Snippett // On the relationship between being “incarnational” and cruciformity

I came across this quote online. I haven’t read the book it comes from (or heard of the author). But it is gold.

Incarnation means that God enables divinity to embody humanity.  Christians, like Jesus, are God’s incarnations, God’s temples, tabernacling in human flesh (John 1:14; Phil. 2:3-8).  Christians, spiritually transformed into the image of God, carry out God’s ministry in God’s way. Frequently incarnationalists relate to seekers from other world religions personally and empathetically (as Jesus taught Nicodemus).  Sometimes, however, they declare God’s social concerns by shaking up the status quo and “cleaning out the temple.”  The end result of incarnation in a non-Christian world is always some form of crucifixion.”

— Gailyn Van Rheenen, Engaging Trends in Missions, 2004

Church for atheists? What’s the point?

Image Credit: The first Sunday Assembly Meeting, BBC

Meet The Sunday Assembly. An atheist “church”…

“The Sunday Assembly is a godless congregation that will meet on the first Sunday of every month to hear great talks, sing songs and generally celebrate the wonder of life. It’s a service for anyone who wants to live better, help often and wonder more.

Come on down to hear inspirational speakers and to enjoy a morning that is part-foot stomping show, part-atheist church.”

The atheist church: it’s all about you…

The church’s co-founders wrote a piece as part of the same New York Times conversation as Penn Gillete’s piece I wrote about the other day.

“We started The Sunday Assembly… because the idea of meeting once a month to sing songs, hear great speakers and celebrate the incredible gift of life seems like a fun, and useful, thing to do.

What’s more, church has got so many awesome things going for it (which we’ve shamelessly nicked). Singing together in a group? Super. Hearing interesting things? Rad. (Our first reading was Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena bit.) A moment to think quietly about your life? Wizard. Getting to know your neighbors? Ace.”

This seems to be building on the theme of philosopher Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists (incidentally for a more eloquent treatment of De Botton’s work than you’ll find here, or elsewhere, be sure to read Dan Anderson’s observations on a night with De Botton while he was on the Australian leg of his book tour).

De Botton gave this talk at that spells out his thinking.

Here’s a summary of De Botton’s thesis in the book, from his own website:

Religion for Atheists suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies. Blending deep respect with total impiety, Alain (a non-believer himself) proposes that we should look to religions for insights into, among other concerns, how to:

  • build a sense of community
  • make our relationships last
  • overcome feelings of envy and inadequacy
  • escape the twenty-four hour media
  • go travelling
  • get more out of art, architecture and music
  • and create new businesses designed to address our emotional needs.

De Botton has taken his idea a little further than the gathering (the ekklesia – which is the word we translate as “church”), he’s planning to build an atheist temple in the middle of London’s finance district.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good. That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective … Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, atheism has become known as a destructive force… De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet. The exterior would be inscribed with a binary code denoting the human genome sequence.”

His proposal has been pretty soundly criticised by other atheists who are less willing to buy into anything that uses “atheist” and “religion” in the same sentence without the qualifiers “not a”… Here’s another piece from the Guardian… and the concluding quote about how unnecessary De Botton’s approach is…

“To answer De Botton’s original question, atheists do have their own versions of great churches and cathedrals. If the antithesis of religion is scientific rationalism, then surely its temples are the British Library, theMillau Viaduct and the Large Hadron Collider? If it’s about glorifying creation, then why not the Natural History Museum or the Eden Project? What about the Tate Modern? Or Wembley Stadium? Or the O2? Or the Westfield shopping centre? Perhaps non-believers should decide for themselves what a temple of atheism should be.”

There’s something in that criticism, but it’s the same sort of criticism I might make against the notion of carving out “sacred space” from a sacred creation. If the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it – then why make a church building when you can meet on the beach. I think there are actually good sociological reasons for creating spaces to use and gather for mission, and great reasons for those spaces to look nice and inviting, and even for them to help people grasp something of the God we follow… but that space isn’t really sacred in any magical sense.

It seems from these two examples that some atheists recognise the good and compelling aspects of religion, and they’re trying to copy it by capturing some of the nature of religion, without the essence – it looks like, at this point, the process boils down to two alternative methodologies – trying to capture something transcendent in art and architecture, and trying to capture something more meaningful in human relationships built around a core commitment… and why not, these are fairly consistent with how religions operate in time and space, sociologically.

In recreating a gathering, and recreating a “sacred space,” these newer atheists are following the sort of religious handbook you follow if you believe religion is a purely human invention, and the transcendental aspects of religion are something we create through manipulating the senses and emotions.

These are the worst bits of religion. Not the best bits.

They’re good things – but they’re not the sort of good things that make religious belief worth sticking with.

A grand building is nice, and can be a testimony to the God who provided order and beauty in the creation. But, in the end, Dawkin’s criticism of De Botton’s project (from the article linked above) is essentially the criticism most protestants have when walking through massive and ornate cathedrals in Europe…

“I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

The Sunday Assembly went for corporate singing as one of the artsy elements of religion that is worth maintaining in a post-Christian (non-Christian) church. And corporate singing is good.

In fact, just to be clear, I’m not saying great architecture, and great music are bad things – they are good things, they’re just some of the worst parts of Christianity.

At this point it’s worth throwing to Dan Anderson’s assessment of De Botton’s plundering of the “gold” of Christianity… and the way it highlights something lacking in how my tradition, and Dan’s, do religious “culture”…

“Too frequently, conservative evangelicalism operates with a truncated theological anthropology. As a product of the rationalist Enlightenment, evangelicalism frequently forgets the power of exactly the kinds of practices that De Botton commends: we jettison liturgical habituation to the truths of the gospel, we fail to engage with the fact that we are creatures of desire, of community, who thrill to beauty, who are inescapably embodied. If the full galleries at the Opera House last night are anything to go by, people are craving the kinds of things that make church ‘churchy’. Ironically, in our passion to make churches as welcoming to outsiders as possible we actively trash our rich heritage of these practices until the church gathering becomes indistinguishable from the philosophical lecture, apart from some vestigial (embarrassed) singing.”

That’s important. But this is silver cutlery stuff. At best. When it comes to the treasures of Christianity.

Restored human relationships, and a bit of perspective about the universe and our place in it – the other, slightly more transcendental aspects of the Sunday Gathering and De Botton’s open air temple, are also great things about Christianity. Probably the slightly better gold plated tableware. But human relationships are really hard – even in a church context where some of our central tenets – that we’re all equals united in Christ, naturally sinners who’ll stuff up, but new creations, called to put others first, called to love our neighbours as ourselves, and to serve a common purpose – should mitigate selfishness and some of the brokenness in how we relate to one another. The church is full of people hurt by how they’ve been treated by other members of the church – who’d leave if these things weren’t true. If we were meeting on the basis of being able to relate well to one another without these central truths of Christianity we’d be splintering into denominations ad infinitum or at least until we had as many churches as there are people. The Sunday Gathering, or any atheist church, loses all of these elements and is pushing a pretty optimistic view of human nature.

That’s beginning to tap into the really good bit of Christianity, and the church, and it’s a good bit that is out of reach for atheists – precisely because atheism is not a religion, or a belief in something. At this point there are two questions I want to explore before wrapping up… the first I think is predominantly something for non-Christians (possibly atheists) to think about when it comes to the exercise of trying to copy the good bits about church, the second is for Christians given that there’s some sort of movement wanting to duplicate the good (but not essential) bits of church…

What is (good about) church?

A lot of this depends on the idea that Christians are gathering around something that is supernatural and true – that there is a God, who revealed himself in Jesus and through the Bible – in fact, those things are so central to what it means to be Christian that there’s no value to be redeemed if they’re not. I reckon Paul’s right at this point, in Corinthians, where he says if Christianity isn’t true, then individual pursuit of pleasure (eat, drink, and be merry) is really where it’s at (though, for extroverts, this might be found in something that looks like church). Because death is the ultimate reality. But if Christianity is true, then death is the penultimate reality – it’s a gateway, to God’s presence.

If there’s no truth to religion then there’s no point for doing anything altruistic, and it’s hard to demonstrate that the good life is tied up in anything other than selfishness – why you’d gather with other people who think this way anyway – unless there is a deeper human yearning for community and connection with something bigger than ourselves – is beyond me, perhaps you can explain in the comments. And if that deeper yearning exists, then it could be explained by an appeal to human nature, but it opens the door for a god to have created humans with this capacity. Anyway. I digress.

There’s really nothing good about the Christian church, in my opinion, if you take out the core bits of Christianity. This is especially true if most of the non-core bits of Christianity are shaped by human culture. And they basically are. Any good sociologist should be able to show that… it’s why churches look and feel different in different times and places. If you want to build a society around the best bits of culture then it’s only worth pillaging the church so long as Christians are doing our job and creating the best bits of culture. I’m not sure that’s been really true of the church since Bach (or maybe Tolkein and Lewis). Which is a tragedy, and reflects a bit of a failing of the church in terms of how we think about creation.

One of the really powerful movements from the Old Testament – where the Temple was kind of important – to the New Testament, is the movement in how Sacred space is understood. This is one of those cool things where seeing how something develops across the whole Bible, and into the future, is really cool – and it’s pretty foundational to how we define church, and what the “good” essential bit of church is.

It all starts in the beginning… one of the fun things about Genesis 1 and 2, and the Garden of Eden, is that the Garden is described using the same sort of language and setting that is later used for the Temple in Jerusalem. You can read more on this in this article “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission” which is a nice summary of Beale’s book The Temple and the Church’s Mission. Basically Adam and Eve were given the job of being priests, expanding God’s temple over all of creation (the verbs used when God gives Adam a job in Genesis 2 are used of the priests later). When things go badly, part of the restoration story of the Old Testament is pushing towards recapturing God’s presence with humanity – sacred space is represented in the Tabernacle, then the Temple… if people want to capture something good and transcendental the Old Testament centres this around the city of Jerusalem, which is part of the tragedy of Exile. Sacred space was really important in the Old Testament, because access to a sacred space was a measure of how things were going for the sacred people – when they were being faithful to God they’d have access to this space, and good things would happen, when they were bad, they’d lose access to that space and bad things would happen.

Then we get to the New Testament. And everything changes. First God dwells with the world in the person of Jesus (read John 1). Then, Jesus makes it clear who God’s people are, after he leaves, because they’re given his Spirit (see the closing chapters of John, and all of Acts). Sacred space isn’t a big deal for the early church. They’re meeting in houses, town halls, the mini-sacred spaces of the Jews (synagogues)… and the word “church” is being used for the gathering – and Paul freely uses temple language to describe individuals (we’re the dwelling place of God) and the church more corporately. There has been a movement. The people are sacred, the dwelling place of God, and space is relatively unimportant.

The church gathering – the people – is good because it anticipates where we’re heading in the long term, the Bible ends with a description of the church of the future – and in some ways this is the aspirational standard we’re struggling to meet now, as broken humans in a broken world.

“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

Temples and religious spaces are pretty important to the sociology of religion, but they’re not really important in Christianity in terms of what it is to be part of the church. Where God dwells in us, in a way that unites us.

Gatherings of people around a purpose in a way that breaks down hostility and creates love are good things, and again hugely important when it comes to explaining religion as a social phenomenon – but unless the purpose is really big, and people are so bought into it that they’re able to overcome personality differences, or perhaps alternatively there’s either some really good external help for dealing with differences, or an internal change in nature, my guess is people will stay while it suits them.

The great and important bit of Christianity and being the church is that we gather around the ultimate purpose, not around an absence of purpose, or the purpose of trying to “live better” in a broken and frustrated world where tears, death, mourning, crying and pain are penultimate realities.

The better news is that our understanding of humanity changes – not only to give us a pessimism about human organisations and how individuals will react to situations, but because we’re united in Jesus, and our nature is changed through the Holy Spirit – we can truly love others and appreciate gathering together only if we’re cognisant of the God who is there, who we’re gathering to celebrate, and the work he’s done in bringing a bunch of broken people together. Church is fundamentally not really about self-improvement (though that might be a bi-product), but about thankfulness to God, and service of others in the hope that other broken people will know God too. We gather around a story that makes us something, connects us to something – each other, sure, but ultimately we gather because we have been connected to God, through Jesus, with an amazing future. Our narrative is pretty powerful.

The atheist church, especially as the Sunday Gathering defines it, is far too self-serving to be a long term proposition – perhaps that’s why they’ve set the bar pretty low at monthly, as opposed to the picture of what it means to be the church in the Bible, which sees the gathering as a regular expression of a permanent reality.

The other big problem I see with the atheist church is the complete and definitive absence of a positive narrative. By its very nature, atheism, and corporate atheism, is a lack of belief, or a gathering around a lack of belief. The strength of Christianity is the story it involves – of a God who creates the world, and redeems it from brokenness, through sacrifice, for each person who wants to become part of the story, and it offers a future. It interweaves with our history and resonates with our experience. We’re people who live lives as stories, and communicate in stories – and there’s nothing compelling about the atheist narrative. The story De Botton’s atheist temple tells is depressing. You are a small dot in a big and infinite amount of time and space. You are, essentially, nothing. How can you live a more fulfilling life if that’s the meta-narrative you’re buying into. You might be a bigger bit of nothing than other individuals if you do something great. But it’s a pretty hard sell. Who’d want to be a teller of that story? Who’d want to wake up with that story defining their choices. Believe nothing if you like – but gathering as a celebration of this belief doesn’t seem like the path to happiness. It doesn’t make any sense. Better to gather in an association that celebrates something positive – a wine club, a music club, an Epicurean society… If you really want to capture the essence of the church without its core, it’s tied up in the power of our narrative – this is true for other religious belief systems too, it’s why oppressed minorities are amongst the first to flock to Islam, it’s why Mormonism is big in the US… while De Botton is essentially trying to do this in the design of his temple which functions as an ode to the complexity of the human genome but simultaneously highlights our insignificance in the scheme of things –  the qualitative aspects of that story (the facts of which other religions acknowledge) aren’t all that compelling, they lack direction. A good story has a plot.

What can Christians learn from the Atheist Church?

300 people went along to the first Sunday Gathering – it is capturing something, at least initially, that humans are geared to look for. It’s sad that they appear to have a better doctrine of creation than we do, it’s sad that they’re interested in the ephemeral nature of music, the arts, and even science while we’ve, largely, abdicated the responsibility to be not just workers in creation but people who want to make good things that reflect who God is… There’s a balance here, but there are two reasons I think we should be returning to the abandoned field of producing good works – even good works that appear to have little value outside the cultural sphere – because when they’re not turned into some sort of idol, which is what this Sunday Gathering is basically doing, they testify to the God who revealed himself in Christ, in the best story ever told. Good art (and living a good life) is a good response to this story, and doing art (or life) well is a good way of telling this story.

I don’t mean making Christian sub-culture versions of current art either, they’re sub-standard by nature. I mean making the best versions of art, as Christians, having healthy theologies of creation, culture, and work… people are wired to appreciate that, especially post-modern people who have moved a little beyond the idea that we sway people with just the bare facts – which is where we’ve kind of found ourselves in the conservative evangelical circles that I’ve been shaped by. Dan’s quote that I posted above says this better than I will – or at least positions us to be thinking this through, but if these things are naturally attractive to humans, and not contrary to the gospel, then why aren’t we using them?

They can be a distraction from the main thing – the story that we’re on about – but they can be used to help tell our story in a more powerful way that resonates with people and tugs at more than the part of their brain that’s geared towards listening to a boring monologue.

Most idols are good parts of creation that we turn to when we should be turning to God – these things are the objects of idolatry, but they were gold created by God before we turned them into golden cows.

We’ve over-corrected in response to the insidious idolatry that tends to turn good cultural things into ultimate things, and it’s probably time to get the good golden dinnerware out of the closet and start using it, lest it get plundered, copied, and cheapened because of the glut of replicas in the market.

Mission starts with Babel: A cool Biblical Theology thing

I’m doing some stuff on the church for one of my subjects this semester (well, for three of them, but this one in particular is called Church, Sacraments, and Ministry). Here’s a cool bit of Biblical Theology that I’d kind of thought about before but I’ve just had to articulate it…

These passages work really nicely together to account for the global significance of the gospel…

In Genesis 11 you get the story of Babel, some entrepreneurial peeps try to build a big tower to be like God. Because they all speak the same language.

11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As people moved eastward,they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lordsaid, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

It’s a nice little theological account for why there are different nations – which sits just before God calls Abraham (then Abram) to start his own people – and they’re meant to bless these other nations (Gen 12:1-3).

Skip ahead a few thousand years (well, you could incorporate the nations coming in to see Solomon. I probably would). And you get the great Commission… Especially these bits in Matthew 28:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

It’s global. But it’s global because the Babel type distinction (which has become a “Jew/Gentile” distinction) has been broken down by Jesus.

Paul says it this way in Galatians 3:

28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Here’s some cool stuff though… Babel starts getting reversed at Pentecost in Acts 2 (I know it’s probably obvious, sometimes the obvious can be exciting though)…

2 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues[a] as the Spirit enabled them.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language?Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontusand Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

That, in itself, is a pretty nice piece of Biblical Theology. But what I really love is when you throw in a picture of what heaven will look like, which seems to riff on this little thread that develops through the Bible – where people get together and sing with one voice…

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”

Cool. Hey. Babel gets reversed so that people can sing stuff about Jesus.



Book Review: The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission, John Dickson

I’ve found John Dickson tremendously helpful at just about every stage of my Christian life – even when he edited a magazine called Zed magazine that I remember reading as a kid. His books are helpful. His take on public Christianity is pretty paradigmatic for me, and his apparent commitment to excellence – particularly as manifested in his approach to scholarship, and the resources he produces – is something I aspire to.

This comes as a sort of disclaimer to be read to account for my bias in this treatment of his exceptionally useful book – The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips.

This isn’t a new book, it has been around for a while, but we’re doing a series at church this term on connecting with people, where the book is suggested as a good way for understanding what evangelism looks like as a church family – it takes the pressure off a little bit, by lowering the bar – and treating evangelism not just as God’s work – which is a robustly reformed understanding of the task, but as the church’s work. A team effort.

My experience while reading this book was quite bizarre – almost an out of body experience. It was like I was reading my own thoughts written to me. This was scary, and somewhat reassuring. Though I hadn’t read the book until a month ago, this is largely the framework I use when I’m thinking about church, mission, and our role as individuals within those contexts.

My take on his foundational premise – that our lives, our whole lives, essentially function as a declaration of who we are, so we should think about that and live intentionally in a way that our lives are consistent with the gospel, in a way that promotes it – means I think it’s an incredibly useful resource, especially as it applies this concept to real life, it’s not abstract, and its incredibly well argued, with occasional references to the author’s PhD thesis, which I read a lot of for an essay once, and found equally helpful.

Here’s a lynchpin sort of paragraph…

“But perhaps the best kept secret of Christian mission is that the Bible lists a whole range of activities that promote Christ to the world and draw others toward him. These include prayer, godly behaviour, financial assistance, the public praise of God (in church) and, as already mentioned, answering people’s questions. All of these are explicitly connected in the Bible with advancing the gospel and winning people to Christ. They are all “mission” activities, and only a couple of them involve the lips at all.”

But wait. You say, observant reader that you are – this sounds exactly like that Sir Francis of Assisi misquote (h/t Gary Ware) that you don’t like: “always preach the gospel, when necessary use words” – you’ve said before that words are necessary. Thankfully, I’ve also said that I think a whole bunch of other stuff that communicates the truth of the gospel, deliberately, and alongside the use of words, also counts as word ministry (how we live/act, how we sing, multimedia, though I remain unconvinced about gospel mime).

I think words are necessary for word ministry, and for mission, but they aren’t the only part of our testimony. I think this book seeks to avoid people saying “words alone” – because our testimony will be much richer if we’re living them out, together, and letting people who are gifted in particular areas carry the load in those areas.

I like this quote from Augustine on the place of good works.

“Now of all who can with us enjoy God, we love partly those to whom we render services, partly those who render services to us, partly those who both help us in our need and in turn are helped by us, partly those upon whom we confer no advantage and from whom we look for none. We ought to desire, however, that they should all join with us in loving God, and all the assistance that we either, give them or accept from them should tend to that one end.”

Dickson is not denying that the gospel is words – he simply says we promote the gospel with more than words. Importantly he says this:

“Does this mean that people can start believing in Christ without hearing the gospel at all? No. As the apostle Paul makes clear, “faith comes from hearing the message” (Romans 10:17). First Peter 3:1 shows us that the gospel’s role in conversion is more complex than we sometimes realise. It is not enough simply to affirm that people are won to faith only through the hearing of the gospel. Let me explain. Leaving aside the important theological observation that all conversion is ultimately the enlightening work of the Holy Spirit, let me try and account for conversion from the human side of the equation, which is what Paul and Peter are talking about in the above texts. Humanly speaking, hearing the gospel is the necessary and sufficient cause of faith in Christ. It is necessary inasmuch as people cannot put their faith in Jesus without first learning the gospel about him. It is sufficient in that the gospel can bring people to faith all on its own—it needs no other factor (other than the work of the Holy Spirit). However, none of this means that hearing the gospel is the only cause of faith, or even that it is always the primary cause of faith. Other factors (on the human side of the equation) will frequently play a minor or major role in winning people over to the One revealed in the gospel.”

I could wax lyrical about this book and its benefits for a couple of thousand words – or you could just buy it and read it.

I’ll start with what I thought was a question I would have liked a bit more time spent on, or where I think something could be added – the first is his definition of the gospel…

“The gospel is the announcement that God has revealed his kingdom and opened it up to sinners through the birth, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who will one day return to overthrow evil and consummate the kingdom for eternity… Any account of the Christian gospel that does not narrate the basic content of the books we rightly call the Gospels does not deserve to be called a “gospel outline”. It might be a true and accurate statement of biblical truths—and, for that reason, valuable and useful for our hearers—but it is not the gospel that Jesus said must be preached to all nations (Mark 13:10).”

I largely agree. I think the best three word reduction of the gospel is “Jesus is Lord” – if it was six words it would be “the resurrection shows Jesus is Lord” – but reductions suffer because they are simplifications… I’d want to suggest that while this is an incredibly useful description of the Gospel, it kind of cuts loose the Old Testament, especially creation and fall – which, though I have hesitations about the predominant usage of 2 Ways to Live (seriously, how many other conversations do people walk up to somebody, and unless they’re a professional cartoonist, or playing pictionary, say “can I draw you a picture”), though I have hesitations about this use – starting the gospel account from creation and fall is, I think, an essential part of the gospel narrative, I think John’s gospel, in the prologue, agrees with me, as does Matthew with his fronting of the genealogy – so this insight isn’t precluded by the summary above. I just think making it explicit is useful.

God’s role in creation, as the sole author of creation, is the foundation of his commitment to the act of promoting the gospel, so it’s not absent from his thinking. He says:

“There may be different ways of expressing it but I think I would have to answer this question with the simple statement: there is one God. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible makes the resounding, unapologetic declaration that there is just one Creator and Lord of the world. It begins in the Bible’s opening line: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). To ancient readers, this was not simply a sensible way to start a holy book. It was a huge swipe at the entire religious outlook of the time. The opening lines of the Babylonian creation story, Enuma Elish, to give just one example from the period, list no fewer than nine separate gods, each with its own part to play in the events leading up to creation. Saying that “God created the heavens and the earth” was tantamount to saying that no other deity was involved in the universe… If there is just one God in the universe, everyone everywhere has a duty to worship that Lord.”

Tying the motivation for preaching to the Lordship of Jesus, rather than to fear of judgment or as some sort of good work, is incredibly freeing – from guilt, and from any sense of obligation, outside of the joyful gratitude that being one of the people of the true Lord of the universe brings. This is very helpful. He says:

“We promote God’s glory to the ends of the earth not principally because of any human need but fundamentally because of God’s/Christ’s unique worthiness as the Lord of heaven and earth. Promoting the gospel to the world is more than a rescue mission (though it is certainly that as well); it is a reality mission. It is our plea to all to acknowledge that they belong to one Lord.”

To which I say: “Amen”…

I think this paradigm really helpfully anchors the good that we do – promoting the Lordship of Jesus should be behind our care for the environment, and our love of other people – we do these things because both creation and people are good objects to love, but we ultimately do them because we live for the Lord Jesus, not ourselves – and the act declares something about that Lordship. It’s a complex relationship. I think “we love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).

“Good deeds must never be thought of as a missionary tactic, a means of getting people onside before hitting them with the gospel (“throwing cakes to children”, as Emperor Julian would say). They are the essential fruit of the gospel. Good works must be done for their own sake, in obedience to the Lord. God’s grace proclaimed in the gospel finds its essential outcome in the godly life of those who believe the gospel. Nevertheless, it is precisely because good deeds are an essential fruit of the gospel that they so powerfully promote the gospel. Although we must not find ourselves “doing good” simply as a gospel ploy, there can be no question that Jesus expected unbelievers to observe our acts of love (for the world and for one another29) and through them to be convinced to worship the source of all love: “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).”

He also says:

“Following the example of Paul and Jesus does not necessarily mean that we do what they did. It means that we live by the same flexible ethos, seeking the good of many so that they may be saved. Every aspect of our lives—including our social lives—can and should be directed toward the glory of God and the salvation of our neighbours.”

Being already convinced of the place of mission in the Old Testament – or the place it should have occupied in Israel’s approach to the nations – I found his stuff on Israel’s role as proclaimers of this truth convincing and helpful. Sadly, there was nothing that specifically supports my theory that the wisdom literature was a model of evangelism through participation in an international wisdom dialogue, as far as I know I’m still essentially alone there… but his understanding of how Israel was to promote the good news of God in their words, their life, their worship, and their distinctiveness from the nations is useful, and surely forms some of the working in developing a Biblical Theology of mission.

The sections relating to what it meant for Israel to evangelise by being Israel is, alone, worth the price of the book. This is one of the money paragraphs:

“Worship by the Book, Tim Keller of New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church writes: Israel was called to make God known to unbelieving nations (Ps 105:1) by singing his praises (Ps 105:2). The temple was to be the center of a “world-winning worship.” The people of God not only worship before the Lord but also before the nations (cf. Isa 2:1-4; 56:6-8; Ps 47:1; 100:1-5; 102:18; 117). God is to be praised before all nations, and as he is praised by his people, the nations are summoned and called to join in song. This pattern does not essentially change in the New Testament, where Peter tells a Gentile church to “declare the praises” of him who called us out of darkness. The term cannot merely refer to preaching but must also refer to gathered worship…

Passages like these illustrate just how natural it was for biblical writers to see corporate praise as public proclamation, as a type of evangelism. This doesn’t mean that all gospel proclamation is “praise” but it does mean that all true praise has the potential to be gospel proclamation, for in it we recount the wonders of Jesus’ life, teachings, miracles, death, resurrection and return.”

I love it. If you read this post – that won’t come as a surprise.

This leads to a particular approach to how church is conducted – it’s not about being seeker sensitive, but about being clear about who we are praising, about why, and concerned about how we conduct our gatherings – concerned for their quality.

“There are all sorts of reasons some of our churches have visitors – location, architecture, demographics and so on-but, in my experience, the most significant factor is the quality of the church service. By “quality” I do not mean the professionalism of the leader or the standard of technology and music. I mean the degree to which the congregation revels in its experience of praising God and encouraging one another…

I want to stress in the strongest terms that visitor-focused services are not an evangelistic necessity. Normal church meetings conducted exceptionally well will not only inspire the regulars; they will draw in visitors and, through the powerful vehicle of our corporate praise, promote the gospel to them.”

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of this book, in terms of its reception, and the bit that I took the most convincing on, is the question of the semantic range of the word “evangelist,” and specifically whether or not everybody has a responsibility to speak the gospel, not just promote it. Dickson’s take is interesting. I feel like he’s onto something. Especially because I’m pretty committed to the idea that the body is made up of different people with different gifts – but I feel like in the absence of other people gifted in evangelism, or in smaller manifestations of the body – people have to be evangelists, I don’t think this is something that Dickson would deny… but I can’t put words into his mouth, here’s what he says:

“We are involved in God’s mission, and so we must allow his Word to shape our part in it. The slogan “Every Christian an evangelist” has a noble purpose, but it is not a biblical way of speaking. For Christians in general—as opposed to evangelists in particular—telling the gospel to others (evangelism) could be described as the icing on the cake of mission.”

His argument essentially seems to be some people are icing specialists (evangelists), some people are cake makers (promoters of the gospel), and that it’s fine to just make cake because that’s where the substance is, and its the harder bit. I guess I’d want to say that everybody should be able to make the icing, and evangelists have to be pretty good at making cake too. Again. I don’t think he disagrees. His tips for picking those people who are especially called, or gifted, as evangelists are valuable – but I do think that each one of the characteristics (keenness to share the gospel, relate well to non-believers, Christian maturity, and clarity on what the gospel is – including speaking intelligibly) is something that all Christians should aspire to.

One other very minor criticism is only really relevant if you’re convinced that Bruce Winter is right about what Paul is doing at the Areopagus, in Acts 17, if his exercise is an exercise in wisely assessing the situation, and meeting a social convention for his audience, which expected to be introduced to “foreign gods,” while presenting the gospel, then I’d say Paul’s speech there isn’t an anomaly, but rather, an essential demonstration of his approach to gospel preaching. I’d argue that rather than simply being an apologetic to their concerns, it is a presentation of the gospel that adheres to how they expect to hear about new gods. But that’s not a point that in any sense undermines this fantastic book.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for me – personally – coming from a guy whose excellence I admire, as someone who is too often tempted to think that my own pursuit of excellence in evangelism will be what produces fruit, came in this paragraph…

“A few years after these strange days, I asked Glenda [the lady who led him, and many of his friends from school, to Jesus] what she put her “success” down to. Without blinking she answered, “Prayer. We prayed earnestly, regularly and specifically for your school, and the Lord in his grace answered us.” As an evangelist who is sometimes tempted to think too highly of skill, style and creativity in evangelism, her words were (and are) a salient reminder that the “harvest” is the Lord’s, not mine. The most basic gospel-promoting task, therefore, is not evangelism; it is prayer to the Lord of the harvest.”

This is really powerful stuff for anybody who thinks too highly of their own God given skills, and ability to think. I thoroughly recommend this book that you’ve hopefully all read already.

Famously good last words from Peter Jensen

Peter Jensen is leaving some pretty big shoes to fill in the Sydney diocese. His final speech to synod as Archbishop is a cracker – it’s a model of engaging with the problems of our world, and presenting Jesus as the solution.

“If the gospel contrasts so favourably with individualism in community, family and death, why is evangelism hard? Precisely because it is a spiritual matter and human individualism is the love of self which it takes the Holy Spirit to make us abandon. Our society is even more in the grip of a malign individualism than ever before and its resistance to all relationships and especially an all demanding relationship with God is powerful indeed. But there us another side to this. I think that many people are tiring of the fruit of individualism and want to know the God who brings order and family and acceptance and relationship into the community.”

“I have never had such good opportunities in speaking to people about Jesus as in the last few three or four years. Our theory of Connect 09 is true – there are people everywhere who would like to know the gospel and will want us to befriend them. In particular lay people are ideally placed to quietly but confidently share Christ and show what a difference he makes. It may be that the evils of individualism will become so apparent that the world will be more open to the gospel, especially a gospel which stresses love in the face of community and family breakdown and hope in the face of death. In the meantime we preach a gospel which offers a radically different view of the world. After all this Lord did seize another communications revolution and turn it to good. He did hear Tyndale’s last Prayer and he did open the King of England’s eyes and so we have our English Bible and so here we are tonight.”

I think this bit is especially nice.

“I see the gospel becoming visible in the media. We will engage with the ideas of this generation and refuse to accept the censorship which is so easily imposed on Christianity. We must find ways of putting our case for Christ and making it natural to speak about God in the general community. The large mail I received after the recent QandA program showed me that once the gospel is visible, Christians in the workplace can and will make use of opportunities.”

I still have some questions about why Sydney needs as many incredibly trained people for its mission, if it is the place where 1/5 of all Australians live, it’d be nice to see some sort of proportional approach to the distribution of reformed evangelical workers in Australia where the other 4/5 live (let alone globally) – but I realise that this isn’t how denominations, particularly Anglicanism, work.

Here are two pertinent comments:

“We have proliferated workers. Many denominations are declining in workers, with people becoming part time and being older. For us the reverse is happening. The biggest expansion of workers has been amongst the ordained clergy where the numbers have advanced by an astonishing increase of 26% from 480 to 604. Our workers are better trained and higher quality in gifts than ever before. Most parishes are now using teams of workers, including a very significant number of women.”

“Furthermore we have started to move forward in creating new parishes. For years we have been gently stagnating at around 260 parishes, quietly amalgamating the dying ones, leaving suburbs unpastored and letting buildings go. We have now begun to go forward, refusing to close parishes or amalgamate them without the hope of re-opening them in the future, finding new congregations and uses for buildings and doing what we had forgotten to do – inaugurate new parishes. This changed mind-set must be permanent.”

I’d say there’s an inefficiency at play here, and it might be based on the “small church in every suburb” mentality that appears to underpin some of the visions of the future, I’m not sure that this model of thinking about and doing church (ecclesiology) is necessarily the best fit for how modern Australians will meet Jesus (missiology), which the Archbishop suggests is his goal. I’m sympathetic for the need for small churches for the people who want small churches, but there’s a reason that corner stores are making way for big shopping centres. There’s something to be said for an “incarnational” approach to church – where being part of a suburb is how we minister to it, but I don’t think it follows that if a suburb doesn’t have a building with open doors operating in it that the church isn’t part of the suburb – especially if you’ve also got an incredibly able laity (which the Archbishop notes in his piece). This seems to deny most of the realities of life in modern Australia – we work, rest, play, and live in very different locations every day of the week.

I’m not sure that if every Christian in Australia adopted a completely fluid commitment to their time, resources, and approach to Christian community, in the interest of the gospel, that the current lay of the land would be what we’d produce – in terms of how we think about what we do on a Sunday, who does what, and where it’s done. I’m certain there are essential aspects of our ecclesiology that don’t make way for “contextualisation” – like clear articulations of the gospel in everything that we do, and some space for the sacraments, but I’m not sure that reproducing more of the same is the best response to the changing Australian landscape. But I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

In the last 15 years I’ve been part of a small and very faithful suburban church, a small and faithful rural church, a medium sized church in a regional centre, and two bigger and equally faithful churches seeking to reach bigger pockets of a city – and while God works through his gospel amongst all this faithfulness, and we should prayerfully expect him to, the economies of scale in the bigger churches create opportunities that were less than a dream in those smaller ones.

I’m very thankful for the Archbishop’s faithful and gospel centred approach to his work in the last ten years, he’s going to be incredibly hard to replace – his performance on Q&A recently is fairly typical of the way he’s discharged his responsibilities with the great gifts God has given, and he’s certainly (along with a couple of others) the model I look to, and point to, when it comes to engaging our culture with the gospel… but as an outsider looking in (albeit with incredible vestigial, substantial, and direct and indirect ties to the work of the diocese in the past, and the Jensens and others in particular) – I’d love to see the Sydney Diocese think a little bigger, and a little differently about the work of the gospel in Australia.

10 propositions on the relationship between church, mission, and worship

This semester at college, in the wisdom of our curriculum setters, I’m doing some nicely overlapping thinking across three of my subjects – Church Ministry and Sacraments, Christian Worship, and The Modern Evangelical Movement . This is my attempt to integrate some of that thinking and give you some of the fruit of the grunt work I’ve put in on a couple of essays. I’ll post those essays at Venn Theology at the end of semester if you’d like to read more…

1. It starts with God – God is a relational God – both internally, within the Trinity, and externally – on his own mission – the Missio Dei (Mission of God in Latin). This mission is to gather a people to himself, who will glorify him for eternity – and he conducts this mission by sending Jesus and the Holy Spirit into the world.

2. The Church is on a mission from God – The church is the gathered people of God. We are instruments of God’s mission. United with Christ, equipped by the Spirit to take part in the gathering of God’s people. The church is a divine pyramid scheme – it exists to grow itself. Our union with Christ has an “incarnational” pay off, where when we act together as the Body of Christ we are being like Christ to the world around us. Mission is one of our primary tasks as a church, some have suggested mission is our human focused task, while worship is our god focused task,

3. This mission involves the proclamation of the Gospel in word, deed, and “being” by a priesthood of all believers– perhaps, after reading John Dickson’s Promoting the Gospel this week, “the promotion of the Gospel” is a better category. But we’re all on mission together. This mission will necessarily involve words, but it will also involve demonstrations of the truth of the gospel through how we relate to one another and the world around us as the people of God.

The church’s participation in mission to the world began in earnest with the calling of Paul (Acts 9:15), who defines his mission, which he invites his churches to partake in, as preaching Christ to those who have not heard (Romans 10:14-16, 15:17-21), as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20, Colossians 4:2-6), to bring them to faith (Romans 10:17, 16:25-26, 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), and present them mature in Christ (Colossians 1:25-29).

The church is called to be different (Col 3:1-17, Romans 12:2, 2 Corinthians 3:18), and its conduct and ‘being’ is a fundamental part of its mission (John 13:35, 17:14-18, 20-23, 1 Peter 2:12, Matthew 5:14-16, Romans 12).

Some see social transformation as the content of evangelism, emphasising the incarnation and conflating “setting the oppressed free” with “proclaiming good news” (cf Luke 4:18-19) – but the preaching of the good news is what truly frees the oppressed.

4. While how we do and think of church (ecclesiology) and how we do and think of mission (missiology) are very closely related – they must be distinct – we can’t collapse them into each other. Many modern “missiologists” see the church exclusively as a tool for mission, so the social context of the church shapes church. If the church is incarnational, and is an entity equipped by God to do certain things (teach the gospel, administer the sacraments, “worship”) – then there are certain things that are non-negotiable even if they’re culturally weird. This is particularly true because part of how we define the church is by looking to the New Creation – where there is no mission to expand the church because the people are already gathered.

5. The Reformers worked with a “mother” analogy for the church. This is helpful. Though mission wasn’t a big deal during Christendom, and was more the role of governments who were understood as God’s tool for expanding the Christian state, the idea that the church is simultaneously responsible for “begetting” the faith of believers and nurturing believers is helpful – especially in the light of discussions and debates about who Sunday gatherings are for – where a dichotomy between serving believers and serving seekers has been unhelpfully pushed in recent times.

6. Mission is worship. If worship is magnifying the work of God as we praise, glorify and serve him, and involves the sacrificial giving of ourselves and our gifts for others (which I think is the definition of worship) – then mission is a form of that. Perhaps the ultimate form of that in our time and space – though this changes in the New Creation.  Participation in the mission of the church, as a subset of the mission of God, can be understood as an extension of the God glorifying purpose of each individual believer for which he has given us gifts that we are to use to build the body.

7. Worship is God focused, but involves being “poured out” in the service of others – Paul frames glorifying God, worship, and service, as using one’s gifts to serve others (Romans 12:1-12, 15:14-17, 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5), and sees preaching the gospel as his service and priestly duty (Acts 20:19-27, Romans 1:1, 15:16, Ephesians 3:17, 1 Corinthians 9:15-18, Colossians 1:23-29, Titus 1:1).

God gathers his people to pour them out as gifts for others (Romans 12:1, Ephesians 4:1-16 (Especially if, following Carson, the church is understood as the “host of captives” cf the Levites (Numbers 8, 18)), Philippians 2:17, 2 Timothy 4:6).

Spiritual gifts are used in the service of others, to produce maturity (Ephesians 4:8-16, Colossians 3:12-17, Romans 12:1-16, 1 Corinthians 12, 14), and to proclaim the excellence of God amongst the pagans (1 Peter 2:9-12).

The language used of the church in these passages is the language used to define worship.

8. Worship is mission. This does not necessarily follow point 6, but when point 7 is introduced the argument becomes a little easier to make – the way the church worships God functions as a testimony to others, and thus, alongside point 3, leads to the conclusion that our explicitly God focused worship of God is part of our mission. Because it is part of who we are as God’s people, and who we are as God’s people is part of our mission. This is not its only function – because it is part of what it means to truly be human (if the chief end of man is to Glorify God and enjoy him forever), and we will continue worshipping after every knee has bowed to Jesus, and in the throne room of God after judgment – where there are no non-Christians to gather. But in the here and now – our decision to not worship ourselves, or our idols, is part of our testimony to who God is – and is the only right response to the gospel of Jesus’ Lordship.

9. So, Corporate Worship – the stuff we do when we gather – is also mission.  The tasks of the church – preaching, the sacraments, and ‘worship’ (in the what we do at church sense of the word) – involves making a clear and appealing presentation of the gospel of Jesus. Clarity requires some form of contextualisation. Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 14 seems to base the unbeliever’s response to the gathering in their ability to perceive the truth of the gospel in the clarity of the gathering – corporate worship, the sacraments, and identity shaping orientation in the form of the Sunday service achieve this goal, and simultaneously the goal of worship and mission – when they involve the gathered people of God sacrificially serving one another with their gifts in a manner that clearly demonstrates and declares the truth of the gospel of the crucified saviour. Both aspects of the “mother” role of the church are accomplished in this manner.

10. Clarity on what the gospel is, what mission is, and what worship is, should nurture Christians and encourage them to worship with all of their lives, by being on mission with all of their lives. The Sunday gathering of the church should do this, thinking of the church as the permanent community of God’s people, on a permanent mission, rather than just God’s people when they gather, and missionaries when they’re outside the walls of the gathering is also helpful.

None of this seems all that controversial unless you spend a bunch of time reading stuff by people who disagree with points 3, 4, 9, and 10. Most Christians agree with 1 and 2, while 5, 6, 7 and 8 are matters that are settled by how one understands what the church is, what the gospel is, and what worship is… the methodology I used in coming to these conclusions was largely to start with a look at how the Bible develops the concept of what it means to be the people of God, and how this people is called to interact with God, with each other, and with the world around them.

I think this is a pretty useful way of thinking about life, and church – and even stuff like music – does anybody have any qualms with the logic?


The song that runs through my head every time the ACL says something dumb

This has been bouncing around in my brain all evening.

Partly because of the title, I’m no longer surprised when they say dumb and harmful stuff. But especially because of this line: “They don’t, they don’t speak for us”

Here’s why they don’t speak for Christians. Christians who want to speak for Christians, and for God, have some parameters for their message that come from the Bible.

2 Corinthians 5:20

20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

Colossians 4:2-6

At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

Romans 10:14

“14 How then will they call on him [Jesus] in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”

Romans 15:18-20

18 For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, 19 by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; 20 and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation

Luke 4:18-19 (about Jesus)

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Oh yeah, and that has something to do with how Christians should think about themselves… (John 20:21)

21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.

There’s a lot of stuff there, and a lot that I didn’t copy and paste, about talking about Jesus, and sharing the gospel – which is talking about Jesus. Not a whole lot there about railing against people you don’t like and calling them bullies.

13 Propositions on Worship and The Generation Gap

UPDATE: I have attempted to remove irony and hyperbole from is post because people were missing the attempted humour, unduly hurt by the tone, or commenting on the style rather than the substance. I apologise for my failure to communicate clearly. I also apologise that these changes make certain comments on this post a little redundant as they refer to aspects of the original post which have now been redacted.

Bob Kauflin is an American dude who came to Australia and shook the church music apple cart a couple of weeks ago. I’m still thinking through questions of emotion and persuasion and manipulation that his talk in Brisbane raised for me – I’ll post those reflections at some point, probably in a bit of a series I’m working up in my mind that I’ll explore more deeply on Venn Theology, probably post exams.

I’m a little worried that the debate on the definition of worship, currently being driven and developed at The Briefing, as a development of the Briefing’s already reactive position, is the continuation of an old conflict that the current generation hasn’t experienced, and thus, doesn’t understand. Our Australian Church History lecture yesterday covered the emergence of the so called “Briefing” position on worship.  The Briefing position, as it is described in the comments on the Briefing articles, arose as a necessary corrective to changes on the Australian scene involving the rise of the charoismatic movement. This movement typically focused on emotions and experiences as “worship” and relied on vacuous lyrics and appealing music. The “vibe” of the Briefing response has been to create a culture where our generation feels suspicious of emotion, experience, and good music – because that is what has been modeled. I think this is part of the danger of defining yourself against something. It has also created a somewhat strange definitional approach to the issue, which continues in the current response. Worship is reduced to a narrow dictionary definition, rather than a concept, and the odd response to the erroneous “worship is music” is to say “music is not worship”…

In evangelicalism in Australia we don’t have the history wars – like the intellectual elite do, we have the worship wars. It seems we reacted so strongly against the rise of pentecostalism/the charismatic movement that we’ve thrown out baby and bathwater when it comes to expressive or “affectionate” practice in church, because we don’t want to call what we do in music “worship”… because worship is all of life. Which seems odd. Music in church is a subset of all of life. From the other angle, certain advocates of a particular reformed position want to define only what goes on in the context of a church service on Sunday as “worship”…

Here are the steps in my thinking currently (which I will flesh out more later).

  1. I am pretty sympathetic to the view that all of life, for the Christian, is mission. A life lived sacrificially, based on Paul’s example (cf 1 Cor 11:1), will look like a life of pointing people to Jesus and seeking to present them mature in Christ. Paul’s use of “worship” in Romans 12:1 is a subset of his view of the Christian life and mission, a life where he was poured out as a drink offering for the sake of the gospel (Phil 2:17, 2 Tim 4:6-7 (and that’s in quotes because there’s a bit of a debate going on (part 1, part 2) about what the best sense of that translation is amongst that generation of people who make me an angry young man on this issue).
  2. Because all of life is mission, and all of life is worship, worship and mission overlap significantly. Both are what we do in response to the lordship of Jesus. We worship him by, amongst other things, serving him (there are several words conflated into our word “worship”), we serve him by, amongst other things, bringing people into his kingdom, the eschatological horizon we operate under is every knee bowing to Jesus in worship (Phil 2, Revelation 5). We also praise him, by singing to him (eg Psalm 98), which I would argue has a significant overlap with mission, the way we praise God speaks to our relationship with him – both to God, and to non-believers. I’m not arguing that praise and worship are synonyms, but they both form part of our response to Jesus.
  3. People in both the Old Testament and New Testament worshipped other stuff. Idols are objects of worship. For the original readers of the New Testament much of what was said of owning Jesus as Lord, was in competition with what was expected of a Roman Citizen in their response to the emperor (Daniel suggests this was similar in Old Testament times). Worship is a response to a God and King. Part of mission is pointing to Jesus as God and King. This is the outcome of church practices that Paul hopes for (1 Cor 14:22-25).
  4. Because worship is the outcome of mission, we need to make sure when we are we are doing music in a way that calls non-believers, and believers, to worship. This includes doing music well. Doing music well might look/sound different to different people. But I think you can make a case that God wants music to be joyful. I find it very hard to be joyful when the words are good (and evoke a sense of joy), but the music isn’t. There’s a disjunct. I think joy and physical expression are also probably linked. We talk about the necessity of non-verbal expression in good preaching, understanding that good communication requires it, but hesitate when it comes to music. This is odd.
  5. Doing music well means doing music with joy. As well as with reflection on theological truths. I go to a rock concert and I respond with my body. People see my response and know that I love the band. I go to church, and I yawn when I sing. Church music in its current form is a boring and largely emotionless experience for me. This is necessarily an outcome of our approach to music. This makes a statement to non-believers who enter our gathering, which seems to be one of Paul’s concerns for how we gather (1 Cor 14:22-25).
  6. All of life is church. This is where another attempt to unnecessarily divide the Christian life into neat categories via terminology/word studies occurs, as if we’re only a community when we’re meeting on a Sunday, or only worshipping when we’re meeting as a community and doing whatever we do on a Sunday (which includes singing).
  7. Trying to neatly compartmentalise things into categories like this is unwarranted and brings confusion rather than clarity. It doesn’t really pay heed to the way language works in the Bible and overlapping semantic ideas, and the use of paired terms. The Christian life is full of overlapping categories. It’s a massive Venn Diagram. And the push for neat distinctions is a western construction that makes little sense.
  8. It’s dangerous to define yourself against something, rather than as something. Responding to the challenges presented by the pentecostal movement was necessary, but baby and bathwater solutions aren’t real solutions. It seems to me that the argument goes “some people think worship only describes singing, therefore we must answer their wrong definition by saying singing is not worship”…Operating as an almost binary corrective means you ends up with two equally imbalanced sectarian movements – not a realigning of the position in a church. Particularly because the new generation you produce doesn’t really define itself through the conflict you fought, but through the position you adopted, without really owning it. If we, for a minute, use the imperfect of a different venn diagram, where we have a red circle and we want to correct the red circle, the corrective approach seeks to correct the red circle by setting up a disconnected blue circle, where blue is the complete opposite to red. Perhaps the truer colour is actually purple, but we just don’t want people being red. Real change, across the board, happens when you take the good parts of the red circle and overlap them with the blue to make purple. And the aim should be to make the Venn diagram as circular and purple as possible. It seems that most of us are willing to acknowledge that Sovereign Grace, Bob Kauflin, and the “Reformed Charismatic Movement” more broadly are self correcting – particularly with regards to their use of terminology. I would suggest it is difficult to argue that our reactive approach to the charismatic movement has brought this change.
  9. Music is liturgy. The songs we sing shape the way we live. Music has ethical ramifications.
  10. All gifts and talents are given by God, they become “spiritual” gifts when they serve the body and point people to Jesus (1 Cor 12-14 pushes me this way). Music is a gift. Musicians should be encouraged to perform to God’s glory, and we should stop pretending people are a pancreas when they’re a hand.
  11. If physical expression is a natural response to music, emotion, and the security that comes from love (Bob Kauflin used the illustration that you don’t have to teach a child to reach out for their parent), and, if an incredible portion of communication is non-verbal – the onus is on the people suggesting that music in church shouldn’t involve being physically expressive to prove that position from the Bible. Not for the physically expressive and emotional to defend theirs. The idea that it is culturally normal not to be physically expressive, and thus we should not be expressive because people will find it off putting, is the product of a sub-culture that is the product of the music wars, and would seem to be demonstrably incorrect based on the growth of the pentecostal movement (frankly, the appealing part of their services is the music rather than the teaching), and crowd behaviour at music performances across a variety of genres (that aren’t seated). Especially when young people are involved.
  12. It is possible that our approach to church, worship, and music, are not so much shaped by the Bible and mission, as shaped by an old conflict that the current generation did not participate in, and so, it is possible that a more moderate position is the way to go. Previous generations holding on to their positions and traditions is a guaranteed way for the church to become irrelevant, and thus for our “worship” to get in the way of our mission, which I would argue makes that “worship” not worship.
  13. The nature of multi-generational church is that the young question the traditions of the old, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – and sometimes the previous generation need to remember that they were the young once, and still are on many other issues. Fresh insight should be listened to and weighed up, not just dismissed because it is overly optimistic, or not based on experience/tempered by conflict.

Stay Calm…

I’m on holidays for the next couple of days. And on college mission after that. I can’t promise I’ll blog in the next two weeks at all. But I’ll try. It’ll just be sporadic. In the meantime… don’t be alarmed by the absence of new content. I’ll be back.

The perils of local ministry

Sometime last year I preached on the passage in Matthew where Jesus talked about the paradox of a plentiful harvest with few workers.

I talked about Clayfield as the mission field of our church community. And emphasised “local” evangelism and the importance of relationships with people around us. Relationships entered into with gospel intentionality.

I thought it was a good sermon. Until a bunch of people who don’t live in Clayfield but belong to our church family started leaving, in order to be part of churches closer to where they lived. Then I decided my sermon sucked.

It certainly doesn’t help that these people are really involved in ministry at church – and pretty mission minded. The type of people you don’t want leaving a church.

I’m not suggesting that this particular sermon was the only factor in their decision. But even it played no part it’s prompting me to rethink how I think geography should shape our church communities. Especially when you’re ministering to an ostentatious suburb like Clayfield where it’s almost possible to make a case for not living in (especially owning a house) if you’re a Christian. A bad case. But a possible case.

It takes a bit of gumption to commit to ministering to a community like that when you’re not living in it. It takes more gumption to live in it and watch people leave. I’ve had first and second hand experience of ministry in just about every demographic context in Australia (big city suburban church, rural town community, and a regional centre) and I reckon this is the hardest one to crack.


All my posts this week were written days in advance and posted by autopilot. I was on mission in Toowoomba. I’m back. There’ll be some reflective posts on mission in the next day or so (but I’m also madly packing for Greece and Turkey).

I’ll no doubt have some autopilot posts scheduled for the next few weeks too – just in case I can’t get to a computer to post my travel diaries.

In a little bit of personal news – last Saturday was Kustard FC’s shining moment – we won the grand final 1-0. It was a glorious victory.