I lead a missional community called Gathered here in Nottingham, and I was recently having a discussion with the other leader about what we could do to challenge the community more. The word ‘mission’ was getting used a lot, and it quickly became clear that we were talking about different things.
‘Mission’ is very often used as a synonym for ‘evangelism’. We think of ‘missionaries’, we think of people who go and convert people to Christianity. Evangelism is a very important part of mission, but it’s not all there is to it.
A good working definition of ‘mission’, for me, is ‘taking part in God’s big story’ – the one that starts with Creation and continues through Judgement Day to eternity. We’ve got some pretty big clues about what God’s vision for the world is. Part of that is everyone becoming Christian. But along the way, feeding the poor and clothing the naked rank pretty high. One of the other missional communities in my church helps out at the local winter shelter, and that’s absolutely fantastic, and as much ‘mission’ as evangelising people. So far, so uncontroversial.
One of the ideas that we have, and that I hope we can bring to fruition, is to join a local gaming community; our board games night is one of our most popular activities and what better way to do mission than to find other people who enjoy the same things that we do. Responses have varied from ‘oh, cool!’ to ‘but, what will we achieve?’. My own thoughts moved along the same lines, and it’s in no small part down to my wonderful fiancée that I’ve come round to the idea.
I have a bad habit of planning things. Or rather, over-planning. I don’t like to use my scarce resources if I don’t know how I’m going to achieve my aims, and even less so if I don’t know what my aims are. Esther made me realise that actually, it’s not me that does the achieving, it’s God.
So, what’re our aims in joining the gaming group? Firstly, it’s to become part of the community, to help it flourish. That tends to happens when people with community in their blood turn up. Secondly, it’s to bless that community. And then, it’s to see where God wants to take it. Maybe that’ll be some crossover into the Gathered games night and social life. Maybe it’ll be people from that group starting to take an interest in faith. Or maybe it’ll just be that we’ve invested lots of time and prayer and leadership development and discipleship development into making some friends. How terrible!
If you’re wondering how this is going to lead back to the title, so am I. I think that any time we make the world more like how God dreams of it being, we’re being missional and we’re accomplishing the mission. Sometimes, the method and the outcomes are clear from the start. Sometimes, though, you just have to follow the opportunities that present themselves and do the day-to-day stuff that we know how to, and see where God leads. Because he’s after his dream as well.
If my old biology teacher knew that her lessons on microbiology and human physiology were formative in my understanding of God, she’d probably have some kind of aneurism. But, it’s true, and let me to one of the most fundamental things that underpins my understanding of the world – if your faith conflicts with your science, you’re doing them both wrong.
Yes, you read that right. If your faith conflicts with your science, you’re doing them both wrong.
Exhale that sharp intake of breath, put aside your favourite sentence that starts with “But what about…”, and read on.
Imagine, if you can, 18-year-old me. There I was, young, fresh-faced, my hair short and merely spiky and my zealous faith brand new. It took every fibre of my being to avoid arguing with my teachers; “But the Bible says…” was my catchphrase. “Evolution is just a theory, being scientific means considering all alternatives” passed my lips. I’d fallen victim to Doing Faith Wrong.
This drove my friends mad. Dawkins was brandished, websites picking apart the logical holes in the Bible were linked to. Deep arguments were had; fun, but the reason we have a 2-drink rule before discussing religion. They’d fallen victim to Doing Science Wrong.
Science is “a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.” (Wikipedia, derived from the Miriam Webster dictionary). Contrary to popular belief and the media presence of some scientists, science is humble. Science is about offering explanations, and saying to your peers “this is what I think; do you think I’m wrong?”. Science is about ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘where’. For a Christian, science is about learning about God’s creation. I sat in biology class many years ago and marvelled at how God had created these systems that made life work. I found new enthusiasm for my studies when I realised that I wasn’t just learning about the world, I was learning about the world that God – the God who I worship, whom I love – created. Science is, for me, an integral part of my faith life. It’s through science that I find wonder; I thank God for the sunset, knowing that he has engineered it. Billions of years of evolution and planetary development mean that I’m in the right place at the right time and with the right biology to be able to go ‘wow’. Are there almost uncountable other worlds in the wrong place, infinite other ways that we could have gone on every step on the way? Sure. But I’m just the incredibly blessed one to be the one that made it here.
Faith is “the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.” (Hebrews 11:1). Faith is about ‘why’, and ‘who’. For the Christian, faith is about being part of an order that is beyond human comprehension. Faith is crazy; why would I be assured of something I can’t see? Can’t test? Behaves differently under identical parameters? Is based on what people say and what people long dead have written? Simple. It’s because having been told, I’ve explored – and found enough to convince me that there’s more to reality that the universe. Faith is an integral part of my science life, because it’s why I bother. It’s what drives me, what makes me want to know. Do you need to believe in God to want to understand what makes the sky blue? Of course not – but wanting to understand is part of who we are.
So far, I’ve dealt with the two in isolation. But, of course, the reality is that they’re deeply intertwined at a deep level – you cannot be human and engage only with science or existential questions of reality. Dawkins, et al. take science and attempt to apply it to understanding the full gamut of human reality. They fail, because science does not, and should not, attempt to address existential questions. Science’s domain is clearly defined; to attempt to expand that is to Do It Wrong. Creationism and a whole host of faith-based attempts at para-science fall flat on their face because the Bible is not a science textbook. If faith is being sure of what we cannot see, it’s Doing It Wrong to try to use it to be sure of what we can see.
So, go. Explore science. Explore what it means to be human. Don’t try to separate them, or make one fill the gap of the other. Do It Right.
One of the strangest beliefs that I find circulating around the church is that it’s ok to cite laws found in various places in the Old Testament (mostly Exodus and Leviticus, when the ancient Israelites were in exile or wandering around the desert) with the same authority as commandments found elsewhere in the same, and other, books. These laws pertain to lots of areas of everyday life – from what foods to eat, to how to stay hygenic, to how to conduct relationships. Recently, I’ve found myself with the need to put my beliefs on the matter into words in a Facebook post – and it seems to have turned into a blog post. So, how can Christians reconcile the death penalty for homosexuality in Leviticus 20:31 with a loving God, without compromising on ‘Thou shalt not kill’? How can Christians look at a book that tells women on their periods to avoid social contact, and say that it’s a book that puts relationships first? How can anyone who calls themselves Christian believe that homosexuality is wrong?
A few thousand years ago, in a country a few thousand miles away, God’s people were on the move. God hadn’t yet blessed humanity with modern medicine, his people were rather fond of fighting wars, and they had the unfortunate privilege of calling the Ancient Middle Eastern equivalent of Spaghetti Junction ‘home’. Except, instead of mild-mannered road rage, people rather liked slaughtering each other for their space on the road. Metaphor laboured, let’s move on.
God loved his people, and he cared for them. He provided fantastic health advice (before veterinary medicine, a do-not-eat list of animals was a good idea), he provided for their well-being, and he provided a working and appropriate legal system. Some things that we have the privilege of today weren’t options; homosexuals weren’t able to raise children (see above comment on wars as to why children were more important than relationship choices), women who were raped couldn’t have abortions without even more damage (see also: why lots of children are useful when you’re fighting wars), heck, even outlawing masturbation helped keep the birth rate up. It really sucked that having lots of babies took precedence over being able to love who you loved, but times were hard.
This isn’t ancient Israel. Christians aren’t bound by Jewish law (Mark 7 is the basis of that, but there’s plenty more to it than that; I’m not sinning by proof-texting here). So we’re left with our God-given creativity and God-given powers of interpretation and God-given Holy Spirit to work out what to make of a large chunk of our God-given Scripture. God took a day-to-day interest in the lives of the ancient nation of Israel – they were a young nation who kept on getting it wrong, so they needed guidance. God gave it. Times have changed; we’re ok without a constant stream of babies to go off and fight wars, but God still cares about what we do. So, let’s go and ask the question of ‘What are the things that get in the way of our perfect relationship with God today?’. I’d wager that stoning the gays doesn’t feature in that.
So why are these laws even in the modern Bible? If they’re outdated, does that mean they’re meaningless? If they’re meaningful, why am I saying that we shouldn’t stone gay people to death? Jesus touched on the subject when he was alive. [A Pharisee lawyer] asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 22:34-40)
Jesus, who we are told is God’s Word made flesh, tells us that all of Jewish law hangs on these two great commandments. They’re the basis; the principle upon which the law in the Old Testament was founded. OT law was one example of those principles in practice – as Christians now, we need to see how God applied those principles to ancient Israel, to work out how to apply them now. He’s given us brains, examples, generations of wise believers, and his Holy Spirit to guide us – to ignore all that and prefer rules that weren’t for us, is to pass on the joy that life with Him brings.
So, a very long time ago, I promised the rector at my church that I’d write a blog post to follow up on our conversation at a lunch where we discussed the role of heavy music in the life of a Christian; given the genre’s image of links with the occult, violence and anger. It rather slipped my mind, until I was at Meltdown last weekend – a fantastic Christian heavy music retreat ( http://meltdownmusic.co.uk ) – and I decided I should probably give it some thought. However, having just met a load of Christian hard music fans, I figured I’d get their input too. Saves me writing too much, right?
So, first up. Heavy music is all about anger and death and Satan, right? How can that fit with a faith in a God who is loving and caring and believes in peace and harmony? One thing that stood out from the people I know who are into this music and Christian is that they find that there is some heavy music that they just can’t listen to as Christians; I’ve certainly found that in my own life. Lisa says.. “I simply loved NIN – yet the Holy Spirit convicted me; I had to stop listening to them due to their lyrics…Some were blasphemous and so I just had to stop….”, and Michael points out that “[m]any secular tracks are incompatible with my faith. In-reality though, the soft generic lyrics of ‘middle of the road’ pop songs are exactly that; soft, so their incompatibility is generally not offensive”. Heavy music lends itself to depth and substance; that’s going to lead artists to deal with the extremes of the human condition.
But is it really dealing with it? Galatians 5:22-23 says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control”. Love, joy, peace and kindness aren’t the first words that would come to mind when listening to someone growling into a mic on top of screaming guitars and heavy drums. I think that there are two answers to this: firstly, heavy music requires you to go deeper but, as a medium, doesn’t exclude those positive things; secondly, Jesus’ language and actions were not always peaceful, so perhaps we need to rethink how we consider exactly what ‘fullness of life’ means.
Oftentimes, the joy in a heavy song isn’t as obvious as in a classic Redman praise chorus, but is a result of what’s being sung about. Lisa says “I can enjoy bands such as DC TALK (when they used to be together[)] with their song “Consume me” […] I can worship so deeply to God via that song….It brings about happy emotion, sometimes a heaviness in my heart because I want the Holy Spirit to Consume me far more than what I have allowed thus far…”. Mike points to the band Wolves At The Gate – their lyrics are very positive; discussing hope in a God who is an anchor, a steady and solid and reliable support:-
“As the waves crash over and over
You are my anchor
Every gale I meet
The plight of all the seas can’t separate me
For all I have is Yours”
Part of being stable human being is knowing where you can go and be safe; physically, mentally and emotionally. For Christians, that’s in God; for some that’s his word in the Bible, for others it’s in Hillsong, for others it’s among heavy music.
In part 2: Anger, Heavy Music and Jesus.
So, I’ve finally gotten around to a bit of reading this evening; at Tim’s recommendation, I’m ploughing through Culture Making in the hope that Crouch will come to some kind of point sometime soon. I’m 120 pages in, and I’m assured it’s coming in about 60 more! I’ve just read through some chapters that talk about the beginning and the end of the Bible story – from Eden to the new Jerusalem, and how in the middle, God constantly gives his created people enough space to be creative, to make mistakes, to turn away or to turn towards him.
Any time I think about the Biblical narrative as a single story I’m brought back to the idea that God’s big story for creation is like a Shakespeare play for which the fourth act has been mostly lost. We know the first three acts; we know how it all starts and we have stories that have developed our characters. We know the final act; we know how it ends. We know Shakespeare; we know what he’s like. Our role in the story is to act in a way that fits in with that fourth act; to draw on our experience and creativity to produce something that fits into the gap. It’s because of this that I’m convinced that narrative theology is so important – it’s possible to argue almost anything with the Bible, but if it doesn’t fit into the story of the Bible and what we know of God outside of Scripture, it’s probably wrong.
I find myself arguing against principles with this on a regular basis, even if the person I’m arguing with believes in the same end result as me. Let’s take a classic example; drug abuse. It’s possible to synthesise a great Biblical argument that drug abuse is wrong – Paul talks about personal responsibility with alcohol, the body is described as a temple, and so on; a nice, neat, logical argument. Unfortunately, I distrust nice, neat, logical arguments when they relate to God. They don’t fit. Throughout the Bible, doing theology seems to be the messiest affair possible; and I’m pretty sure it’s intentional. The least obvious people were chosen for the biggest jobs; Israel was a tiny nation that was constantly kept small but had to fend off rich, advanced empires from all angles; they had to rely on God in very public, very obvious, very pragmatic ways to make their faith work, and as a result they played a pivotal role. They kept on messing it up, and God kept on finding ways to make it right; they had to be creative to survive, but to learn to rely on God as well.
Rather than trying to synthesise an argument against drug abuse, I’ll make a much less coherent argument that draws from lots of sources. Scripture says the body is a temple, but it also talks about Jesus feeding guests at a wedding wine that was probably laced with THC and opiates. Well, there goes a British cultural norm for drug acceptability! Paul talks about not getting drunk, and I know from the experience of myself and others, that being drunk can lead to doing stupid things. So, I conclude, unsurprisingly, that it’s not a good idea. Is it wrong to abuse drugs? I have no idea; I don’t think it’s a case of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ anywhere as much as we think it is. Is it a good idea? Does it fit with what I know of God? Definitely not.
Thinking about issues like this feels messy. And it feeling messy feels like it fits. Theology is messy!
A friend recently posed a common question on Facebook – ‘How do we live with integrity in a digital culture?’. ‘Ah ha!’, I thought, ‘I can contribute to this discussion!’. What I wrote surprised me, but rather than hijacking her Facebook wall with my ramblings, I’m going to blog instead. Incidentally, if you don’t follow her on Twitter, do – @revjoannecox.
My answer, slightly abridged, was “I’d have to ask for more clarity on what you mean by ‘a digital culture’. We live in cultures that use digitally mediated communications at various levels, and those that do not see digital communication as ‘special’ are those that I would consider to be ‘digital cultures’, but the same rules regarding integrity apply as to those cultures where digital comms aren’t prevalent. I often find it unhelpful to define a culture by its digital-ness, as that’s not usually its defining characteristic. IMHO.”
Let me give you some background. A lot of the current thinking on how the church should address such issues comes from the early writing on the subject (Carega – eMinistry, etc), when the way in which the Internet was seen was as another world, one entered through the portal of a computer, and interacted with and then left along. Although there’s been a lot of writing since, it’s largely been from a slightly adversarial position, as if these new ways of communicating were something a bit scary, something to be treated with suspicion, and with a greater impact in and of themselves than we’d give them credit for. To an extent, that’s true.
Empiricist technophiles will typically describe a communications medium as neutral – flashes of light going down a piece of glass (which is basically what fiber optic is!) aren’t intelligent enough to be good or evil, they’re just light. Those of a more philosophical bent will look at the technology as a cultural artefact – what does it mean for a technology to exist, how does its existence change the shape of the world? For me, it’s a question of people. How do people behave in a reality where this technology exists? What do they make from the world around them?
There’s nothing new about the changes that we’re seeing. They’re nothing scarier than what’s come before. So we live in a world where I can have a video chat with someone the other side of the world, commit fraud in the UK from Nigeria, and read the guy upstairs’ email because he doesn’t understand wireless security. What do we make of that? How does that change things? For one of the cultures that I’m part of, the Nottingham alternative scene, that means that our events can be organised and promoted with minimal financial cost, that the music we listen to in clubs can equally come from YouTube videos as the DJs CD collection, and we relate to each other as much over Facebook chat and SMS as we do going round to each others houses to drink. Is this a ‘digital culture’? Definitely. What does it mean to live with integrity (implicitly, I’m taking this to be in a Christian context) in this culture? It means investing in relationships – sometimes mediated through SMS or MSN, sometimes face-to-face. It’s different from a culture where Facebook didn’t exist, because I can find out things about someone ‘from them’ without ever actually interacting with them; but actually, being aware of that means that I realise that I’m equipped for this. I can do relationships, the digital bit is just another way to interact.
I’m up to my 600 words at which point even I stop reading. I’m sure I’ll think about this more.
I’ve been running tekton.ic, a ministry to the Notts alt scene, for about three months now, and although there’s been a lot of positive sounds from people involved, it’s felt like there’s been a certain lack of purpose and direction to the work that’s bugged me. On the one hand, I don’t want to be too prescriptive – I don’t want to rigidly come up with a master plan that must be followed, with aims and objectives and stages and numerical criteria by which I can assess my success. On the other hand, I don’t want to be so vague and undefined as to make my work nothing more than ‘a few people who go drinking occasionally’.
We have a principle at work – ‘talk to your teddy’. Sometimes it takes someone to just listen to you and occasionally point out the obvious, to make it clear where you’re going wrong. Of course tekton.ic is aimless – I’ve not defined an aim for it! In my desire to give it the freedom to be whatever it will be, I’ve not set any structure in place, or given it any tools.
And so, I turn to people who write books on the subject – in this case, Joseph Myers, and his excellent Organic Community. In the very first chapter, he talks about the dangers of a master plan, and encourages a mindset of organic community building. Instead of asking ‘where are we going?’, which requires an answer that’s some form of ‘There!”, an organic community asks “What are we hoping for?”, which lends itself to much more creative answers. Later on, he talks about descriptive rather than prescriptive language (“It looks like this” rather than “it will behave like that”) , and finally, moving from being a programmer to a creator of an environment.
I met with someone today who said very similar things, and whose wise words prompted me to pick up OC again. He suggested that I write down my overall vision for my ideal world looks like, the values that drive me towards that vision, and what I believe the next step is. With those in mind, I have something to show people that I talk to – and the process of creating them will in itself be instructive and encouraging.
I’m gonna go make a first attempt at those things now. Wish me luck!
It’s a fairly regular occurrence that I read about an exciting new ministry wanting to minister to people ‘where they’re at’. Aside from the terrible grammar, I broadly agree. I think it’s really important that we follow models of ministry that focus on going to where people are and minister to them in their own particular situations, rather than attempting to attract them to our own little world. Reading through the Gospels and the accounts of the early church I see very little imperative to extract people from their lives to follow Christ, but rather countless examples of ways in which people’s lives are transformed by following Christ – often it involves their situation changing, but that comes as a result of following, rather than as a prerequisite. I actually find it quite arrogant to try to attract people – there’s ways of following Christ that are as alien to me as my church would be to a lot of people, so I can’t for a second hold up how we do it as in any way particularly special. I also hear a lot about how people are spending more time online – it doesn’t take a huge leap of logic to say that people are online, the church should be where people are at, therefore we should set up ministries to this hoard of people online, right? I mean, just take Facebook – half a billion people all in one place, what else does an evangelist want?
The problem is, that to meet people ‘where they’re at’ requires them to be somewhere – to say that being logged into Facebook is being somewhere just doesn’t work. It’s a fallacy to mentally model websites on physical meeting places, however tempting it may be. Internet pioneers and early observers did just that – anyone remember the original GeoCities? It was organised into streets (topics), and you had an address on that street. It was fantastic, but how often did you actually ‘walk’ down the ‘street’, and how often did you just type what you wanted into Altavista or Lycos? Early journalism about the Internet talked about it being the final frontier, a realm to be discovered, and early mental models were of a physical realm entered through a computer rather than a means of transport. That’s changed so much now – computers and the Internet are rapidly becoming ubiquitous and the way that we view them has changed. The Internet isn’t a different world any more – it’s an increasingly integral part of our very local lives.
Where people ‘are at’ is in their homes and around their cities, connected to the Internet regularly, if not all the time. It’s a thread running through their lives and a part of their identity, so it should be the same for the churches that seek to minister to them. That’s scary because it means that online ministry isn’t something that ‘people who understand these things’ can do, it’s something that every church has to examine. Whether they choose to reject that online thread of their life as an act of protest, or informedly deem it irrelevant to their minister, or choose to embrace it and use it for God’s glory, ignoring it is no longer relevant.
As ever, ministries face opposition, and there’s a lot of FUD (fear, uncertainly and doubt) about online ministry. But, I’m up to way over 500 words; dispelling myths can wait!
Well, I guess it’s a new year so it’s time for an obligatory new year post. Got a lot of cool stuff happening – start my new job in a few days as a systems administrator for Heart Internet where I currently work in first-line support, got trips to Poland and Vienna confirmed with EMYC, and hopefully trips to Sweden and maybe even Tallin next year too.
I’ve started using flickr for my photos more – check out my photostream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/robredpath – and now that I’ve got a new camera I actually have faith in, I’m hoping to get out and shoot more.
Digital Saints is doing loads of work for http://inspire-network.org.uk at the moment, and a couple of other sites for European Methodist projects are ticking over nicely. I’d like to do more reading and research – I’ve started blogging my way through my thesis and it’d be good to keep up with the conversation about ministry to digital natives.
Fun times ahead!
Hi! I’m Rob, and I’m a digital native. Computers have been in every school since before I was born, and I’ve grown up around mobile phones, the Web and email. I pretty much can’t imagine life without them, and like digital natives around me, digital communications is an everyday part of life. Somehow, even though it’s used by almost everyone these days, I’ve always felt that older people just don’t ‘get’ technology – sure, they use it, but often they seem to use it as a replacement for something offline that came before, rather than as a natural part of life as my friends do. The same’s often true of the church – I’ve so often felt that they’ve come close but just missed the mark in understanding how I tick.
Technology is part of my identity at every level as a digital native. There’s not an ‘online’ me and an ‘offline’ me – most of what I do online I do under my own name or one of a handful of previous monikers, mostly conceived to protect my personal details as a teenager. In fact, most of my online activity relates to my offline relationships – texts to people who are too far away to see as much as I’d like to, online chat to people who might be busy with something else, or just arranging my social life. The photos from Friday night are up on Facebook – it’s nothing special, just how we share our memories. Sure, sometimes I engage in identity play – but that’s as much a part of growing up as the day I first touched hair gel. Hallvard Mavendorf in Second Life is a subset of Rob Redpath in Real Life – with a few tweaks to escape some of things I’d rather forget about myself.
I understand online dangers intuitively – while it’s important to teach kids online safety just like we were taught road safety, observers are often surprised at how younger generations have the same sixth sense about things online as they do about dangers offline. Incidentally, why do we teach kids about sex from Year 5, but not sexting? Or about stranger danger from the start, but not Facebook until the age of 13 because the TOC don’t allow under-13s to use it?
This, and many other, differences between digital natives and previous generations, have led to a lot of misunderstandings. Missiologist Michael Frost (from a previous generation) talks about people online in his book Exiles– he describes it as “another form of hyper-reality […] [in that] it looks like we’re meeting people via the Web, but really we’re meeting only the acceptable persona that they want displayed to the world”. He’s kinda got a point – but digital natives don’t buy it. Digital natives know that what someone puts online is what they want people to see – and they draw their conclusions about the real person from that. Someone’s Facebook profile is a creative work – the face they put on to go online, and digital natives know it.
A lot’s been said recently about ministering to people online – meeting people where they’re at is the buzzword, and where they’re at seems to be online. That’s kinda true – my generation spend ages online, and the Web provides an ideal medium for a lot of interaction and discovery of faith. But while offline-only church only scratches part of where I itch, so does online-only church. My mates are online and offline, and I’m convinced Jesus is. So why does the church allow the two to be so disconnected?