By a case for gravity, I don’t mean, what goes up must come down.
What I refer to is a case for dignity, for solemnity, because it appears that we have all but lost the capacity, or even the desire, to present with some sense of gravity – in our words, and our lives.
I apply this to us, to God’s people, because who am I, who are we, to judge the world.
The clamor to be heard, to express an opinion, overwhelms any sense of restraint and sobriety in much communication these days.
Yet, the greatest of people say less, not more.
That is a hallmark of their greatness; less is more and more is less (more or less).
The prophet, Isaiah, speaking of the servant of the Lord when he was being oppressed and afflicted, said “so he opened not his mouth.” He said it twice in the space of one verse. He talked less; we talk too much. Isaiah also stated that the servant of the Lord, would not “cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the streets.” The picture he paints in these verses is of someone who by extreme patience will bring forth justice. It isn’t saying he won’t speak, but that he wouldn’t push himself forward to be heard.
He (Jesus is the Servant) respected Synagogue protocol as to when he could speak. He didn’t walk in and demand his messianic right to minister. On the contrary, he told his disciples to walk away if their voice wasn’t heeded, which thing Paul did, ultimately. The gentle persistence of Jesus accomplished the will and purpose of his Father. He never craved the publicity of the miracles he accomplished in the power of the Holy Spirit. However, I digress.
A case for gravity can and should be made for those that lead God’s people, his church. We should be, need to be, described with words such as restraint, simplicity, dignity, and sober-mindedness. These words are easily, but wrongly, interpreted to mean, boring, and out of touch. But if they are (which they aren’t) then so be it because it is precisely these qualities that Paul sets out for anyone in leadership. They are the job description of the necessary qualities of God’s servants.
The list of attributes Timothy is to employ placing leaders over God’s church has nothing in it that speaks of gifts or charisma. It is entirely character-based. Nearly every word in these instructions portrays a dignified, well thought of, and self-disciplined person.
- Sober-minded – not given to the fanciful. Reflective, not reactionary, neither thinking too much nor too little of oneself.
- Self-controlled – control of appetites, needs, and wants. Calm under pressure; slow to react.
- Respectable – showing grace towards and respect of others, having earned standing in the community, not given to extremes, nor consumptive of commodities.
- Hospitable – a house open to others, one who welcomes, not exclusive but inclusive, the table is for all.
- Not a drunkard – not given to dissipation, able to enjoy what is legitimate but not captured by it; this is pleasure with restraint.
- Not violent (but gentle) – able to resolve conflict without fists, not a physical bully, someone able to maintain peace under duress.
- Not quarrelsome – no need to win arguments, especially to prove intellectual or academic superiority or make a point, a kind person, silent around fools and the contrary.
- Not a lover of money (which is idolatry) – able to be the same person with or without whether in lack or in abundance, not deceitful, or a scammer/schemer. Money is a gift to this person, not a possession.
What sort of person is this?
It is a person who displays gravitas – maturity, and bearing.
Regal bearing need not be the domain of the aristocracy. A person who expresses grace and kindness has gravitas, regardless of their social status. Another word for this is dignity. A dignified person is one who knows have to handle themselves in any setting – when to talk, when to be silent, when to come, when to go.
It is a person who shows restraint.
They aren’t just restrained in being able to control their feelings so as not to spill invective on others, or lash out, but someone who doesn’t live over the top, who isn’t a walking advertisement for conspicuous consumption, who is careful not to belittle others with what they have and what others don’t.
Paul wrote to this last point in his letter to the Corinthians, where the poor and rich (both in God’s church) were advised how to do community together in such a way that the poor of God’s people got to eat at the same table in the house church/es as the rich. The rich ate before the poor thus belittling them with the plenty they exclusively enjoyed, while the poor starved. Paul said it was for this reason people were weak and ill, some having died.
Another word for restraint is simplicity. How much do you need at any one time? There is a place for God’s people in the West to examine our lives – how we live, how much we spend on the frivolous, the unnecessary. Our consumeristic clutter is not to our advantage; it makes us no happier.
A leader should live with restraint dictating parameters to decisions and lifestyles.
The New Testament gives good grounds for gravity in living – in appearance, speech, behavior, and lifestyle. In fact, it is required of the leaders of God’s church.
This is my case for gravity.
 I Corinthians 5:12-13.
 Isaiah 53:7.
 Isaiah 42:1-4.
 Acts 28:26-31.
 I Tim 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9.
 We can rightly assume that gifts mattered, but character leads to competency.
 People disqualify themselves from leadership in God’s church who don’t open their arms and homes, as a lot of discipleship is done around the table.
 Paul’s claim to be able to do all things through Christ is premised on/contextualized by him being able to be in abundance or lack. Either way didn’t change him. This takes strength.
 Dignity can at times be seen in deportment and appearance: not drawing attention yet well-groomed, fitting in yet not standing out – in a self-seeking manner.
A theme consistent with, and constantly repeated by, scripture is the goodness and majesty of God’s creation, attested so beautifully in Psalm 19.
The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
In them he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber,
and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens,
and its circuit to the end of them,
and there is nothing hidden from its heat.
The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the LORD is clean,
the rules of the LORD are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
Who can discern his errors?
Declare me innocent from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins;
let them not have dominion over me!
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable in your sight,
O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.
This Psalm has been divided into three segments that follow on one from the other: verses 1-6, 7-11, and 12-14.
Psalm 19:1-6 speaks as though creation itself talks – which it does. It tells us, loud and clear that the heavens, and the sky above, declare and proclaim God’s glory and handiwork. Who could doubt this looking at the night sky, especially when unimpeded by the ambient light of cities? The heavens are spectacularly glorious, strewn with glory like diamonds scattered on midnight blue. The colours of the nebulae and the galaxies pale the finest of the Great Masters palettes. A Real Master has been at work here.
Creation speaks to us; it is telling us of God’s majesty, His goodness, and power – exemplified in the sun, which is portrayed as a strong man running his course with joy. What a magnificent and vibrant description.
Psalm 19:7-11 develops this theme of Creation talk stating that, even though God is apprehended in creation, he is known more clearly and perfectly as he speaks and reveals himself in scripture. In other words, creation is good, but his law is perfect. God speaks of himself in what we see, but God speaks transformatively to us in what we hear. Creation doesn’t redeem us; his word, his law does.
The Psalmist sees delight and joy in his Law; as these verses list the many wonderful ways that God’s word speaks to us: it revives, it makes wise, rejoices the heart, and it enlightens. This is because his law is: perfect, sure, pure, true, righteous, more valuable than gold, sweeter than honey, a warning, and a reason for reward.
Creation speaks in declarative terms (V1-6), the Law of Lord is perfect and transformative (V7-11), and now the final part of the Psalm speaks to the inner person, the hidden person, the compromised person. These verses invite the Lord to look inside of us, into the ruin of the human condition, asking him to moderate and tell us what we don’t and can’t know of ourselves, because of the deceptiveness of the human heart. The Psalmist’s prayer is that the Lord would keep him, and by inference us, from errors, hidden faults and presumptuous sins. It is these that obfuscate the pictures of creation and law.
We may know of God in his creation, and experience him in his word, yet we don’t truly know ourselves. Only God does. It isn’t just a Creator we need to know and appreciate, it is a Redeemer, the Lord, we must experience – my rock and my redeemer. Only he can keep us from the folly and danger we pose to ourselves.
Psalm 19 directs us to contemplate God’s majesty in creation and see him in the perfection of his law. But it also reminds us of the all too human creatures we are, and our need for a redeemer, one who knows, one who sees and saves.
We can look upon the heavens in awe, agree with the wonder of his Law, and yet hardly know ourselves. To this end, David’s heartfelt prayer in the last stanza of this Psalm is that we would be kept from the danger we are to ourselves, from faults and sins that have dominion over us.
His prayer is that our words would be acceptable, as the words of God are – the words of creation and the words of the law of God.
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Holiness, without which no one will see God, has become either a despised term or, worse, a forgotten one.
We most easily associate holiness with a list of prohibitions, and we are well enough versed in scripture to know that “do’s and don’ts” don’t make the Kingdom. It was strict prohibitions in regards to the normal enjoyment of foods and sex (in marriage) that Paul reminded Timothy had infiltrated the church and were a sign of the teaching of demons. We don’t want a return to those days.
But has our freedom become our snare? Is holiness ever best defined as the things we forbid ourselves and others? Could we have fallen into the trap of, in trying to reach the world, it covertly reaching us? Yes, no, and yes.
Paul answered a rhetorical question in Romans 5 where anyone following the logical consistency of his argument would conclude that we are “to continue in sin that grace may abound?” Paul came to the conclusion that with the law essentially forcing an increase in sin, God, in grace, abounded all the more in righteousness – to us.
So then, his opponents conjected, the more we sin, the more God’s grace is made manifest. That is where logic takes you, and I suspect that is the unstated conclusion in any theology that overemphasizes grace and underappreciates sin (not that we are wanting to appreciate sin – you know what I mean).
Paul is adamant that our freedom is never an excuse for sin, and that freedom is always to be modified by the exercise of love.
In regards to being an excuse to sin, Paul reminds us that we are dead to sin by being in union with Jesus’s death and resurrection by baptism – how therefore can we continue in sin, when dead to it?
In regards to freedom and love, we are to moderate our freedom (and remember this often related to the practice or not of various aspects of the law in regards to holy days, food, Sabbaths, and the exercise of conscience) by our love for others. The truly free believer has no need to exercise their freedom if it offends a weaker brother or sister – and they do, like grace, abound. Love demands something better than an insistencece on freedoms.
Holiness is better defined as:
- a life lived to the glory and majesty of God,
- a life that exhibits the nature and reflection of God in Jesus Christ,
- a life glorious and enviable,
- a bright life of moral integrity and beauty,
- a life where restraint is more to be admired than excess,
- a life more defined by what we can do than by what we can’t.
In holiness there are some things we don’t practise, some behaviours we are to avoid, but these are not what it is to define holiness.
God’s holiness includes his separation from sin, but that isn’t its place of origin. Holiness is part of that divine essence that makes God so “other” to us that it is only by revelation that we know anything about God in the first place. Firstly, God is a lofty mystery and inconceivable majesty. It is this that separates us from God – this is his holiness. To be a part of this, in and through Christ, is surely much more than a list of what we don’t do.
There is a porous membrane between God’s church and the world. However, it is only meant to allow the church to reach and evangelise the world, not the world to reach and evangelise the church.
We have become so familiar with the world that we have all but forgotten the nature of the ‘called out ones’ and the desire of God to form and inhabit a people that are actually separate from the world and all that defines it – power (militaristic and oppressive), division, unrighteousness, moral corruption, the rule of principalities and powers (demonic and human), etc.
Christians, especially in the West, are often barely recognisable from the world around them – in thinking and in living. We have umbilical cords attaching us to the life of the world, from which we feed.
These are not simple matters, but they do simply matter.
Appealing to the Corinthians in his second letter, Paul reminds them that God’s church is a temple, a place of his Spirit’s dwelling. This has implications and promises attached to it.
It was God’s presence that made Israel different from all the other nations, leading Moses to ask of God, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” It meant everything to them, it should mean the same to us – God’s Holy Spirit with, around, defining, comforting and changing us.
Before expanding on the temple metaphor, Paul asks a series of self-evident questions about unequal yoking, partnership and fellowship. His point is that believers and unbelievers, righteousness and lawlessness, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, temple and idols, have no common ground; they are unequally yoked if linked. He then states that to be the temple requires separation of the believer from partnership of and fellowship with the world. The two don’t mix – oil and water. And yet you’d think we have made a way for them to mix because separation and difference are difficult to differentiate.
But God’s promise is that he would be a father, and we would be his sons and daughters if we come out from, and not otherwise. Because of this Paul appeals to them to be free of “every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” This is not easily done, but it is worth doing.
Every age requires the church to, in some ways, redefine holiness, as it becomes quickly anachronistic.
Whilst there are many things we can do and enjoy with biblical impunity/freedom there are some things we are wise to not involve ourselves in.
I have no intention of writing a list and falling into the prescriptive trap, but we should all be alert to what makes us worldly(un)wise.
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The ministry of healing is core to the identity of Pentecostalism. It is a distinctive that’s modeled on Jesus’ ministry, who always combined healing with proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Understandably, this makes the proclamation of the Kingdom relevant by making the Word incarnational to the human experience. It shows how the Kingdom of God can affect one’s existence by providing empirical evidence that can be observed or physically experienced. This has been a key to the growth of the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement which now represents more than a quarter of all global Christians.
There are, however, extremes in Pentecostal healing ministry theology and culture, affecting both attitudes towards medicine and science, and those who are permanently disabled.
A belief that wholeness can only be attributed to the physically able creates a perception that those with permanent disabilities are living somewhere beneath their best life.
This is alienating towards people with disabilities and permanent illnesses, making them feel somewhat excluded from the able body group and thereby undermining the church’s first priority of inclusion and community.
What is wholeness from a biblical standard?
Before the fall it would appear that Adam and Eve were completely whole physically, emotionally, and psychologically. In Genesis, we read man and woman were made in His image and God declared that what He had made was “very good”. The definition here, amongst other things, is “exceedingly good, cheerful, at ease, joyful, loving, kindness, well”. All these attributes imply they were perfect in their thought patterns conducive to good health and emotional wellbeing. They experienced no shame or guilt until the fall and then their image was marred. This has affected all humanity throughout the ages.
Through Jesus, redemption came to mankind. According to 2 Corinthians 5:17 “we are a new creation,” however this is a spiritual formation process, and “the believer lives in between the now and not yet”. This means wholeness will always be somewhat limited to our mortality this side of Heaven and can only be realized to that extent. Healing or wholeness may be fully available but can never be fully appropriated for “now I know in part; then I shall know fully”. 1 Cor 13:12
Andy Stanley once asked the question, “is it a problem to be solved or a tension to be managed?”. There seem to be many spiritual tensions that need to be managed in the church’s mandate to proclaim the kingdom of God and make disciples of all nations, including healing the sick. To have faith that God can heal and at the same time accepting not all will be healed requires dialectical thinking to manage this tension.
If physical healing is the priority, then at what point does one accept the permanence of disability for one person and maintain faith for healing for another?
However, if the priority is for people to be in Christ, who offers the fullness of life through meaning and purpose, then the goal is for people to flourish in life regardless if they’re able-bodied or disabled.
This may better define the role of healing ministry within the church.
A disability does not limit one from flourishing, in fact, it may enhance their meaning and purpose in life. An example of such a life is Fanny Jane Crosby who was permanently blind six weeks after her birth and yet wrote over nine thousand hymns including some of the most famous hymns of all time.
It may be necessary for us Pentecostals to revise theology surrounding healing ministry that better prioritizes inclusion and community, that is, to “bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame”. At the same time in the process of theological revision, the challenge is not to erode and compromise faith for healing. The ministry of healing is a Pentecostal distinctive, and in the quest to become more inclusive and acceptable, there may also be a danger of losing identity.
Healing ministry has contributed to the explosive growth of Pentecostal churches and not giving up this spiritual territory seems to be equally important, even if it means making some uncomfortable. As faith for healing is generally about taking a risk, and challenging the status quo, and not just bringing comfort to what is.
Brown, Candy Gunther. Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011
Wimber, John and Springer, Kevin. Power Healing. Hachette: Hodder & Stoughton, 1986
Clifton, Shane. “The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing” Pneuma 36 204 -225 (2014)
Allen, E. Anthony. “What is the Churches Healing Ministry?” International Review of Mission Vol. 90 Issue 356-357 (2001)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton: Good News Publishers, 2001
Strong, James. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2009
Nikkanen, Markus. “Participation in and with Christ” Ex Auditu Vol. 33 (2017)
Stanley, Andy. “The Upside of Tension” Vialogue (August 5, 2010)
Alexander, Kimberley Ervin. Pentecostal Healing. Blandford Forum: Deo Publishing, 2006
Carlson, Lindsey. “Fanny Crosby: Her Story, Her Song” Revive Our Hearts (Feb 25, 2016)
Wright, N.T. “Mind, Spirit, Soul and Body: All for One and One for All Reflections on Paul’s Anthropology in his Complex Contexts” NTWright Page (March 2011)
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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