Oct 1, 2013
neil

Three atheists who think the world needs Christianity

Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, recently reviewed a book by Harvard Professor, Niall Ferguson entitled Civilisation: The West and the Rest.  In his review Lawson includes a remarkable quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which describes itself as  ‘the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences as well as a national center for comprehensive studies in the People’s Republic of China‘). Here is what the Chinese have discovered:

One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.

Why?

The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.

Now the Chinese are not alone in reaching this conclusion.  Bruce Sheiman in his book An Atheist Defends Religion writes about the impact of Jesus on our world. Christianity he says introduced:

A commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in ANY other culture.

What you and I take for granted, living as we do in the UK, has its origins in Christianity and the Christian worldview.

Matthew Parris writing in the Times talked of his own return to Africa after 45 years away and concluded;

travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.

Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

Christianity has made a massive difference to our world.

Sep 27, 2013
neil

Up to the job? Church-planting and gospel confidence

When it comes to gospel ministry, and particularly a pioneering, church-planting, ministry, Paul asks the kind of question that everyone is thinking; who is equal to such a task? (2 Cor. 2:16).  It’s the perfect question for any new congregation starting out together. We know that Paul preached the gospel with great boldness and confidence, a confidence that seems to motivate him, enable him and sustain him. And his second letter to the Corinthians is a letter all about the right and wrong kinds of confidence in ministry. Consider how often the word ‘confident’ or ‘confidence’ occurs. Ten times in the book as a whole e.g. 5:6, we are always confident and 5:8, we are confident.

Where does confidence for church planting come from?

In our culture – we talk of a self-confidence. Here’s Tracey Emin in her own words: I’m not your average woman, and I’m not going to live your average woman’s lifestyle. I set up the rules for me. I set up the perimeters. I have nobody telling me what to do. Former world champion boxer Chris Eubank exuded a self-confidence when he famously said: I have no vices. I am a hero. Go and look it up in the dictionary and you will find a picture of me.

I don’t doubt that in a group starting a church there are some very capable people. Gifted, skilled, equipped, trained, motivated but the danger will be a reliable on our own abilities, a self-confidence that breeds a self-reliance.  A wrong confidence.

For the Apostle Paul confidence is found elsewhere.  Paul answers his own question (2:16) in 3:4 Such confidence we have through Christ before God.

In this post I want to reflect a little on what a gospel-confidence is and then in my next post what a gospel confidence looks like in the life and ministry of a new church.

1) Gospel confidence

There are only two fuels you can put in the engine to fuel ministry, ourselves and our own talents and abilities or Christ and his gospel that saves. I’m sure you noticed how, for Paul, confidence is through Christ and before God.  A better translation there is ‘toward God’.  In other words Paul looks to God for his confidence rather than in himself for his confidence. So here’s the principle in planting; our confidence is entirely God-given. It comes from the gospel.

What does a gospel confidence look like? It’s recognising that our competence in ministry is entirely God-given. Paul says, 3:5, Not that we are competent to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from GOD.

Gospel ministry is beyond our resources or abilities. No wonder Paul asks,  2:16, who is equal to such a task. You and I cannot open the eyes of the blind. We cannot give life to the dead.  Our confidence can’t therefore be located in is not in our website, or our music, or our small groups, or our community, even our coffee – it comes from the fact that the life-giving Spirit works through the gospel to bring life and salvation and godliness.

When we recognise that our confidence comes through Christ and from God it is wonderfully liberating because our confidence isn’t affected by our performance, results, circumstance or situation! Andy Murray has just crashed out of the US Open in the quarter-finals in a pretty humiliating straight sets defeat. And no doubt His confidence will have taken a big knock. David Moyes hasn’t had the best start at Man Utd and it can’t be easy replicating the results of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Ask any celebrity and they will tell you of how self-confidence comes and goes, we are up and down people. As gospel servants, our confidence is strong because our confidence comes from God.

That’s great news this morning whether we are naturally over-confident or under-confident people.

Who is equal to such a task? Well the answer is there in v.6, God has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant. Paul knows that new covenant ministry is a life-giving ministry. A ministry in which God seeks to bless and we ought to expect to see people saved.  The Old Covenant, as Paul goes on to explain in verses 7-18, could not bring life because it was an external covenant of obedience to the law. It was a ministry of death, not because the covenant was not good but because of the spiritual incapacity of the people. But Jesus fulfilled it for us in his life, and he bore our penalty for our failure to keep it in his death and so released us from it. The ministry of the Old Testament prophets was a hard one – who would want to plant a congregation in OT Israel or be a Moses, Jeremiah, Isaiah? But the ministry of the New Covenant is a glorious one because through it the Spirit is able to bring new life and to turn rebellious hearts back to him.

It is God, and no other, who qualified Paul and equipped him to become a minister of the new covenant, he claimed nothing for himself.  So too for any of us given the privilege and opportunity to be gospel ministers. Gospel confidence is a humble confidence and that, as we’ll see in the next post, is all we need to, in the words of William Carey, attempt great things for God and expect great things from God.

Sep 20, 2013
neil

Christianity turns out to be the opposite of all we believe

Last is first.

Giving is receiving.

Dying is living.

Losing is finding.

Least is greatest.

Poor is rich.

Weakness is strength.

Serving is ruling.’

So writes R. Kent Hughes in summary of the teaching and life of Jesus.

Paradox, according to G.K. Chesterton is ‘truth standing on its head calling for attention.’

Sep 13, 2013
neil

Why Steve Jobs wanted you to go to Bible College

You might not think that Steve Jobs would have had much advice to offer on whether or not we should encourage people to attend Bible College. But Daniel Finkelstein, writing in Wednesday’s Times (£), would disagree.  I should make clear that Finkelstein’s piece is on something altogether unrelated to theological education. His is a piece on why the proposed high speed rail link between London and the north is worth the cost despite growing estimates (worth a read for his take on this alone by the way). However, it got me thinking. In his defence of HS2, Finkelstein establishes a principle that can be rightly applied to all sorts of questions including our one on the merits of a Bible college training. Finkelstein argues for what he calls ‘the priority of proximity.’ Put simply, we need to maximise face-time if we are to maximise a learning opportunity.

Finkelstein illustrates his point from Steve Jobs’ demand that the Pixar Animation headquarters should not be a series of small studios but ’one big building with a central atrium.’ Why? Jobs wanted, through architecture, ‘to maximise the number of random encounters’ between employees.

Finkelstein quotes Jobs who says ‘there’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by e-mail and iChat. That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.’

Something of this dynamic was at work today in two meetings I have been a part of in the last couple of days in which the proximity principle worked  itself out. Both involved considerable travel, commitment, time and energy to attend, but crucially, they provided the only context for a quick-fire exchange of ideas and perspectives that combined to produce exciting results. It simply could not have come about through Skype or an e-mail exchange. It was free-flowing interchange between multiple people that produced the desired and necessary results.

So back to Bible College. Why should you learn in community rather than study through books from a distance or through courses that bring you together on just an occasional basis? Quite simply, because of the priority of proximity. The more learning that is done together, the more you benefit. The cumulative impact of numerous, daily, spontaneous conversations (sometimes in the classroom and sometimes through random encounter) provide the perfect forum for learning. If you want to equip people for ministry build an atrium.

Sep 10, 2013
neil

Momentum – working to plant churches that multiply

Saturday 19th October is the date of the next 2020birmingham conference. Why not join with church-planters and those with an interest in church planting for the day.

A mix of talks, workshops, worship and interviews with people in the process of planting, the day is designed to help us think through all things planting. The event is hosted by 8 church-planting churches located in Birmingham but all are welcome. Our workshop options are designed to offer something for everyone. So whether you’re just curious about planting, committed to leading a plant, already planting and looking for ideas or even developing a network of plants, this conference is ideal for you. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For details and booking click here

Any questions? Contact us on [email protected]

Sep 6, 2013
neil

A must-read from the Guardian for all who want to understand parenting

Insightful. Thought-provoking. Honest. Mostly right. More to say but no time today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(HT: Sophie Roberts)

Aug 29, 2013
neil

Birmingham’s stunning new library

Europe’s largest public library opens in Birmingham on the 2nd September. Here are some photos along with a BBC interview.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(HT: Chris Green)

Aug 22, 2013
neil

GK Chesterton on how we travel the world to avoid life not discover it

If we love to read some authors because they confirm our opinions we learn to appreciate others because they change them.  A good writer might just change our minds. GK Chesterton (1874-1936) was such a man.  A brilliant mind and a prolific writer I discovered that he wrote around 80 books, several hundred poems, some 200 short stories, 4000 essays, and several plays. He was a literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater, and mystery writer.

Over the summer I’ve been reading his book Heretics . One of the reasons he was so good at getting  around my defences was through his appeal to paradox. He works to show you how they very thing you seek is not found in the way you seek it. In fact, he warns, seek it in the wrong place and you lose it altogether.

The following extracts from his essay On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family is an example of just how powerfully paradox works as a literary device. Subverting our assumptions, we find our views challenged and our minds changed. A whole new way of looking at things not only opens up but begins to become attractive to us.

The argument is simply this: if we really want to live life how do we do it? Chesterton asks where do we really experience life; is it in moving to the big city? Is it in travelling the world? Is life found in seeking after all kinds of new opportunities and experiences? Or might we find that the truth is found in deliberately pursuing just the opposite? Is life actually found in learning to love those who live right alongside us? Might we see more of the world by staying just where we are?

In a culture where we are desperately concerned not to miss out Chesterton argues we miss out when we fail to invest our live in a meaningful  community.

1. Where life is really lived

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us.

2. Why large societies are about life-avoidance

A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.

3. Life is discovered not in seeing places but in loving people

If we were tomorrow morning snowed up in the street in which we live, we should step suddenly into a much larger and much wilder world than we have ever known. And it is the whole effort of the typically modern person to escape from the street in which he lives. First he invents modern hygiene and goes to Margate. Then he invents modern culture and goes to Florence. Then he invents modern imperialism and goes to Timbuctoo. He goes to the fantastic borders of the earth. He pretends to shoot tigers. He almost rides on a camel. And in all this he is still essentially fleeing from the street in which he was born; and of this flight he is always ready with his own explanation. He says he is fleeing from his street because it is dull; he is lying. He is really fleeing from his street because it is a great deal too exciting. It is exciting because it is exacting; it is exacting because it is alive. He can visit Venice because to him the Venetians are only Venetians; the people in his own street are men. He can stare at the Chinese because for him the Chinese are a passive thing to be stared at; if he stares at the old lady in the next garden, she becomes active. He is forced to flee, in short, from the too stimulating society of his equals — of free men, perverse, personal, deliberately different from himself. The street in Brixton is too glowing and overpowering. He has to soothe and quiet himself among tigers and vultures, camels and crocodiles.

4. What God is trying to teach us through community

We make our friends; we make our enemies; but God makes our next-door neighbour. . . we have to love our neighbour because he is there — a much more alarming reason for a much more serious operation. He is the sample of humanity which is actually given us. Precisely because he may be anybody he is everybody. He is a symbol because he is an accident.

All of Chesterton’s arguments, powerfully and persuasively made I’m sure you’ll agree, serve to challenge our view of church. For example, is church a place to visit or a community to learn from? Do we like our large churches because that way we can avoid people? We can decide who to love and when we don’t want to love others, especially those who differ from us, we can easily ignore them? Is a large church a decision not to grow-up through sharing in the joys and sorrows of our Christian brother and sister?

On holiday on Sunday in a small family church when one couple shared the news that the wife had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer Chesterton’s observations were confirmed in an instant. The news would impact every member of that church family who by virtue of their community life shared  life together, week in and week out.

Aug 16, 2013
neil

What Christians must learn from the ‘new atheists’ if only we will listen

Two articles in the past week, both on the Telegraph website, highlight the growing embarrassment that so many atheists find with the posturing of Richard Dawkins.

Brendon O’Neill confesses that ‘things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself’ in his article How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Matthew Norman writes in his piece Come in Agent Dawkins, your job is done, ’as one who became a devout atheist at the age of nine’ but also asks  ’is there any stronger argument against the existence of a benign deity today than the existence of Richard Dawkins?’

 

 

 

 

It seems to me there are many lessons for  Christians to learn from these articles. Let’s fill our apologetic with love and compassion as well as contending for truth. Let’s also watch out for the pride and posturing in our words that do nothing to commend our cause.

Aug 2, 2013
neil

The biggest danger to your ministry? Tripp says ‘you are’

Paul Tripp’s Dangerous Calling is proving to be a highlight of my summer reading.

Here’s a man who knows my heart and understands the unique challenges and dangers of pastoral ministry. The book is written by a man who has failed in ministry,so writes with compassion and care. He has also, through countless conversations with church leaders, ministered the gospel to leaders.

In the introduction he describes Dangerous Calling as a diagnostic book. His aim is to reveal to leaders, often blinded by their sin to their sin, the idols that drive too much of what we do and why we do it. Perhaps the most disturbing sentence of the book is this one: it is right to say that the greatest danger in my life exists inside of me and not outside of me. This is because a pastor’s ministry depends, finally, not on whether he can preach, set out a clear vision for a church or deliver good pastoral care but on what is motivating his ministry. The condition of a pastor’s heart shapes everything.

Through the second half of the book Tripp shows just how devastating it is for a pastor to look for the wrong thing in the wrong place. To want and to seek from ministry what is ours in Christ. When you forget the gospel, you begin to seek from the situations, locations, and relationships of ministry for identity, security, hope, well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Why do ministers fall and fail? Why do so many leave ministry? For most, behind the many presenting reasons, underlying them all, is a failure to apply the gospel to ourselves as well as our congregations.

In the concluding chapter of the book Tripp summarises his ‘big-idea’:

This is the bottom line. This is the great internal war of ministry. You are called to be a public and influential ambassador of a glorious King, but you must resist the desire to be a king. You are called to trumpet God’s glory, but you must never take that glory for yourself. You are called to a position of leadership, influence, and prominence, but in that position you are called to ”humble yourself under the mighty hand of God” (v.6). Perhaps there is nothing more important in ministry than knowing your place. Perhaps all the fear of man, the pride of knowing, the seduction of acclaim, the quest for control, the depression in the face of hardship, the envy of the ministry of others, the bitterness against detractors, and the anxiety of failure are all about the same thing. Each of these struggles is about the temptation to make your ministry about you. From that first dark moment in the garden, this has been the struggle–to make it all about us.

It is so easy to confuse your kingdom with the Lord’s. It is so easy to tell yourself that you are fighting for the gospel when what you’re really fighting for is your place. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re simply trying to be a good leader when what you really want is control. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want to build healthy ministry relationships when what you really want is for people to like you. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re trying to help people understand the details of their theology when what you’re actually working to do is impress them with how much you know. It is so easy to tell yourself that you’re fighting for what is right when what is really going in s that you’re threatened by someone’s rising influence. It’s so easy to tell yourself that you just want what is best when what you really want is a comfortable and predictable ministry life. It is so easy to tell yourself that you want God to get glory when really you enjoy ministry celebrity more than you are willing to admit. It is hard to be in a position of ministry prominence and influence and to know your place, It is very tempting in subtle ways to want God’s place. It is vital to realize that the temptation of the garden still lives in the pulpit, the study, the counseling office, and the ministry boardroom.

Here is the bottom line: wherever you are in ministry, whatever your position is, no matter how many people look up to you, whatever influence your ministry has collected, and no matter how long and successful your ministry has been, your ministry will never be about you because it is about him. God will not abandon his kingdom for yours. He will not offer up his throne to you, He will not give to you the glory that is his due. His kingdom and his glory are the hope of your ministry and the church. And when I forget my place and quest in some way for God’s position, I place my ministry and the church that I have been called to serve in danger.

It is here that I need to be rescued from me.

In your ministry, in the location where God has positioned you, is there evidence that you have forgotten your place, or is your ministry shaped and protected by a daily commitment to “humble yourself under the mighty hand of God”? Would the people who serve with you thing that you are too orientated toward power and control? Would the people you serve assess that you care too much about what people think about you? Would they say that you care too much about attention and influence? Would they see you as being tempted to take too much credit, or would they say that you clearly demonstrate that you know the ministry God has called you to is not about you? Would they conclude that you really do know your place?

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