Radical. Not.

So, I was reading this article someone posted on Facebook about Nadia Bolz-Weber, a “radical” priest in Denver Colorado. She’s like so kurr-razy, she has tattoos! She swears in sermons and people think it’s really cool! She supports gay marriage and she’s a feminist! She uses social media to promote herself! How amazingly radical! Not.

It really doesn’t sound that radical to me. I mean, let’s get this right. Swears in order to sound cool: been normal since I was in secondary school. Has tattoos – sitting in this coffee shop I can see 5 tattoos from my seat, and that’s only the ones not covered by clothes. Feminism; yup pretty much everyone I know thinks you’re under a moral responsibility to be one of those. Supporting gay marriage – well that’s basically the mainstream view of everyone in the west at least. And social media to promote your product (in this case, herself) – well hardly groundbreaking is it? I struggle to think of many church leaders who are more un-radical, and less a projection of the culture in which they live.

Let me tell you about some real radicals. They reject society’s emphasis on appearance and are therefore often don’t have tattoos or other very trendy accessories. Their priorities are different and their resources go elsewhere. They tend not to swear, not because the words are inherently bad, but because they don’t take Bolz-Weber’s zeitgeisty view that “I shouldn’t have to pretend I’m something I’m not.” Rather, putting others first, they try not to be needlessly offensive in order to be accepted. In fact, the whole acceptance thing is interesting, because it doesn’t seem to matter to them that much. They seem, sort of, safe in who they are.

They radically depart from the orthodoxy that two people who love each other have a right to get married whoever they are. That’s because they don’t think that marriage is about happiness and fulfillment at all, but an opportunity that some people have to reflect something beyond themselves. And sex, belonging there, is not for everyone either. A “right to marriage” makes no sense to them, for it is not something anyone has a right to. For some, this is a painful and difficult conviction, for it means permanent celibacy, to the constant scorn and derision of their peers, even, as I have talked about before, to the point of suggesting they aren’t human at all. But they choose to use the love they feel to serve and love outsiders, and they make homes that aren’t built around nuclear families but are family to everyone who comes in.

They aren’t feminists, because they think all philosophies based on selfishness are lacking in humanity. Much better to accept that a loving creator made us all different and that is fine, and we can work together to show what he’s like and that might well mean I don’t get to do the things I’d most like to do, and submission to that won’t hurt me or anyone else. Self denial might actually be a good thing.

They have depression and don’t hide it, but talk about it publically in the hope it’ll help others dealing with the same thing.

They spend Sundays plugging stuff in, moving chairs, playing instruments, serving coffee, welcoming people they don’t know, talking to a God they can’t see, singing (outside the shower and in front of other people) and sitting through sermons, even without swear words to spice them up.

They are wonderful godparents to precious children, even when their first response might be expected to be jealousy of your family. They weep for your pain as if it’s their own instead of being embarrassed by it, they say they’ll pray about it and really do. They paint your house, they cook you meals, they aren’t ashamed to ask for help when they need it, they move to strange places in the world with strange people to introduce them to an invisible God, they pitch in when there’s a crisis without being asked. They put up with awkward conversations with people with whom they have nothing in common, they live on hardly any money in order to have time to meet up and talk with people, they welcome people who are strange to them who are in need as peers and friends; they don’t set up projects and employ people to “help” them.

These are my people. My funny misfit radicals, actually rejecting the norm and doing something different.

Oh, and you probably don’t know about them because they swim against society’s tide of self promotion, of capturing and publishing everything to promote our endless fun to the rest of the world, to instagram and archive every moment so people know how good it was. There’s a bit in their book which says that their ambition should be to live godly, quiet, lives, loving the people near them, giving what they have for the sake of others, enjoying what has God has made with the hope that we’ll enjoy it without end. That’s what they do. It doesn’t make the papers because they aren’t interested in campaigning to silence or shame those with whom they disagree.

My radicals. My guys. Thanks for doing something really different, and taking all the flack that goes with it.

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I’m too tired to be charismatic

I love my charismatic brothers and sisters. I’m really not into charismatic bashing at all. I love their music, I love their enthusiasm, I particularly love the way they turn up to meet with other Christians expectant that God might actually, you know, do something. And because of their great faith in a real and active God they tend to try big things. In UCCF working with charismatic colleagues and students was one of my biggest joys.

So recently I started following some twitter feeds of charismatic organisations, because I wanted to be encouraged by all the stuff they do; and there is some great stuff happening out there being done by Christians different to me.

But personally, I would find being charismatic really exhausting. These twitter feeds are endlessly full of the really intense time these guys have had with God, the new inspiring challenging thing they have been to, the way they prayed and people were freed, another life changing encounter with the Lord.

My Christian life isn’t like that. And I’m not sure that’s wrong. In fact the New Testament is all about God in the normality, the mundane, the simple putting of others first as a well fitting hoodie, the well worn denim of loving the church, the scuffed trainers of personal evangelism changing my daughter’s nappies, reading the Bible as a family over Tesco Value yoghurts, collapsing into bed with a quick prayer. Church is sometimes intense, more often its just a group of us trying to help each other keep going. God is in the dull stuff. Endlessly lifting the intensity isn’t more spiritual, in fact, it can make God seem like he’s far away from normality, which he definitely is not.

So thank you charismatic brethren for all you bring. But be careful. All of us have heresies that we lean towards, perhaps mine is legalism. But your just may be gnosticism, a pushing of God into some super spiritual intense bit of your life. Love Jesus everywhere. It’s a bit…well..calmer. But that’s fine.

Our Western Cross

So every time I read 1 Peter or meet the growing number of Christians in my church who have been really genuinely persecuted for their faith, and still live with the consequences of that now, I wonder if the “suffering” of middle class white Christians get can ever really be compared to that of the early church or the church in the Muslim world. (Checking my privilege you see.)

And the more I think about it, the more I think apocalyptic warnings about the effect of gay marriage on Christian professionals are not where its at. Not right now anyway. The reason being a Christian is easier here is, I think, that I am usually not doing it right.

You see, the whole gay marriage thing got me thinking about whether it is possible for churches to send moral messages without excluding and giving the impression that acceptance rests on conformity. And at least one of the answers is that people who aren’t Christians need to know that we are failures too, and that we really believe we are. Their actual experience of church needs to be that we are not singling gays or divorced people, single parents or addicts or people just out of prison as broken and failed – we have all failed. Its not that those people are damaged goods, it’s that we all are, and there is a great healer who loves to care for and fix and comfort those who are damaged. He will not break the bruised reed.

The thing is, I don’t really want to go round admitting my failure to people who aren’t Christians. We’re thinking at the moment about making our church small groups more “missional” – which means people who aren’t Christians being there when we do normal Christian stuff. And normal Christian stuff should mean admitting we are failures to each other – confessing our sins. But our western culture says, you only ever admit your weakness in a long term probably therapeutic context where absolute confidentiality is guaranteed. Sharing your weakness with people in a small group might just be possible after several years of close and deepening relationships – by no means possible if people who aren’t Christians are there just having  a look! But my western privatised success-obsessed culture is giving me a cross to pick up here. A real cross that needs taking up if people are to understand the Gospel – they need to know I am a sinner and not just in some general theological sense, but that I have actual sins, which I regard as heinous, the way they have been told the church regards their sins. Honestly, I’d rather nobody knew about my sin. You’d probably prefer nobody except a few select Christians knew about your weaknesses (even the non-sinful ones) – your struggle with depression, your anger with God about fertility, your deep and hungry loneliness. Letting people in, though, can’t be an option.

This is the cross, in my experience, that no one wants to pick up. I have sat in enough frigid Bible studies to know – not much talking and none at all at application time. I have even had Christians tell me that they can’t be honest in a small group because I, the leader, can’t guarantee their confidentiality! Well they are right about that! There is a risk someone will blab your personal problems all over the place, and that’s really hard. That’s why the image is carrying a cross up a hill, not wearing a bathrobe on a stroll to the massage parlour. Listen people, unless we do this, unless we convince one non-Christian at a time that we really believe we are sinful and need the Lord Jesus too, that it is not their sin we are interested in but our own, they will likely not want to be Christians, and I do not blame them.

And why should we fear our sin coming out into the open? “It is finished” in Jesus words. The only one with the power to condemn has already justified. You can either communicate that with the way you are with Christians and non-Christians present, or you can communicate something else. Our western cross is there to pick up if we’re willing.

I’m not being trained

So, you go to a church where the pastor/vicar/ministers/leaders (now pastor for shorthand) aren’t training you in the way you’d like to be trained. You know that you could be growing as a Christian with a bit more focused input, theological training, mentoring and stuff. You could preach! You could do apologetics! You have had a taste by attending a conference or reading a book and you long to be trained up to serve. But nobody is doing that, and your pastor isn’t interested in helping you, in fact he doesn’t seem to think it’s part of his job. So, obviously it’s time to think about moving on to a different church isn’t it? Maybe a church that’s part of one of those trendy new networks where everyone can be a church planter and have their ministry potential fulfilled?

If you’re thinking of doing that, then you have one thing right – you have a lot of maturing to do as a Christian. Here’s the downlow:

1) Your pastor should be training people. But he probably has a million other things to do. Preparing sermons that people like you will critique if they don’t reach the standards of the ones you podcast from celebrity pastors is just one of those. He may have his hands full visiting sick people and comforting the grieving and dealing with a million pastoral crises you don’t know anything about. He needs the people in his church who think they have leadership potential to help, not whinge, and certainly not leave. Serving in your church, imperfect as it is, sounds exactly like the training that you need.

2) Pull your finger out and train yourself. In this day and age, excellent training materials are just one google search away. In nearly every major city there are training courses like this one that you can attend. If that’s not cup of tea, there’s loads of distance learning and part residential stuff from these people and if you don’t want a course like that, for goodness sake open a book! If you can’t be bothered doing that, here’s a list of sermons you don’t need even need to order from Amazon. Get together with a couple of people in your church, read something and pray about it. If you can’t even do that, then I’m pretty sure you are mistaking your calling to leadership. Stop delegating the responsibility for your spiritual growth to someone else. Maybe 200 years ago people’s only access to theological training was through their church leaders; it’s certainly isn’t now.

One of the key patterns we see in the Old Testament is God’s anger at his people when they dressed up their sin in a pious religious garb. I’m afraid, if your complaint is about training, you are probably doing the same thing. It sounds so evangelically plausible that you are longing to be trained; in fact you are treating church as a consumer service that doesn’t reach your high expectations, you are not respecting your leaders, you are thinking more highly of yourself than you ought. Settle down and love your church – that’s what potential leaders do.

I write all this not as a frustrated pastor who can’t do any training. In fact, at our last members meeting my amazing church passed a budget that allows us to have enough staff to train others and to have people on staff to be trained. I’m so grateful to my lovely church members for doing that. But many pastors, maybe including yours, aren’t freed by their congregations to do everything they should be doing. The people with leadership potential should be part of the solution not the problem.

This could be controversial…

Here’s a narrative you are likely to hear in trendy young Christian circles today.

Our parents’ generation were too obsessed with personal holiness. They focussed on the marks of a Christian being personal – avoidance of drunkeness and sexual immorality, and their view of holiness was all to do with personal Bible study, prayer, honesty at work, and faithfulness in their relationships.

What they missed is the importance of challenging structural sins. Hence, they often thought racism was acceptable. They accepted socially constructed gender roles. They sharply divided personal evangelism (good) from social justice (bad). We’re getting it right, at least more right, because we’re not so obsessed with the private and personal sins, but the really big social sins that actually really hurt people.

Narrative over.

It sounds very appealing, and allows us to feel like we are the pioneers of a new culturally engaged Christianity. Except if you read the Bible, there’s just far more in the New Testament about personal holiness than about structural sin. There just is. There’s very little (if anything) about influencing the government’s policies (submitting to them, yes, influencing, not so much). It seems God is much more concerned about how you actually personally love and care for the people near you, starting with your church, then your family,then other Christians, then your “neighbour”, than he is with wicked structures. If he says anything about the latter, it’s that HE will judge them in the end.

How do we explain that?

I think it’s in a couple of ways:

– the Bible writers had a concern for people to become Christians over and above being freed from injustice. They just did. Hence slaves are to obey they masters in order to win them for Christ (which to our overthrowing structures narrative sounds like craziness itself; the slaves should be revolting!)

– I think the Bible writers were writing a pastoral book for Christians. And most Christians were (and still are) the weakest, the poorest, the least influential and the furthest from centres of power. It is bad pastoral advice to those people to tell them to challenge evil structures – if they do that they and their families will starve, or worse. The Bible doesn’t ask anyone to do what is impossible, to change the world. Most people just can’t do that, especially the type of people that seem to be particularly attracted to the message of God’s love and care for the poor and weak. Every Christian can be involved in winning others to Christ. In a sense, making evangelism central is a democratisation of Christianity – for every Christian can do it, whatever their social status.

So were the previous generation right? Well, in a way they were. It’s not a “Christian” way of life to campaign against third world debt and sleep with your girlfriend. It’s not authentically Christian to campaign against human trafficking instead of (rather than as well as) praying for your friends to become Christians. It’s not cool with God to be all sort of snide and superior to your overly conservative church whilst  creating your own ministry with sex workers. Sexual morality, evangelism, loving your church really matter. If you are living this way you haven’t adopted a Christian lifestyle, you’ve adopted a trendy, semi-bohemian faux revolutionary, self fulfillling lifestyle like lots of other people in their twenties and thirties have.

However, what the New Testament does seem to say is that every single relationship, every power you have over anyone else, every advantage you have is to be submitted to Jesus and to serving other people. Everything. Now whilst many of the first Christians and Christians today just don’t have many of those things (they are not influential, they are not rich, they are not highly educated) if you are a Christian in the Western world, if you are educated, if people work for you rather than just you working for others, you have to use those things to reflect and honour the Lord Jesus and the things he think matters. That is a matter of holiness. If you are Prime Minister, or a high court judge, or chief exec of Tescos or a consumer or a voter or someone who can speak up for others, you must do that as a Christian – which will obviously involve challenging unjust structures. That is, for most people who read this blog, a matter of personal holiness. But so is the other stuff – the submission to authority, the personal prayer and Bible reading, the sexual purity. Everything that you have belongs to Christ – insofar as you are able you use those things to challenge structural sins. That’s not instead of the private stuff, it’s an extension of it, an extension you happen to be able to make because of when and where you live in the world. That is a great responsibility – as Jesus said “from those to whom much has been entrusted, much will be required”.

Christianity is not, though, essentially about changing godless structures. If it were, it would be removed from the hands of the weakest and poorest and ostensibly least significant – the very people the Bible says that the Gospel is for.