In the Dark
Globally we are facing a very troubling and confusing season. Making sense of it is like asking a blind person to solve a Rubik’s cube. I don’t pretend to have solved even one side out of the six, although I do have some comments, questions, considerations and conclusions.
Importantly, this is not a position paper. Two elements preclude us from writing one. Firstly, your context is going to inform your response. As an example, the Dutch Govt is using words such as, “we strongly advise you to isolate,” re Covid, in these circumstances. They are not legally demanding prescribed action, with pursuant penalties in case of failure. This is unlike the UK Govt, and others, who are demanding isolation in prescribed cases with the full backing of the law. Secondly, conscience is a deciding factor, and by nature, conscience is not the same in every person, everywhere, except that we all have a conscience. Can you allow certain things with conviction? Some can and some can’t, so you will need to choose. Your private actions may have public implications but that is for you to face if you are acting in faith.
Comments and Questions
It is a virus and it is highly contagious. But is contagion, an ominous-sounding threat, not the common pathway for airborne and physically transferrable diseases, such as the common cold? It isn’t the common cold, granted, but most who catch Covid are either unaware or beset by minor symptoms. Of course, those with underlying predilections aren’t so sanguine about it, nor the families of those who have lost loved ones. We all know of someone.
Our governments have been scrambling from the word go. They are constantly behind the eight ball of confusing and changing scientific prognostications. Masks on, masks off, lockdown, easing of lockdown before reimposing lockdown, children at school are safe, teachers might make children at school unsafe, vaccines are now being made ready, vaccines are realistically a long way from being made ready, the economy is failing, the economy is bouncing back – it’s enough to make you giddy. Scientists are making educated guesses, with pressure from governments and the burden of science being the new saviour when it is no such thing.
The infection numbers are going up, but is this because more people are being tested, therefore recorded, or are the numbers actually going up? This question seems unsatisfactorily answered if it can be answered at all, and at the same time, answers are being used to lock cities down again. The base percentage rates might be a good guide but only if the numbers are actually rising and not just because they are being reported. And the problem here is that the rate might have been considerably higher earlier on, but many may have been asymptomatic, or it might have been lower because we were all shuffled off into suburban exile. Who knows? And, the reporting of deaths has gone virtually silent? What does this say? Fuel for speculation at least.
Unravelling lockdown is like trying to unpick the Bayeux Tapestry, 230ft long, with your fingernails. It’s close to an impossible job when you stop nations and their economies.
As a normal citizen, I am confused and getting slightly more agitated as time goes on. Others are getting somewhat more than slightly agitated: Germans protesting in Berlin, US unrest around their appeal to 2nd amendment rights, Australians living and reacting under draconian legislation, Brits flagrantly snubbing rules … this isn’t likely to lessen, on the contrary. Boris is unhappy, Trump is confusing, Morrison is falling out of favour, Macron is wrestling, Sturgeon is combative, and Ardern isn’t smiling so much.
What will happen when taxes take a hike because someone, us, has to pay for the massive borrowing countries have taken out? The UK’s debt is now a trillion pounds (or dollars). Nobody really knows what that figure is, so vast is it. Debt is becoming meaningless unless you owe taxes or overdraw an account.
Should I wear a mask? I do! If wearing a mask, which would seem axiomatic in containing spray, is going to help then it is a common courtesy to wear one, and it seriously doesn’t impinge on my rights. If our rights, wherever you source them, are compromised then how fragile are we? Freedom, the kind fought for, the kind embedded in our national founding documents and constitutions, is of a different genus than that being demanded by not wearing a mask. I look better with one on.
Considerations and Conclusions
The British economy, normally very robust, has taken a 20% hit in the first half of 2020. That is enormous. We see it at a local level with numbers of businesses closing, for good, on our high streets. Some of this is natural attrition hastened because of online shopping, but as much of it is due to people not being allowed to go shopping, owners concerned for their staff, rents not being paid, etc.
Families have been kept away from funerals and marriages, which are some of the most important and profound social events that bind families and communities together. The impact is not lightweight, and, I believe, grossly underestimated.
- Domestic violence has risen dramatically.
- Mental health is taking a turn for the worst.
- Suicide is on the up.
- Stats, damn stats.
I don’t know all the answers. You would be wise to avoid me if I suggested or claimed I did.
Our founding document, Genesis, gives us some answers.
If we see, as we do, the first chapters of Genesis as archetypes of our behaviour and creaturely image-ness, our glory and our degradation, our possible future and our lost past, then we have insight unparalleled. (Some secular philosophers credit Genesis with an outstanding capture of the human condition – applicable today as much as it was when written.)
Two things stand out when Genesis comes to defining the human. Firstly, is the need and normality of relationship/s, and secondly, the matter of work. As to the second, the clearest indication for what constitutes the image of God in humankind is the mandate to rule. The fact that is has sunk into an abyss of oppressive power doesn’t take away from the original purpose of ruling by working, subduing, and cultivating. In this, we bear the divine image.
We are in all sorts of trouble when we aren’t gainfully employed – when we don’t/can’t work. Shutting down an economy is about much more shutting down an economy; it is robbing us of the creative juices which nourish us, yes even when the work is considered menial.
Work gives us an internal equilibrium and satisfies the need and necessity to productively go outside of ourselves with hands-on physicality. In short, we were made to make; we do best when incarnating.
As to the first, relationships, these are not just important, but fundamental to our well-being. Quarantine from relationships, family, friends, from community, is an ill-conceived disaster waiting to happen. I understand the reasons we are being asked to, or, more to the point, told to, but this won’t obviate the pain and stress people are experiencing. This cost may be higher than deaths by Covid, and by the economic cost.
You, simply, can’t minimise the very things that make for our well-being as communities, and not expect a reaction. It is as if we are told to stop being human for a season so that we can continue to be human. I fear no good will come of it, partially because fear is driving the narrative.
Our Governments may have to make some bold and potentially dangerous decisions that recognise the massive cost to the reasonable and desperate need of non-online relationships, and the creational mandate to work. You can’t try to reconfigure or put on hold the human with impunity; if a person loses both legs they can’t walk.
Daniel, of Jewish royalty, was exiled to and raised in Babylon, and chosen to be schooled in its language and literature. In other words, Daniel was steeped in Babylonian culture: he was adept at their cultural, moral, and philosophical structures, which, at points were anathema to his monotheistic heritage.
Early on in his education, he forced a point of difference, and in so doing proved the wisdom, the observable difference of his separation, when he refused the rich fare from the king’s table. He was applauded for this.
Later he came into life-threatening conflict with the powers when refusing to obey the King’s edict concerning to whom one could pray. His disobedience was almost the occasion of his demise. He was thrown to the lions for this.
Admired and despised, loved, and hated.
And yet, remarkably, he out-lasted the suzerainty of four Kings.
Daniel is a remarkable example of being culturally aufait and counter-cultural.
He understood and utilized the culture, but he was not captive to it.
Where needed he faced into the raging wind of Babylonian power, and where required he worked within it.
Social media is a tsunami of facts, opinions, misinformation, vitriol, and accusation without defense. It assumes to be judge, jury, and executioner. Its damage ranges from being a nuisance to a cause of suicide. Any appeal to impartiality is a lost cause, as Facebook is currently discovering with massive losses of advertising revenue over its seeming inability to cull hate-speech invective.
On the other hand, social media can be social – it can be used to inform, entertain, and delight. It depends on who wields the s/word or the pict/ure. And as with any tool, it quickly loses its neutrality in the hands of the aggrieved, the thoughtless, and the malcontent.
But for many, it is a way to keep in touch, to foster connections. Fun and beauty can be mediated by social media, along with thoughtfulness, kindness, and truth.
This is all obvious though – nothing new here.
Of greater concern is not its use, but that it may be using us. We need the dexterity of Daniel in being able to weave our way between employing and being employed by, between mastering and being mastered by.
The easy option is to simply condemn it – avoid at all costs. But this is problematic, as it is a tool that, wielded correctly, has positive benefits – even in our Babylon. Daniel didn’t fail to employ his knowledge of the “language and literature” of Babylon with acuity. Much of his task was a human/creational endeavor as much as a Babylonian/fallen perspective. Administration of a kingdom is still administration; of itself, the administration is a noble task.
But where Babylon defied Jerusalem, Daniel was no longer carried along with the tide. At a great personal cost, he swam upstream. He would not become the mindless pawn of the powers that demand fawning obsequiousness. His failure to bow was their opportunity to crucify him, but his resolution shut the mouths of lions.
Vortexes of opinion agitate and swirl around social media. We must take care we don’t become a repeating station of ill-informed and spiteful words.
Jesus can be proclaimed on social media, but Jesus can as easily be defamed on social media. How? By God’s people reacting, retweeting, entering slanging matches, picking up on point-proving diatribe, all of which does little to advance the kingdom of God and the cause of Christ’s love. Not for no reason did Jesus teach in the Lord’s prayer – “Hallowed be your name,” or make your name holy in your people, juxtaposed to God’s people bringing into ill repute to his holy name.
Daniel got it right.
Normally when we think of going the distance, we cite the usual suspects: prayer, scripture, the moral life, and others. And they are correct to cite, but not correct enough, because they all depend on self-discipline.
Self-discipline is good in itself, but focusing on these “usual suspects” individualises the faith, and diminishes the value of the community of God’s church. It’s in community where we gain longevity, because it’s in community that Christ is more fully realised, known and expressed than in private. Together we are not only better, but we are God’s people, and his church.
The Usual Suspects
Prayer is axiomatic (taken for granted) to sustain vitality and viability in relationship with God. Prayer needs to be regular and employing the various tools of prayer: private, public, using Psalms, NT prayers of Ephesians and Colossians, the Lord’s Prayer (where “I” and “me” are not mentioned once), speaking in known and unknown tongues, etc.
Jesus invited private prayer, but not to the exclusion of public/gathered prayer.
He was teaching us to see reward in relationship, and not in public accolade for long winded fancy prayers. The early church practised both – but we read more of gathered prayer rather than private prayer, although we can take private prayer for granted. You won’t go the distance without prayer. And it is one of the first things to suffer when ‘moral/ethical dissonance’ creep in.
A love for God’s word is vital. A private devotion to and immersion in God’s word is a lifeline; food for our true hunger. No other book compares.
A consistent practise of reading, studying and meditating on God’s word is the only thing that actually challenges and changes the church (as it is preached).
Food not sermon material. We aren’t meant to be merely good orators, communicators, relevant and appealing. Hitler was all those things, so are most dictators and heretics. What we preach/minister matters more than the delivery platform. Only reading/listening to what others have discovered is to rob ourselves.
The church was formulated by the apostle’s teaching – it was something they did together – not apart. “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
More was discovered and regulated by doing the process together. We always, and thereby erroneously, read this as the solo practise of prayer and scripture. It wasn’t.
This is vital as well for longevity. Some have forgotten this and incurred much pain and loss. Much of Paul’s instruction whilst starting in theology ends in application for lifestyle. Love will always show itself in moral and ethical apparel. Grace is a deterrent from sin, not a way around it, nor a minimisation of it. Your morality matters, your ethics matter.
These are private matters, but they have public impact.
And time isn’t enough to mention more of the usual suspects: generosity, witness, etc… These all matter, as personal commitments, but they don’t and can’t matter enough.
What we have individualised:
Baptism is not a private matter. Baptism is not just baptism into Christ’s death, as personal benefit (although it certainly includes this). It is also and equally baptism into Christ’s church – the new saving community (which is why it is so serious for people like Hindus and Muslims coming to faith is Jesus, as baptism disavows their community).
The Lords Supper
This is not meant to merely be a personal reflection of Christ’s death and its application to your present circumstance in the private domain of your heart. It is firstly a community celebration (an actual meal), that has saving significance and proclaims the Lords death until he comes again.
An inconvenient truth
Longevity in the faith and ministry has as much to do with who are your people, your community, as it does with a private devotion.
My salvation has as much to do with God’s church as it does with my individual commitment. I’m simply not that good, but God’s church is. My salvation depends as much on my community as it does on my personal commitment.
We grow as we connect, as we stay connected. We wither as we disconnect.
Side note, here’s how you disconnect: you get offended and fail to forgive. Going to another church won’t change a thing – it will only delay the inevitable. Repentance, forgiveness, love – the Jesus stuff. I don’t stay in God’s church, in community, because I like everyone or what everyone does or says – I stay in because I won’t make it otherwise (and I’m hardly dumb, uncommitted or undisciplined).
The church is the “saving community.” You aren’t a saving community. It is both pride and bad theology to suggest we all stand alone. Our Reformation reaction has cost us.
Church is a community that meets – not meetings that add community as an after-thought.
Salvation takes on many aspects in God’s church. As an example, the apostle John states, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Light, community, cleansing. Together, not alone.
This is the reason I’m still in Christ, in his church, in community – because it isn’t up to me. I worry about those who disconnect and say absurd, unbiblical things, such as, “I have a personal, private walk with Jesus.” You may do, but it isn’t the Jesus of scripture, tradition or history they appeal to. All the very best with that.
Longevity is found in community.
One thing is for certain: God’s people are praying more – more often, more intensely, more urgently, with more faith and less self-interest than usual – none of which will harm us.
As to why this pandemic has spread with such virulence, I have no idea. Whether it is the outcome of cross species contamination or a lab leak, I speak with no authority. Beyond this, we speculate.
Apportioning blame is something for Governments, not God’s church. We are the antidote, not the accusation.
What can we pray?
There is no better place to start than the Lord’s prayer, which currently makes more sense prayed in community than in the closet. It is a prayer that glorifies our Father, a prayer that invites the uniting of “things in heaven and things on earth,” and a prayer that situates us with our daily needs being met, forgiveness being extended to us and from us, testing with limitations, and deliverance from evil.
This prayer has an ‘eschatological horizon’ realised in the resurrection of Jesus and the inauguration of God’s kingdom – as in heaven, so on earth. We are invited into much more than just anticipating a nice time here, as up there. Kingdom will here, on earth, in your city, your community, your family, as it is in heaven! We are praying with prophetic boldness the realisation of the will of the one who is far above all power and authority, be it human, angelic or demonic.
1 Timothy 2:1-4
We might also pray what Paul writes to his understudy, Timothy, urging him in the right direction to use all manner of prayer for all people, “for kings and all who are in high positions,” with the purpose that we, God’s people, may live in peace with quiet dignity, resulting in people coming to salvation in Christ. Whatever we pray for our governments, with whatever political preferences we adhere to, the point of this prayer is not that our Prime Ministers, or Presidents, become Christians, but that we, the church, can lead a quiet and dignified life so that the Lordship of Christ might be experienced in salvation.
Nothing wrong with praying for the saving power of Christ to be extended to our Government leaders, but this prayer isn’t about that – it is about a different sort of governing; it is about a governing, a lordship, that isn’t compromised by “the principalities and powers” of this “present evil age.” It is about peace for the sake of the church, his body.
This isn’t how this prayer is normally comprehended, but it is what it was written for, if a plain reading is allowed.
Praying these prayers in lockdown is a good place to start. Who knows where it might lead as the Holy Spirit prays through us, with prayers beyond our finitude, in intercessional groanings?
On Earth as it is in Heaven.
Are there lessons that lockdown could teach us, because every new situation has the potential to speak to us. But it may be premature to speak of lessons, because, if the present situation resolves sooner than is expected I conject we will have learnt little. It will be business as usual, with an inconvenient hiatus – for most of us. To some, my inconvenience has been for them an occasion of great loss.
I suspect this lockdown will last longer than we’d wish. And time itself may be the only thing that effects actual change.
Of course, the temptation to pontificate will prove more than some can resist. We will hear every hue of prophetic pronunciation and denunciation. Some of them will be insightful, some will be bizarre, and others inconsequential (much to the chagrin of those would-be prophets).
Lessons may be a way off yet, but not observations. For instance, churches that are tech savvy have responded quickly, and in many cases very effectively. Some had already shown prescience doing online services. They have sophisticated systems that adapt to numerous platforms to keep connections alive among the church community. Many of these have resources to continue in high quality productions featuring worship and preaching. A normal Sunday, except online. But is this optimal? We may need to wind the clock back before we can answer this.
Until the time of the Reformation, church community gatherings were largely ‘us and them.’ The focal view of churches was the sacramental table, administered by ‘them’ – the priest. He celebrated the host, dispensed the wafer, and proclaimed the gospel in sacramental terms, all in Latin. Essentially, he did our religion for us. He had to, we barely understood what he intoned.
With the upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, the focus of the churches, in time, became the pulpit from which the minister preached the gospel in the vernacular, expecting adherence to its truth.
The pulpit, if not front and central by location, was elevated above the congregation (for voice projection reasons, but also a point was being made), and central to the mission of the church. If you visit a Roman Catholic or a Protestant church today, you will still see this essential difference.
This heritage is deeply embedded in the life blood of our churches – Protestant, Pentecostal, Evangelical. Preaching is the high point of a service – the direction they are geared towards. I doubt this thought will raise an eyebrow.
But does this focus tend to obscure, or take out of focus, biblical patterns/paradigms that the scriptures present for church life? And, maybe we have an opportunity to refocus due to this pandemic?
It sounds as if this is already being done in many churches, where connection with community is, at very least, supplementing preaching. Of course, it is never going to be either or, nor should it be. It is both, but a balance is being redressed.
In our foundation texts Acts 2:42-47 describes the structure of the church after the day of Pentecost. Debate still exists as to whether these verses are prescriptive or descriptive. It is likely to be both, and may even bend towards prescriptive, as Luke is writing with specific purpose, including this part of the churches narrative in Acts to call his readers back to this pattern of church life. Even in his time of writing the church needed to remember.
Teaching is the mentioned, then fellowship, the lifestyle, followed by breaking of bread and prayers. Generosity to/amongst God’s people is also included in this list.
The picture is clear. Community contextualised everything.
Most of these elements were not temple based, as teaching may have been. They were connected to homes, meals and fellowship. Teaching is not minimised, but it doesn’t dominate – God’s people being together eating, praying and caring for each other does, even if for the purpose of hearing the apostle’s teaching.
In a further example the apostle John writing in I John 1:3 states that the purpose of his proclamation was so that those who heard would have fellowship with those that spoke. John didn’t preach to be merely heard; he preached to affect connection with his hearers and with himself, which in turn would be with the Father and the Son. This is a different purpose to preaching; it has shared community and shared experience as its end.
All to say, maybe in lockdown the observable trend of heightened community connection (so much more like the church Luke saw) is as important as preaching messages.
If Sunday online is no different than an ordinary Sunday, I suspect we may be out of focus. Why perpetuate a monolithic model, that fewer seem attracted to, and not use this time to ramp up and enjoy connections with your community – as well as, not instead of.
Some are forced to do this, simply because they have neither the technology nor the know-how to present professionally competent content. Others are choosing to add life giving community to content rich communication.
If the four or five fundamentals Luke presents in Acts 2 are about community then an overdeveloped emphasis on preaching pulls this picture out of focus.
Going back to our foray into history, in a reaction to a sacramental approach to church meetings preaching became the replacement. Even here it isn’t either or, but something has been left out of the picture; a picture Luke was at pains to ratify in Acts – the vital and sustaining role of community, a community that hears together, eats together, receives communion together, prays together, and cares for one another, together.
It appears ironic that we may now be doing this better online than we did offline. This is as incongruous as the pandemic is ubiquitous.
I hope you have heard the message, ‘Return of the Shepherd,’ by the articulate Leanne Matthesius. The title has a Tolkien resonance to it, does it not?
Leanne has superb insight into, amongst other things, the value and glory of the task of caring for God’s flock, which, if we want to get Pauline about it, is largely what we are asked to do. “Pay careful attention … to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” Acts 20:28. The precious possession of the Lord’s church demands the care of attentive shepherds.
This got me thinking about the role of a shepherd and how vastly different it is from the other ascension gifts enumerated in Ephesians 4. We aren’t completely sure if Paul was referring to four or five roles/gifts. It would seem to be four as the pastor is also, necessarily, the feeder – the teacher. It is difficult to be or do one without the other.
But it wasn’t this that piqued my attention.
I spoke at an Evangelists gathering – yes, you heard right – and addressed the topic of the pastor and the evangelist, how they relate and how they can co-operate. As an aside to the conversation it struck me that, apart from the pastor, the ascension gifts by and large (and remember when reading this, you have to exaggerate differences sometimes to see the difference) are reasonably straight forward, almost black and white.
The apostle is a ground breaker, requiring resilience and focus. They normally don’t deal with the tangle of lives.
The prophet is a proclaimer, a revealer, and they are often black and white – in the sense that a picture, a word, is relatively clear and always a simplification.
The evangelist is a bringer of good news. The cross, forgiveness, faith are straightforward enough. Of all these the evangelist is probably the most black and white – they need to be.
The teacher speaks of truth, application to lifestyle, and is often systematic in presentation.
But the pastor, ohh yes the pastor, deals with the inconvenience of nuance, the complication of lives, the tangle of relationships, of humanity – messy, complex and sheep like. To pastor you have to reconcile yourself to nuance. Things are always less straight forward in the sheep pen.
I suggest pastoring may be the most difficult, the most awkward of the ministries, because nothing is so complex as people.
The other equally important gifts can avoid the tangle a little more easily, especially if they travel.
For the pastor the nuance of situations, that never seem to quite conform to biblical verities, has to be constantly navigated. Almost every situation requires a different approach. The sermon on Sunday has to be massaged into mess, bad decisions and self-orientation.
If you are a pastor, you necessarily will have to trade in nuance. If you can’t you are in the wrong job.
Go the pastors – you are the real heroes.
Senior Pastor C3 Fulham and Regional Director C3 Europe
If we join a few dots it’s possible to trace changes that are on the way, if not already with us. These changes won’t be all-encompassing (changes seldom are) and in some cases, they may prove counterproductive. They appear to be nudging above the horizon like the morning sun – unstoppable, inevitable, and bringing light.
I submit the following for comment and reflection.
COMMUNITY isn’t just another way of describing the church. It has specific local implications. People are less likely, and less willing, to travel long distances and we would be hard-pressed to suggest that this is due to a lack of commitment to God’s church. In fact, it could prove to be the exact opposite.
People want a localised community of believers that connects them to each other, as well as the broader community around them.
Some churches will buck this trend for reasons of size, influence, pulpit dynamics, multiplicity of ministry, etc.
Globalisation, the great liberal and economic dream to contain prosperity and peace, is waning in popularity as people wish for a return to national identities. This terrifies many (in Europe) as they see a possible return to the days of fascism seen in Germany and Italy. However, globalisation simply doesn’t and can’t account for a real, reasonable and heartfelt connection by nationals to their own country. This comes out very clearly in sports. For better or for worse (we are yet to see) the UK abandoned its membership of the European Union, in part because the of the perceived loss of national sovereignty around laws, finances and borders, all of which create identity.
All this to say: people want identity as much as belonging.
Large churches will and should always exist, but two thousand years of Christian history has taught us that most will be considerably smaller, despite all the consulting, encouraging (and occasional chiding) that we do. This is not pessimism. It is realistic, without dishonouring Christ’s promise as the head of the church to build his church. It is a challenge to us: do we believe he will?
BUILDINGS are very expensive to build and maintain, and they are often empty for much of the week. Exceptions exist, but that is why we call them exceptions – they are exceptional, not normal. Some pastors are talking of renting buildings for Sunday and buying ministry centres – with multiple and consistent weekly use. There are always advantages of owning your own, as you aren’t at the whim, the mercy, of landlords, who can be everything from accommodating to not so. A building may also make us less flexible under times of duress – not something I am prophesying.
These in themselves are not defining arguments. I suspect the bigger issue is fiscal resourcing for smaller churches. Locking up their money in bricks and mortar is less appealing than mission and staff.
I’m a fan of owning but I am also a baby boomer to whom owning was and is sacrosanct. Others don’t necessarily feel this way. Whole nations don’t feel this way.
LEADERSHIP structures are changing or, at least, diversifying. A common trend seems to be the flattening of structures, whilst not diminishing the need for leadership.
Trends can be reactions, and in the case of leadership, the reaction is towards unilateral decision making. Some younger pastors and leaders are wanting to avoid the liabilities of top-down leadership structures seen in corporations. The collapse of so many high-profile leaders is a worrying trend, but to throw the baby out with the bath water wastes both water and child.
Some of this change is biblically-driven in the recognition of gifting or role as the means of governing God’s church. Paul was a strong leader (a great understatement) but he asked Titus and Timothy to set up leadership structures that were elder-based, and not so much individual-based. It looks to me like a case of both, not either/or.
The call for accountability and confession in younger leaders is a healthy reaction and should be welcomed.
In conclusion, these are far from the only trends, as Mark Kelsey affirmed at the Pastors Gathering in Sydney this year, in his excellent session on trends within the church.
In some ways these trends are oblique, but identifiable nonetheless.
To find out more about Ps Simon McIntyre and C3 Fulham, visit c3fulham.com.
C3 Europe Regional Director and Pastor of C3 Fulham
Currently there are some words (popular words) acting as catch phrases and, it could be added, catch-out phrases. These words have enormous defining and limiting power. They often exclude in their wish to include. Any attempt to disagree or question receives Orwellian condemnation, by an outraged righteousness. Diatribe replaces debate.
‘Diversity’ once meant difference.
‘Inclusion’ once meant invite.
‘Identity’ once meant what you are.
Diversity is now a legislated quota.
Inclusion now excludes and condemns by legislation.
Identity is now whatever you choose, soon to be legislated.
What if we were to re-baptize diversity, inclusion and identity – breathe new life into old words, give them new meanings?
God’s church is a study in diversity, inclusion and identity. If we were to plunge these words in fresh water, a new creature might emerge, re-baptised, renewed – fit for purpose.
Diversity is trying to redress imbalances and injustices that are deeply entrenched. These are often not lacking in any civility. Kindness can go a long way.
The answer to a lack of diversity is essentially a legislated process to the end that doesn’t and can’t account for kindness; in fact, it may well diminish it, as being told to is different than wanting to.
Whilst gaining some ground the process may be losing more than it is gaining, partially because it is public-speak, in that people are actually afraid to question. This may produce conformity of speech, and how far is that from totalitarian power, but no real change has been secured, just resentful acquiescence.
I posit that in spite of the apparent progress of the community we are further from kindness and civility that ever before. The goal is further from sight, caused by the very process that is meant to ensure it.
The gospel was published in a world where diversity was not on the table. The divides were obvious and inviolate: Jewish and Gentile, Roman and Barbarian, male and female, slave and free. Systems of value and worth excluded, be they economic, social, racial or religious. You were in or you were out. (And this was largely defined for you at birth.)
The gospel of Jesus has accomplished something in regards diversity that no human agency or law is capable of. The entire system of worth and exclusion along with the obvious oppressions it enforces, has been done away with by the cross of Christ. Dividing walls have been abolished in that God’s people are no longer defined by race, sex and social status. These differences may not necessarily or quickly disappear but their excluding value no longer holds sway in the new community of the church.
The church embraces diversity and celebrates difference without flattening everything in an attempt at uniformity. It is not by might nor by power, but by the Spirit of the Lord.
Diversity is not best expressed in uniformity – but in unity. And unity is a matter of the heart not the law.
Inclusion of minorities should never be an issue. It is quite another matter to be compelled to do so by demand with punitive consequences. Were graciousness to steer the ship of state (probably too much to ask, and maybe not the role of the state) we would not require the legislative muscle of inclusivity.
Inclusion hasn’t brought with it respect, love or pity (rightly appreciated) but a demand for acceptance of lifestyles, sexual proclivities and the re-engineering of family – all part and parcel of the repackaging of inclusion. Include or else. How swiftly the underdog becomes top dog, making others the under dog.
It isn’t enough to simply allow or show grace. We now have to act and speak as if any preference is now enshrined as a human right. Nothing has been more redefined than what does or does not, may or not may, constitute fundamental human rights. It used to be human rights premised on a Christian-ised foundation of man’s imperfectability and good of the community, now it is my right, premised on a belief in the inherent goodness and perfectibility of humankind.
Anyone with half a brain knows that when we trump community with the individual we have effectively rewritten most every moral and ethical code/law in the history of mankind. I doubt good will come of it!
God’s church is the master of inclusion, a robust inclusion into community and conformity to the image of Jesus Christ. No organisation on earth has so successfully included in its ranks such a diversity of humanity – the good, the bad and the ugly.
The exclusivity of the church is not in her welcome – at this point the church is all about welcome and inclusion – but in her call to holiness, the re-engineering of the image of God in us through Christ.
Identity is fundamental to wellbeing – to communities, to individuals. This is axiomatic. Ask someone who was adopted. No matter how well they have been cared for, loved, a gap usually exists in regards their identity that isn’t soon, if ever, completely satisfied.
Our identity in large measure comes from community. It is likely that the hermetic person is profoundly insecure about their identity, as it is not possible to adequately form identity in vacuums of self-reference. We are not ourselves by ourselves.
Identity is under assault in part because we are assaulting the institutions and structures that promote it. Whilst we continue to mock and decry family/marriage by turning it into a parody of itself we undermine the very structure that prompts a secure identity. The insecurity of children with no effectual father or divorcing parents is monumental, and legally reprehensible.
It is no surprise, nor should it be, that pre/post pubescent are confused about their identity and wishing to re-identify, what with the perfect storm of community collapse and puberties own confusion crashing in on them.
I predict the day will come in which they take legal action against their parents and/or the state for allowing them to express themselves in realigning their biological identity, when they, seriously, didn’t know better.
Except in the rarest of cases, to be shown all the help and grace available, our identity is reasonably and simply identified.
The struggle of few may have become the fantasy of many.
Gaining our identity from both our biology and our community may not, however, be sufficient. Creation gave us an identity as God’s creatures and image bearers that in light of sin and the fall has been dislocated in ways both subtle and earth shattering. A new identity in the creation of a new humanity founded in faith makes us new creations in Christ.
Being in Christ is identity securing in ways both immediate and unimaginable. We are participating as church and as individuals in the life and promise of the Risen Lord. He is far above all rule and power, and everything that minimises, relativizes, and confuses his image in humankind. We are included in Him. If his identity is secure so is ours. If his identity is divine so is ours. In Him we have fullness.
We find a new community and therefore a new identity as one of God’s people, his church.
We are diverse, yet one in Christ. We are included in Christ. We are new creations in Christ.
C3 Europe Regional Director
Most want to leave a positive legacy – few don’t care. Fact is; we all will leave one, for better or for worse. If death isn’t an option then neither is leaving a legacy.
If we can define legacy we will know what it is we should be leaving. If we can’t, we are likely to think of the wrong things, or things of less importance surviving us.
A legacy should be a positive and defining influence, often, but not always, including an inheritance, left in the lives of others. Of course it can be much less than this – a legacy can also be one of failure and ineptitude, or worse. Some leave debt as their legacy; however, this is hardly the sort of legacy we have in mind.
Jesus’ legacy, which can’t be bettered, is found in the lives of his disciples. He left no other legacy than the formation and influence of his church, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Initially there were no church buildings, no institutions, no charities, universities or hospitals, nor legacies in terms of tangible items. Some of these came latter, and aren’t necessarily unimportant, but it is the priority of disciples, his church, that is his prime and enduring legacy. His church is the only thing he said he would build. Most other things are temporal; they have a habit of passing away, out of use, or out of fashion. Not so, his people.
It is striking and noteworthy that the church in Colossae, to which Paul penned the stunningly revelatory insight into the reign and divinity of Christ, was severely damaged, if not wiped out by an earthquake in 61AD. And this possibly only twenty years, or so, after the church was established. Church scholars posit it had a likely maximum 60 members.
What was Paul’s legacy in this instance? It wasn’t a surviving community, much less a building. The legacy was in transformed lives, the fact that some would have left and spread the good news whether as sent, or as merchants and traders, and, of course, the Letter to the Colossians – as a magnificent legacy as can be imagined.
The Western world is replete with virtually empty historic church buildings that were once vibrantly occupied, filled. Today they are, in numerous instances, a financial noose around the neck of denominations, or a burden to the government. Whilst some denominations are renewing them with younger congregations/communities using them, many are sold, for everything from art galleries to apartments.
They looked like an enduring legacy when founded, but the real legacy has always been the lives of the people who heard and believed the gospel.
Westminster Chapel in London was once the pulpit of the luminary Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones. Today it is more empty than full, and has never been filled week by week as it once was, with due respect to the excellent preachers who have since led the church. It may never be full again, in spite of our fondest wishes and prayers. The sort of building, its structure and construction, is possibly no longer relevant.
It may be that what we consider a legacy today may in fact be a noose tomorrow, if we see buildings and institutions as defining our legacy.
God’s church may require flexibility about buildings that sentiment finds difficult to swallow.
Our legacy is first and foremost disciples, the people we influence for and by Jesus Christ. These people may at any one time be scattered over communities, over cities, nations, and hemispheres. They may not see you year by year, they may long have moved on to different church environments, and yet when occasion affords it they are quick to tell you what a defining influence your life, ministry and words had on them. This is our legacy, and it trumps all others – buildings, ministries, books, titles – you name it, it won’t and can’t measure up to disciples.
For Legacy Planning make Disciples
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field keeping watch over their flock by night.”
It is commonly accepted that shepherds were at, or very near, the bottom end of the social scale – lower caste, if you will. They were hardly likely to be on anybody’s ‘invite list.’ Neither their job nor their charges were particularly glorious. Sheep are smelly, prone to wander, scare easily, and get themselves into a pickle (or a bush).
When it came to the announcement of the birth of the saviour it would have taken a brave prophet indeed to suggest the shepherd’s inclusion, much less the appearance of the heavenly host to them. Royal worshippers from afar yes, local shepherds – hardly. And, yet …
I recall attending revivalist meetings (extraordinary in themselves) at which some speakers berated Pastors in front of their flocks. This always struck me as self-defeating, somewhat ironic, considering it is the Pastors who care for the people who attend these meetings – church members.
I would counsel less haste at condemning the people who are responsible for those that come, and who financially support the meetings, by virtue of their people being there.
Perhaps shepherds are still the least likely to be noticed or honoured?
Perhaps they lack the sophistication of the academic, the gifting of the gifted, or the resources of the connected? And, yet …
In the 1970’s Teachers were all the rage. In the 1980s Prophets entered the domain of church life, and since then Leaders have been front and centre. Undoubtedly we have all benefitted from these ministry gifts. And yet, behind the scenes we find the Pastors – those who more naturally live for, bleed for, and die for, “the sheep of his pasture.”
Reflections on the Text
“And in the same region.” Shepherds live in the same region, the same locale, as their sheep, and often for most of their lives. They don’t tend to travel very far. They can’t. Sheep aren’t self-sustaining, self-regulating creatures.
The presence of a shepherd matters in regards the health, safety and longevity of the sheep. Absent shepherds are too much of a temptation for wolves: the unscrupulous, the avaricious, those that consume. Strength and safety are found in proximity.
“there were shepherds.” Pastors, you and I. That is what we are, and that is what we do.
“out in the field.” This is where the sheep are, in the fields. They don’t reside in palaces. Most people live in their fields; fields of employment and endeavour. Where the sheep are, so also the shepherd.
Life may be less spectacular and more pedestrian in the fields, but this is more indicative of daily life for most than that portrayed in movies, via social media, or on television (Christian and otherwise).
A shepherd is outside, around the sheep, mixing, living with them, as well as feeding and caring for them. It’s messy.
People are still like sheep in that they go astray, and need a shepherd. They wander, get lost and are prone to infections.
“keeping watch over.” In the case of a shepherd this requires constant physical vigilance, for reasons already enumerated.
To a Pastor this watchfulness is primarily in and by prayer. We are mindful of their condition, their productivity (fruitfulness), and the necessity of their proximity to other sheep.
The work is sobering, at times exhausting, never ending, frustrating, rewarding, and fulfilling. Shepherds watch for wolves, snakes, bugs, and ravines.
The shepherd oversees – they see over the sheep. They see what is coming, they see implication and outcome. They oversee. Sheep don’t and can’t. They are too busy, head down, eating.
“their flock.” It is their flock – not another’s, neither is another’s flock theirs. The sheep were known to the shepherd, and the shepherd to the sheep. (John 10.)
It is a charge, a responsibility – both calling and privilege.
A shepherd would guide his flock to fresh pasture and water, by means of directing and by means of correcting, using their voice, and where necessary their staff.
A Pastor is to disciple and teach, directing the people towards living water, and fresh nourishment in God’s word. And, unpopular-ly a Pastor may need to correct with the staff of their authority, on behalf of the great shepherd of the sheep’s souls, and for the wellbeing of the flock.
“by night.” When no one is looking, when you can’t be seen. When times are dark, and when it appears thankless.
And Yet …
It wasn’t to Kings and Priests that God revealed his purpose and power, nor was it to philosophers and politicians, nor the rich and powerful. Luke 3:1-2 lists the powerbrokers of Judea – quite the line up – yet it was to John in the wilderness that the word of the Lord came to.
And it was to the shepherds that God displayed his heavenly glory. In the appearance of the angel, and the heavenly host, the shepherds were made privy to one of the most important junctures in history: the birth of a child in humble circumstances, in a little village on the outskirts of a great empire.
What glory, what wonder, what unexpected recipients. Who’d have thought it – of all people, shepherds?
This is God’s tribute to the Shepherd.
And this is mine to you – the faithful, the unseen. May God reveal to you a heavenly vision of His Son, of angelic powers, befitting of shepherds – who still watch their flocks by night.