Our experience of the Spirit

Matthew Hosier has written a helpful article reflecting on the 1994 Toronto Blessing / PMOTS (‘present move of the Spirit’). He explores the extent to which our experiences of the Holy Spirit are culturally mediated, and goes on to relate this to current UK movements that identify 1994 in their roots:

The danger in my pointing this out is that I will be accused of claiming these experiences are ‘merely cultural’. Not at all. Rather, that we need to be wise in distinguishing what is from God, what is deception, what is imperative, what indicative, and what is our culturally mediated response.

Twenty years on, I’m not sure I have an adequate answer to the question ‘1994 – What was that all about?’ I believe God was in it, but that there were excesses, and that the form PMOTS took reflected other cultural trends evident in western society at the time.

I don’t think the point here is to question the degree to which our experience of the Spirit is ‘genuine’, but to recognise that the way we experience the Spirit’s work in our lives is not done in a cultural vacuum. I’d be interested to know the degree to which moves of the Spirit break down aspects of (often church) culture that are blockers to the work of the Spirit in our lives.

The New Centre of British Evangelicalism

I’m a little bit late in reading this one but Andrew Wilson has written a fascinating article that explores the role of Holy Trinity Brompton and its associated courses, events and activities. Wilson argues that the centre of contemporary evangelicalism is increasingly becoming aligned by shared conferences, courses and choruses, rather than confessions, creeds or catechisms. Because HTB’s conferences, courses and choruses are amongst the most widely used, they play a significant role in shaping UK evangelicalism in the UK and abroad.

HTB represents British evangelicalism’s friendly face: biblical but not dogmatic, evangelistic but not ranty, activist but not politicised, Anglican but not really, centred rather than boundaried. Hard not to like, right? And certainly more likely to unite evangelicals, and to get favourable write-ups from cultural gatekeepers in the Telegraph or the Guardian, than the hardline confessional types. As such, if HTB represents the new centre of British evangelicalism, then nearly everybody wins.

The degree to which HTB has avoided taking a ‘position’ on a number of controversial contemporary issues is one that is especially close to the bone and deserves a lot more reflection. Churches that managed to hold together a diverse group of people – many of whom may disagree with one another on the hot issues of the day – are often, in my view, the stronger for it. But holding together these diverse views within church can often be in competition with the danger of appearing ‘wooly’ on important (if not primary) issues.

I also agree that if you wanted to meaningfully group evangelical churches together into like-minded segments

you’d get a more accurate picture if you divided them by the evangelistic course they use (Alpha for most, Christianity Explored for those who find Alpha too floaty, individualistic or charismatic, and nothing at all for the churches that aren’t that fussed about preaching the gospel) than by the denominational family they come from (Anglican / Baptist / Methodist / Free).

To a degree, I think this is the evangelistic courses that churches run is a fault-line that defines what ‘unity in the gospel’ often looks like in local communities – especially where these courses are run jointly between churches.

Well worth a read.

Rev: so good it’s dangerous

James Mumford on the BBC comedy Rev:

But when asked why Rev is so good, the usual answer cites “an insider viewpoint” on an inner-city vicar. Which is precisely what it’s not. Rev is an outsider’s imaginative construction of an insider viewpoint – a secular take on the sacred…

Which is all well and good. Yet it remains an outsider’s perspective. An insider view of the church would, by contrast, revolve around the reality of shared faith. From the outset, Rev’s operating assumption is that faith is individual. The Rev Smallbone’s prayer monologues are purely personal. Faith is not something held in common. Nor is it transformative. Which is, rightly or wrongly, what people of faith think it is. Perhaps the show’s most wonderful character, the drug addict Colin, is a parishioner Adam is genuinely friends with. But there’s never a question of faith freeing him from addiction.

I’ve really enjoyed this series of Rev. It is, at times, profound and touches on brilliance, and at others is deeply disappointing. Somehow Adam Smallbone struggles through temptation and personal doubt to do the right thing. Yet James’ points are right on. Its take on the church is deeply undermining, of corporate faith that is shared between believers skin deep. The supernatural is entirely absent.

Denying the insider view denies the rich diversity of the church in England. This is both a lack of creativity and a failure of representation.

Changed lives change cities

A great post by Alan Scott that looks at the temptation to break discipleship down into something that is manageable rather than missional. He urges the reader to move away from thinking of discipleship being primarily about personal piety and personal spiritual discipline to something that is expressed and learned through living an outward life of faith that changes the city in which you live. Individual discipleship through 1:1 discussions in coffee shops is “too low a goal”, with real discipleship taking place through the sharing of life and mission.

This is a really helpful distinction that highlights the continual need to orientate church communities around the task of reproducing the life of Jesus. Our vision for seeing our communities changed by the love of Jesus should be expansive and not reductionist. Time and time again we see the Apostle Paul involving people in mission.

[He] didn’t disciple people by staying with them, but rather by taking them with him. Together they engaged with the improbable possibility that whole communities and cities might respond openly and wholeheartedly to the message of the kingdom.

Alan issues a challenge here for leaders to

measure the level of discipleship in the church by the level of transformation in the city.

If discipleship is the process of becoming who Jesus would be if he were you, I’m pretty sure that he would be changing cities. As we see our own lives becoming more and more like Jesus, we will also see our cities changed.

Healthy is messy

Sam Rainer on healthy churches necessarily being messy churches:

If you’re a church leader and you’re constantly dealing with how to disciple messy, new believers, then it probably means you’re doing something right. Conversely, if everyone in your church is spiritually mature, then something is terribly wrong. In fact, a church full of “mature” believers is quite immature because it means no one is reaching outward.

Healthy churches are messy. It’s easy to look in from the outside and claim, “Half that church is immature!” But such disdain could be misguided. While a state of perpetual immaturity is a recipe for disaster, a constant movement of many immature people being discipled is exactly what Jesus commanded us to do.

“The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47) – “continuous outreach into the community seeking to bring people into Christ and his community.”

Healthy churches grow – but growing churches can look ‘unhealthy’ if spiritual maturity is the only metric used.

Defending the Truth

Humans are amazingly creative beings. We’re constantly coming up with new ways to do stupid things. So, why would we think that the church addressed every possible heresy at these 7 councils? Great post by Marc Cortez – he makes a fair point and has got me thinking. 
The 7 councils do stand at the heart of our understanding of heresy, but they don’t necessarily have to dictate to us how do we define heresy.

I like McGrath’s definition: “A heresy is a doctrine that ultimately destroys, destabilises, or distorts a mystery rather than preserving it.” Heresy ultimately distorts, rather than defends, the mystery of faith. It is a failed attempt at orthodoxy. It’s perhaps better, though, to accept this as a descriptive term rather than a pejorative one. Heresies don’t have to have malicious intent. They are simply misaligned with the truth they seek to give definition to. 

open quotesMorality, like art, means drawing a line somewhereclose quotes

(Oscar Wilde)

There is a danger when we look at using the formulations of the 7 councils as our ‘plumb-line’ for heresy, that we make the mis-step of assuming the Christian faith is “simply or even fundamentally a set of ideas.”1 Experience of, and relationship with, The Truth leads us to seek to express this as a theological statement or set of statements. This does not detract, though, from the fact that theological formulations are secondary to the “experience that precipitated and shaped them.”2 The search for orthodoxy then, is linked to authenticity.   Orthodoxy (believing the right things) cannot be divorced from orthopraxy (doing the right things). Your character must match the message. 

Defending the truth, then, is about protecting the health of faith. Ideas can be powerful things. As we grasp more of what is possible and our eyes of faith rise to new possibilities of what God’s plans are achieving, heretical teaching can rob us of the mystery and fullness of faith. They can lead us to believe the wrong things about God, which in turn lead us to live in ways at odds with, rather than in line with, the divine. 

If you’ve read McGrath’s book, or simply read the footnotes, you’ll notice I’ve basically nabbed all these thoughts from his book on heresy. Definitely worth a read if you’re interested in these things 😉

  1. p. 18, Heresy, Alister McGrath  ↩

  2. p. 18, ibid  ↩

God in China

There was an excellent broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last week in which Tim Gardam, Principal of St Anne’s College, Oxford explores the role of “God in China.”1 A conservative figure for the number of Christians in China would now be 70 million.

That’s a lot.

It’s perhaps no wonder than that Christianity is still treated with suspicion by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), whilst at the same time, there are many who call for increasing levels of acceptance. What Dr Gardam’s piece highlights well is the genuine tension in China between the official Three Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) churches and the ‘underground’, unofficial house churches.
Interpreting the TSPM is both complicated and controversial. The demand from believers has been for a ‘space’ in society where the individual could “govern his whole life and thought by Christian ideas and principles.” The practical developments around the modus vivendi that is the TSPM demonstrates both the problem of continued government interference with this ‘space’ for religious activity, and the reality of how some Three-Self churches are able to avoid the more restrictive aspects of the arrangement in practice.

There is a real danger in viewing the official church with derision and contempt, and presenting them as a moribund organisation that has outlived its usefulness. There are some very real compromises without question (the forbidding of ‘evangelism’ amongst the populace by TSPM churches of under–18s springs to mind.) There are some very real failings of the TSPM, and memories of the betrayal of house-church Christians by their TSPM peers in the 1950’s and opening years of the Cultural Revolution die hard. Yet the there are areas where religious accommodation has afforded to the official wing of Protestant Christianity in China a negotiation of gradual freedoms that simply would not be possible without its legal, and necessarily compromised, status.

Yet the reality of CCP meddling in church activity, while an issue treated with some care, has not been met by all registered church leaders with a somnambulant conformity, where they have proven unwilling or unable to respond. In reality, the degree of control wielded by the state is uneven the regions and there are many examples of official and unofficial churches working closely together – even of believers attending morning ‘house churches’, only to join in worship with TSPM believers in the evening. It is also, incidentally, categorically not the case that TSPM churches and their pastors are not themselves subject to persecution.

It doesn’t have to be a case of either or. Religious accommodation in an atheist state and house churches that go beyond the boundaries of legality can both be legitimate and spirit-filled responses in my view.

The state of Christianity in China is more than a search for autonomous space for religious activity. Being a Follower of Jesus and sitting under his lordship can be seen as at odds with the communist state. But the ways in which the lordship of Christ – just as it did for Paul and his believers across the Roman Empire – can express itself in many different, creative and surprising ways.

Just a few thoughts.

  1. Apologies if either the effluxion of time or the lack of UK residence prevent you from enjoying this  ↩

Relationships that heal society

Lady drinking a lovely cup of tea

Lady drinking a lovely cup of tea

I’m finding it a fascinating time to be working in Local Government. Pressure on the public purse is releasing new creativity and asking fundamental questions around how to improve outcomes for the most vulnerable in society. I’ve been thinking about how these issues can be informed by my faith. What follows are some of my thoughts on how this links to relationships and, by extension, the role the church has to play in healing society.

Sir William Beveridge’s Welfare Settlement was remarkably successful at transforming society, attacking the five giant ills of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idelness.’ Yet in his third report on his developing thinking on the welfare state, Beveridge recognised that he had made a mistake in both missing and limiting the potential power of each citizen to play a part in social betterment. He felt that ‘room, opportunity and encouragement for voluntary action in seeking new ways of social advance… services of a kind which often money cannot buy’ were equally critical. He feared that his original reforms were encouraging individuals to focus passively on their needs – looking to the state to provide the answers – rather than to themselves and their immediate social networks. He was recognising that his original 1942 report missed a trick in emphasising services over voluntary action in the creation of a fairer and more socially cohesive society.

open quotes… people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships.close quotes

Before the welfare state, faith communities were the major delivery arm of health in the UK, operating many of the friendly societies that provided health services to the masses before the welfare state. Into the late 1940’s and beyond, this role as a ‘social net’ had been handed over to the state, never fully to return. Beveridge recognized that the government had been left holding the whole baby of the NHS and social protection, where previously the church and other social institutions had – albeit imperfectly – undertaken this role.

I’ve been reflecting on this analysis and on two challenges that emerge from this:

Challenge 1: The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens

open quotes… it is the quality of our relationships that, more than anything else, determines our happiness, fulfilment and the sense of a life well lived.close quotes

(Dr Jonathan Sachs)

The welfare state, as it has evolved, has continued to promote a reliance upon public services being delivered to and for people, not with them. Yet the biggest challenges to the public sector in health and social care in particular, are based not on the acute problems and illnesses that more ‘LEAN‘ and efficient processes can tackle, but in the realm of chronic issues related to dementia, diabetes, getting people to stop abusing alcohol, encouraging people to go walking more often or, in a different context, start recycling their waste. For these sorts of challenges, people don’t need a more efficient service but meaningful and robust relationships. Broadly speaking – and I’m conscious of some successful counter-examples – people don’t change their behaviour because the state tells them to, but because they have found people they know and respect, through strong peer-to-peer networks, who have succeeded in, for example, giving up smoking.

If, in the public sector, we are to help people generate, rebuild and sustain relationships in society, rather than just deliver services to people, then we are not going to succeed alone. The church ought to be experts at this stuff!

open quotesYou’re worked to death, we’re bored to death.close quotes

I also think that this recognition of a need for a shift in thinking resonates with the wider issues that the current government’s approach to the public services has spawned. We do not want to be needy, with ‘things’ being done to us, we want to contribute and participate. Nor do we want to be atomised consumers, being told that it’s our responsibility to ‘get it’. We find that people want to be socially connected and to collectively make things happen. Everyone recognizes that the most important things can’t be measured by numbers and money. In Jenni Russell’s critique of New Labour, she emphasises that we judge the quality of public services not as dispassionate observers surveying cold statistics, but upon our experience and the experiences of those we know and trust. As members of society, we live what governments do to us:

Recognising that our children are bored and uninspired by rigid school curriculums that rob them of the joy of learning affects us far more profoundly than hearing that exam results are on the rise.

Whether the nurse “treats us with tenderness and a doctor with kindness and concern” (Jenni Russell, p. 82) matters far more to us than whether we lie in a hospital bed that is brand new. We aren’t automatons; we are human beings who want to be treated with respect and dignity.

The state needs to re-imagine its relationship with its citizens

Challenge 2: The Church needs rediscover its role in society

A couple of years ago I heard Steve Chalke sum up the challenge like this:

I think he’s spot on here. “You’re worked to death we’re bored to death.” The task of the church is to bring spiritual, social, physical, and emotional health to people. It’s the task of the church. What we need is a ‘health’ service, not a ‘making people better’ service and if we as a society have any chance of seeing that happen, it won’t only be because of re-imagined government. We have to stop looking to the state, who as Chalke puts it, are “worked to death” whilst the church has been “bored to death singing the same old songs” but not fully walking in its mission to bring God’s shalom to a world that needs it so badly.

We need a public sector that develops meaningful relationships with its citizens based on mutual accountability and trust.

We need a church that grapples with, and takes ownership of, issues of dysfunctionality in the community that it serves.

We need relationships that heal society.

Talking Sense… Part 2

In the past I’ve wondered if the fact that we have words in Scripture which are not now in common useage might be a big hinderance to cultural relevance. I’m starting to think that, used well, they might also be a great strength. Take the word ‘holy’, for example – a word that conveys the notion of one who is set apart. The very fact we only ever use it in the context of God and His church is a pretty appropriate thing. Now obviously there’s a balance to be found – too many uncommon words and we start presenting a barrier to the uninitiated. But, accompanied by teaching on their meanings, these distinctive names and descriptions of God might actually be a powerful tool. Our culture is making up new words all the time. How fantastic if the worshipping church were to recapture a few old ones as yet another way of conveying the uniqueness of God.

Matt Redman, ‘Facedown’

Talking Sense


I remember having a chat to a guy who was leading a church in Birmingham a while back about the language Christian’s use. So often, it’s so esoteric it’s gibberish. Recognising this, what this guy did was he paid his unchurched neighbour to turn up to their Sunday services for two weeks running and to write down on a notepad everything he did not understand and that was not adequately explained. Apparently, more than one notepad was required!

I often think of this when I’m preaching or leading the service in our gathered meetings. In my experience, in the language we use we often exclude those not in the ‘inner circle’. This ‘inner circle’ doesn’t have to be just excluding ‘not-yet Christians’ or the ‘unchurched’. This inner circle might be excluding those with no theological training / those who don’t actually like debating / or are not in the ‘in crowd’ familiar with all the latest jargon and speak colloquial ‘Christian-ese’ (like a few of the phrases quoted above!)

I think that there’s a place for, and spaces should be created for, there to be opportunities for those who want to ‘vent’ their thinking (for me, this blog can be that place very often – so that my preaching can be focussed on serving and not venting). But ‘gathered’ church is not that place (by gathered, in this context, I’m referring to our main [often Sunday] gatherings). Jesus said ‘feed my sheep’; he did not say feed my giraffes – those with their head so high in the clouds that they’re of no earthly use…

Notwithstanding the last three paragraphs, my question is this:

Is there a place for language in church that is not ‘normal’ everyday language?

Is there a place for language – properly explained – that expresses the ‘otherness’ of God? Words we wouldn’t use in everyday parlance with our colleagues at work: words like ‘holy’, ‘justified’, ‘worship’ etc… Finding ways of responding to God which we’ve reserved for Him only?

What do you think?