A remarkable article in this week’s New Stateman magazine (thanks for the link, Lucy).
In which Brand attacks evangelical atheism, discusses his own faith and considers the design inherent in the universe. Well worth a look at the article in full but here’s a great quote.
There was a time when the universe did not exist, this we know. We also know that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed. This means that something, not nothing, existed before the universe. We do not know what but there is wonder and intelligence enough to suggest that design may have been a component.
A church works hard in making visitors welcome in their meetings, ensuring that the gospel is preached faithfully and engagingly and putting on events and programmes to give everyone an opportunity to hear the gospel of Christ.
And yet, despite the prayers of many and the faithful witness it is harder than ever to get people into our buildings. Maybe evangelism isn’t enough? Are we really being all things to all people if all we offer are our services in our buildings in our language on our terms?
A growing number of churches are looking for ways to reach outside the church. Whether we prefer the name ‘missional church’, ‘fresh expressions’, or anything else the goal is to take the gospel to those who don’t do church or at least wouldn’t get church doing it in the way we’ve always done it.
At New Word Alive 2011 I’m heading up a track called ‘Reaching outside the church’ and our aim is to think creatively about how we do exactly that – reach the majority of the British population who are asking no spiritual questions and see no relevance to the church and the message of the gospel to their lives.
So here are 8 questions and reflections to help us assess whether our church thinks evangelism is enough;
1. Are we about evangelism or mission in our church life? Evangelism is about bringing in. Mission is about going out.
2. Do we think we’ve done our job as a witnessing community if we have offered evangelism training and are putting on evangelistic programmes? If we run a mission week or leaflet drop the local houses?
3. Do we think it’s the fault of the unbeliever if he doesn’t come to our events or do we feel that the responsibility lies with us, at least in part, to think of new ways to get the gospel out.
4. Do we seek to identify individuals in our churches who are gifted evangelists & missionaries to our own communities? Are we willing to let this work be their main ministry. Do we seek to train them and to send them into our neighbourhoods and communities?
5. Are we ready to orientate ministries of the church around new ideas for outreach? For example meetings in different locations to reach different people?
6. Do we give people permission and positive encouragement to develop ministries and outreach strategies that reach outside the church.
7. Have we even identified those people in our communities who are as yet not reaching with hte gospel. Do we know what makes them tick, what they think of church, what might be the most effective way of reaching them?
8. Do we look to other churches for ideas, information, training in reaching outside the church. Are we ready to make time to think this through.
Perhaps its time to move from evangelistic programmes to missional communities
1. Know and interact with the three best arguments against the Christian position
2. Pray hard
1. Refer to the Bible, maybe use a passage from the Bible. Demonstrate that it is your authority. Show that you are not speaking on your own behalf but seeking to represent Christ.
2. Take people to the cross
3. Don’t try and say too much and introduce too many ideas. What you have to leave out have ready to introduce, in condensed form, in the question-time
4. Work hard on the introduction – engaging and demonstrating an ability to resonate with the ‘problem’ being addressed. Show them that you ‘feel’ the problem.
5. If there is an ‘authority’ on an issue try to cite him (as long as you understand him). e.g. Dawkins on atheism, Singer on ethics,
6. Don’t cite Christian authorities by name who would be unknown to a non-Christian audience e.g. Stott, Keller, Schaeffer…
7. Don’t be defensive about Biblical truth – our role is not to defend God but rather to show the truthfulness and reasonableness of what God says.
8. Never apologise for what the Bible says but do admit to personal struggle in accepting what the Bible says e.g. gay friends,….
9. Always admit what we do not know because the Bible does not tell us
10. Always admit what you don’t know because you haven’t thought about it.
11. Trust the Lord by speaking clearly of what we do know even if you think it will push people away from the gospel.
12. Expect to be misunderstood and be patient
13. Have in mind a variety of listener
1. Show why this is a necessary and important issue for them to resolve for themselves not just an issue to see Christians squirm over.
2. Make clear the limitations a 20-25 minute talk place on addressing the issue at hand. Tell them what you do hope to achieve in a single talk.
3. Watch out for the crunch of gears between ‘prosecution’ and ‘invitation’ – we don’t want an apologetic talk with 2 ways to live bolted on the end
4. Show them that you love them, however you can.
5. Help your hearer to see that they need the gospel to be true if they are to make sense of life. Show them from practical examples why that is so.
6. Don’t be aggressive, antagonistic or hostile to your audience even if they are all of those things to you.
7. Don’t attack the man eg insult Richard Dawkins but do show the folly of his thinking
8. Don’t give them reason to dislike you – only the gospel
9. Invitation needs to be clear – exactly what do you want them to do in response and why.
We must learn the language of our audience. And let me say at the outset that it is no use laying down a priori what the ‘plain man’ does or does not understand. You have to find out by experience…You must translate every bit of your theology into the vernacular. This is very troublesome…but it is essential. It is also of the greatest service to your own thought. I have come to the conclusion that if you cannot translate your own thoughts into uneducated language, then your thoughts are confused. Power to translate is the test of having really understood your own meaning.
C.S. Lewis – God in the Dock
1. Listen well to the question: thank them for it (no matter how stupid)
2. Take your time in answering a question, if necessary ask for clarification
3. Be prepared to offer a challenge back to the questioner. E.g. Our answer may leave us with unanswered questions but what alternative explanation are they putting forward
4. Don’t enter into a to-and-fro with a single questioner but invite them to talk with you on your own afterwards.
5. Have a clear finish time and stick to it, but stay around as long as you can afterwards
6. Always have literature available and plenty of it. Explain which would be helpful for who, Try not to have too many different books that would overwhelm or confuse.
7. Don’t let the questions set an entirely new agenda – try and draw Q&A back to the topic under consideration as set out in the title.
8. Remind people of what you said, briefly, in the talk as you answer questions.
A few weeks ago I posted a copy of a letter I sent to the BBC regarding it’s decision to commission a three-part series entitled ‘The Bible’s buried secrets.’ Here is the BBC’s reply with my comments on their reply in italics.
Dear Mr Powell
Thanks for contacting us regarding ‘Bible’s Buried Secrets’ broadcast on BBC Two.
I understand that you felt this programme was biased against Christianity (No, I didn’t say that. I said that the BBC is biased against Christianity. My letter was a complaint that the BBC is very willing to broadcast programmes critical of the Bible and that the BBC seems willing to broadcast quite sensationalist claims about all sorts of errors in the Bible but would never broadcast programmes critical of the Qur’an), and feel there should be other similar programmes exploring other religions beliefs (that bit is right).
Whilst I appreciate your concerns, Christian programming is, and remains, the cornerstone of the BBC’s religious output (not sure how that actually addresses my concern). In addition to exploring and celebrating all the other major faiths in the UK, the BBC delivers a range of content that reflects, celebrates and debates Christiaintiy across TV and radio.
It’s simply not correct to say there are no programmes on Islam or that the BBC would not address issues about Islam. (Oh dear. It really would help everyone concerned if you had read my letter and interacted with my arguments than answer points I’m not raising.) Since the events of 9/11 there have been numerous programmes about fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, extreme beliefs of some Muslims and issues about Sharia Law. (Again that’s not my point ).
On the subject of the Qur’an (at last!) Channel 4 did address academic studies that question the conventional reading of the authenticity of the Qur’an (Well not exactly. The documentary, entitled The Quran broadcast in July 2008 was a genuinely good piece of broadcasting, but a very different one from the BBC’s on the Bible. The channel 4 documentary didn’t address the issue of the authenticity of the Qur’an as you suggest it did. Rather its focus was the issue of diverse interpretations of the book. At no point did it criticise the Qur’an or suggest in any way that it might be merely a human book full of errors in the way that the BBC’s Bible’s Buried Secrets did for the Bible.)
This programme was only transmitted two years ago and no new academic work exists to warrant another film at present (You’ve got to be joking! In my original letter I gave examples of Islamic scholars questioning the origins of the Qur’an that have not been touched by any documentary maker, ever, in the UK. So why not make the programme that no broadcaster dare make ‘The Qur’an’s buried secrets’ on how a growing number of scholars are arguing that the origins of the text of the Qur’an was from pre-existing, pre-Islamic writings.)
So there we have it. The BBC is willing to broadcast programmes about Islamic extremism, channel 4 is willing to broadcast a programme on how the Qur’an is interpreted, but if this response is anything to go by the BBC still thinks it’s a good idea to give the Bible a good kicking but not the Qur’an. I wonder why?
How do churches grow? Great preaching, interesting programmes, good music? All of these are hugely important but what sort of conversations we take part in before, after and perhaps in services changes the culture of the church and makes a big difference as to whether they are likely to stick around, settle in and grow up in their Christian lives.
How can we as individuals and as churches ensure that our churches are places where the new-comer is made to feel welcome and community functions through our conversations.
A state of mind
1. Make it your business, a stated prayerful intent, to make a difference to someone else’s life at each church meeting, service or event. Pray that God will use you to speak words of life and hope into someone else’s life.
2. Adopt a deliberate mindset of looking out for others, thinking who’s new, who’s sitting on their own, who looks weary and be strategic in your conversations.
3. Plan to be there early. In your mind think of the church service as starting at least 5 minutes before the service start time rather than 5 minutes after the service start time.
Meeting someone for the first time
4. Look to meet someone you’ve not met before. Don’t leave it to others. You don’t need to be an extravert or have profound things to say you just need to care. If you’re the shy type then try and involve someone else in the conversation.
5. Greet people with a friendly smile and a ‘hello’ even if you can’t stop at that moment to speak with them.
6. Don’t assume someone you meet for the first time is a Christian or even a regular church-goer.
7. Do be discreet in how you ask someone what they believe. Maybe ‘do you have a faith?’ is better than ‘so are you a Christian?’
8. Once you’ve chatted for a few minutes with someone new why not introduce them to someone else and after a brief introduction leave them to it.
Meeting someone a second time
9. When you meet someone a first time try and jot down their name and one or two details. Use that to pray for them in the week.
10. A second conversation, maybe a week later, is often of greater value than a first. The fact that you’ve remembered a name and gone to speak to someone again communicates a great deal about the value you put on someone.
11. Maybe try and introduce them this time to someone who you think that they may have something in common with or appreciate meeting.
12. Promote a culture of deeper conversation by remembering a key point from the sermon and one thing that you learned from it. Rather than simply asking ‘what did you think of the sermon’ offer to them instead one way in which you were helped by the sermon and only then ask what they got out of it.
13. Don’t hide behind the fact that if you are in a larger church you may not know the individual
Making it last
14. If you’re hosting church people for lunch why not leave one or two places to be filled after the morning service. That way the newcomer gets an invite to lunch.
15. If you a part of a good social network in the church and there is space for others to join eg group cinema trip or Frisbee in the park why not look to include and involve someone who otherwise might face a quiet weekend.
16. Organise a bring and share church-lunch on a regular basis to extend hospitality and welcome. We have one once a month after the morning service and approximately 60% of the congregation stay including a surprising number of visitors.
17. It can be a bit awkward and may not be something you do every week but why not include an opportunity in the service to ‘talk to someone you don’t know’ along with an encouragement to carry on the conversation afterwards.
18. Whether or not you have anything as formal as a welcome desk or welcome team at least ensure that there is someone at the door to offer a friendly greeting as people arrive and a friendly goodbye as people leave.
1. Do we understand that our own church has a ‘culture’ including a set of often unspoken assumptions that shape the attitudes and opinions surrounding the question of whether women should return to work?
2. Does this culture create and enforce an expectation that there is only one godly thing a family can do in deciding if and when women return to work. Does that culture operate blindly ie without any regard for each family’s set of circumstances and situation?
3. To what extent is the culture of our church informed by biblical principles of child-rearing and to what extent by culture and tradition. Do we expect a uniform pattern of behaviour amongst women once children come along? Are women under an unfair pressure in terms of what is appropriate as a ‘Christian’ in the decision as to whether they return to work or not?
4. How do we provide practical advice and assistance for couples starting a family as they reach their decision? How do we appropriately help them assess where they stand on that spectrum between choosing to work – having to work – choosing to stay at home.
5. Do we prepare young couples before children come along eg in marriage preparation so that the decisions that they make on Continue reading »
It was AW Tozer who said ‘What comes into a person’s mind when they think about God is the most important thing about them.’ Nowhere is that statement more obviously true than in chapter 4 of Bell’s book ‘Love wins’. It is in this chapter that he is at his most controversial and it is his doctrine of God that enables him to consider the possibility that perhaps in the end all will be saved.
What comes into Bell’s mind when he thinks about God is that ‘God is love.’ For Bell that is God’s essential attribute and it shapes the discussion of the chapter.
There is no talk in the chapter for example of God’s holiness and Bell’s decision to single out one attribute to which all others must eventually give way (why else the title of the book) leads to his tentative conclusions that for God to be God almost requires the final salvation of all.
Does God define himself as love above all else?
The book of 1 John is so instructive for us on this matter for in it we find two statements from John about God’s very nature. God is love John tells us in chapter 4 but God is light we are reminded in chapter 1. God in the scripture reveals himself as a God of love but not a God of love only, also a God of holiness. God’s punishment of sin is an outworking of his holiness. If God’s holiness must give way to his love we find ourselves ever-closer to the position of Bell. The problem for Bell is that Jesus never does this and neither do the New Testament authors.
So what happens when one attribute of God is singled out in this way?
Well with his doctrine of God clear in his mind Bell turns to his doctrine of salvation.
Bell does not give us a lot of Bible in this chapter but he does choose to quote Paul and 1 Timothy 2 where Paul writes ‘God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.’
Given God is love and given what therefore God wants ‘will all people be saved or will God not get what God wants?’
Does this magnificent, mighty, marvellous God fail in the end?
And Bell is absolutely right to recognise that the God of the Bible does get what he wants. We are reminded time and again in scripture that God’s plans and purposes are unstoppable.
In the Bible, God is not helpless, God is not powerless, and God is not impotent.
This God doesn’t give up. Ever.
What has the church taught?
So if we only get this life to choose heaven and hell in this life by the response we make to God. If it really is ‘One or the other, forever.’ Then Bell logically concludes ‘God in the end doesn’t get what God wants’
No wonder Bell leaves the door open to what is sometimes called post-mortem salvation. The idead that after death given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state?
Now Bell realises that this will sound heretical to many ears especially coming from a bible-believing evangelical. So it is important for him to establish that his view has a history. It has no such pedigree amongst evangelicals and his abuse of a Martin Luther text in his book to suggest it does is something that has been highlighted by a number of critics notably Carl Trueman. One can only hope that for the sake of integirity it is removed from any future editions.
So with no history of evangelicals adopting such a view Bell turns to the ancient church fathers
Beginning with the early church, there is a long tradition of Christians who bleive that God will ultimately restore everything and everybody.
Bell cites Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nysaa and Eusebius in support of his views. It was certainly the case that a number of the fathers held that punishment in hell that was restorative.
Here is an extract from one scholar on the view of the early church on the doctrine of universal salvation:
Early Christian theology offered three major readings of the manner in which the story concludes for those who have not responded positively to the divine work of salvation during their earthly lives. The majority reading, represented by Tertullian and Augustine, understands the eschatological punishment of such persons as eternal in duration—the everlasting torment of separation from God. Some of the second- and third-century apologists, represented by Justin Martyr and Arnobius, offered what was ultimately a minority reading in which punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration—following the resurrection, the wicked are destroyed, evil therefore ceases to exist, and God is “all in all.” The other minority reading is represented by Clement, Origen, and Gregory—punishment is eternal in effect rather than duration, but its effect is not destruction but transformation.
What brings God glory?
But we find ourselves returning again to the major note of Bell’s book. If God is love then everlasting punishment cannot bring God glory.
Central to their trust that all would be reconciled was the belief that untold masses of people suffering forever doesn’t bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t.
God’s love will eventually melt even the hardest of hearts
If Bell is right on this point then one has to ask could it bring glory to God for Satan to be in hell. If eternal torment does not bring glory to God then how can the torment of angels, created by God as good creatures, bring God glory? Surely Satan given enough time will choose life and does not God’s own glory demand it.
Of course those of us who seek to affirm that God is love but God is also holy see God’s glory made manifest in the salvation of some but also the condemnation of others. Paul in Romans chapter 9 writes:
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath – prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory.
For Paul God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect justice as an expression of his holiness in the punishment of sinners. God’s glory is revealed in the revelation of his perfect love in the salvation of sinners. Both reveal God’s glory. One should not be set over the other. Heaven and hell together manifest God’s glory, wisdom and power.
What then do you have to believe to be a Christian?
For Bell ‘you don’t have to believe it [eternal hell] to be a Christian.’ Clearly he regards it as no heresy to believe in a hell in which punishment is finally restorative and he may be right. And if heresy is understood as a denial of the gospel on a par with a rejection of the deity of Christ or the bodily resurrection or the trinity he I guess has a point.
But it’s crucial to remember that Bell is asking for a lot more than that. He is asking for this minority view to have an equal place at the table. To be considered a valid option alongside traditional interpretations despite the weight of Biblical evidence against him.
To shun, sensor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.
But the tone of the book goes even further. Surely Bell, in presenting his own views in the way he does is not actually arguing that his view is one of a number of valid options but really the only view that presents a true picture of the God of the Bible and the view that alone brings glory to God!
God’s love means human freedom to choose heaven or hell
So will hell eventually be empty? Bell certainly is hopeful but he is not dogmatic. In a sense neither he nor God can decide. For it is the choice of every individual, even in hell, to choose.
Love demands freedom. It always has, and it always will. We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.
We see people choose another way all the time. That impulse lurks in all of us. So will those who have said no to God’s love in this life continue to say no in the next? Love demands freedom, and freedom provides the possibility.
So is Bell a Universalist?
If God is love but human beings have a real freedom then it’s a question he can’t answer. It’s a question no-one can answer.
Will everybody be saved, or will some perish apart from God forever because of their choices? Those are questions, or more accurately, those are tensions we are free to leave fully intact. We don’t need to resolve them or answer them because we can’t.
If Bell is not a universalist he should be
The more I’ve reflected on this chapter of the book the more I think that Bell ducks the question in his conclusion and the more unsatisfying I find his final position..
1) Bell has maintained that God wills the salvation of all and he rightly asks can God’s will fail. Surely his will cannot fail.
2) Bell has maintained that the torment of souls in hell cannot bring God glory. Restoration brings God glory; eternal torment doesn’t
3) Bell believes in the sovereignty of God. Surely such a God knows the end from the beginning. Surely Bell believes, therefore, that God would only make a world in which his will could be finally done.
4) Bell, wisely, is unwilling to be counted as a dogmatic universalist. He cannot find definitive proof in the Scriptures for universal salvation nor can he work out how God will ensure his will is brought to pass. But his doctrine of God should make him an optimistic universalist.
How God’s will will be done he does not know that his will will be done he should be ready to affirm.
In his book A short history of nearly everything Bill Bryson writes ‘It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.’
Yet we must all answer the question first asked by Leibniz ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ or to put it in more scientific language ‘why is the universe here?’. There are only three options open to us;
1) The universe has always existed
2) Someone or something caused the universe – that which some people call ‘god’
3) The universe came to be literally from nothing (without a cause)
Now what I find striking and very revealing is that most atheists opt, like Bryson, for option 3.
It’s striking because in doing so it’s hard not to accuse them of thinking irrationally. After all there is nothing in science and nothing in our known experience to suggest that something comes from nothing. It’s striking because atheists enjoy nothing more than mocking Christians for believing in something without evidence or proof, namely god and yet do exactly the same when it comes to the origins of the universe.
After all what could be more improbable than believing that the universe simply came out of nowhere. Is it not in fact the most counter-intuitive and illogical option of the three available to us. It is to go against everything that we know and everything that science teaches. When something happens we ALWAYS look for a cause. We seek a reasonable explanation. We ask where does it come from. We never shrug our shoulders and say things just happen. If we did we’d give up scientific endeavour.
Atheism’s article of faith
Belief in the god of the Bible is dismissed as being as fanciful as belief in pink unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster. But Atheists don’t enjoy being reminded that their whole worldview rests on believing an extremely unlikely idea – a self-creating universe – and believing it as an article of faith.
It’s why I not only ask atheists ‘why does this universe exist?’ but most importantly ‘what reason do you have for holding the answer that you do?’
So when an atheist such as Quentin Smith concludes ‘the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing’ he is not speaking from reason but against reason for there is no reason at all to believe that things come into being from absolutely nothing. An atheist who believes in an uncaused universe is not being reasonable at all. In reality they are doing what the theist is accused of doing all the time – playing the faith card! They are saying ‘I believe because I believe and I may not have a reason to believe it but it’s what I want to believe and that is enough for me.’ Maybe they think that one day we will find reason to believe it but we all know that at present there is none and by any other name that is religion. Belief not based on what you know to be true but what you want to be true.
What is the conclusion?
Atheists are as much people of faith, belief, maybe even superstition, as the rest of humanity. We believe things because we choose to believe them and we believe things not because they are scientifically based, logical or likely but we believe because the one thing we know is that we don’t want to believe the alternative.
We are all of us believers and believers in something that we cannot prove. Welcome to the club my atheist friend.
Why is it that so many Christians can really know the gospel and delight in the gospel, celebrate the gospel and still fall into sexual sin? Why is it that something like pornography continues to have a power and hold on the Christian life. So much so that one recent study suggested that half of Christian men and a quarter of Christian women struggle with internet pornography.
It seems to me that at least part of the answer is that we don’t look to the gospel to meet our needs as human beings and too easily look to something else. We believe the gospel but we don’t look to the gospel to address our needs for human identity, value, and significance.
Tim Chester in his book Captured by a better vision describes how if we don’t seek our answers in the gospel we will look elsewhere. I call that the gospel according to porn. I want to explore some of the themes and ideas from the book under six headings:
The good news of porn becomes attractive when…
1. Porn says ‘in my world you’re significant’
The fantasy-world of pornography is attractive to people because at least in that world they are not only noticed but they rule! Porn provides a fantasy world in which you’re potent, adored, the centre of attention. Women ‘offer’ themselves to you. That is a very attractive thought to self-centred fallen humanity.
Is that really good news?
Any gospel that put’s you at the centre and through which everyone else exists only to serve you is not good news at all. It’s not only fake reality but a very damaging one! The gospel is the daily lesson of learning not to see yourself as the only one that matters.
God’s gospel also says ‘in my world you’re significant’ but in a true way.
We’re significant because we matter to God. He loves and adores us but not because we are lovely but simply because he has chosen to love us. So we receive God’s love in an undeserved way because of Jesus. The result – God is in his proper place and I am in mine.
2. Porn says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’
Porn promises the relationship we seek and the intimacy we crave. In the world of porn I don’t face rejection and I never need feel lonely.
As Tim Chester comments; Porn offers a safe alternative to intimacy
‘It seemed like a safe way to be sexually active without getting involved in a real relationship.’
‘Fearing rejection, we retreat into the fantasy world of porn in which women adore us and offer themselves to us without risk.’
God’s gospel is one in which he says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’. Continue reading »
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