Together?

Source: www.freeimages.com

Together is a word many of us love.  We enjoy being together, doing together, talking together, worshipping together.  But our Western idea of together is a very individualistic understanding: a voluntary, non-committal, temporary association in a shared activity which doesn’t compromise our individuality.

The church, despite its language and possibly even its hopes, has a tendency to reflect this individualism, and so can mission training establishments and sending agencies.  As a result, our mission workers are often in the same mould, and may struggle to appreciate the community dynamics of some of the cultures where we minister, in which tribe, community and family are more important than the individual.

I have had several conversations with mission workers expressing frustrations at the demands local believers place on them – yet those demands often stem from their different understanding of the nature of church, which we encourage by our use of words like ‘family’ and ‘brother’, which can mean so much more in their culture than they do in ours.

In many ways, such cultures are far closer to the Israel of Bible times than they are to ours, and if we think more corporately as we read the Bible, we will see less of the western personal salvation which we are accustomed to, and more of a community being saved.  For example, Paul’s revolutionary theological revelation of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  As westerners when we read that, we tend to assume it means “Christ in me”, which is indeed compatible both with our understanding of our individual personal salvation and the subsequent verse 29 where Paul goes on to talk about God’s power working in him.

But the culture of that day, and the people to whom the letter was originally written, would have been far more likely to read that as “Christ in us”.  In those communities, where people were regularly in and out of one another’s houses (Acts 2:46), understanding themselves as part of a body (Romans 12), and experiencing profound love for one another (Colossians 1:4), an individual expression of their faith must have been unthinkable.  They were a new nation, a new family.  Christianity may have supplanted their previous commitments but didn’t change their understanding of how they fitted into community and family.

Perhaps we would have more impact on such cultures if we intentionally adapted our thinking so that our understanding of “together” was a binding, permanent, committed, irrevocable sharing of all that we have and are with our new family.  Maybe then they will know we are the disciples of Jesus because they will see our genuine love for one another (John 13:35).

 

The direct route to God

Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness,

Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.

Let every valley be lifted up

and every mountain and hill made low.

Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

and everyone will see it”

(Isaiah 40: 3-5)

I have blogged before about the “Highway of Holiness” which Isaiah prophesied about.  The point he was making is that it should be easy for people to come and find God, like using a Roman road going straight to its destination rather than the “Rolling English Road” of G K Chesterton, with its twists and turns and unexpected hazards.

Isaiah is fond of the image of a motorway running from Assyria to Egypt by way of Jerusalem.  Mostly it’s there to make it easy for Israelites to return to God (11:16, 35:8, 49:11) but it’s also there for the people of the surrounding nations, represented by the two superpowers of the day, to turn to the Lord – see 19:23 where the prophet has a vision not of the destruction of Israel’s enemies (as one might expect) but of them thriving as they turn en masse to God and are blessed.

God has been at work among the people of the middle east for a while now, giving them incredible dreams revealing the risen Lord Jesus to them.  For the last couple of years, he has been bringing them in great numbers to Europe, where it is much easier for Christians to meet them, show them the love of God and help them on their journey.  Some countries have tried to block this road but the people still come and the church, on the whole, welcomes them.  Christians are doing a fabulous job of helping in settlement camps, running welcome centres, and supporting the new arrivals to their neighbourhood.  But more can still be done.  I blogged about the opportunity the refugee crisis brings us over two years ago and nothing has changed.

Seventy years ago, the Windrush generation started to come to Britain.  Although many were enthusiastic Christians they were not universally welcomed into the principal churches, so they went and started their own.  Some of these churches went on to become vibrant, growing denominations which have experienced significant revival.  But the sad truth is that in most cases, we still have white churches and black churches, and very few genuinely intercultural ones.

Let’s not make the same mistake with people from the middle east.  Let’s welcome them with open arms.  In 70 years, we do not want to see God blessing a thriving muslim-background community of believers while more traditional churches continue to close their doors.  This is a wonderful opportunity for us to prove we have learned from our past mistakes and be genuinely inclusive towards those who are different.

Why you can’t leave the gardening to God

There is an old joke about a new vicar keen to make an impact in his village parish.  Walking down the street he sees a beautiful cottage garden with an old man working in it.  He greets his parishioner and comments “Isn’t it beautiful what God can do with a garden?” to which the old man replies “That’s as maybe, but you should see what a mess it gets into if I leave him to do it by himself.”

Much of what I have written in these blogs, particularly about Martha and Mary or the Protestant Work Ethic, could be misconstrued as thinking that working is bad, and we should all sit and pray so that God can get on with the work.  But that’s not true.  While God may be able to do the work by himself, God doesn’t like working alone.  God likes others to join in.  God may in fact be an excellent gardener, but when he created Eden, he put the humans in it to look after it – literally to work and to guard it (Genesis 2:15).

The parable of the seed (Mark 4:26-28) shows us what this partnership looks like in practice.  A farmer plants the seed, and then waits for it to grow, which it does all by itself.  Presumably he waters and weeds it (although Jesus doesn’t mention this) and then he harvests it.

This is a perfect analogy for our partnership with God in mission.  We preach the word, water the seed with our prayer, weed it with our witness, but God makes it grow.

However, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is partnership with God.  I meet too many mission workers whose lifestyle reveals that they think God is a silent partner in their work, and that it’s up to them to do everything.  Which leads to stress and burnout.

That’s what’s wrong with the old maxim “Be a Calvinist on your knees and an Arminian on your feet”.  It divides mission into two separate spheres, one where I do the work and one where God does.  In fact we work together with God in both of them: in working, by constantly seeking God for energy, inspiration and guidance; and in prayer, by seeking the leading of the Holy Spirit as to how we should pray and what we should do.

In short, God wants more help in the garden.  He could do it by himself, or we could try to do it for him.  But he’d much rather enjoy our company as we do it together.  How are you going to work together with God in the coming week?

Heroes – Wilson Carlile

A recent visit to the Wilson Carlile Centre in Sheffield, home of the Church Army, prompted me to find out more about this remarkable evangelist.  A successful Victorian businessman who suffered a breakdown following financial ruin, he turned to Christ and, heavily influenced by D L Moody, discovered a passion for evangelism.

But unlike others of his day, his passion was for the people on the margins.  London, where he served his curacy, was full of soldiers, working class labourers, sex workers, addicts and the homeless.  Carlile concluded they would not go near a church because the feared they wouldn’t receive a welcome from the respectable Christians in them.  So he began to hold open air meetings to take the gospel out of the church and into the streets, but these got so large that he eventually had to stop them.

Resigning his curacy to devote himself full time to slum ministry, he created the Church Army to focus on outreach to the working class.  Not unlike the already-functioning Salvation Army, but with a crucial distinction that instead of becoming a separate church, Wilson determined to keep the Church Army within the Anglican church, as it still is today.

Carlile set up a school in Oxford to train working-class evangelists to reach their own class, thus avoiding the potential class-barrier that could hinder others in outreach.  Today the Church Army still welcomes and trains evangelists who might not be welcome in other places, but who are adept at forming connections with people on the margins of society.  They have ministries in 20 different countries.

My visit challenged me again with the problem of how to reach out to people who are different to us.  Many churches are monocultural even if they are multiracial, and tend to reproduce (if they do at all) in their own image, rather than adapting themselves to be genuinely accessible to people of other backgrounds – especially those who are already marginalised.

Some years ago, an urban outreach worker who lived in a very deprived area of the city but was attached to a church in the suburbs told me: “I’ve got a problem – a man on my estate just became a Christian”.

“Why’s that a problem?” I asked.

“Because I can’t take him to church.  They’ll reject him.”

Let’s hope things have changed in our churches.

Make me an instrument of your peace

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me bring love.
Where there is offence, let me bring pardon.
Where there is discord, let me bring union.
Where there is error, let me bring truth.
Where there is doubt, let me bring faith.
Where there is despair, let me bring hope.
Where there is darkness, let me bring your light.
Where there is sadness, let me bring joy.
O Master, let me not seek as much
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love,
for it is in giving that one receives,
it is in self-forgetting that one finds,
it is in pardoning that one is pardoned,
it is in dying that one is raised to eternal life.

 

This much-loved text, often attributed to St Francis of Assisi, is an inspiration to many.  Yet once we look beyond its beauty we find a brutal challenge to our fleshly and soulish ways of doing things.

As we go about our lives, work, relationships and ministry this week, energised once again by the thrill of the resurrection we have just commemorated, let us bear this challenge in mind.

As mission workers, church planters, member care workers, church leaders and agency employees, how do we conduct our relationships with one another and those we are reaching out to in the light of the sacrifice this calls us to?  A sacrifice which mirrors the one we celebrate as bringing us new life?  How do we communicate that new life to others?  Is our transformation deep or only superficial?  How do we tap into the grace which allows us to respond to every challenge with love and forgiveness?

As we are transformed by the grace of God, we offer the same hope to others.  He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3:30)

A lingering fragrance?

A while ago I picked some delightfully fragrant flowers which I left in a vase in the kitchen for quite a while.  They filled the whole room with a sweet smell which was almost like incense.  It lifted my spirits every time I entered the room.  But after a short time the flowers, unsurprisingly, withered.  Yet the fragrance remained for a long time after.

I wonder what remains of us when we move on to somewhere else.  Is it a sweet fragrance or a bitter aftertaste?  Do people miss us or are they glad we are gone?  Paul suggests that this can work both ways.  He says in 2 Corinthians 2 that we are the “sweet aroma of Christ”, but points out that while the aroma is attractive to those who are being saved, it is repulsive to those who are not.  In the same way, the presence of Christians, the expression of our belief, and the tolerance of our faith are obnoxious to some.  And sometimes they have a point – our behaviour can actually repel people if we are too judgemental or outspoken.

A better approach is softly softly.  It is wise not to get drawn into arguments with people like this but simply to let them see our behaviour at its very best.  Proverbs 15:1 says “a gentle answer turns away wrath” and Peter encourages us to:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

(1 Peter 2:12)

Actions, as is often pointed out, speak louder than words.  They echo long after we have gone.  I wonder how much of aroma of Christ we leave behind in other people’s hearts.

Preach the Gospel?

What does Good News look like to them?

In the world of mission there is a continuing debate of whether we should demonstrate the gospel, preach the gospel, or do both (often referred to as “wholistic” mission)*.  Advocates of the first argue that there is no point in preaching the gospel to people who are going to die of hunger, while advocates of the second say there is no point in giving people hope in this life if they have no hope for the next.  Proponents of wholistic mission try to find a mid-point and do both.

The picture is muddied even by the example of Jesus.  One the one hand it is clear that Jesus had compassion on people because they were needy (Matthew 9:36), yet the previous verse said he proclaimed the gospel and healed people.  His famous mission statement in Luke 4 says that he came to preach good news… and then proceeds to focus on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind and the oppressed.  In other words, the socially disadvantaged.  Then later in the same gospel he says “The Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) which sounds profoundly soteriological.  In Acts 11 Peter calls Jesus a man who went around doing good and makes no mention of him preaching the kingdom.

One way to square this circle is to ask ourselves what Good News actually is.  Evangelical Christians would customarily describe it as “Christ died for your sins”, but of course before Jesus died, Good News must have meant something else.  In Luke 9, Jesus sent the Twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God (Jesus’ usual message) and heal, but in verse 6 we’re told they ‘preached the Good News’ and healed.  So the Good News is not merely the Kingdom even though it includes a call to repentance (Mark 6:12).  For some people, Good News looked like healing.  For others it was food, or deliverance from demons.  Good News embraced their immediate needs as well as their eternal needs.

What does Good News look like for the people we meet?  Seen from their perspective, it may not primarily be salvation.  They might have more immediate concerns.  These might be a bed for the homeless, a meal for the hungry, a community for the refugee, healing for the sick, comfort for the bereaved, friendship for the lonely.  This is why so many Christian compassion ministries exist in the UK and abroad.

Christmas is a time of year when Christians invite their non-Christian friends and neighbours to church services, or send them overtly evangelistic Christmas cards.  But if we’re not showing them what Good News looks like throughout the year, our preaching might seem to them a bit shallow.

* There are of course many facets to mission including discipleship, social action, advocacy, creation care….  but the ‘show and tell’ model is a simple one to use.

Sowing in hope

Shoots of hope?

Officially, winter starts next week in the UK.  Yet at the end of November, when branches are bare, flowers have died, and leaves are turning to mud in the gutters, it feels like it’s already here.  Days are short, temperatures dropping and our moods drop too as we brace ourselves for the cold and damp.

But even in the midst of such gloom we carry out small acts of hope.  Autumn is the time for planting bulbs.  In November, before the ground freezes, we plant the bulbs which will start growing roots ready to burst into flower in the spring.  We know that in a few months our hearts will be lifted by the snowdrops, crocuses, daffodils and tulips which will turn our drab winter gardens into a riot of colour.  We plant in hope.

Mission workers are no stranger to this feeling.  Most of us work in environments where we see little response, yet we carry on sowing the seed of the word of God.  As Alex reminded us a couple of weeks ago that this can often take years to come to fruition but we keep sowing it in faith anyway.

Sadly our supporters sometimes expect the harvest to come quickly.  “How many people have you led to the Lord this year?” they might ask.  Churches may threaten to withdraw funding if there is no evidence of people turning to Christ as a result of our labours.  This can put us under pressure, make us worker harder, pray harder, preach harder, even succumb to the temptation to coerce people into coming to church.

There is a short parable in Mark’s gospel which can encourage us in this situation.  Tucked away between the more famous parables of the sower and the mustard seed, this one is about the growth of the seed.   It’s short enough to repeat in full:

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground.  Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.  As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

(Mark 4:28-29)

He does not know how.  The growth of the seed is not dependent on the farmer.  He plants it, waits patiently, and reaps the crop in due time.  Let us not worry about the mechanics of what is going on in people’s hearts.  That’s God’s job.  We plant the seed, he makes it grow.  And we are privileged, in partnering with him in his mission, so be called his fellow-workers (1 Corinthians 3:6-9).  So let’s concentrate on our part of the work, and leave him to do his bit.

“Every Christian is a missionary or an impostor”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

This quote from the great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon does the rounds occasionally and draws a lot of attention.  It is waved about by missionary apologists trying to mobilise more workers for the overseas mission field.  It is quoted by tweeters to draw attention to global mission.

But put this sentence back into the context of the original sermon, and you will see that Spurgeon is not encouraging people to leave their homes and occupations to bring the good news to strangers on the other side of the world.  He is challenging every Christian who claims to love Jesus to tell their family, friends and neighbours –right where they are!

The text of his sermon is so good that the whole paragraph needs to be read:

If Jesus is precious to you, you will not be able to keep your good news to yourself; you will be whispering it into your child’s ear; you will be telling it to your husband; you will be earnestly imparting it to your friend; without the charms of eloquence you will be more than eloquent; your heart will speak, and your eyes will flash as you talk of his sweet love. Every Christian here is either a missionary or an impostor. Recollect that. You either try to spread abroad the kingdom of Christ, or else you do not love him at all. It cannot be that there is a high appreciation of Jesus and a totally silent tongue about him.

 

Yes, the world still needs people to travel to the ends of it to bring the good news of Jesus to people who have no other means of hearing about him.  But we should not forget the many millions in our own neighbourhoods who do not yet know him.  Contemporary missionary challenges in western sending countries include thousands of refugees who have come to us recently, millions of non-European immigrants who have arrived in the last 60 years,  forgotten people groups like the Roma, marginalised tribes like the urban poor, and many other unreached groups in our midst including the indigenous unreached population.  The older translations of Mark tell us to “Go into all the world….” – a missionary being someone who is sent (as an emissary) on a mission.  Spurgeon reminds us that it doesn’t matter whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street… as long as we go.

International Student Ministry

Source: http://friendsinternational.uk/

This weekend I was at an event organised by Friends International and was reminded how doing outreach to international students is such a strategic ministry.

Many students come to this country from places it would be hard for us to get mission workers into.  We could spend a lot of time, energy and money recruiting, training and sending mission workers for Creative Access Nations, where they then may have to spend many years learning language and culture before they can be effective in ministry.

Or we can put resources into reaching the students God puts on our very doorsteps, who can be equipped to go back to their home countries and take the gospel quickly and effectively to their own people.  What’s not to like about that?!

There are over 400,000 international students in the UK, many of whom have little opportunity to hear the gospel in their own country.  Yet we have a small window of a few years when it is easy, cost-effective and legal to tell them about Jesus.  If every university in the country had teams seeking to befriend international students and lead them to Christ, this task could be accomplished much quicker.

Unlike overseas ministry which requires a lot of preparation, student outreach is readily accessible to ordinary Christians and churches.  It doesn’t take much special training to make tea at an international student café once a month, help an international student improve their English or cook a meal for a hungry student.  And it’s something that doesn’t require a great commitment of time, just an occasional availability.

So where do you start?

  • Contact an agency working with international students, like Agape, Friends International, Navigators or UCCF and ask how you can get involved.
  • Make a point of welcoming international students to your church and asking how you can help them
  • Download resources from the Friends International website.
  • Pray that God will send international students to your church.

Outreach to international students is an ideal ministry for people who care about world mission but can’t for some reason go abroad themselves.  It’s an opportunity to be part of taking the gospel to the nations – who knows how these students are going to affect their nations by their godly wisdom and actions and by leading their compatriots to Christ.

 

Do single men really not go?

A recent blog on the Crossworld website prompts me to comment on the issue of there being so few single men on the mission field.

It is of course not a new phenomenon in missions but its significance, as the author points out, is that it becomes hard to mentor men for maturity.  It can also lead to a church full of faithful women, which does not seem attractive to male unbelievers because it does not model an image of strong masculinity despite its focus on a male saviour.  So let’s consider some potential causes.

1) Statistics: There are generally fewer men in the church, so fewer are available to go, whether single or married.  In many UK churches the single women outnumber single men 4:1, so there are bound to be fewer single men going. Those single men who do go to the mission field are outnumbered even more, frequently by 8 or 9 to 1.  This increases opportunities for them to marry, so many do not stay single very long.  Thus the problem is perpetuated.

2) Ministry fulfilment: do men have more opportunities for ministry on the home side?  Although the percentage is steadily increasing, women still only make up about 1/3 of Anglican clergy in the UK[1].  In October 2015 Christianity Today reported that around 10% of US churches have women in the sole or senior leadership role (though twice that percentage attend seminary)[2].   Some traditions do not have any formal role for women in leadership.  Perhaps this means that men can more easily find an expression for their Christian service within their home church or denomination, so technically it is not that fewer men are going into overseas mission, but more women, as they seek an outlet for their desire to serve God which is harder for them to find at home.  But the result is that more single women go.

A bigger question is not why there are fewer single men in cross-cultural mission, but what are we doing about it?  Here are some suggestions:

Churches  –

  • Do you actively seek out men you think might have a future in the mission field and challenge them to go? Do you suggest to young men looking to start out on a career that they might consider a life serving God abroad, or even a few years?
  • Do you promote mission as an equal opportunity and not just for women? Do your male leaders model a mission heart or is it only your women who talk, pray or go in mission?
  • Do you tell stories in your sermons of brave and heroic men like St Paul, Francis Xavier or Robert Thomas who took the gospel to far-flung places at great cost to themselves because of their one true love – Jesus?
  • Do we teach a high view of singleness as a way to serve the Lord?  Do your young men have accountability relationships so they have an opportunity to focus their attention on developing godly character?

Agencies –

  • Do your placements seem attractive to single men?  What can you do to make your mobilisation more appealing to them?
  • Are you thinking through what their needs are? Do you try to send teams of men so that there are other men around for them to build friendships with?
  • Do you foster a culture which allows men to express their masculinity appropriately?  Can they truly “feel like a real man” when they are engaged in the activities you co-ordinate?
  • Do we mentor single men in the field so that they can be fulfilled in their singleness and not struggling?

And for all of us –

  • Do we unconsciously model disappointment if our sons sacrifice a good career to go into mission, while we think it’s a great opportunity for our daughters?
  • Do we think mission is a good place for those poor women who have not been able to find partners, but expect men to marry and settle down?
  • And do we pray that more single men will listen to the call of God on their lives and follow him to the ends of the earth – and do we encourage them to do so when we think he’s calling them?

Or was Gladys Aylward right (see John Piper’s Desiring God Podcast) – do the men called to the mission field just not listen to God as well as the women do?

 

[1] Statistics for Mission 2012

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women-leaders/2015/october/state-of-female-pastors.html

A Gothic horror?

No, not those Goths!

No, not those Goths!

In the spring of 376 AD, thousands of hungry, weary Goths arrived on the northern bank of the Danube, in what is now Romania, and asked the Romans permission to cross the river into safety.  Displaced by war and violence in their homelands further east, they had migrated to what they believed was safer territory behind the Roman frontier.

For Rome, it was a wonderful opportunity.  Thousands of new citizens who could become workers, soldiers, farmers, taxpayers and consumers could breathe life into the old empire.  But it was also a threat.  Such a large influx could disrupt lifestyle, change culture, bring unhelpful new influences and potentially crime and violence.

The Romans prevaricated, and by not being decisive, lost the initiative.  The Goths forced their way in but instead of being settled and absorbed, they remained a separate cultural (and military) identity within the empire.  Within a few years war broke out, the Goths had inflicted on Rome its biggest defeat in centuries and killed an emperor.  For decades they migrated around western Europe looking for a home, and became the first invaders to sack Rome in nearly a millennium.  They destabilised the empire and contributed to the collapse of the western half of the empire.

1640 years later, is Europe now in the same position as the Romans were?  Faced with a massive influx of people from different cultures, desperate for safety, jobs, a home, will we make them into friends or enemies?  How are they going to influence Europe?

This is the background to next month’s EEMA conference on refugees.  Refugees in Europe – a Fence or a Bridge? will consider what the church in Europe will be doing in the face of the current refugee crisis/opportunity.  How do we show we care about refugees?  What changes are going to be forced on the European church as a result of this?  Is it legitimate to take this as an opportunity to evangelise displaced people, and if it is, how do we do it?  What does this mean for mission from, to and in Europe?

For more information on this key conference, which will be held in Bucharest (in Romania, where the Goths arrived) from 21st-24th June, go to the EEMA website.  We’re going – we hope to see you there!

What van Gaal is getting wrong

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

Goal? (Source www.freeimages.com)

It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with it that counts.

The long-drawn out death rattle of Louis van Gaal underperforming season at Manchester United prompts us to revisit this old maxim.  While Syzygy does not have much of a track record as football pundits we came across an interesting statistic in a newspaper recently: despite Man U having a whole string of terrible statistics this season, there is one in which they are top.  They have the highest percentage of possession in the Premiership.  A solid achievement, which means absolutely nothing without the ability to convert possession into goals.

Which prompts us to ask our readers, what do we possess that we are not converting?  We can suggest three things that, we may need to put to better use for the kingdom as we reflect on our lives and values during the current season of Lent.

The Gospel.  We have mentioned before the prevailing western philosophy of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in which our Christian belief is merely there to meet our needs, help us be nice people and feel good about ourselves.  But the Gospel shouldn’t stop with us.  It is meant to be shared.  What kind of selfish people keep good news to themselves?  St Paul wrote “Woe is me if I don’t preach the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:16).  OK, perhaps he was a bit too driven for us to feel entirely comfortable with him, but at least he was motivated.  When are we going to go and tell somebody the Good News, whether we go to the other side of the world or the other side of the street?

Our relationship with God.  We have unprecedented, open access to the throne room of the Almighty Creator of Heaven and Earth, and we use it to ask God to bless people, which God is probably going to do anyway, because that’s what God enjoys doing.  We have the power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead at work in us and we use it to pray for a parking space.  When are we going to realise that through prayer we can change nations?  Can we get a little bit more ambitious with our prayer?  How about praying for a resolution of conflict in the middle east, freedom and peace for the oppressed church, or global revival.  Let’s get a little more ambitious with our prayer.

Significant wealth.  Yes, significant.  Since the finanical crisis of 2008, many of us in the west think we’re poor, yet in comparison to nearly half the world living on less than $2.50 a day [1], we’re filthy rich.  And even if we aren’t sure how we’re going to pay the bills or put food on the table, as William Carey pointed out “even the poor can give.”  Jesus commended not the rich putting their gold into the temple coffers, but the poor widow putting in two small copper coins (Mark 12:43).  When are we going to pour our wealth into something more precious than house extensions, foreign holidays and new cars?

So this Lent, do please consider going (or at least helping someone else to),  make a commitment to pray for mission, and put some serious funding into mission.  Syzygy would be glad to help you!

[1] http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats

May the Force be with you…

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Episode 7 official poster (Source: www.starwars.com)

Star Wars is back!  This week the eagerly anticipated resumption of the epic double-trilogy starts with episode 7 –  Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which is widely expected to become the biggest-grossing film of all time.

Since the ground-breaking arrival of the first film in 1977, Christians have argued over the content and symbolism.  Those in favour will claim that the Force represents the power of the Holy Spirit, Obi Wan Kenobi’s self-sacrifice and apparent survival beyond death (kinda) is a significant nod to Jesus, and Darth Vader is a clear manifestation of everything we think of as evil, from his character to his stereotypical dark clothing, and even he can be redeemed.  Others will argue that the Force can be used for good or evil, which is not part of a Christian cosmology.  There is no clear redeemer figure and no communication of the love of God or the depravity of humanity.

But the real issue is not whether the films reflect a Christian message or not, but the fact that they reflect a postmodern worldview which Generation X and Millenials have bought into in a way that an older generation can’t comprehend.  Millenials in particular think in a way that is in line with the underlying assumptions of the Star Wars galaxy, for example:

  • There is a spiritual aspect to life which we do not understand but we can tap into if we choose
  • Trade corporations are inherently evil and not to be trusted
  • Most politicians are selfish and will easily turn to the dark side
  • I have the ability to achieve much more than simply being a cog in the system

Contrary to popular belief, millennials are not antagonistic to Christianity (as long as it not prejudiced and bullying).  They are suspicious of organised religion but open to personal spirituality, and are open to following Jesus if he is presented to them appropriately.  The success of many vibrant, new church networks is partly due to numbers of millenials attracted to a warmer, livelier, less-structured style of church that helps them feel that they belong and are significant.  These movements often intentionally plant (or re-plant) churches that look in very different ways to tradition ones.

The problem is that most millenials have not heard of Jesus.  Unlike previous generations they were not taken to church or Sunday school as children, religious assemblies in school are discouraged, with the result that this generation is the least evangelised European generation for 1500 years.

Some of us may be aghast at that thought.  But the flipside of it is that they are also the least prejudiced.  They haven’t been bored to death by stories of Noah’s Ark and Goliath.  They haven’t been made to follow a lot of life-crushing rules.  They come to Jesus with a completely clean sheet and no preconceptions.  They don’t have problems with the existence of an unseen world or a benevolent force pervading the universe.  Ironically, this is probably the generation most open to the gospel in over a millennium.

May the Force be with you as you tell them the good news.

A Bible in your own language

A Russian Orthodox Church at St Andrew's Monastery, Moscow

A Russian Orthodox Church at St Andrew’s Monastery, Moscow

In the western world many of us take if for granted that we not only have the Bible in our own languages, but that we have many different version.  But imagine you live in a country which has been under the domination of an influential neighbour for centuries. Their language is the one you have to learn if you want to progress in education or business; yours is only spoken at home. Although they have brought you education, literacy and Christianity, you still feel a bit of an outsider. Although they send you their missionaries to tell you about God, and give you his book to read, it’s only available in their language. It’s not surprising to find that there can be resistance to the Gospel in cultures such as these.

Until a quarter of a century ago, that was the world of some 85 million people of the former Soviet Union who are not Russian, and who speak between them some 130 different languages. They include large people groups such as the Tajik, who now have their own country, and many tiny tribes in places like Siberia, Kamchatka or the Caucasus who struggle even to this day for the recognition of their indigenous culture, whether by the Russians or by another dominant people group. Indigenous languages and cultures struggle survive in a homogenising world where in order to get on, become educated, and trade prosperously people need to fit into larger groups. People often abandon their own roots because of their perceived need to adapt and progress.

But now imagine what it means to a person living in one of those places when a Bible in their own language is put into their hands. Often they are amazed that somebody cares about their culture enough to publish a book in it. One person even commented on opening it “God speaks my language!” over and over again. It radically transforms their impression of God into the one who has come into their world and values them and their identity.

This is at the heart of the work of the Institute for Bible Translation (IBT). Based in Moscow in a former monastery which was founded five centuries ago with the express purpose of organising the study of Greek and Slavonic texts to a high academic level and translating them into Russian, IBT now serves the many non-Slavic people of the former USSR who have no scripture in their own language. Having gone through the lengthy process of doing a proper technical translation, they also then publish the Word in the form of books, audio-Bibles and digital Bibles. The aim is to get the Bible into the hands of people who would otherwise have no access to it. Many of these people are Moslem, although some have traditional shamanistic beliefs.

Recognising that there may initially be resistance to their work, the early works that IBT focuses on include a Children’s Bible, and a book of local folk stories, which are illustrated wherever possible by local artists, in order to reinforce their cultural relevance. Proverbs often follows, because many Biblical proverbs mirror local wisdom and are readily accepted.  Since parents are often keen for their children to learn their own language so that it will survive, books that are targeted at children are very popular. To date, the Children’s Bible has been produced in more than 40 languages, with over 9 million copies in print.

When a specific book is complete, there is a presentation ceremony wherever this is possible. In minority communities, even those who are Moslem, this is often seen as an opportunity to celebrate and affirm their traditional culture. So the local president, or mayor, or even the imam may be a central figure in the presentation. At an event like this, one imam commented that he always uses the Bible to teach from in his mosque, because it is in his own language! He can’t understand the Quran, as he doesn’t speak Arabic. So there is immediate evangelistic potential from the publication of a Bible in their own language.

While there continue to be many challenges, the work of IBT is advancing the Gospel in the former Soviet Union. The church is being encouraged and built up, and the Gospel is coming for the first time to many people in their own language. One beneficiary of the work commented:

I beg you, whatever problems you might face, never stop your work. It’s very much needed; every book means a redeemed soul!

With a response like that to the work of IBT, there is clearly a major need for this work to keep on expanding. You can read more about this wonderful ministry, and contribute through prayer or giving at www.ibt.org.ru.

We want to see Jesus

024Most ancient church buildings have a number of plaques of different sorts on their walls – tombstones of the gentry, memorials to famous parishioners, tributes to the war dead or past incumbents – but at Penhurst in Sussex there is one that in my experience is utterly unique: a private message addressed to just one person.

It is not in a prominent position; in fact it is not visible from most parts of the church, yet it is clear and conspicuous to the person about to mount the steps to the pulpit, and it is addressed only to the preacher.  It reads:

Sir, we would see Jesus.

It is a quote from John 12:21, and it is a reminder to preachers of their responsibility to reveal Jesus to their listeners.  Yet this duty (and joy!) is not the preacher’s alone; it falls to all believers – as Jesus told us to go into all the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:20).

Some of us will indeed be called to go to the other side of the world, while others are called to go to the other side of the street.  It is not the ‘where’ that matters, it is the ‘going’ that counts.  In our schools, offices and retirement homes we can all look to ‘show and tell’ to our colleagues.  In our homes we can explain and exhibit Jesus to our families and neighbours.  In gyms and golf clubs we can incarnate the risen Lord to our team-mates and competitors.  There is no-where and no-when that we cannot – and should not – take the opportunity in some way to bring Christ into a sharper perspective, whether for the first time or the umpteenth, to the people around us.

Paul sets us an excellent example.  He writes to the Corinthians “Woe is me if I don’t preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).  He felt compelled to share the good news.  But as we will see next week when we look at his missions strategy in Europe, he made it clear to the Thessalonians that this was not only standing in the synagogue trying to persuade people that Jesus was the Messiah who was destined to die and rise again (Acts 17:2-3); it also meant publicly demonstrating Christ in his impeccable behaviour (1 Thessalonians 2:10) and privately imploring individuals to believe (1 Thessalonians 2:11).

To help me remind myself of my role in this great sermon which we live and speak every day, I like to start the day with an ancient prayer.  Perhaps you would like to join me in it:

O Lord, grant that my part in the world’s life today may not be to obscure the splendour of thy presence, but rather to make it more plainly visible to the eyes of my fellow humans.

Heroes in mission: St Andrew

andrewSt Andrew may not be the most obvious choice for a missionary hero.  Eclipsed by Peter, his more famous brother, often left out of the Gang of Four (Jesus, James, Peter & John) but occasionally included, without significant participation in the gospels, he’s not the most obscure of the disciples, but he is certainly not prominent.

Yet what is unique about him is that every time we are told about him in the gospels, he is bringing people to Jesus.  First, and most significantly for church history, he brings his brother Peter (John 1:40-42), using a phrase of unparalleled faith so early in Jesus’ ministry: “We have found the Messiah”.  Then, it is Andrew who finds the boy who gave Jesus his lunch (John 6:8) – and we know what happened after that!  And after that Andrew is found introducing some Hellenistic Jews to Jesus (John 12:22).  Later on, tradition tells us, he preached the gospel in eastern Europe, including in what is now Ukraine and Russia, both of which honour him as their patron saint.  He is also credited with founding the Patriarchate of Byzantium.

What can we learn from Andrew?

  • As already stated, he is regularly bringing people to Jesus. In all that we do, we must not forget that this is a key objective, whether we do it directly ourselves or facilitate others doing it.
  • He does not appear to have sulked. As one of the first disciples to have followed Jesus, he might have had a claim to be part of the inner circle, but when he wasn’t, there is no evidence of him becoming upset, and he certainly didn’t walk out.  He just got on with the job.
  • He wasn’t afraid to go beyond the boundaries of his world. Although Greece, Thrace, Byzantium and Romania would have very different cultures from what Andrew would have been used to in Judea, they were at least part of the Roman Empire.  As he worked his way round the Black Sea and up the Dniester River as far as Kiev, and possibly even going as far as Novgorod, he would have been in the territory of ‘barbarians’.

Legend tells us that Andrew when he was crucified, he asked to be tied to a diagonal cross, as he was unworthy to die on the same sort of cross as Jesus died.  May we also be as passionate about serving, representing, and (if called to) dying for Jesus.

Urgent!

Hudson Taylor

Hudson Taylor

150 years ago this week, on 25th June 1865, Hudson Taylor started the China Inland Mission, now OMF International.  It had (and still has, though slightly adapted) the goal of “the urgent evangelisation of China’s millions”.

Taylor was greatly concerned that the Chinese were dying without Jesus.  This prompted the sense of urgency which pervaded not only the CIM but other 19th century missions too.  They were motivated to take the message of Jesus to people who  were being lost, consigned to hell for eternity.

These days, hell is an unpopular and rarely mentioned concept in much of western Christianity.  We feel it is distasteful, incompatible with the idea of a loving God, and disrespectful of those who choose not to follow Jesus.  We certainly don’t use it in our outreach, preferring instead to tell people of God’s love for them rather than focus on divine wrath.

Whether you agree with downgrading hell to a theological optional extra or not, the disappearance of hell from the evangelistic agenda has removed the sense of urgency.  We recognise that telling people they’re going to hell if they don’t repent is not the best way to build a bridge towards them.  And while we may not be sure what happens after death to those who don’t follow Jesus, we trust God to be fair and sort something out.  Rob Bell infamously flirted with universalism in his controversial book Love Wins, which was welcomed by many people who can’t stomach the idea of God condemning millions of his creatures to burn for eternity for the simple crime of not worshipping him even though nobody had told them to.

Today we prefer to take our time to woo people into the kingdom of God because we’re not in a hurry any more.  But that doesn’t mean people have stopped dying without Jesus.  In the time it’s taken you to read this blog, thousands have died before being told the message.  Whatever you believe happens to them after death, it can’t be as good as spending eternity with Jesus.  So go and tell them.  Quickly.

A new spring?

WP_000678Spring is a beautiful time of year in northern Europe.  Its early signs come well before its culmination in all its vibrant colours.  Snowdrops peep out of the frozen ground, followed by crocuses, daffodils, primroses and bluebells.  Deciduous trees grow bright new leaves and the dull grey clouds break apart to allow patches of blue sky and bright sunshine.  A wide variety of shrubs and flowers burst into blossom.  The days lengthen and the air grows warmer.

This season lifts the spirits of those of us who have toiled through a long, dark winter, and the joy is expressed in ancient festivities which have become Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost).  The drama of this transition embedded itself deep in the psyche of the Europeans who have recycled it in art, literature and religion.  C S Lewis used it to good effect in describing the change on the landscape that came when the frozen winter kingdom of the White Witch thawed into the realm of Aslan.

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

Statue of Aidan at Lindisfarne

We even use this imagery in our history – The Dark Ages is the name we give to the period following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when the pagan winter engulfed ‘Christian civilisation’.  Areas we now know as France, Italy, Spain and Britain were occupied by Franks, Goths, Vandals and Saxons – the names of some of them passing into posterity as those hostile to ‘civilisation’.  The so-called Christian empire was overrun, leaving just a few isolated monastic communities to keep the light of faith burning in the sea of darkness.  But those communities did not retreat into their bunkers and look inwards; they went out to their hostile neighbours and spread the word of God, often paying with their lives.  Men like Boniface, Aidan and Columbanus ensured not merely the survival of Christianity, but its dominance, as pagan Europe turned into Christendom.

A thousand years later, the process was repeated.  Christendom, already a decaying empire, fell to the ‘barbarian’ hordes.  Humanists, secularists, nihilists and many other tribes overran it, leaving the population confused and vulnerable.  By the 20th century many had consigned Christianity to history.  It was just another primitive civilisation which had collapsed.  Yet the faithful continued to keep the flame burning brightly.

The 21st century is a second missionary era, when the saints once more are called to go to the postmodern ‘barbarians’ and take the message of God to them.  People come from across the world to bring us the truth that so many have forgotten.  All across Europe missionary endeavour is bringing enlightenment to the lost.  Many churches are experiencing significant growth.  People are turning to God in numbers not seen for centuries.  A new spring is upon us.

Come and worship!

Source: www.freeimages.com

Source: www.freeimages.com

This week, Christians will celebrate the momentous event in human history when God stepped into his own creation to live and die as one of us.  It matters not one bit that it may not have happened in December (or January if that is your tradition), or whether the inn was really a guest room, or whether there were kings present, or donkeys, or snowmen.  The important thing is that it happened.

It happened because God was so concerned about the plight of selfish, ungodly humanity that he did what only he could to bring us back into relationship with him.  Or as St Paul puts it “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).  The whole point was to restore the broken relationship so that humanity could live at peace with God.  Jesus came to make that possible.  That is why we celebrate him as “The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

For this reason he is the ultimate role model for mission workers.  We may follow the examples and tenets of the founding father of our agencies or movements, or other heroes of mission, but only because they point the way to the one who has gone before all of us.  He left his home, learned the language, and adopted the culture and customs of his mission field.  He laid down his life in obedience to his calling, and he raised up followers to continue the spread of the message.

At the end of his letter to the Romans Paul writes “the gospel and preaching of Jesus Christ… has been made known to all the nations” (Romans 16:25-26).  The world has grown bigger than the Roman Empire of Paul’s day and many more tribes and peoples have been located who have not yet heard the good news.  The missionary imperative to tell the great glad tidings still rings out to us.  Many of the carols and readings that we use in our worship at this time of year encourage us, like the magi (Matthew 2:2), to come and worship Jesus.  What better way to do that than to bring others with us to discover the Saviour for themselves?