Archive for the ‘evangelism’ Tag

Saturday 3 December 2011 – “Jesus trusts us”   Leave a comment

The Bible passages set for today were Isaiah 30: 19-21, 23-26 and Matthew 9:35 – 10:1, 6-8.

The story from Matthew is one of various accounts in the Gospels where Jesus sends out his disciples, “on a mission”. In his account it is just his closest 12 disciples but the sending out of the 72 in Luke 10: 1-24 is worthy of note. The notes in the booklet these Advent reflections come from paints a very good picture of this situation, and rang true to my recollection of such things, so I quote it here:

Jesus risks sending out his disciples on mission. You wonder how well they represented him and his teaching, how well they understood him, how well they related to one another. What formation did they have? Were they persuasive public speakers? Did they have good communications skills? How well did they manage?
[Your Journey to Christmas, Redemptorist Publications, 2011, p.10]

I am sure those questions will raise smiles of recollection for anyone who has been involved in some form of church mission, well any team activity in human endeavour. The pictures recalled for me from these questions were the most dominant part of my thinking in this morning’s meditation.

The point drawn out in the notes was that Jesus entrusts his followers to represent him. “He risks his glorious message in their fragility” [same source as quote above].

In many ways that statement sums up the whole history of the church. God entrusting his message to the world, revealed in Jesus, to a very flawed human organisation. And how well has it done?

Taking for me the key question from above and applying it to the whole church:

  • How well has The Church represented Jesus?

I am sure many books could be, and probably have been, written addressing that question. I will just draw out two points, one from my personal journey and one from my thinking and reading of theology (more strictly ecclesiology perhaps).

  1. Conflicts between observed behaviour in and of the church and the teachings of Jesus heard there.From when I was a young child, certainly by the time I was 6 or 7, I begun noticing things (probable just little things) going on in the church that did not ring true with or seem to follow what I was being taught there.One example that still impacts on me today. Sundays were church focussed days when I was brought up (and there is a lot I value from the way we treated Sunday that is lost today). I would be told to put on my “Sunday best” and I would go to at least 1 service, normally 2 and a Sunday School or some form that changed as I grew older. Like many boys of that age I did not like dressing up smart, it was uncomfortable and often meant constrained behaviours so as not to spoil it. So for self-interested reasons I would ask: why do we have to dress up smart for church? Then I can very clearly remember a Sunday School lesson about the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in the temple to pray [Luke 18:10-14]. The point made by the Sunday school teacher (even if it was not the most obvious point in the story) that God does not look on the outside but on the inside; what was in our hearts. Why then I asked did we all dress-up smart for church?


    The above example is trivial, but it illustrates the thing that seems to most offends those outside the church about the church: its apparent hypocrisy. There was a clear example of this in the recent protests against the excesses of capitalism outside St Paul’s Cathedral. As much as I might admire the beauty of the art and architecture, for example, I personally find it hard to square the teachings of Jesus on wealth with the vast material riches in some parts of the church and the prevalence of extreme poverty throughout the world. [E.g. Mark 10: 17-31]

  2. The question is does the Church more closely reflect the teachings of St Paul than those of Jesus?
    This is a question I think I first met in the writings and TV presentations of Karen Armstrong. She published a personal memoir that left an impression on me [Through the Narrow Gate (1982)] of her period leading up to, and when being a Roman Catholic nun then subsequently leaving the order. She is now a leading author, teacher and speaker on comparative religion.The key point is Jesus left behind him no organisational structure. He said to Peter: “on this rock I will build my church” [Matthew 16:18]. Then in the account in the Acts of the Apostles Peter became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. However it was Paul that was key in spreading the Church throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and it is his writings that came to dominate the New Testament when the cannon was collected centuries later.I am not going to expand on any particular issue here but I do find it useful when thinking through difficult areas to ask the question: is this based on Jesus’ teaching or St Paul’s? A key example would be gender issues and the role of women in the church but there are many more.

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I am not going to blog about the brief thoughts I had in reading the passage from Isaiah (mainly because I have run out of time and family duties call) however I will close by quoting the verse that stood out for me as I read in this mornings meditations.

Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”
[Isaiah 30:21 NIV]

May God guide you in your path.

Wednesday 30 November 2011 – “Introducing others”   1 comment

St Andrew, Apostle

The non-conformist tradition I was brought up in did not mark saints days. Its emphasis was on the “sainthood of all believers” [e.g. Romans 1:7]. Of course it had its saints, its spiritual heroes: Martin Luther, John Calvin, John & Charles Wesley, Charles Surgeon, James Hudson Taylor, Gladys Aylward, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, … the list is endless.

I have come to value the marking of saints days in the church calendar. Sometimes it introduces me to inspiring or thought-provoking stories and bits of church history I did not previously know. The notes for today’s Advent reflection focus on St Andrew (one of Jesus’ 12 disciples) whose feast is today. They talk of him introducing people to Jesus: his brother Simon (later called Peter) [John 1:41] and the small boy with the loaves and the fishes at the feeding of the 5,000 [John 6:1-15 note verse 8]. The notes then go on to pose the challenge:

  • How many people have we introduced to Jesus?

This is indeed a challenging for me at several levels.

It is of note that all the “non-conformist saints” I list above (not all themselves were non-conformists) were either preachers and teachers of the faith or missionaries. In their way they introduced people to Jesus. I was encouraged and enthusiastically did my bit at open air services, in beach missions, outreach coffee bars, and the school Christian Union. I don’t know if any of those activities had any lasting impact on any lives and would have been encouraged at the time that you will often never know but God can use your witness. So evangelism in the sense of introducing others to the (my) faith was a prevalent theme at least until I left home at 18 but diminished in prominence within my perspective after that.

The reasons for this are complex and I certainly can’t remember the exact chronology but here are some of the features:

  • At a beach mission (a children focussed activity based outreach), aged 17, I observed how easy it was to gain the trust of a child and they then to say yes to questions such as “would you like to follow Jesus?”. I really questioned what we were doing in that process and both the spiritual validity and morality of it. (And this is despite having made my own commitment of faith as young as 6 that was meaningful to me.)
  • In the period of my late teens and twenties I was like most broadening my experiences generally but in different styles of church and meeting more people of different faiths and belief systems. When that becomes a shared journey of respect and understanding it begs the question: “what right have I to suggest that my belief system is the one that someone else should adopt?”.
  • There was a wider cultural context developing at the time (or at least my awareness of it was developing). The missionary heroes like those mentioned above were seen as part of cultural imperialism and indeed political imperialism. The tales of the atrocity of empire and destruction of indigenous cultures were under close inspection. This was coupled, or was part of, a wider sense of: you are free to believe whatever you wish to believe but not to impose it on others and the pick-and-mix spirituality of the New Age movement.
  • Then, perhaps a little later in my journey, moving towards a less certain (but hopefully deeper) state of faith it became harder to communicate what I believe. I increasingly encountered situations where “the words get in the way“.
  • Jesus had been key to my developing relationship with God in my childhood but as reported in yesterday’s Advent reflection, the dominant member of Trinity in my personal spirituality became God the Father. How do you introduce someone to God? I would indeed question if that is a human role. I understand with different language and emphasis all parts of the church would assert Jesus as “the way” to God, but at the personal level this created a dilemma. I wanted to perhaps share my current insights not the orthodoxy I was brought up in. However they were largely incommunicable without reference to that orthodoxy. I would like to change Jesus to God in the above question but that seems then to become an impossible question.
  • Having now developed a model of faith as a journey I was concerned if I shared issues of my current place on that journey, especially with someone just inquiring about faith or having a totally different perspective, I might be putting a stumbling block in their way.

So increasingly I saw that the role of evangelist (in whatever form) was not one for me. However I took the stance if anyone asked about what I believed I was pleased to try to share my story and my perspectives. I have enjoyed numerous conversations, usually over a few pints of beer in a pub, about matters of faith. However these do tend to be at the level of philosophy of religion rather than a lived personal faith.

I have a further minor quibble with the question being framed as “how many people”. I can not believe that our worth on the journey of faith is a numbers game. God is not a “bean counter”! God may use one person to only influence the spiritual journey of one other in their life time; whereas someone else my influence thousands and even millions. However my reading of Jesus’ parables and my own images of the divine could not see God as viewing one of greater value than the other. They could both be essential to His/Her purpose.

The Bible passages set for the day were: Romans 10:9-18 and Matthew 4:18-22

In the Romans passage Paul says:

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?
[Romans 10:14 NIV]

However reading on just a few verses from the set passage Paul quotes Isaiah:

And Isaiah boldly says,

I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.
[Romans 10:20 NIV]

Referring back to the scriptures he knew well:

I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me;
I was found by those who did not seek me.
[Isaiah 65:1 NIV]

I am happy to rest in the knowledge that God does not need me to reveal himself to anyone else. If somehow I am used in that process, if I ever know about it, I will count myself honoured and honestly humble admit that it was really nothing of me. To quote an old favourite verse from my teens:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
[2 Corinthians 4:7 NIV]

Posted November 30, 2011 by Martyn Cooper in Advent 2011 Reflections

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