This is an information post: the one before is the last content-focused posting, which perhaps fittingly talks about what the taste might be like of a heavenly gathering of believers.
This blog is archived! I thought this needed some explanation.
For everything there is a season, and for this blog it seems right to end it here, or at least to take a pause.
Since 2012 this blog has hosted an irregular collection of essays that reflect the thinking of some in our church about living a daily Christian experience. However, for the most part the authors have been transient in their contributions with limited consistency, and there comes a point where the logistical overheads outweigh the value of the labour. Perhaps it's been because the community into which we speak has not adequately provided a foil to the content? Perhaps our community simply does not engage in this mode of stimulus? Perhaps the writing has simply been dull?
It's not as if there is no readership - to the contrary there is a stable and notable readership: the blog page is the most visited page by a factor of 2 or more over any other content on this web site. However, by all statistics most (nearly all) of the readers are people from outside our church community. Our small family of church attendees seems peculiarly disconnected, or disengaged from finding discussion in the digital environment. If I was to be especially critical, I might be tempted to say that this reflects a sad condition wherein the (post-)modern Christian is unwilling to engage with the intellectual demands needed to wrestle with the seeming paradox of knowing mystery - for in this day and age we are so easily satiated by the sweets of sound bites. But I don't think this is true generally, for it is not born out in the wider community.
So, whatever the reason, the blog is perhaps one distraction too many for now, and will be archived in case it serves any purpose for future inquisitiveness. In the meantime, our local church community can continue to seek a way forward on other pressing frontiers.
Finally: for any who have enjoyed the blog, much of the content and more continues on HERE ,
Do you ever try to look behind the façade? Or is that just a little too scary for you?
I visited a church on Sunday.
The modern looking cross at the front struck a contrast with the old architecture, and was illuminated by lights from the base. On the columns were speakers, with big LCD screens positioned so that those in the side seating would have full visual access to all that happened.
There were no pews. Instead, loosely arranged rows of basic chairs were interrupted with deep seated couches. They had painted the churches interior - the vaulted roof, walls and all. And not just a plain colour, but with decorative areas of deep pastels among sections of off-whites, brightening up the place no end (although some wear and tear was evident) … even the organ pipes had not escaped. It felt like walking into a lived-in home.
The music was a modern blend of guitar, keyboard, bass guitar and drums - acoustics were less than ideal, and the projection lyrics got lost at times, but none of that really mattered. The lead was a prominently tattooed vocalist / guitarist, supported by an excellent backing singer. Volumes ranged from quiet to very loud. Woman featured prominently throughout the service. Robes and adornments were absent and the style was casual – a short denim dress for the main speaker! The feeling was unashamedly family! Kids roamed - the noise was not aggressively contained but remained at typical family levels. The opening songs were kid-focused, and un-embarrassedly led by a 20-something couple full of energy and actions. When the children left for their “life course” sunday school (it sounded like an Alpha course for pre-teens), everything stopped for 5 minutes to let people chat while we transitioned into an “adult-zone” … meaning that the intellectual language went up a notch, but without any theological dilution of the simple hard truths that had just been given to children (as is so often the case when churches overcomplicate simplicity in order to sound "adult").
The congregation – that's a poor word, let's say the gathering – seemed fully engaged; their attention was focused, voices raised in song, mobile phones put away, and bodies in motion. Ages ranged from the white-haired old gent down to the 20-year old's fashion statement. From the front the lead was as a conversation – not of imposing instruction or abstract idealism, but framed as discussion and an implied invitation to participation - as one might enjoy at a dinner table.
Theology was orthodox.
It was all just so natural, so normal. The speaker drew on everyday experiences … such as talking about an episode of “Game of Thrones” (which she admitted she probably shouldn't be watching), and a personal story of recently trying to gate-crash a live performance of a band she had loved as a teenager. When, during the talk, the presumed minister-in-charge (sitting in a front row couch) publicly interrupted to indicate that she'd only got to the first point and time was running out, she simply said “oh you, shush!” and carried on - I gather he was her husband. That he could interrupt her, that she could publicly “shush” him, and that everyone simply took it all as normal, only served to reinforce the sense that this was family!
This gathering appeared to reflect every-day lives coming together in a gathering around the cross. The typical façade of religiosity or the formulaic contemporary expression that I've so come to expect in churches (even in post-modern churches) was simply not there.
When the Dads were invited to stand in recognition of their role (this was fathers day), and when the Dads were prayed for with the kids and woman moving around to lay on hands, it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
At the back, next to the table serving pre-service hot bacon rolls and coffee for breakfast (at 11am!) was a display of recommended books. Alongside the expected Bible and a few easy-read authors like Yancy, were some that would challenge the motivation (and possibly the comprehension) of many in my church. Like the book on the essential Chesterton, or the thick academically-oriented tome critiquing modern thought on the tension between science and religion - both subjects dear to my heart but seemingly unshared by others in my own community. I bought both, and they didn't seem to know how much to charge, so simply took what I offered to pay - I think I overpaid, but that's good.
As best a visitor can read a situation, I took this all to indicate a community of believers who were engaged in living out who they were with a full heart, soul, mind and strength, and doing so naturally, imperfectly, and unashamedly.
I'm sure not everything is as ideal as it appeared There are probably, almost certainly, behind-the-scenes problems; this side of heaven there always will be. But this was a church that looked like it had thrown out the mentality of "tradition for traditions sake", and instead said "lets use the liturgy, form, function, and facilities to serve who we are and what we do – we'll not serve the heritage, but rather incorporate the heritage into who we are, changing, discarding, and creatively inventing as needed".
The result is a deeply attractive natural expression of Christian community.
I am reminded of Chesterton's comment: “The orthodox church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox church was never respectable. ... It is always easy to let the age have its head, the difficult thing is to keep ones own. It is always easy to be a modernist, as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of these open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. … To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.”
I dream of being in such a family this side of heaven. A family of wild and untamed orthodoxy, where truth leads and form follows, and where heart, soul, mind and strength bend all conventions to the real purposes of Christian living.
It seems I had a taste of what could be, which makes not having it all the harder.
Every now and then one writes something, and the next day you find the essence expressed so much better in a song!
Easter is a time when people start saying "Is this all really true, is it relevant, and why bother when I already have so many other troubles to deal with?" Easter is a time when latent doubts bubble to the surface.
Often their (my?) questions are rooted in "if God exists why would he create me with this [fill in your problem]"
What does one say when someone is questioning the truth about the meaning of life, about God and where we fit in?
Recently I've been having exchanges with individuals, or encountered people who are busy drifting away, or have chosen to stop believing. Many people don't like to engage with those who are drifting, and react with simplistic and hurtful judgements. Some find that their own doubts are uncomfortably exposed, and some simply ignore the discussion and walk away fearful of their own thoughts. I too have doubts, but I prefer to take these moments as valuable (and sometimes painful) opportunities to re-interrogate the evidence, to encourage (myself), and to choose all over again.
In my real-world job I deal with scientific uncertainty ... mathematically, qualitatively, intrinsically. It's hard because uncertainty is ... well, its uncertain: there's a simple uncertainty about knowing what's true, but far more difficult are uncertainties about whether a truth is important, is it relevant to my situation, what should my response be, and the consequences if I ignore it.
I manage these uncertainties in my work - there are techniques and methods. But outside of my job's focus it becomes much harder to respond to both my own and other people's uncertainties about life, meaning, and if there is a God. Nonetheless, I think there are honest things we can do (made all the more easy if there is someone trustworthy to walk the path with you). Easter is a special time to for this.
1. Remember. If I once believed something, why did I believe? Did I examine the evidence that led me to a conclusion, or maybe was there an experience that opened eyes to a new truth. How did it change my life? For some people that moment of realization came through their intellectual honesty: C.S. Lewis called himself the most reluctant convert in history, because he could no longer deny the evidence (and he really didn't like the implications at first). Then there was Count von Zinzendorf who came to believe in a relational God while looking at a painting - a mystical experience. However it started, we all have our history of experience - good and bad. I can remember key times in my history: of intellectual acceptance, times of healing, of my daughter nearly dead, of deep joy as understanding awoke, and many times of an outward and inward awareness that God was at work. I can also remember dry, dry periods when I was like a desiccated plant that has lost it's memory of water, where God seemed absent from the picture. Remember.
2. Be honest. Experience is just that, its experience, not an explanation. I had to realize that my belief in something does not change reality. My desires for a God of a certain type, for a God who repairs me, or even my sometime-desire for there to be no God, has zero influence on the actual existence of God. I had to realize that if God exists, by definition he is deserving of my attention whether or not he meets my requirements or desires. Its like the fact that gravity attracts, independent of whether I like it or not, or whether I believe it exists. Likewise, God's existence is NOT conditional on my doing anything, wanting anything, needing anything, or receiving anything. I might not like that he exists, I might not like that he seems silent sometimes, but that's an altogether different issue. Be honest.
3. Question. If Jesus is who he says he is (unless he's mad, or bad as CS Lewis puts it), then does that mean I can expect my life to be fixed. Evidence tells me no - at least not everything. So why bother with him? Because if the story is true, then he's certainly bothering (with) me! Question.
4. Evaluate. Don't just accept something because someone says it's so. Everything has some measure of uncertainty. The real question is not if there is uncertainty (do you know with certainty that you are not actually an avatar in someone’s computer program?), the real question is: what is likely? What does the evidence say is the most rational explanation (and I'll say this: atheism is NOT the most rational explanation!). Is it more likely than not that there is a God (evidence says to me that yes it is very likely), and can I be confident about that (experience and reason says to me, yes, I can). If so, evaluate Easter!
If the above leads me to conclude that God exists, is real, and relevant, then the question becomes all about my response, not about what I can get. The question is simply "Will I ignore him?"
EASTER: (another) chance to ignore, examine, or connect?
Jesus didn't say "Follow Christians", he said "Follow me" ("Christians", and religion, can be a real pain in the neck - maybe from the contortions of bending into a stereotype?)
I would suggest only two certainties: I will always have questions, and change is the only constant. Yet paradoxically, Jesus stands as fixed marker, surrounded by evidence, with incredible claims, and eternal consequences.
EASTER: His act, my choice.
Postscript 1: I still don't know what to say to someone in the midst of doubt. There are platitudes aplenty, but without the chance to engage in discussion, I can say little more than "I empathise, I know the feeling, and all I can do is encourage you to consider the consequences of 'Is this true?'"
Postscript 2: I think there are amazing resources that walk through the inevitable questions and doubts - but they ideally need discussion - no question should be taboo. I would point to the Alpha Course (best done in person, but one can listen too), or one of my favourites is the Life Course (again best in person; but the talks are excellent - archived on our church's web site here).
Postscript 3: They say there only two certainties in life: death and taxes. But that's not really true is it, there is much about death that is uncertain, such as when, where, how, and what happens next? My mom’s death (below) was a surprise, and so was the means (murder) - no-one ever anticipated it so soon, so sudden, and so tragically. Yet her funeral was one of the most joyful experiences I have known because of my (believed) certainty in her future. The grief was hard, but would have been so much harder without that knowledge of certainty.
Recently I was talking with three others from church, and trying to make a point about connecting with our community - asking, how are we relevant?
I was saying that if we want to be relevant, then there are two sides to the coin: to be relevant we need to understand the daily experience of those outside our church but who are part of our community, and we need to be able to see our church the way they see it.
Relevance means speaking truth into the important issues of peoples lives, and we can't do that without understanding their experience, or without understanding how they perceive us. I argued that, to the extent we fail to wrestle with these two challenges, so we fail in our great commission.
We can gain this knowledge in two ways: we can do research on the nature of our community, and we can get out there and listen to them in the street, in the bars and restaurants, in their homes, and in their workplace.
So then of course I had to go and do some research - I want to be part of the solution, not just point out a problem. Here's my start to hopefully get you thinking. I took the 2011 census results for the suburbs that surround us: The CBD, Gardens, Oranjezicht, Tamboerskloof, and Vredehoek.
What does this tell us? It says that we live in a community that is dominated by well educated, working, young professionals who live as couples / partners, or perhaps as house mates. They're probably a fairly transient community as the majority are renting. Proportionally there are not many children and not many old people.
This means our community is mostly modern and mobile in both culture and lifestyle (these conclusions, of course, need to be backed up with actually talking to people). In terms of general characteristics this can tell us a lot, if we want to be serious about engaging with the community.
To go back to where I started. If we, as StB, want to be relevant to this community, if we as individuals want to best connect with them, then we need to ask ourselves some very specific questions.
To be Jesus to this community we need Jesus' eyes and understanding, we need his compassion. A key part of this is, I suggest, gaining understanding.
One small step at a time, one change to what I do, one person spoken to. Anyone up for the challenge?
Only conversion-based church growth allowed!
I read this, then thought, then read it again. There's lessons here I would love to see StB wrestle with! Brian Jones made this promise to God when he started a church that "I promise we will grow this church through conversion growth only.” Of course, one problem he faced was also how to stop church transfers from other groups!
Read and think: HERE
One might argue that the church is generating a bunch of emasculated metrosexual men.
Too strong a statement? Yes, probably. But we do live with a much more nuanced definition of what it means to be male.
Within the local church the topic of maleness is poorly addressed, and the global church instead panders to the sensitivities of multiple communities for fear of offending any one perspective (and thereby losing even more people to this post-Christian world). Simultaneously it seems there is unthinking adoption by the church of many cultural norms in order to (obsequiously?) try and be "relevant". In both ways we miss the target.
It's not about 7 steps to find success, or 3 ways to please your lover. What's wrong with churches taking a strong stand, and with building strong people who can stand against the current when needed? Why is it that society sees fit to involve itself with defining religion, yet it is not acceptable for religious people to bring their perspective to define secular society? What's wrong with the Christians saying things like "you're wrong", "I disagree", "that's heresy"? The secular world uses much stronger words in speaking about the church.
If Christ is our standard, and if we say we're Christians, then where is the Christ compassion that is properly balanced with righteous anger; where is the authority that sets the godly goal and will even at times (sadly) close the door on those who will not agree, rather than compromise in an effort to find acceptance in the name of relevance? (I leave it to you to find the many relevant scriptures on these issues).
I read this essay on why men are leaving the church; the 9 points raised are issues that churches would do well to reflect on. For example, why do most men older than 35 not have a close personal friend? What is male sexuality - and by the way, when did you last hear a sermon on male sexuality that was actually relevant to living with the reality of sexual pressures from the ever-earlier pubescence and ever-later marriage? Most men want relevant insight on the daily stress of living with the world's unrealistic expectations, not to be lost in intricacies of multi-layered and opaque biblical theology. Men are supposed to be intimate and introspective in emotive worship, whereas most of them would rather be in action to see great works accomplished.
As for the church herself (and without trying to be sexist): in our current world the practical reality is that leadership is dominated by men. So if the men are not there, then we have a void in leadership. Lets relearn how to do manly men's ministry.
Here's a thought-provoking article on men and church. It's highly relevant, somewhat disturbing, and provocative topic for men. If you're a man, do you agree with the article's perspective? If you're in church leadership. how are you responding to the issues? And if you're a woman, do you empathise?
One example: "According to statistics, the average man over 35 years old does not have one close friend" ... hmmm, and we're doing what to address that? Or "Men do not follow programs, they follow men", or "Most men do not see the value of going to church because it is not addressing the issues they face."
I challenge you: read the article and ask yourself two questions:
I recently read a thought provoking essay of a man's journey from Catholicism to where he ended up building a church of atheism. Along the way he passed through sectarianism (dealing with die-hard adherents of different sects), syncretism (the combination of different forms of belief or practice), personal relational stresses as he chose to disbelieve God, and how to lovingly raise a family with no spiritual reference point (essay is here).
At the same time I've been reading perspectives such as "God is not an object", and about evangelistic atheism, and digging into Chesterton's unique expose of a reasonable faith.
In all this two thoughts strike me: about how deeply embedded this is in the society I daily engage with, yet which goes mostly unrecognised; and how easily human logic can reinforce a "what's in it for me" reasoning that leads a person down an alleyway of self-defined values and ultimately into nihilism. If there is no God, fine. If there is ...?
I live mostly surrounded by nice people; "good" people, who have morals that largely steer their lives (at least so long as their lives remain reasonably secure). Many profess "Christianity", at least in name. But of course, to know what a person really believes I simply have to look at how their priorities play out in their commitments - that is the real give-away. For the most part these "good" people's actions show a commitment to securing a comfortable and "happy" personal life.
However, so long as Christians (dare I invoke "the church" ... perhaps not) play the game of "lets not offend anyone with our statements", so long as Christians continue to placate rather that perturb, these good people will continue with a sense of "I'm ok" before most likely drifting off into practical atheism. "So long as" ... a problematic phrase.
As a Christian, for me God is not an object to be picked up and set down, or exchanged for another that makes me feel comfortable. Likewise, God is not a "something". For me, God is the subject: "In him and through him I have my being". Further, while some say logic is religion's great predator, I find logic to be religion's great defender. The difference is whether I am using logic loosely to seek a path toward moments of happiness, or will I use logic honestly to disclose the truths that lie before my eyes. Uncomfortable truths, disturbing and perturbing truths that end in joy if I can only ever get over having moment by moment "happiness" as my goal. Truth is not abut happiness, truth is a Joy that says "I can see clearly now".
It is my contention that the path to prioritized personal happiness is logically and necessarily also a path to atheism. Conversely, a path to atheism is necessarily a path that seeks personal happiness. For I can only be happy when I am shielded from the truths of what I am in myself, and what the world is around me.
Personally, I'd rather choose to remove the blindfold and replace happiness with Joy. And if others proselytize to draw me into their church of blindfolded comfort, I'll say "Be logical for once in your life, do you really believe you've got your eyes open?"