Virtual or Streamed Community – Is it Real Church?

 

We are living in unprecedented times. The whole world is in lockdown fearful of the great pandemic. It is Easter, but Church gatherings have been suspended, to be replaced in many places by online expressions. I was in a conversation the other day with someone who thought that when the lockdown ends, Christians will prefer to simply meet virtually rather than gather physically together. This got me thinking about the nature and practices of local-church and how far digital connection can replace physical connection in this day and age. Many times when we engage with new technologies, we are so focused on the technology, that we don’t do deeper thinking about the implications of using the technology, so if you are a Christian who is meeting this weekend either by watching a webstream or engaging in a video-conference I encourage you to go on this quick journey with me to ponder not only the strengths and weaknesses of technology but more fundamentally what we are trying to do with this thing called the ekklesia of God.

Before diving in to some observations I have some admissions. I want to strongly affirm my belief in the importance of the local church, the body of believers which is the vehicle which the “manifold wisdom of God” to be displayed; the incarnational expression of Jesus to a world in need of a savior. I love the Body of Christ. I also want to say up-front that I am not a stranger to the world of broadcasting, webstreaming and distance learning.  I think my first foray into this world was in streaming GOD TV to the nations in around 2000. Then in 2003, I started webstreaming the International House of Prayer’s prayer room to the nations 24/7. I have written a number of articles in blogs and Christian magazines about this subject. I started a media school and taught about both the practical skills and about media ecology as a whole. I ran an e-school. This is only to say that this is not the first time I have thought about this subject.

When Preaching Became the Culmination of The Church Service

Before I look at the pros and cons of taking church online. I want to trace a quick (admittedly over-simplistic) sketch of church expression over the past 500 years. At the time of the Reformation in Europe, the parish church was typically at the center of the local community. The congregation would gather on a Sunday. It would be somewhat of a raucous affair with homilies and readings in a language that the common man (and often the priest) could not understand, culminating in the Holy Mass, again in Latin and again a mystery to most involved. When the Reformation crashed into Europe, much change happened in lands that now were called Protestant. Church pews were added to the church buildings, the language became vernacular and the Holy Mass was replaced as the culmination of the church service with preaching.

Preaching has been at the center of church expression since the early church, but now it took on much greater importance especially in the Protestant traditions. It remained this way really pretty much unchanged until the 20th Century with the development of a number of technologies. Public address systems, radio and television meant that a preacher’s message could now reach multiple thousands of people at the same time. In addition, the automobile meant that people could drive across town to their preacher of choice, rather than attend the local church within walking distance. By the late 20th century, Church services became a consumer good and with the advent of high-quality platform production, worship music and preaching became the product. A cynical eye might see this as entertainment or as simply “information transfer” and an audience’s approach to both of these is perhaps different than the Apostle Paul’s expectation that “When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26). And so with this as the background, it became very easy to transition into webstreaming church services. A consumer can now listen to the “best preachers” on the planet with the click of a button. In many North American Mega Churches and beyond most components of a church service are platform-based already so the participant is actually not gaining that much by actually going to the location of the church except perhaps missing the social connection.

By the late 20th century, Church services became a consumer good and with the advent of high quality platform production, worship music and preaching became the product

Admittedly this review is a trifle cynical. I am a fan of engaging new technologies, not just a fan, I am a practitioner, but I also have the media ecologist Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim that “The medium is the message” rattling around my brain and realize that we must think soberly and critically about embracing new technologies, figuring out the limitations they present, using the technologies where they are helpful, improving them where necessary and also discarding them where necessary.

The Pros and Cons of “Virtual Church”

In analyzing the limitations of virtual church let me say what I think it is good at:

1Preaching/Music and Anything Platform Driven – Streaming is good for anything which is platform driven. It is good for proclamation and teaching. It is good for more devotional type worship, it is also OK for what I will call “overflow” worship.

2Platform Driven Prayer Meetings – It is good for platform prayer. I have streamed prayer meetings from several hundred to tens of thousands to great effect

3Financial Giving – It is actually good to facilitate financial giving – not that you stream this, but it is a part of congregational life, which can be facilitated effectively through technology.

4 – Discussion and Small Group Prayer – With the inclusion of video conferencing elements it is good for conversation, discussion and prayer (if conducted effectively).

5 – Bringing Together the Global Body of Christ – It is also amazing (as has been eminently shown during this COVID outbreak) for bringing together the global body of Christ from different nations AND if everybody is in lockdown to replace the gathering together of believers.

With all the things that it is good at, should it play a bigger role in our church life? My answer is “it depends what you want to do with it”. It can solve lots of problems related to the challenges mentioned above. However there are some big limitations, which might be solved with better technologies, but I’m not sure will ever be solved entirely.

So What About the Limitations

In Acts 2:42 we are told of the four primary activities of the early church – Apostles Teaching, Fellowship, the Breaking of Bread and the Prayers. I do think technology can help in some of these areas but not completely. Fellowship and Breaking of Bread include eating together. It doesn’t work with streaming, you can simulate this online with video conferencing, but it is really not the same (I’m interested to see a number of people trying to share meals online at this time).

Hospitality and Eating Together – Christian leaders are called to be hospitable – again this faces serious limitations with online communication. The New Testament says we should not forsake meeting together. There is certainly a different dynamic in physically meeting together, being silent together, eating together that at the moment is very hard to replicate online.  While I am very thankful for video conferencing tools with which my parents in the UK have connected with me and their US grandchildren. The relationship over technology is not the same as getting a cuddle from Granny, sinking down with a cup of tea and peering into the fire together.

The Physical Component of Meeting Together – I could go on. Singing together is a part of congregational worship and it is plain hard to do this with technology. Baptisms, funerals, laying on of hands and praying for the sick, exercising spiritual gifts. They are all hard to do over technology. I’m not saying I have not seen even amazing healing testimonies come through broadcasts. But at the moment it simply can’t replace meeting physically.

Just today, Dr Fauci from the NIH said that shaking hands should become a thing of the past because it spreads disease, yet the church is one of the many places in culture, where physical touch is critical. Physical touch can bring so much healing to individuals both emotionally and through the gift of physical healing. We should not give up anointing the sick with oil and laying hands on them.

Distributing Food to the Needy – The deacon ministry of the church has been critical since Acts 6. Their primary function was the distribution of food as well as being good teachers. While you can teach online, distributing food (and everything else that is entailed in that ministry) cannot be done online.

My conclusion here is not to bash technology, but rather to think critically about the nature of church itself and to lean on technology where it helps us achieve things, but not embrace it unquestionably and continue down the route of everything being platform based – which seems to be the pattern of much in US Mega Church Land. The church is called to be incarnational, so after this lockdown, let’s not give up meeting together.

Love to hear your thoughts about new innovations – about what is working and what is not at this time

  1. A few brief links would be Crossing the Digital Divide – https://www.charismamag.com/site-archives/1471-1011-magazine-articles/features/14509-crossing-the-digitai-divide

    Is Webstreaming Good for the Body of Christ? https://jonohall.com/2011/08/26/is-webstreaming-good-for-the-body-of-christ/

    Webstreaming: Our Story – https://jonohall.com/2011/08/13/webstreaming-our-story/

Posted in In the News, Media Stuff | 1 Comment

Does God Have Anything To Do With the Pandemic?

One of the most knotty questions that Christianity has to wrestle with is that of the problem of pain and suffering. Perhaps more academic and apologetic ink has been spilled in pursuit of an answer to this challenge, that theologians and philosophers have termed theodicy, than many other apologetic conundrums. Simply put – can a good, all powerful God allow pain and suffering to be inflicted on humanity? The lack of a convincing answer is one of the main reasons why believers have actually walked away from their faith in recent times, it is something we must all face head on at some point in our life.

I am not intending to add much to this more philosophical question, as more erudite, wise and pastoral minds have applied themselves to this task and I encourage you to read works such as Timothy Keller’s Walking with God through Pain and Suffering or even C.S. Lewis’ Problem of Pain. However I do want to take a brief scriptural exploration of this question in relation to natural disasters, outbreaks of disease or famine and see if this Bible has any answers in times such as these. Not simply in general terms of how Christians should always posture their hearts in the midst of trouble, and let’s face it, life has enough trouble, but to wrestle with the conundrum of where God is and what is He saying in the midst of troubling times.

Writing from a Western perspective, I have seen a few approaches in answering the ‘why’ question pertaining to natural disasters from the church repeated continuously in recent years. On the one side there are always a few “crazy prophetic” voices finding a direct correlation between a specific national sin and the specific disaster. These voices are always met with disdain not only from unbelievers who find such pronouncements unfeeling and tasteless, especially to those who are suffering loss, but also from more mainstream religious leaders from most religious traditions. Especially from many church leaders who take a “more humane” approach, believing that as Christian believers we are called to weep with those who weep and lament in such situations. If I were to play it safe, I would simply say amen to this second group, as I agree generally with the call to weep and I often find the pronouncements of “crazy” prophetic people deficient in many ways. The trouble is I don’t find this answer fully satisfying and a true representation of the God I find throughout scripture and so, like a scab I continue to worry this problem to see if I can discover something more.

Does God cause Disasters?

The first question I come to is to ask whether God actually causes such things as disease or disaster. Many religions both past and present serve Gods that have a malevolent side and the infliction of pain on humanity even for the God’s pleasure is not outside the bounds of possibility. The God shown in the Bible is never portrayed as malevolent. He is portrayed as good all the time – the very essence of goodness. However there is a side of this goodness, a part of His personality that many times humanity would like to overlook and that is God’s character as a judge. 

People don’t like to consider this picture of God as a judge. When they think of this aspect of God’s character they think of phrases like the “Final Judgement” and become scared about how God will judge their private life and their sins, conversely there can be a type of flippancy and presumption. Because Christian’s receive the death of Jesus in their place they may consider Jesus’ blood a type of “Hall Pass” to any type of judgment. Jesus’ blood covers me therefore I don’t have to think about it. There are two biblical responses to these thoughts. 

Firstly not all judgment, in fact the majority of judgment found in scripture is not “eternal” in nature. The majority of judgments are physical and temporary in nature. The fact is that famines and plagues are considered throughout the Bible as from the hand of God. This is an inconvenient fact that most moderns want to avoid. 

Secondly not all judgment is bad. When you have been wronged and you go to court, you hope for a good outcome. Sometimes you will receive justice and sometimes you won’t. The reason you often don’t receive justice is because of lack of knowledge and sometimes because the system, process or the judge himself is faulty. You can be sure when God judges that His judgments are pure and right (see Ps 19:9). Therefore it is not surprising that we find prophetic voices in the Bible longing for the judgments of God. Isaiah says “My soul yearns for you in the night; in the morning my spirit longs for you. When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.” (Isaiah 26:9)

So does this mean that God causes disasters? This is where it gets a little more tricky to answer. Two stories are instructive in scripture. In 1 Chronicles 21 there is story about Satan rising up to incite David to conduct a census against the Lord’s will and as a result 70,000 died from plague as a judgment from God. In 2 Samuel 24 the same story says that it was the Lord who caused David to take the census. A similar conundrum happens when we investigate the life of Job, this ancient account alternates between Satan and the Lord afflicting Job when referencing the same affliction.

This means there are three actors present in the affliction of humanity. Firstly, the choices and actions of humanity itself reaps consequences, secondly the actions of Satan and evil spirits and thirdly the actions of God himself or at least His permission of events taking place as a result of actions from humanity or Satan. We may not like this answer, and the truth is, like Job, we will probably not understand the complexity of this answer in this age. But God is present in all of our afflictions and is always looking for a response. 

The Old and the New Testaments are filled with prophets responding to events such as warfare, famine and plague and there is a simple message that resounds through the pages of scripture that message can be summed up by the phrase “Return to Me” (Joel 2:12, Zech. 1:3). No matter what the multi dimensional reasons for the crisis were, God’s sovereignty means that  “…in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). This is seen in Jesus response to two disasters that occurred in his day. It was the perfect occasion for Jesus to say he didn’t have an answer and we must weep with those who weep, maybe his empathetic nature wasn’t firing on all cylinders that day – but his explanation (if you can call it an explanation) was “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:5)

So we have consistency from the Old Testament Prophets through to Jesus during his earthly ministry and finally Jesus as seen in Revelation. However disasters occur, God is looking for a response from humanity and that response is that we would turn to him in repentance and love. The world is in shock at the moment as we go through the COVID-19 Pandemic, daily we are staring at new death figures from around the world. I have wondered during this time if we had full transparency of all deaths on an ongoing basis how it would affect our behavior? The truth is we are so insulated from death especially in our Western culture, and yet our sojourn in this present earthly body is fleeting at best. In comparison to eternity whether we live 70, 80 or 90 years – how we prepare for this eternity where we are promised that “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4) is far more important. It is true that now we only see in part, but one thing is clear that Jesus is beckoning us into a relationship with Him forever and we can trust Him completely. 

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Do Missionaries Belong in Our Modern World?

Social and News Media has been abuzz in the last 48 hours with the news of a young American Missionary/Explorer named John Chau who was speared to death by a group of tribespeople from the Sentinel Islands – one of the remotest tribes in the world (a tribe of around 80-200 people), who seem to kill nearly every person that trespasses on their remote island in the Indian Ocean. They are so unique that the Indian government has made it illegal to go within 300 miles of the Island to both protect their way of life and to protect them from various viruses and pathogens that contact with the outside world could present to the island and wipe out the tribe through disease.

Much vitriolic angst has been spilled denouncing the actions of this young man, while at the other end of the spectrum he is being lauded as a modern-day Jim Elliot – a missionary who was speared to death in a similar fashion by a remote Ecuadorian Tribe in the 1950s. I didn’t know John personally so I can’t really make comment about his motivations and decisions to do what he did, but I do want to ponder some of the bigger questions that have been bandied about on the internet in light of his actions. I don’t finally want to come down on a judgment on this particular instance, but I do want to ponder the following questions briefly:

 1.        Is the spread of Christianity a force for good in the world?

2.         Is evangelism/missionary work the same thing as colonialism?

3.         Should people be evangelized if they don’t want to be?

4.         Is it good to defend tribal practices of remote people groups?

5.         Should Christians always obey the “laws of the land”?

6.         What is a martyr and being persecuted for one’s faith?

7.         Are the activities of missionaries reflective of what it means to follow Jesus?

  1.      Is the spread of Christianity a force for good in the world?

Christianity didn’t begin as a socio/religious bloc, it was simply a small sect of Judaism who proclaimed that the Messiah of the Jewish people had arrived. Jesus, was, however, no ordinary Messiah, he was the incarnated Son of God. Both the identity and actions of Jesus were at odds with many Jewish expectations of Messiah and the split from Judaism came in the first and second century, but the growth of this small persecuted sect was nothing short of phenomenal, so much so that the mighty Roman Empire co-opted it in the 4th Century.

There are many opinions about the marriage of the Christian church and Imperial state power, but a few things are incontrovertible. Firstly the church continued to grow and secondly, in spite of the MANY bad things that so-called Christian rulers have done, Christianity is the bedrock of western thought and action and has been a force for good in providing an understanding of freedom, compassion, charity, and many other of the values and rights in the west that we may consider are self-evident and right. If it were not for the teaching of Christianity and the acts of true Christians I would contend that there is nothing self-evident about some of our societal values and rights. One thing is also incontrovertible, the ideas and way of life of Christians did change the way of lives of many tribes throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe. If you need to dig into this subject deeper I would recommend the works of people such as Rodney Stark or Philip Jenkins, but despite all the abuses of Christianity it has been a force for good in the world and much of this good has been brought about through the actions of missionaries and young intrepid, sometimes foolish young men (yes, they were usually male).

2. Is Evangelism/Missionary work the same thing as Colonialism?

An accusation against John Chau in this particular instance is that what he was doing was the work of a “colonist”. In other accusations, he was spreading the “white patriarchy”. This is perhaps the most absurd of the accusations, however, it does merit some conversation. The dictionary definition of colonialism is “the policy or practice of acquiring full or partial political control over another country, occupying it with settlers, and exploiting it economically.” Colonialism has been around for thousands of years with the Phoenicians and Romans engaging in forms of colonialism, however, our popular understandings of the practice rather hearken back to the activities of the European powers during the 18th and 19th centuries. The challenge for the church has been that while at times the work of missionaries and the European powers were at odds with each other(the works of the Moravians and the early British missionaries to India were at odds with the ruling powers), at other times the two were inextricably linked. David Livingstone’s maxim of “Christianity, Civilization, and Commerce” meant that the pith helmet became the symbol both of Christianity and the British Empire in Africa; in many cases becoming a Christian actually meant becoming a European.

Contextualized missions work became a quick push back to this movement with the likes of Hudson Taylor’s adoption of Chinese culture although being seen initially as a shocking innovation was soon seen as the correct methodology for missions work – embracing Christianity should never mean being divorced from one’s culture unless elements of the culture were at odds with the fundamental tenets of Christianity. An example might be that Christianity does demand that a tribe give up revenge killings, widow burning, and cannibalism, but does not demand changes to food, clothing, language, and local customs. This is obviously a nuanced discussion (as most of this discussion is), however, I would contend that the historical record shows that where changes are merited they certainly benefit the community for the good.

If you are able to extract the work of Christian missionaries from the foreign policy of a political nation (which is increasingly easy – for instance, I am certain that John Chau was not in anyway an actor of US Foreign Policy), then it is very easy to say that the work of Christian missionaries (who come from every culture on the planet) does not in any way represent colonialism. It may as already mentioned mean that if individuals become Christian they cease doing certain actions which they had previously done, but this is I would contend not exploitative, is not empire-building and not colonialism.

As an add-on to this, I would contend that missions work is not the work of the white patriarchy. John Chau was male, but not white. Most missions workers today are actually female (one commentator has said the ratio is 7 to 1), and a growing number of missions workers today are from the global south – Africa, South America, and Asia.

3.      Should people be evangelized if they don’t want to be?

It is very clear that the inhabitants of the Sentinel Island did not want to be contacted, let alone “evangelized” by anyone. This for many is prima facie evidence that they should not be contacted.  Our western postmodern mores dictate that an individual’s religion is a private matter and we should not force our personal religious beliefs down others throats. This view was popularised by Immanuel Kant and really came on the heels of some of the biggest religious conflicts in European history, with much bloodshed on either side predicated by faith positions (although I would contend that the mixture of powerful political positions was much more to do with the conflict). The challenge with this position is that it is self-defeating and hypocritical. The philosopher Charles Taylor has very ably proved that the secularization of western culture is not a negation or subtraction of religious positions rather simply the introduction and addition of another religious position; the claims of secular humanism being as much a construct of various truth claims as Christianity. The prevailing idea that one should not force personal religious beliefs down another’s throat is itself a religious position being forced down another’s throat.

Most cultures do not like change, most people do not initially want to be evangelized. Some cultures are more open to new ideas and products. As humans, we have a predilection to evangelize our ideas. I would contend that this cannot and should not be stopped. Rather than stopping people thinking and sharing their ideas I would contend simply that the best ideas should rise to the top. There are clearly other things at play in this particular instance, but let’s dispense with the idea that we limit the spread of ideas to only people that are initially open.

4.      Is it good to defend tribal practices of remote people groups?

There are approximately 7000 living languages in the world today. Some of these languages are only spoken by a handful of people and in many cases, languages and cultures die out and cease to exist. Is this a good thing? Should certain ancient cultures be protected the way that UNESCO protects its World Heritage sites?

My initial reaction is always to preserve cultural diversity, however, the change of cultures is the way of history – even with some of the largest cultures in history. Nobody speaks Latin and lives Roman culture anymore, neither Phoenician, Carthaginian, Anglo-Saxon etc and these were all hugely dominant cultures.

Many amazing tribal cultures have been destroyed by more dominant oppressive cultures throughout history. But similarly, many oppressive tribal cultures, bound by violence and poverty have been emancipated by more dominant cultures, giving the individuals in the previous culture a pathway to freedom, better health, and education. when William Carey campaigned to stop the ancient tribal practice of Sutee – the burning of widows as part of the chattels of man that has died – he categorically did a good thing. When missionaries brought Christianity to cannibalistic tribes in Irian Jaya and as a result brought peace and prosperity to warring tribes, they categorically did a good thing. However, this is a difficult and more nuanced conversation. One of the reasons why the Indian government has banned contact with the people of the Sentinel Islands is because contact with the tribe could introduce foreign pathogens which could introduce diseases to which these people have no immunity and thus wipe out the tribe. The biggest examples of such introduction of foreign pathogens would be the massive epidemics which wiped out big populations in the Americas with the coming of the western colonial powers. Due to the previous contact with the outside world, this may be an overblown concern, nevertheless, spreading disease should not be a small consideration.  I do feel this consideration should not be conflated with simply a carte blanche desire to protect ancient cultures without reference to what the ancient culture represents.  

5.      Should Christians always obey the “laws of the land”?

One idea thrown around in the recent discussions is that this young man was foolish because he was not obeying the laws of the land. The relationship between Christian’s and societal rules and laws is an interesting one. I believe history shows that Christians have generally strengthened societies, the social capital they bring to a nation has historically strengthened a nation and they do by and large obey the laws of the land to a greater extent than the general population. However when the legal framework of a nation comes into conflict with the commands of the Bible, many Christians throughout history have followed the example of Peter in Acts 5:29 who said to his rulers “We must obey God, rather than men”. Typically the arena where this is primarily played out is in relation to proclaiming the gospel. If the laws of the land prohibit evangelization, should Christians follow those laws? The testimony of the global church throughout history is that generally these laws must be broken if the church is to be faithful to the commands of Jesus.

6.      What is a Martyr and being persecuted for one’s faith?

The current situation has brought up the topic of martyrdom and being
persecuted for one’s faith. Some people are calling this young man a martyr and others are calling him foolish or worse. Was John Chau a martyr or just
foolish? The same question could be asked of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint – in both cases were these young men persecuted for righteousness sake or simply because they were trespassing on another’s territory? Is the motivation of the “trespasser” important in relation to martyrdom? This is as you can imagine quite a controversial subject. A small segment of scholars have recently called into question the martyr record of the early church – did some of the disciples in the early centuries have a bit of a deathwish so that they would be martyred? I think this is probably true. What is martyrdom anyway? What is being persecuted for your faith? I recently sat with a Christian leader from a Creative Access Nation, who has a number of his friends sitting in a prison cell with a potential that they may be executed for sharing their faith. When we dig into the specific circumstances of people that are being persecuted for their faith one
could contend that they are being persecuted not because of faith, but because of “breaking laws” or because of stupidity. I don’t like the label of martyr (although it seems clear that the Bible does label certain individuals as martyrs) or want to measure what is persecution for righteousness sake and what is not. As it relates to myself, I want to be a bold witness of Jesus (which is a martyr) and wise to try and avoid persecution wherever possible. While at the same time, I will continue to pray for my brothers and sisters who are being persecuted for their faith.

 

7.      Are the activities of missionaries reflective of what it means to follow Jesus?

This is perhaps the most important question IF you are a follower of Jesus. Followers of Jesus follow Jesus commands. One of these commands has become known as the Great Commission. It has different aspects depending upon which gospel you read. However in Mark 15:16, one of the earliest references to the Great Commission Jesus says “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation”. We can have much discussion about what is involved in the Great Commission and the best methodologies to complete it – however one thing that it does present us with is a clear call to tell people about the Good News of Jesus with some very black and white outcomes – salvation or condemnation. One thing that I have a conviction about is that if you follow Jesus commands this one is not an optional one. This is the one command of Jesus that is disliked the most (and outlawed the most by nations who are opposed to Christianity). You may disagree with many things that John Chau did (and I would probably agree with many of the criticisms), but if the death of John Chau provokes a discussion about what the Great Commission means to Christians then I think his death will at least in this respect not be in vain.

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The most important injustice to set right?

change-the-world

We live in a busy world with increasing demands on our time and our resources. The phrase work-life balance is fairly new to this generation, but so many of us feel the stretch as we seek to answer the demands of the workplace, the demands of our family and marriages, of our friends and our communities, the demands to provide and the demands to relate. It can get overwhelming and so many people seek to find respite in entertainment and in social media. Yet this year has not been a good year to relax in social media (I’m not sure if there has ever been a good year), but it seems this year has been particularly angst-ridden. In the summer, everybody was sounding off about Brexit and in the fall, it was all about Clinton-Trump. THE END OF THE WORLD HAS BEEN NIGH FOR SOME TIME! Or so it would seem -2016 was, after all, an ALL CAPS type of year.

What is particularly disheartening and the reason for this blog is the public shaming and social media shouting that goes on over social justice issues that each side thinks are important. Each tribe picks its list and then gets all self-righteous if the other people (and especially people from the other side of the political spectrum) do not consider their list of social ills the ones that need to be prioritized.

A Long Laundry List of Needs

What do I mean by social ills? We live in a world where there are a lot of things wrong.

  1. Abortion – Children are some of the most vulnerable people on the planet and this vulnerability is no more keenly felt than in the womb. Having had a micro-preemie personally and then seeing videos about the miracle of life such as this one I don’t know how it is right that we do not speak out on behalf of those who have no voice

 

  1. Orphans – Foster Children – Street Children – Vulnerability does not, however, stop in the womb, so many children around the world are orphans, street children, lost, without love and without family, even those caught in the foster system are often no better off. Who is speaking out for them?
  1. Anti-Family Culture – I add this to the last two although no-one really has this one on their radar, but study after study has shown that children grow up best with their biological mother and father, yet we live in a culture where single motherhood has increased, divorce has increased and so many come from broken families. What is being done about this?
  1. Disabilities and Special Needs – Again some of the most vulnerable in our communities all around the world, yet so often they have no voice to speak out and defend themselves.
  1. Widows and the Elderly – In the developed world we don’t think too often about widows – but why not? When parents become a single parent with kids to provide for needs abound
  1. Human Trafficking Victims – Sex Trafficking and Labor Trafficking – Slavery was abolished long ago surely? Unfortunately not for the millions of lives that are still affected. Indentured servitude, grinding poverty, horrific sex work and even the grotesqueries of trafficking in human organs. Millions are affected, but who is speaking up?
  1. Victims of Abuse – So many suffer in silence, sex abuse, physical abuse, mental abuse. Afraid to speak out. Vulnerable women, children and sometimes men – who is speaking out?
  1. Clean Water – Do you realize the deaths and diseases that could be immediately eliminated worldwide if only millions had access to clean drinking water? A problem that could be solved next year if we had the will
  1. Refugees and Victims of War – Much has been said in the recent election cycle about illegal immigration – but the world is facing some humanitarian crises if we do not realize the impact that war in the middle east is having – as Christians, we surely have an obligation?
  1. Gang Violence – Our inner cities have continued to see gang violence take the lives of our young men. Fatherless and disturbed young men with guns is a problem that needs focus if we are to avoid race wars and the solution would seem not to be police with bigger guns.
  1. Global Challenges of Poverty – We continue to see the poor suffer through malnutrition and starvation, disease, poor education and lack of adequate housing – yet who is speaking out for these billions of people?
  1. Victims of Natural Disaster – Add a natural disaster to the mix of all the poverty and you have a truly horrendous scenario – but who is speaking out?
  1. Racial Discrimination – Wherever you look there is prejudice and bigotry both in the US and around the world. With hundreds of years of black slavery and segregation the cards are surely stacked against the black community on many fronts, but racial discrimination doesn’t stop with the black community, much could also be spoken about systemic discrimination against Hispanics and many other ethnic groups including those in the first nations.
  1. Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism – After the atrocities of the holocaust surely the world has learned its lesson in regards to anti-Semitism and its new forms of Anti-Zionism and the BDS Movement – but no I guess not
  1. Misogyny – Many will say their first priority in their fight against injustice is the fight against systemic misogyny with the cards stacked against women in our systems. Women make up 50% of our culture – surely this is a massive injustice?
  1. Systemic Corruption – Such a fundamental problem in nearly every nation – surely the fight for justice is also a fight to see corrupt things get set straight?
  1. The Glorious Gospel – Surely one of the main injustices in our world today is that people have not had access to the gospel, I shouldn’t even put it in this list. This message that brings meaning to the wrong that we see and a solution to the evil in men’s hearts. With this transforming power combined with providing so many areas of the world access to the Bible is surely the most important thing? Especially as we look to the needs of the Islamic world? Yet this is still something we have to do.

I could go on, but even with this initial 17 can you prioritize them from most important to least important? Once you have done this, can you place all of these needs into the context of the busy world that we mentioned at the outset. Now answer the question what can individuals do about this whole list? I think everything on this list is noble and needs to be pursued, the thing is I think someone is lying if they say they are actively doing something about everyone of the items on the list and therefore I don’t think it is a good idea to shame other individuals if you see them not doing one of them.

There is, however, one specific way to get involved in all of these and that is through prayer. Prayer changes things. When heaven gets involved things often shift quicker than twenty years of hard slog.

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Exploring the Transfiguration

transfiguration

 

A little while ago I spent an evening looking at the Transfiguration, what actually happened on the mountain and what was its significance. If you are interested here is the video and audio (and some accompanying teaching notes)

Teaching Handout

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A Short History of Day and Night Prayer

Have you ever looked at the rising number of prayer rooms around the earth and wondered whether this was simply the latest fad or whether it could be squared with New Testament Ecclesiology. I recently spoke at an IHOPKC Encounter God Service to give doubters and those who are becoming vocational intercessors some historical precedent for what we do. Hopefully you will find it helpful

Streaming and downloadable audio only: 

Download the notes here

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My Problem with Church

When James I of England agreed to a new translation of the Bible, a translation which would eventually become the 1611 Authorised Version in the UK and more commonly known in North America as the King James Version, he had only two stipulations to the translation committee. The first was that he wanted to keep the transliteration of the word “Baptism” rather than using a translation such as “dunk” “plunge” or “immerse” and the second was that he wanted to keep the word “Church”. I have some challenges with this stipulation and that is what has led me to write this hopefully short blog.

ChurchVarious words were used in the New Testament to describe the new community that was established after the Holy Spirit fell at Pentecost. The Apostles use multiple metaphors to try and describe this “one new man”. The remnant of the faithful in Israel now had embraced Gentiles who had expressed faith in the Jewish Messiah. The most prevalent word that is used to describe this gathering is ekklesia. It was a common word, with no particular religious significance, it is alternately translated as “mob” in places where the context is a riot. Yet it was through this “ekklesia” of believers that “the manifold wisdom of God might be made known … to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). 

Whenever the word “church” appears in English translations of the Bible the Greek word being translated is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία),which actually means “called out ones” but is always used in the context of a gathering.The English word “church” however derives from another Greek word κυριακός‚ (kuriakos) which means “belonging to the Lord.” It is only used twice in the New Testament and both times are not related to our understanding of what the “Church” is: “When you come together, it is not the Lord’s (κυριακόν) supper that you eat.” (1 Cor. 11:20, ESV) and “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s (κυριακῆ) day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet.” (Rev. 1:10, ESV).

Because the building where the believers met together eventually became known as “the Lord’s house” (using Greek kuriakon), it entered into the German language as “kirche,” Anglo-Saxon as “circe,” and Middle English as “chirche.” With the advent of “Christendom” and the meshing together of political power with the church, the name “church” became very convenient. The church meant building, the church meant institution, the church meant control. The origins of the word meant this and that is indeed what the institutional church became. However this was not the original meaning of the simple “gathering” or “community” of believers and therefore in the Reformation both Luther and Tyndale translated ekklesia into words meaning community or congregation (in German this became germeinde).

When King James stipulated that the word NOT be translated as community or congregation he knew that the word “church” conjured very different connotations in English as it means either a building or an institution. James wanted to retain this meaning and held a deep hatred towards the Puritans who wanted to see a return to New Testament understandings instead of preferring the institutional power and grandeur of the Roman Catholic Church. The King James Version became not only the standard Bible translation, but it had a defining effect on the entire English language. It is hard to get away from the word – for the idea of word in the New Testament – the New Testament community – the bride of Christ is one of the most powerful groups of people that see the love of God on earth. But the institutional “Church” has not been this throughout history. It has at times in fact been the direct antithesis of this, committing the greatest atrocities known to man. However the challenges remain today in very subtle ways for Christians – how many Christians on a Sunday morning say they are “going to church” – it is unsurprising that many will think of a building when they refer to a church, because that is what it means. What about “I love Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I have to go to church” – this is a foreign concept if you think that salvation means being “born again” into a New Testament community, it is not a strange thing to say if the church is merely an institution or a building to attend.

But at the end of the day we are stuck with the decisions of our forbears to use the word and so perhaps the only way forward with our English word is redemption rather than rejection.

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Does God have One People or Two?

IsraelIs the nation of Israel still relevant today to believers in Jesus? Do those who are ethnic Jews have any place in the plans and purposes of God if they do not believe in Jesus? And what about the land of Israel — I cannot think of a more controversial piece of real estate on the planet — yet does Jerusalem and the land of Israel hold any special place in the heart of God that is different from Tallahassee or Peru? I believe the answers to these questions are important to the heart of God and they are not academic. I also believe the answers to these questions have direct impact upon the lives of Jews and Arabs in the land of Israel therefore they are truly not academic, however in answering the question I want to beg your forgiveness as I must get a little academic to begin with.

Did you grow up Dispensational - always afraid you would be Left Behind?

Did you grow up Dispensational – always afraid you would be Left Behind?

For the last hundred years in North America two very vocal hermeneutical positions have held sway in the church and both have come to different conclusions concerning the place of Israel. The Dispensational position has been supported by the likes of Dallas Theological Seminary, the Assemblies of God, TBN and the Left Behind series – a strong proponent of this position today would be John Hagee. This position has supported the political nation of Israel almost without criticism, the theological position of this group is that God has TWO peoples: Israel and the Church.

According to the traditional Dispensational position God made promises to Israel in the Old Testament which still apply today, however the Church is a different people that began on the day of Pentecost (some even see the birth of the Church taking place in Acts 8 or even 10 – when Gentiles are grafted in). The church will be whisked away by a secret rapture according to this view before an event called the Tribulation while Israel unfortunately will have to go through the great trouble coming to the earth. The extremes of this view, which most Dispensationals eschew, but which most of the opponents will say that this view leads to is “Dual Covenantism”, this essentially means that there are two ways of salvation. Christians are saved through the sacrifice of Jesus, whereas Jews are saved by virtue of their chosen status through the Abrahamic Covenant. I am of course generalizing here, but this means that Dispensational groups will visit Israel en masse, but will often be hesitant to support any form of evangelism to Jewish people.

New Reformed? You probably are influenced by Covenant Theology

New Reformed? You probably are influenced by Covenant Theology

The other hermeneutical position that has been very popular and vocal in recent years has been Covenant Theology. This position has been largely formed and adopted by the Reformed wing of the church – think Presbyterians, many Baptists etc. It holds that there are two (and oftentimes three) covenants that God made (although not explicit and not to be confused with the explicit covenants of Abraham, Moses, David etc). The “Covenant of Works” was the covenant made between God and Adam promising life for obedience and death for disobedience. The “Covenant of Grace” was subsequently made after the Fall of Man – where life is promised to all who put their faith in Jesus. An additional Covenant of Redemption is often added to this framework, which is a covenant made between God the Father and God the Son about the way that the redemption of humanity would come about through the death of the Son. Humanity has therefore related to God since the Fall of Man according to this schema under the Covenant of Grace.

Under this position the church is simply a continuation of the people or assembly of God found during Old Testament times. The “qahal” of Israel is the beginning of the “church” in Old Testament times, then because of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus the qahal or ekklesia of God’s people is now Jew and Gentile – one new man in Christ. There is not two people of God, there is clearly one. The extremes with this position is that there is no longer any significance for Jews or the land of Israel because the ekklesia of God and Israel are synonymous and the chosen people are now the church and in such way the ekklesia has “replaced” the blessings that were previously promised to ethnic Israel who had been given the land of Israel as an eternal inheritance. While those who hold dispensationalism do not like being daubed with the “Dual Covenant” brush, likewise those who hold to Covenant Theology will try to evade the “Replacement Theology” tag.

Confused yet? Does God have one people or two? At the heart of much theology is paradox and it is important that we don’t come down too heavily on one side for if we do we will only get part of the story and while this isn’t really paradox it does need nuance. For I believe the answer to the one or two people question is “both”. But you can’t have it both ways I hear you respond impatiently it logically has to be one or the other. Let me respond first by saying what I do not believe about the two people arguments of some dispensationalists. There is only one way of salvation through the blood of the Jewish Messiah. There are not two ways of salvation, furthermore I don’t believe that the “church” will be whisked away for the tribulation leaving the second people of God – the Jews on the earth. There is only one new man in Christ that will be ultimately saved. There is only one people of God ultimately.

However as I read both the Old and the New Testament I am convinced that the “church” (I actually hate our English word “church” and the historical baggage it brings, but that is a rant for another time) was hidden from ages past and was only really “revealed” in the first century after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This initial gathering was nearly entirely Jewish in nature, and reflected something that has always been true in the history of Israel – the elect in Israel are always a remnant of the faithful (which is why we find Hebrews from the Exodus dying in the wilderness through unbelief). As time went on more and more Gentiles were grafted into the Ekklesia, however I do still believe that the entirety of the ethnic Jewish nation (including currently unbelieving Jews) is what most of the references to Israel were made in the New Testament. With this being the case although I hold to one people of God, there is still a truth that there are promises made to unsaved ethnic Jews, which are different to unsaved ethnic Peruvians.

israel_treeThe picture Paul paints for us in Romans 11 is instructive. He is giving an analogy about a tree – how many trees does Paul talk about? It is possible to answer the main answer is that there is one tree, however the answer has to be a little more nuanced than that. The analogy begins with a natural olive tree that represents ethnic Israel. This is a chosen tree. This is a tree that is actually “holy” in terms of it being chosen and separated for God’s purposes – this is not the case for the wild branches that will be grafted in subsequently – prior to their grafting in they are not to be considered “holy” or “chosen”. The analogy finishes with another tree – it is a hybrid tree, it is not a completely natural tree. This hybrid tree is ultimately the tree that will be saved. The one new man in Christ.

If we apply this analogy to the “unsaved Jew” and the “unsaved Gentile”, it is clear we see there are differences. The unsaved Jew is chosen until he rejects the salvation that is offered through the blood of Jesus. The unsaved Gentile is not chosen until he accepts the salvation found through Jesus Christ. There is therefore a truth to the fact that God has chosen both the natural and the hybrid tree – although ultimately (and eternally) it is only the hybrid tree that will enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The blessings of this include the land of Israel which I have not mentioned hitherto now, yet the land is a hugely important component of the blessing of all the covenants of God and will ultimately be fulfilled by the Son of God returning to earth and ruling from Jerusalem. Therefore both the unsaved Jew is still “chosen” in one sense and the land of Israel is also still chosen and it is important for those of us who are grafted into this hybrid tree to never forget. Israel is important in the heart of God and for that reason must be important to us.

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Act of Killing and the Judeo-Christian Heritage we should not despise

Act of KillingThe Act of Killing is a hard to watch, thought provoking 2012 documentary which won Best Documentary at the 2014 Bafta Awards. It follows certain Indonesian ‘death-squad’ leaders from the 1965-66 purge which saw 500,000 killed in the space of a year. The documentary makers follow these guys as they chillingly re-enact some of their heinous crimes. As I said it is not an enjoyable watch. It becomes somewhat surreal in places, as they are trying to create a “movie” of these recreations. These “gangsters” as they are called are still somewhat revered by the authorities in Indonesia today. It made me think it would almost be like meeting up with ex-Nazi’s in South America and filming them re-enact some of their crimes – not for the faint of heart, but certainly thought provoking.

The reason it got me thinking was due to a comment by one of these murdering “gangsters” who questioned the standards by which society judges such crimes. He essentially said he cared little for the Geneva Conventions – tomorrow it might be the Jakarta Convention. He said it was the “winners” who enforced such standards. This made me think about some of the discoveries that were made in the making of the Nefarious Documentary. When the team went to South East Asia, it found that in some of the countries the practice of selling daughters into sex slavery was not only prevalent, but it was to a large extent an accepted part of the culture. When it is ingrained into a society that accepts these positions as Karma, and nobody even questions such behaviour as “wrong” it becomes very difficult to break rings of violence and evil.

Which brings us back to the Geneva Conventions and indeed much of what we consider to be right and wrong in Western Culture. Much of these standards owe much to the Judeo-Christian heritage that has prevailed in Europe for nearly the past millennia and in North America for the past 300-400 years. That is not to say that these places have been free from mass abuses of power and massive tyranny at times. But the basis for right, wrong, mercy and forgiveness, were largely set by the assumptions of this heritage. We actually have much to be thankful for. It is these standards that informed things like the Geneva Convention. Although I believe many of these standards come ultimately from God, there is nothing to stop us from rejecting this heritage and dispensing with these standards over time. However I think that as I ponder the lessons from South East Asia in these two documentaries, dispensing with objective truth and such Christian values does not bode well for our society.

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My Top Ten Book List

So I love reading. I can’t really pick one book that is my favorite. However I thought I would write a blog about my top ten books. Yet even as I start this I am breaking the rules. In nearly all of them I have picked an author, rather than a book. If I find a good author I tend to read nearly everything that they have written. Another disclaimer I need to make – this is a top ten, but I can’t in good conscience say that they are in order of preference, because I don’t really have a number one book of all time (excepting the Bible of course), but at least I’ve made an attempt –  here goes:

unlocking-the-bible10. Unlocking the Bible by David Pawson

I recommend all Christians to have this on their bookshelf. I obviously have an enormous spiritual debt to David Pawson, I would put him as one of the formative spiritual fathers that have shaped my theology. If you can’t afford the book go to davidpawson.org and listen to David teach – you won’t regret it.

Tipping Point

           9. Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is a fine and exceedingly interesting writer. Although I have to admit, I kind of like popular psychology (which Gladwell revels in). I have read all his books and many of his New Yorker articles. If you haven’t read him, get one of his books. The Tipping Point is a good starting place.

peace-child

8. Peace Child by Don Richardson

I grew up reading old biographies of the Wesley’s, Edwards, Finney’s etc and missionary biographies. I’m reading a great one at the moment entitled The Insanity of God by Nik Ripken. I encourage anyone to have their faith stirred by such missionary tales. Peace Child is fairly old now, but the tale of a missions effort to a tribe of cannibals was truly compelling.

Advantage

7. The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni

I am a bit of a sucker for business management books, from the Seven Habits to Getting Things Done (which I would highly recommend). In this genre Patrick Lencioni is my new favorite and The Advantage is the new book which combines much of his older teaching on organizational health which is                                                   a must read.

till we have faces

6. Till We Have Faces by C.S.Lewis

I have loved C.S. Lewis since I was a child saving up pocket money to buy the next installment of Narnia, then in my teenage years reading through many of Lewis’s Christian books. I could have included Mere Christianity here, Screwtape or the Space Trilogy, but I have always had a soft spot for this myth retold – Till We Have Faces. I might also squeeze in Lord of the Rings by Tolkien on this entry, but that seems like something of  a cheat.

Apostolic Foundations

 5. Apostolic Foundations by Art Katz

I met Art Katz a few times when he came to IHOPKC. I found his messages meaty. But I have to say his writing needs to be read and then read again. Apostolic Foundations is a classic.

 

 

 

tale of three kings 4. Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards

A made up story by Gene Edwards about King David’s approach to Saul and Absalom. A study in brokenness and humility. I loved this book as well as some of Edwards other books like the Divine Romance however there are some books which Edwards has written, which I would not recommend as they come off angry and unhelpful.

Moments

3. Moments with the Savior by Ken Gire

This is a beautifully written book, as are some of the other titles by Gire which are well worth getting like Windows of the Soul and The Reflective Life. This one simply focuses on Jesus.

 

 

Passion for Jesus

2.  Passion for Jesus by Mike Bickle

This is another spiritual indebtedness thing. I have been more impacted by Mike Bickle spiritually than nearly any other man. Mike has several books. The Seven Commitments of a Forerunner is a book which deserves a much bigger readership, however if you are just starting the Mike, Passion for Jesus is a good place to start.

Prodigal God

 1. The Prodigal God by Tim Keller – I love all things Timothy Keller. I would particularly recommend Center Church, The Meaning of Marriage, Reason for God and Counterfeit Gods, however I have read The Prodigal God about 3-4 times in the past year and it is a great overview of the Gospel of Grace.

 

 

So there you have it – the Top Ten. I must make some honorable mentions to John Piper and Desiring God and What Jesus Demands of the World, N.T. Wright, The Heavenly Man and a multitude of History books – but there you have it. Which ones do you like?

If people are interested I could do my top ten history books…. but not sure if that would be as interesting to as many.

 

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