regularly ‘exorcise’ himself from these temptations, so he can stay fully committed to humbly serving Jesus in small, often unnoticed ways in his local community. He doesn’t cut himself off from the wider world (he spoke with us, for example), but he strictly limits this to no more than 10% of his time.

And even in his own community, he makes sure he isn’t seen as the expert. Decisions are taken by consensus, and everyone gets a turn to lead. So his voice carries no more authority than anyone else’s.

In a world (and let's face it, in a Church) consumed by power and influence, it’s truly inspiring to come across someone who is intentionally giving these things away, someone who is truly dying to self. 

Tune into the podcast to hear Dave's story.

Monday, 25 August 2014

How to live well in a digital world: Reflections on a conversation with Dr. Bex Lewis

I think Bex hit the nail on the head when she said that social media amplifies human nature. If you’re an insensitive, unloving fundamentalist offline, then you’re going to be a really insensitive, unloving fundamentalist online (as Vicky Beeching has recently discovered). But why?

As in many areas of life, a things greatest strength is often also its greatest weakness. Social media’s greatest strength is that it enables us to instantly connect with people over huge geographical distances. Its weakness however is that this distance can have a dehumanising effect. It’s easy to forget the impact our words have on a person when we’re just staring at a screen rather than sitting face-to-face with them.

Consequently, at its worst social media simply becomes media, a platform which we use to broadcast our opinions, rather than an opportunity to genuinely socialise.

So living well in a digital world must involve collapsing this psychological barrier and loving our online neighbour as we would our offline neighbour.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Escaping Hell: Reflections on a conversation with an evangelical universalist

I’d always dismissed universalism as the position of liberals who were more influenced by their emotions than by the Bible (you’ll have to forgive me, it’s was just the way I was brought up…).

I was vaguely aware of universalist texts (e.g. ‘For God was pleased … through [Jesus] to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross), but as with all texts that don’t fit into your theological system, you just kinda brush over them.

Like everyone (I hope), I had problems with the idea of eternal torment for those who weren’t following Jesus, so I settled on an annihilationist position (i.e. that if you distance yourself from the source of life, then you will simply cease to exist). But just recently I’ve realized that this position doesn’t solve all my problems. So, for example, if the majority of people who have ever lived are annihilated then who came out on top, God or the Devil, life or death, the Kingdom or the world?

I’d never studied the universalist position in any depth, and while I didn’t need convincing that God wants to save everyone (how could a loving creator not?), what I couldn’t see was how God could save everyone without violating their freewill.

Robin Parry has gone some way to deal with this issue by doing away with death as the cut off point for God’s grace. I’d always taken that as a given, that God’s mercy reached it’s limit at the point of death, if you hadn’t chosen wisely at that point it was too late.

But there are hints in the Bible that this might not be the case. Jesus, for example, preached to the soul’s in prison during the three days between his death and resurrection (1 Pt. 3:19), and the gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed (Rev. 21:25).

Robin is suggesting then, that even from ‘hell’, it is possible to call on the name of Jesus and to be allowed to enter the New Jerusalem. And it’s true that both the descriptions of hell in Revelation are followed by saying that all the nations would enter God’s city (Rev. 14-15; 20-21).

So rather than Hell being a place of retributive punishment, it becomes a place of redemptive punishment. And this is how we see all God’s judgements in the Bible, God allows us to face the consequences of our sin in order to bring us back to our senses, and to bring us back to him. 

It’s something I need to give a lot more thought to, but there’s no denying, that the idea of escaping hell is a much more satisfying ending to the story of the God of love who is seeking to reconcile all things to himself.