Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Making CU small groups work - part 1: think mission

I've found myself chatting over the past few days to a wide range of people about CU small groups. Some people think that they merely replicate church, others think they are wonderful, others are just left confused.

Over the past few years, I've been thinking about how CU small groups can best function. Here are my rough thoughts:

Think mission

CUs are not designed to be rivals to local churches - rather, CUs serve local churches by uniting members of their congregations to live and speak for Jesus in areas which might otherwise remain unreached (Dave outlines the vision beautifully here). For CU small groups to be really strategic, and to avoid merely replicating church, it's important that we don't just think uncritically about the existence of small groups. CU small groups must fit into the CU's ultimate reason for existence: outreach to students.

Small groups (both in CUs and in local churches) aren't generally outward-looking by default. In CU small groups, mission needs to be threaded into every area of their life. Part of this means ensuring that the group has regular outreach times together. In our area, we tend to use the 1-2-3-Go system where every fourth gathering is an outreach night. This keeps outreach very high on the agenda. However, merely hosting regular outreach events, by themselves, isn't enough. All of the gatherings of the small group also need to be outward-looking. At the very least, prayer for friends and outreach to them should be included, as well as reviews of outreach nights.

The nature of outreach events can vary. Sometimes, CU small groups can organise very effective larger events. (These are particularly worth thinking about if the small group meets in a hall with shared space - such as a bar or TV room - and where access to all rooms or kitchens makes flyering easy). However, I'd recommend CU small groups to focus on smaller-scale events, where those invited have already seen something of the gospel in their Christian friends' lives. Events can be effectively 'tailored' to what's most appropriate, and this is a great way of showing Christian community on a small scale. My non-believing friends can meet with some of my Christian friends: given these Christian friends are then likely to bump into my non-believing friends, I'm no longer left witnessing alone.

Hall-based small groups tend to be most effective as there is a ready-made 'mission field' in existence. This tends to focus the mind of small group members. However, there's no reason why other CU small groups shouldn't remain effective and strategic in outreach, and avoid merely replicating the content of church home groups. This is especially true if the group takes joint responsibility for witnessing to the close friends of other Christian small group members (housemates, sports team mates and so on).

Part 2: coming soon - think relationship

Monday, 22 September 2008

Support Sarah's crazy sheep drive

And now for something completely different...

Linda and I have a remarkable friend from university called Sarah, who went sharing anecdotes often starts, 'It was the funniest thing ever...'. And often, it is. (The story involving Sarah's cannibal fish Betty and suicidal eel George still makes up chuckle out loud from time to time).

Back in February, Sarah found herself nominated as Freeman of the City of London and came up with the crazy idea to organise a sheep drive across London Bridge, re-enacting the Medieval right that Freemen had to drive their sheep across London Bridge without having to pay any tolls or taxes.

Having rallied a team together, last Friday her dream became a reality and together Sarah and her team organised for 500 Freemen, representing 70 different livery companies to drive 15 Romney Sheep in a relay back and forth across London Bridge seven times. The event was organised in aid of The Lord Mayor's Appeal 2008 and the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress kindly opened the event. The Honourable Artillery Company’s Pikemen and Musketeers escorted every drive after completing their 'Charing the Pikes' salute.

The event attracted much publicity and spread like a rash across the US newspapers on Saturday from Washington and California to Hick Town! By Sunday it had made its way to the New Zealand press and went global via the International Herald Tribune. However, having been madly busy organising the event, Sarah failed to have time to adequately seek sponsorship ahead of driving her own sheep and as such is only getting round to it now!

I'd strongly encourage you watching the video of the event below and consider sponsoring Sarah by making a donation to the Lord Mayor’s charities, Orbis and Wellbeing of Women.

For more information about the charities please visit http://www.thelordmayorsappeal.org/ and to donate quickly and easily, you can visit Sarah's own website: http://www.justgiving.com/sarahscrazysheepdrive

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Why has God revealed himself as he has?

In the last few days, I've met up with and then been in contact with a friend who's doubting as as Christian. There are lots of big issues which he's wrestling through for the first time, but one of the big questions relates to the issue of God's revelation.

Why has he chosen to reveal himself as he has? Why hasn't he revealed himself in other 'clearer' forms, like a big message in the sky? If the Bible revelation of God today is mediated through Scripture, isn't that cold and rationalistic?

I think the key thing here is the nature of relationship that God wants with humans. If God wanted us merely to assent to his existence intellectually, then a big message in the sky might do. But for a personal relationship to be initiated, then surely another form of revelation is required. The nature of revelation must change for a certain relational form to follow. (A joke used to go round some of the students I work with that I proposed by text message. I didn't. But why would this be so scandalous? Because that form of revelation - that I wanted to marry Linda - needed to be made in a certain way in order to have a certain form of relationship with her).

In human relationships, we get to know others by actively relating to them. We spend time with, we see what makes them tick, we talk to them. This is necessary to have a personal relationship with them. In the same way, we come to know God through relating to him. He designed it in this way. Just as it wouldn't be possible for a person to comprehend the reality of their parents' love for them apart from a personal relationship with them, so we come to know God and his love in the same way.

And so, the knowledge that God wants us to have isn't just knowing that he is exists as an object - but rather that we might know him as the supreme person, our sustainer and redeemer, Lord of all - even over each of us. In short, God wants us to know him as he really is. And so his form of revelation is personal; designed to reveal his character and to bring us into the sort of relationship with Jesus whereby he is the proper head of our family. He calls us to enter and enjoy a loving relationship with himself.

If that's the case, then, how does the Bible fit in? Scripture presents Jesus to us, as he really is. Jesus himself is the revelation of the Father, and through the Spirit, Scripture renders the authentic Jesus. The Bible is like no other book, in that the Spirit of the co-author and the subject of the book is with us by his Spirit. And so, far from being intellectual, Scripture draws us to the person of Jesus - showing us what he is really like, his character, his mind, his trustworthiness - and calling us to worship him. That is what it means to experience life (John 17:3), both now and in the age to come.

God, evolution and Charles Darwin

It's worth reading this article that featured in yesterday's Times, documenting ten surprising things that Charles Darwin said about religious faith.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Gospel as story

I was reminded once again in reading this article of the power of stories. It's no coincidence that God's revelation to us is of a big story, which itself is a patchwork of different forms of literature (but very often in story form).

One of the frustrations as a Staff Worker is often that students will less discernment often like speakers who don't really unpack the word of God. So why are these speakers often so popular? Because they are great story tellers.

At the moment, I'm writing a batch of talks on Mark's Gospel. The temptation is to flatten these stories to find some 'kernel of truth'. So how can we best let these amazing stories of Jesus speak for themselves? One of the things I'm trying to do is to re-tell the stories in the present tense in order to preserve the feeling of immediacy. But I'd love to hear tips from others on how we can avoid robbing narrative of its power.

Two ways to miss out on the kingdom

Jesus' parable of the great banquet (Luke 14:15-24) - representing the kingdom of God - shows that there are two ways of missing out.

The first way - the emphasis of the parable - is through having wrong priorities. People give poor excuses for why they can't attend the banquet. All of these excuses underline that, in fact, they just consider other things to be of greater importance. So often people's rejection of Jesus and his invitation into the kingdom comes not through investigation or because they've come to the conclusion there isn't really a banquet. Instead, they have wrong priorities... which lead them missing out on the greatest banquet of all time, hosting by the God they were created to be in relationship with.

Perhaps the second way is hinted at in verse 23. 'Unworthy' people have to be compelled to come into the banquet - they consider themselves not good enough for the banquet. They don't realise that their invitation is not based upon their performance, but upon the goodness of the host.

How can we best speak of the kingdom to these two groups of people?

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Film Review: The Duchess - "compromised freedom"

The Duchess is Keira Knightley's latest offering, telling the story based on truth of an 18th Century woman trapped in a loveless marriage to a Duke only bothered about fathering a male heir.

To be honest, it wasn't a great film - a tired script accompanied by very slow moving action didn't make it a great evening's entertainment!

There are a few thinking points:

- patriarchal societies are viewed very negatively - and whilst women have more rights today, the implication is that experience felt by the lead character is still felt by women today in a man's world;
- there are clear links between the Duchess of Devonshire and her descendant Princess Diana (the more links you look out for, the more you will see);
- the places where freedom is most fully experienced is away from the marital home, Devonshire House.

Rather naively, towards the beginning of the film, the Duchess speaks to a politician about how she cannot envisage partial or compromised freedom. The message of the film is that, although we all long for freedom, everyone (apart from maybe children) experiences compromised freedom (a predicament faced par excellence in the case of Diana). Freedom can be sucked away by social responsibilities, expectations of one in your status or position, marriage, moral demands and family commitments. According to the film, then, true freedom in adult like is found in the odd moments when one can escape these commitments.

All in all a sad film - longing for freedom, looking in the wrong places ... and never finding it.

On not worshipping the Bible (Hebrews 1:1-2:4)

Hebrews 1 is a puzzling passage to many. Why does the writer focus so much on Jesus' superiority to angels?

The clue, I think, comes from the broader context to the letter, and from another verse. The rest of the book tells us that Hebrews is addresses to Jewish converts to Christianity, who are under pressure to return to Judaism, and the Levitical sacrifices. Hebrews 2:2 alludes to how, according to Jewish tradition, the Law was given to Moses via the mediation of angels (see also Deuteronomy 33:2 and Acts 7:53).

It's important to demonstrate that the Son is superior to the angels, then, because in doing so, the writer is demonstrating Jesus' superiority over Old Testament revelations and the shadows of Christ it gives (a theme of the whole book). It seems that some believers were confused about whether Christ truly superseded the OT because it was mediated by angels - therefore, considered of massive holiness.

Notice, then, how even in these early chapters the writer calls his readers:

- to realise the uniqueness of the Son's revelation over other ways in which God has spoken (1:1-2, 2:2-3);
- to realise the uniqueness of the Son's status (1:4-5), demonstrated through his completed atonement sacrifice and resurrection from the dead (c.f. Romans 1:4);
- to appreciate that Old Testament revelation itself speaks of a divine King (1:8-9), citing Psalm 45;
- to appreciate that whilst the unique Son's work is complete, that angels continue to work in the lives of believers, bringing about his royal will (1:13-14).

The Son, then, is superior to that which 'angels' represent: he is the ultimate revelation of God, his ministry achieves what the shadows of the Old Testament could not, and he is fully worthy of worship. What 'angels' do is help believing Christians to persevere to inherit salvation.

If, as it seems likely to me, that in this context angels represent the old covenant and Old Testament revelation, we infer that the Old Testament is no mere information, but given to draw us to worship of Christ, the Son and the ultimate revelation of God. Biblical revelation is unlike Quranic revelation (information about God), but to lead us to worship of God himself.

As I read this passage today, it struck me that some evangelical Christians are in danger of worshipping the Bible (the 'angels'), rather than to lead them to worship of the Son himself. The Bible is not God. The Bible is not worthy of a place at God's right hand. The Bible cannot, by itself, in its mere words bring salvation. The Bible cannot, by itself, in its mere words keep a believer persevering.

I cherish and love the Bible, but I must not let it draw my affections away from the Son it reveals and glorifies. Through the Spirit, the Bible reveals and points us to the Son. To worship the Bible (whether through using it for knowledge rather than worship, or anything else) is a dangerous idolatry. It is to worship an angel, rather than the one who commands the angels to work out his will and draw people to worship.

Monday, 8 September 2008

"Love the sinner, hate the sin"

The old Christian adage goes that we're to 'love the sinner but hate the sin'. Recently I've been reading the excellent book Walking with Gay Friends which has helped me see how difficult this sometimes is.

I've found the book immensely helpful not just in terms of thinking about best loving and engaging homosexual people with the gospel, but also in helping me to reflect on how I must welcome those people who are believers but who are working through issues of lifestyle.

In one section, author Alex Tylee writes a very powerful (and true) case study. In it, a Christian has a gay friend. However, their friendship has stalled. In the name of 'loving the sinner but hating the sin', the Christian has ended up hating elements of her friend's character. She had began to think that the 'sin' was her friend herself, because her sexuality seemed to permeate every aspect of her life. Her friend had begun to think that the friendship was conditional.

Here's a quote from the book:

'I had to ask Karen [the Christian] whether there was any truth in what Louise [the non-Christian] was saying. Was it in fact true that Karen loved only the 'ideal' Louise, with her sexuality removed? If this really was the case, then there was something wrong. When we witness to our straight non-Christian friends, do we honestly believe that we will really be their friends only once they are 'saved and sorted'? I hope not! I hope that they are our friends and we would love them even if they were never saved, though it breaks our hearts to think of it. There is a delicate balance here. God loves us as we are; yet it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for the ungodly. Yet his love always tells us the truth and will not leave us as we are, no matter how hard it is to change. He loves us too for what we will be, when he has finished working on us and we are perfect in Christ, totally conformed to the image of Jesus. That is our ultimate destiny and our completed identity.'
I find this a very helpful passage. Not only has it drawn me to repentance in terms of how I have sometimes been guilty of treating my gay friends, but I have also been made to realise that there are others people with major 'lifestyle issues' that I've been guilty of not loving. There's one friend in particular who is very promiscuous, and I now realise I've at times ended up hating him rather than just hating his sin. And this (worryingly) shows that sometimes I've lost sight of God's grace, and been dangerously close to becoming a Pharisee.

God help me.

Friday, 5 September 2008

You know you're up north when...

On return from Forum at Quinta (see Dave Bish's liveblogging here), we stopped for a quick bite to eat in Warrington (a town I find strangely endearing). Here's a taste of the return to northern culture...

Toast cost 10p less if you had a crust
Use of a tray cost an extra 30p
The cafe toilet was in an outside shack about 50m away from the cafe!

It's nice to be back.