Theology


It felt like Christmas a few weeks back: I got a free book in the mail. I got ‘the Naked Gospel: the truth you may never hear in church’ by Andrew Farley. My hopes were immediately high as the cover art and design are pretty slick. It has a plastic cover on which is imprinted a picture of a leaf, with the title printed over the leaf (presumably the same kind of leaf that was the substance of the first fashion statement, with the table of contents printed on the paper cover. Slick design, but perhaps a little heavy on the usuage of resources just to achieve a look. I think the title along is enough to catch the interest of a potential reader.

The book opens with the author describing his spiritual guilt complex. If he didn’t share the gospel with someone verbally every day he couldn’t sleep at night, often he says he’d have to go out into the dead of night just to find some unsuspecting stranger on which he would relieve his guilt. His premise seems to be that many in the church are consumed with spiritual guilt because of an emphasis on legalism.

If I’m honest, I can understand where he’s coming from, but I just don’t see it. If anything, as a church, we are more marked by the lack of adherence to anything that makes any sort of noticable impression on our day to day lives. This is the theme of another book that is currently out right now by another reasonably well known author: Recovering Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel.

I’m not sure I disagree with anything that Andrew Farley is saying in ‘the Naked Gospel’. In a time where the church finds itself in the midst of some heady discussions in terms of it’s orthodoxy and orthopraxy, it feels a little dangerous to say your reader (I’m sure the average age of the reader of this book is in the 25-35 range) we’re all off the hook when it comes to the 10 commandments and the other OT laws. What might be read and understood through this is that we can live anyway we want as long as ‘we love Jesus’. When what I think Farley is attempting to say is something like: if we are authentically loving Christ and entering into the New Covenant, becoming less so that he will become more, our lives will be marked by a wholeness and holiness that embodies the OT and the requirements of the Old Covenant, as opposed to being whole and holy because of the OT and the requirements of the Old Covenant.

I think this book could be a great resource for people who struggle with guilt and shame due to a legalism they can’t live up to and need to hear the message of grace in a new way. In which case however, they ought to read this book with someone who can help them dialogue with the material and come to grips with what it means in their own life.

For more info go to the Naked Gospel website.

On the way home from a short holiday we stopped in Bristol for lunch. We went to some deli and weren’t exactly blown away, but it wasn’t horrible.

What made it really interesting was the bag they gave us to carry our lunch outside of the deli. See the picture below.

In case you can’t read it the bag says ‘Bins get hungry too, please feed them.’ Right next to a recycling logo.

Maybe I’m being really picky, but this bag presents very contrasting messages. England has a garbage, litter or rubbish problem. People just have little problem littering where ever they feel like. It’s very frustrating, really depressing and frankly shocking to see someone be so cavalier as to through junk mail on the side walk or finish their McDonalds and just throw the wrapper on the sidewalk/pavement. So I’m sure the message on the bag is telling people to throw their garbage/rubbish in the bin and not on the ground, sidewalk or pavement.

But how do you put that message right next to a recycling symbol on a bag that can clearly be reused and recycled? Is the recycling logo on this bag there just because it’s culturally acceptable to have a recycling logo on things that can be recycled so that it gives the business giving out the bags environmental cache?

This bag is a good reminder to me that I must work towards consistency in terms of my use and consumption. I must work harder to reduce the amount that I consume, to reuse what I do use and recycle everything that can’t be reused and to constantly ask myself it is something I need to begin with.

It’s also a good reminder to me to be consistent in the beliefs that I hold to be true and that I project. I can not believe something and act on it only when it’s convenient, which is the message of the bag that says ‘Recycle if you’re really committed, but otherwise just bin it.’

And in the meantime, I won’t be frequenting a resturant/deli that passively encourages people to throw away things that can be reused and recycled.

I found this beautiful and poingnant image online. It may sound odd to say that an image where the word ‘Sin’ appears is somehow beautiful. But I find the beauty in the truth that this image proclaims.

When I saw this picture what it said to me is that Sin, or the acts that make it up, at first are like bright lights. They give the appearance of illuminating the darkness because they seem to give us what we want. The lights attract us, draw us in, mesmerize us.

However, after trying, taking, participating, staring into this light we quickly find it hollow, disappointing and their brightness fades. And what once drew us in is discarded to the junk pile until something new can be found to draw us in, tempt us or to defeat us.

The other story this image tells us is about a new life that we can have. That when we surrender to Christ, lay our life before him, and become less so that he can become more (John 3:30), the bright lights, the glitz, the lure of Sin has no more power over us and is forever banished, has no control over us and is banished to the junk heap where it is left to rust until it is no more.

Go into a Christian bookstore or parouse Amazon looking for ChristianTheGodDelusion books and you quickly realize that Richard Dawkin’s ‘The God Delusion’ has Christians, or I should say Christian authors, either quaking in their boots or salivating over ready made book ideas. ‘The God Delusion’ has struck such a chord culturally that authors are queuing up left and right to write their own rebuttal. There’s Karen Armstrong’s ‘The Case for God’, Tim Keller’s ‘The Reason for God: Belief in an age of Skepticism’, and I”m sure that Joel Osteen would write one in response if he could only understand multi-syllabic words other than ‘prosperity’ and ‘home teeth whitening kit’.

But honestly, what are we so worried about when it comes to Richard Dawkins and his ideas about God or the lack of any god? 2 Corinthians 12 gives us this great reminder, 9But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’
When someone like Dawkins attacks, we should celebrate, surely it means it’s something worth attacking.

And when Christians are under attack, sometimes we find allies in some unlikely places. Like Marxist Terry Eagleton.

In the July/August ‘New Humanist’ magazine interviewed Terry newhumanistEagleton and he had some very interesting things to say about Richard Dawkins. Eagleton is quoted as saying, “Imagine,someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” And this is only in the first paragraph of the interview.

Read the rest of the interview here.

For an ex-Catholic Marxist, Eagleton is very well read in theology and at least warrants a review of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate”. He provides lots to disagree with, but appears to be an unlikelly ally who reminds us that while Dawkins and counterparts (like Christopher Hitchins) are making alot of noise about the ‘non-existence of God’ they are just voicing their beliefs which “have no unimpeachably rational justification, but (they think) are nevertheless reasonable to entertain.”

There is a pretty endless list of books out there whose intention is to help churches grow. Typing the words ‘Church Growth’ into Amazon’s search engine yields ‘The Road To Growth: Towards A Thriving Church’towards church growth by Bob Jackson,

“Basic Business Principles for Growing Churches: Accounting andbasic business principles Administrative Guidelines That Promote Church Growth” by Arnold Cirtin,

“Ignite: How to Spark Immediate Growth in Your Church” by Nelson Searcy (how fast isignite immediate? does it come with a money back guarentee if the growth isn’t immediate or comes only after minutes or heaven forbid months?),

“If He Builds It, They Willtrue growth Come: The Secret to True Church Growth” by Greg Holmes (this one is on ‘true’ growth not the fake, false or untrue growth)

and of course, surprisingly though that it’s not at the top of the list, “The Purposepurposedriven Driven Church: Growth Without Compromising Your Message and Mission” by my friend and yours Rick Warren.

I don’t often read many of these books, because they often feel as if they are books written on the backs of personal success using scripture to justify their practice. I find they often lack a cohesive practical theology of their methodology and there is more often than not no substantive research to support anything they are espousing to show that their practices and ideas work anywhere outside of their context and experience.

So when I come across a study done on over 1,000 churches in 32 countries to try and discover if there are principles behind basic, healthy church growth regardless of location, theology, denomination, church size, leadership model or ministry style and they find that there are common principles…I tend to get very interested.

From 1994-1996 The Institute for Natural Church Development conducted a study and it yielded some fascinating and exciting ideas. Based on 4.2 million responses they found 8 consistent characteristics in healthy growing churches (all 8 were found in every church).
1) Empowering Leadershipnaturalchurch
2) Gift-Oriented Ministry
3) Passionate Spirituality
4) Functional Structures
5) Inspiring Worship
6) Holistic Small Groups
7) Need-Oriented Evangelism
8 ) Loving Relationships
(Read parts of the book online free with Google Books by clicking here).

The survey found that all 8 were present in every growing healthy church, the growth was not dependant on any on characteristic but on all, and there was not a single exception in the 1,000+ churches they surveyed yielding the astonshing conclusion that if these 8 characteristics are present in a church and they reach a ‘quality index of 65’ out of 100, then there is a 99.4% chance the church is vibrant and growing. The results were so intriguing that NCD continued doing research until 2002 with over 12,000 churches in 50 countries and 45,000,000 responses.

A similarily astonishing find, especially for western churches bit by the ‘bigger is better’ bug is the idea that small churches have an equivalent health index as larger churches but tend to be more effective when it comes to missional growth and evangelism.

The tough part is, as soon as I read this and think ‘If I were in a church like this, how would it look’, I’m already off the mark. I think these healthy growing churches didn’t create or implement this formula, it happened naturally and organically and under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

With a quick review of these 8 characteristics it’s also easy to see why they lend themselves to smaller churches as well. The larger the church the more difficult it becomes to avoid become leadership that is powerful rather than empowering, harder to help others find/utilize their spiritual gifts, and loving relationship begin to become harder to model because the community gets larger and tends towards the superficial.

These 8 characteristics do sound like the guiding principles behind the church we read about in Acts 2:42-47. “42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The best example and ‘formula’ for a naturally developing healthy growing church we can find.

Lately I’ve been trying to spend a little more time reading stuff I know that I’ll disagree with or is on the more ‘radical’ side. The hope is to sharpen some of my thinking and help me be more reflective about what I actually think.

Two periodicals that meet this criteria are ‘New Scientist’ (some interesting ideas but tend to ridicule anything that is faith based) and ‘Adbusters’ (more great ideas, but pretty out there). I like reading New Scientist because they have some very progressive ideas of how to deal with ecological degradation creating global warming and I read Adbusters because I think in some ways they are emblamatic of the ‘in the world but not of it’ thinking that Paul emplored Christians to have.

Reading Adbusters the other day in the most recent issue ‘The Virtual adbustersWorld’ I read a quote that made me question my hope for a natural solution to the problem of global warming because of the truth in the statement. The author (not known to me) wrote ‘For all the talk about the environment these days, I don’t think human beings have ever been so distanced from nature. And much as I hate to say it, I don’t think this trend is going to reverse itself. It just seems inevitable that people will continue to live more and more through technology.’ How can we realistically expect people to be committed to finding a solution to the problem of global warming (whether you think it’s real or not) when our culture is relying on advancements that distance ourselves from the problem more and more?

newscientist
If that weren’t enough, in New Scientist magazine James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia hypothesis and scientist, is quoted as saying, ‘Climate change is happening and will shape the future world. It is unlikely that we will slow the pace of change, mainly because we are too slow and unable to make effective responses in under 20 to 40 years. More than this, the Earth itself will soon be in the driving seat and aiming at a 5C hotter world. I think that our best course of action is to spend as much effort adapting to global heating as in attempts to slow or stop it from happening.’

HUH? Really? Sounds to me like some very forward thinkers believe we can’t get the job done? This isn’t good enough for me and it is theologically unacceptable. Based on Genesis 1 we have a responsibility and simply finding an easier solution to avoid the real problem isn’t an option. If technology is ultimately causing us/me to lose touch with the creation that God made and with each other, then I want less of it (yes, I see the irony in making that statement on a blog on the web).

Rather than taking the same rather pessimistic view of things that these two authors have taken, I prefer to be optimistic, hopeful and action oriented about the problem of global warming and isolation, lonliness due to an over-emphasis on technology.

In a previous post I’ve commented on how much I like Douglas Coupland and his novels. I’ve just finished reading Hey-Nostradamus-0679312692another one of his books, Hey Nostradamus!, and while it feels like quite a departure from some of his other novels, this novel only confirms my appreciation of him and his work.

On the introduction page Coupland quotes 1 Corinthians 15:51-52: ‘Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.’ Even in the context of the rest of the novel, this is a remarkable set of verses to quote, especially for an author who claims that his greatest fear is that ‘God exists, but doesn’t care very much for humans’ (does Coupland intend this statement to be more about God or more about humans?). But these are remarkable verses to quote none the less because of the inherent hope that lies within them.

Hey Nostradamus! chronicles the journey’s of four people whose experiences are all related. Cheryl and Jason, who are high school sweethearts and are secretly married. Cheryl in confusing bout of adolescent spiritual exploration doodles on her school binder ‘God is nowwhere, God is now here’ is killed, and Jason in a similiar bout of adolescent spiritual exploration never gets over Cheryl. The third character is Reg, Jason’s father, who is still struggling years later from adolescent spiritual battles with his own father and Heather who falls in love with a lost and lonely Jason.

This book is wierd, but it’s a Coupland so it’s normative, deeply depressing, because the humanity that Coupland portrays feels too real and yet so hopeful ending with the declaration of the father of the prodigal son; ‘Awake; Everyone listen, there has been a miracle-my son who once was dead is now alive. Rejoice! All of you! Rejoice! You must! My son is coming home!’

There is a quote that sums up Coupland’s book perfectly, especially in the uncertainty of our post-modern culture: ‘This is far too wise a book to offer answers, but affirms that seeking them is a necessary part of our humanity.’ This to me is what the church needs to do a better job at…we need to stop thinking we have the answers and spend more time encouraging the search allowing the spirit to provide the answers.

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