Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Church (Page 2 of 5)

Going deep

Coelho woundsA few days ago, I saw a video shared on Facebook about the way in which God pursues relationship with us. On one level, it was just another faintly cheesy God-thinks-you’re-worth-it video that could easily be dismissed as yet more Christian schmaltz. But the voiceover included one phrase that resonated deeply with something embedded deep in my understanding and experience.

In seeking to account for our fallen human state, as demonstrated by our endless capacity for misunderstanding, rivalry and one-upmanship, this video spoke of our sense of lack and incompleteness.

This is something I find to be true not because it says so in the Bible, but because I know it in my own life.

We can all think of extreme manifestations of this lack and our attempts to fill it: the alcoholic who tries to quell the unbearable awfulness of reality through drink; the drug addict who seeks to numb her existential pain by injecting mind-altering toxins into her blood stream; the compulsive porn user who retreats from the complexity and pain of real-world relationships into the comforting virtual arms of a non-existent lover.

These are arguably all cases of our prevailing sense of lack and incompleteness driving us to seek comfort in some easily attainable temporal refuge.

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On corporate worship and dualism

WorshipFor most of my nearly thirty years in the Pentecostal church, I’ve been involved in worship music, for much of that time as a worship leader. Only in the past year or so have I laid down my guitar, piano and microphone and taken a big step back. And as I have, my perspective has begun to change.

Let me first say this: I believe in both the value and the power of corporate worship.

I believe that corporate worship is of great value because it unites us as the worshipping church, takes our focus off the individual, reminds us of God’s eternal attributes and instils a renewed sense of corporate purpose.

I believe that corporate worship is powerful because something happens when we come together as the gathered people of God that transcends the individual and the commonplace. Times of corporate worship can lift us into new realms of awareness of the beauty and majesty of God and inspire us afresh as we seek to walk out our calling from Monday to Saturday.

I’ve experienced some amazing, awe-inspiring, spine-tingling moments in corporate worship, when the presence of God seemed so thick you could feel its weight and the whole world took on a different and holier hue afterwards.

But… having said all that, I’ve been wondering. Specifically, I’ve been wondering about just how much of our worship, particularly in emotionally charged charismatic settings, is dualistic.

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On ministry, status and church culture

Hamster wheelAs I write this in September 2014, it’s not far off thirty years since I became a Christian and church went from being something I had rarely experienced to becoming a very big part of my life. If I could have a pound (or a dollar) for every hour spent in a church building or church meeting (or otherwise doing “church work”) since then, I could probably retire and live the high life until I die.

For pretty much all of that thirty-year period, I have been involved in some form of what is generally referred to as “ministry”. For me, this has mainly consisted of leading worship and playing in a worship band. However, I have also participated in running kids’ outreach, leading home groups, leading Sunday gatherings and preaching. I was also part of a church’s team of leaders/elders for a few years. The last few months have really been the only period during which I have not engaged in some kind of ministry, preferring instead to simply attend church on a Sunday.

Now, before I go on to say what I want to say, let me first clarify something: I do not wish to imply that all ministry is futile or misdirected. Nor do I wish to suggest that the institutional church is without merit, or cast aspersions on the motivations of anyone involved in ministry. I have benefited immensely from my journey through the church, and I know many people who sincerely and tirelessly seek to serve God by serving others in their faith communities. Not to mention many who have found compassion, love and healing through the institutional church. (I say this because some will inevitably assume that I have an axe to grind and am simply airing a bad case of sour grapes against the church. Not so.)

Having had a few months out of active “ministry”, and having at the same time had a good portion of my theological thinking deconstructed and rearranged, I find that my perspective on ministry involvement in church has evolved somewhat.

You see, with the benefit of thirty years’ hindsight and the increased clarity that comes from stepping back for a few months, I’ve begun to see some worrying aspects of the “ministry culture” that is found in many charismatic and Pentecostal churches.

We like to pretend that everyone in church is equal, that we are all simply using our various gifts to serve God together in a variety of ways. Indeed, I’ve often heard it said from the pulpit that the person who cleans the toilets is just as important as the pastor or the preacher. In practice, however, the reality is often rather different.

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Religion as reality avoidance

AddictAmerican shame researcher Brené Brown describes the current generation of adults as “the most obese, in debt, medicated and addicted adults in human history”. I don’t think I know many people who would seriously disagree with that assessment.

What’s driving this trend? I would say it basically boils down to one thing: reality avoidance. The world is just too painful and difficult a place, so rather than deal with the distressing reality of it, we find all kinds of creative ways to distract and numb ourselves.

Some go shopping, even when they don’t really need anything and can’t afford it anyway (sometimes half-jokingly but tellingly referred to as “retail therapy”). Others begin to indulge in eating sweet or fatty foods; at first, they find comfort in it, but it soon morphs into something they need in order to survive. Many immerse themselves in social media, spending every spare moment presenting a curated version of themselves to the world, all the while carefully hiding their true selves. Some are addicted to work; for others, it might be porn or sex; still others find themselves enslaved to alcohol or drugs.

In one form or another, addiction is all around us.

(As a bit of an aside, you might think the world has surely always been just as painful as it is now, if not more painful. I would agree with you. In which case, why the recent massive increase in addictive and compulsive behaviours? I’d say the key difference is that we now live in an age that is driven more than ever before by image. From TV and magazine ads and celebrity idols to the carefully crafted perfect personas with which we are bombarded hour after hour on Facebook, we are surrounded by unrelenting pressure to look the best, be the best, know the most, earn the most, have the nicest house, raise the nicest kids. And, conveniently, the consumer model quickly steps in to constantly pepper us with an array of products and services that will help us achieve those very things. It’s a double whammy: we feel more pressured than ever before to live up to an idealised image, and we’re offered more promises than ever before to help us do it. The prevalence of addictive and compulsive behaviours is simply evidence that these promises never deliver.)

But there’s another form of addiction that I haven’t mentioned so far, yet which is very common and very subtle – and which serves exactly the same purpose as all the other addictions we’ve already talked about. I’m talking about being addicted to religion.

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Power, but not as we know it


This coming Sunday is an important day on the Christian calendar: it’s the day when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

You can read about it in Acts 2, but let me give you the gist. In the greatest reversal of all time, Jesus, after being put to an ignominious death by lynch mob, is raised to life on the third day. He spends forty days appearing to his disciples and various others, before finally ascending to the right hand of the Father. But before his ascension, he instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem, where he promises to send the Holy Spirit to them.

Ten days later, the disciples are all gathered in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit is poured out on them as promised. It’s an amazing and thoroughly supernatural phenomenon, attested by tongues of fire and the disciples’ sudden ability to speak in other languages. Peter is emboldened to address the many curious onlookers who have converged to witness this strange event, and around three thousand people are added to the church that day. (I’d say that’s some pretty impressive church growth!)

Now that I’ve set the scene of what the Day of Pentecost is all about, I can get to the main thrust of what I want to say.

Earlier today, one UK Christian leader (it really doesn’t matter who) tweeted the following:

Pentecost remains the power for the church. We need strategy, leadership training, excellence and creativity, but more than anything his power.

Before I go on, let me make it completely clear that my purpose in this post is not to criticise or decry this leader or his tweet. Having said that, however, his words did give me food for thought.

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Forgiven sinners

Fisheye churchThis is the penultimate post in our ongoing survey of the final chapters of Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus (full review here; click here to link to all posts in the series).

Let’s jump right in with today’s quote from the final chapter of Simply Jesus:

The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing great work. It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’ kingdom in every way they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task. The moment any Christian, particularly any Christian leader, forgets that — the moment any of us imagine that we are automatically special or above the dangers and temptations that afflict ordinary mortals — that is the moment when we are in gravest danger. Peter’s disastrous, humiliating crash came an hour or two after he had declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

You might well read the above paragraph and think it says nothing that isn’t perfectly obvious. However, there is a big implication for the church.

If you asked many non-religious folks their opinion of Christians, you would undoubtedly get a wide range of answers. However, a good chunk of those answers would surely be along the lines that Christians are a bunch of holier-than-thou do-gooders, people who consider themselves morally a cut above the average Joe or Jane and who spend their lives looking down their noses at the moral inadequacy of those not so enlightened as they are. This view may appear to be based on a caricature, but it’s the view that a lot of people hold, and one has to assume that they mostly have at least some reason for holding it.

Jesus spent his time hanging out with people who were transparently bad and/or messed up in a variety of ways. When he was referred to as the “friend of sinners”, this was not a compliment. Furthermore, the twelve men he chose to be his closest associates and into whom he poured his life and teaching were a motley band of liars, hot-heads, deniers and betrayers.

And so we seemingly have a major disconnect. On the one hand, the Jesus of first century Palestine kept community with all manner of social misfits, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells; on the other hand; the community of Jesus in the twenty-first century (the church) is largely seen as being made up of self-important morality police.

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This is the table, not of the church, but of the Lord.
It is made ready for those who love him
And for those who want to love him more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often and you who have not been here long,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, because it is the Lord who invites you.
It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.

(I have come across this communion invitation in a number of places, but have not been able to establish its origins or authorship. If you have can throw any light on this, I’d love to know.)

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