Friday, 21 September 2012

A healthy church (assembly, not a building)

Christians sometimes ask themselves the question, what is a healthy church?  They are referring the fellowship or assembly, not the building though the infrastructure and administrative processes may be part of the answer to the question.

Having thought about what constitutes a healthy church I came up with the following points:

A healthy Christian church

provides good fellowship
preaches the Gospel, the good news of salvation and abundant, eternal life in Christ
performs acts of mercy, charity, loving kindness and grace
promotes faith in Jesus Christ
preserves the truth of God's Word
prays in the Holy Spirit
praises God for His goodness, grace and salvation
practises what it preaches
passes on the teaching of Christ and His apostles by evangelistic enterprise
prepares disciples to becomes leaders and servants who bring others into Christian service and ministry, to meet the demands of the next generation.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

John Bunyan: a hero of faith

John Bunyan (1628-1688) is one of my heroes.  The more I learn about him, the more I admire him. 

He did not have a very formal education.  JB did not study at Oxford or Cambridge, like many Puritan divines, but earned his living as a tinker/brazier. Today he would have probably been rejected by theological colleges, ministerial committees and church diaconates because he lacked qualifications. On the other hand, had some of these ecclesiastical bureaucrats seen or read his books or heard him preach they would have probably changed their minds. (John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, held him in very high regard.) The Church of England clergy in the late 17th century saw him as a criminal who deserved a custodial sentence. And that is what he received when JB was brought before local magistrates in Bedfordshire and was asked to refrain from preaching. JB refused to do so as he believed he was called and commanded to preach the Gospel and to obey God rather than men. JB suffered for his principles and conscientious stand as he was kept in Bedford Prison, at his majesty's pleasure, for a total of 12 years. While King Charles II enjoyed the fleshpots of London, JB languished in an unpleasant jail cell. JB worked during his sentence by making leather boot laces to earn a living. During his time in prison he was far from idle; he wrote books. (King Charles developed a taste for fine wine, fine food and finely dressed women. He had many mistresses and bastards, enjoying wine, women and song, and plenty of theatrical entertainment. King Charles Stuart II would have been, no doubt, at home in Vanity Fair.)

 The Conventical Act of 1664, in the reign of the adulterous, lascivious, and licentious King Charles II, forbade church gatherings that did not use the Book of Common Prayer. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity required all clergy to give unfeigned consent and assent to this Prayer Book. Consequently about 2,000 clergy were ejected from their livings and were driven into non-conformity.

Continued and amended on Friday 7 September 2012.

In 1665, the year of the Great Plague of London, the Five Mile Act was passed to prevent ejected clergy coming within five miles of a city or corporate town.  This wicked act attempted to stop these ministers earning a living, pastoring a congregation and preaching the Gospel. Those who did not consent to the Church of England's articles and ordinances in the Prayer Book were known as non-conformists and dissenters.  These Acts of Parliament were known as the Clarendon Code (named after Lord Clarendon).  JB was one of the best known dissenters who fell foul of these repressive acts.

Throughout his life JB wrote 68 books. Pilgrim's Progress is the most famous, and is still a best seller. (It is available in paperback for only £1, in 2012, which is great value.) It is one of the best known books in the English language. It has been translated into many languages. Its eleventh edition came out in 1688, the year of JB's death. Bunyan's The Holy War and Grace Abounding are also in available in print. Today his famous hymn is still sung in churches and the words continue to inspire Christians throughout the world.  C.H. Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, treasured it. He once said, "Next to the Bible, the book I value most is Pilgrim's Progress." This book has inspired plays, comic books, television programmes, sermons, blogs and films.  Some of the films are hard to obtain.

To be continued.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Church Growth: reflections on Charismatic and Pentecostal global expansion

In terms of church growth the developments and the global expansion of charismatic and pentecostal movements have been phenomenal, both inside and outside the mainstream Christian denominations.  Some charismatic and pentecostal groups have spread through house churches, informal gatherings, revivalist meetings and worship events.

The late Professor David Martin (DM), sociologist of religion at the London School of Economics, has commented on the worldwide success of pentecostal/charismatic Christianity. (Some people are uncertain about the difference between pentecostals and charismatics, but one sociologist has suggested, rather amusingly, that charismatics are merely middle class pentecostals.)  DM saw the appeal of the pentecostal/charismatic movement in its lay leadership and rejection of hierarchical structures. The belief in the priesthood of all believers, choice, and the power of the Spirit being available to all Christians, without regard to rank, status, class, or position, and without the constraints of centralized leadership, has encouraged a strong lay involvement. It had and has great appeal to women and activists, who have manifested great energy and charisma in driving their church forward.

The humblest member of the congregation may prophesy, speak in tongues, pray audibly, sing joyfully with gusto, and take part, in certain circumstances and services, in healing ministry.  This gives them a tremendous sense of significance and worth that they would not feel in other Christian gatherings. Music and choirs, sometimes with impressive robes of many colours, can mean a lot to them. Their infectious and attractive joy in worship, in personal experiences of the Holy Spirit and in the ministry of charismatic gifts must be taken into account.

In Latin and Central America the growth and spread of charismatic, pentecostal and non-denominational groups have been remarkable in a relatively short period of time, certainly since the 1970s and counting.
While liberation theology has had some impact it is nowhere near as great and as thorough as the pentecostal/charismatic expansion.

The pentecostal/charismatic movement worldwide is militantly conversionist.  This may not have always been the case in the UK among certain inward looking charismatic cliques, but most pentecostal Christians have a very strong urge to see people converted and brought to faith in Christ. The integrity of their witness or testimony is important to them.  They are fervent in prayer for conversion and spiritual renewal/revival.  The liberal Christian intelligensia may ridicule and mock their ardent evangelism, but they cannot deny that these Christians are seeing significant church growth.  Their generosity and financial commitment to the cause of Christ is highly commendable.  This is particularly  evident among the black majority churches, such as Kingsway International Christian Centre.

I have no doubt that at the end of this month at the Global Day of Prayer (at Wembley Stadium) the black majority Christian churches will be very well represented, as they have been at past events.  They are now an important part of the Christian leadership and landscape in the UK, particularly in city areas.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Church Growth: even more reflections

One of the reasons for church growth, I would strongly maintain, is the desire by members to reach non-members and to see them finding faith in Christ Jesus.  It has been said that the church primarily exists for its non-members.  The evangelical type of church seems to be far more comfortable with evangelism and "winning souls" than the liberal and high church types.  The evangelicals make sharing their faith a theological imperative. Time, energy and money are geared to outreach, evangelism and bringing people into their churches for conversion.

It seems to me, having been involved in a High Anglian church in North London (where I was christened and confirmed many years ago) that liberal Anglicanism is rather tentative about conversion processes and overt forms of evangelism.  I have discovered that some United Reformed Churches of a liberal persuasion have now closed and have little hope of regaining the lost ground. They have lost, in this context, their means of reproduction!

I ought to define "liberal", because some theologians of an evangelical persuasion wish to re-define the term and claim it as a positive step forward.  By liberal churches, I mean churches that have a low view of Holy Scripture in that they would not regard the Bible as the reliable rule of faith, but a flawed set of texts that are provisional and not binding in matters of faith, morals and church practice.  The liberal churches are and have been, in my personal view, very highly concessive to modernism, existentialism, relativistic post-modernism, and pluralism. Embracing tolerance they have sometimes been very intolerant of definite doctrinal positions within evangelicalism and neo-puritanism.

The problem that these liberal churches have had in the late 20th century is a "shifting sand theology", changeable, with trendy winds of doctrine  embracing secular philosophies and some humanistic ideas.  In doing so they have appeared to be wishy washy. dated and sometimes inaccessible. The Sea of Faith group seemed all at sea, and Don Cupitt and his followers were nearer to a form of Buddhism than Christianity.  They certainly did not have any experience a personal faith in the divine Son of God, Christ Jesus the Lord.  They have sustained intellectual credibility and cultural elitism, which have given them appeal and significance. The High Anglican church that I attended looked down on the evangelical and non-conformist church culture, music, architecture and socio-historical heritage. I still find the same attitude exists today, that the low church is regarded as unsophisticated, and theologically, socially and culturally inferior.

 The "Liberal Jesus" was presented as no miracle worker but a teacher of sanctified good manners, really no better than the meek, mild and rather effete "Sunday School Jesus". People followed a plastic, synthetic Jesus.
This, of course, has been a vast area of theological discussion and debate in the quest and identification of the historical Jesus, the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (which some separate).

A few years ago I observed a High Church event at a small village church in central Essex.  The people involved in this ceremony had no connection with the local community.  Outsiders were not at all welcome to attend. It was a very private service; some would call it "smells and bells" and "pomp and circumstance". I was, at the time, walking along the Essex Way with an art historian, who commented on the High Anglican procession's quaintness and theatrical quality.  I suppose that this event and Christianity have something in common, but on this occasion as we saw the passing procession it was hard to see. Is this a religion of the neo-pharisee, "I thank Thee that I am not as other men"? This is so foreign to the evangelical type of Christianity, that is keen to share its faith, explain its beliefs and bring outsiders into the fold. I admit, however, that there can be a pharisaical spirit within evangelicalism, a holier than thou attitude, and a disconcerting bigotry.

I have at times attended High Church services in central London.  The use of  Latin and chanting was fascinating.  They were undoutedly culturally stimulating services, but they were probably inaccessible and, to some extent, hard to understand for many unchurched people. The High Liberal Anglican churches do appeal to people with their choral music, well organized social and cultural events, dramatic liturgy, beautiful church buildings with magnificent artwork, images and architecture, and using elaborate costumes (robes, cassocks, stoles etc.). The services are often, to my way of thinking, a very acquired taste indeed.

The High and Liberal Anglicans known to me have posed some important questions.
When conversion is mentioned, what are people converted to?
What difference does their conversion make to their way of life and the quality of the lives of those around them?
What kind of converts are they?
What are the social implications of the Gospel?
How do Gospel values challenge the cosy complacency of middle class bourgeois Christian church life?
Do evangelical churches operate within a comfortable cocoon of safety and security?

For me, the Christian church is a hospital that brings sinners to life and health. It should never become primarily a gymasium for the spiritually super fit, or an elite club for the culturally and intellectually snobbish.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Delightful Dedham on the last day of the disastrously wet Summer of 2012

Friday 31 August 2012 was a lovely day in Dedham, Essex. It didn't rain. The sun shone brightly. And here are the photographs to prove it. Dedham was and is delightful.

Return To The Forbidden Planet - now at the Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch

Last Friday I had a thoroughly enjoyable evening at the Queen's Theatre in Billet Lane, Hornchurch.  This musical had the wow factor.  The musicians involved were very, very good; they were talented and tremendous.  I loved the songs of the fifties and swinging sixties, with some amended lyrics and brilliant arrangements. Excellent entertainment. The cast really connected with the audience. Well worth the admission price; the guitar solo for the She's Not There (a classic by the Zombies) was outstanding.  The drumming, keyboard playing, the saxophone and trumpet playing were impressive. And the sound effects were marvellously engineered.

The programme cost £2.50.  Souvenir T-shirts cost £15.

Return To The Forbidden Planet is loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, with some homage to 20th century science fiction movies.  There are good Shakespearean puns and pieces worked into the highly amusing script.


River Stour