Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Why we do what we do at Christmas

I was outlining the upcoming plans for Christmas:  A Nativity service on the 14th Dec, an impromptu Nativity Service on 21st Dec, a Christmas Eve Carol service, and a Christmas Morning Service.  When someone asked me why we do what we do?  Why have two nativity services?  Why do a service on Christmas Eve?  Well here's my reasoning:

The Nativity service is when the Sunday school children put on their Christmas play/nativity.  There are a number of reasons why we do this:  Firstly it's a great chance for the church family to allow the children to serve us, and for us to show our appreciation and love for them.  Evangelistically this is the service non believing family members are most likely to come to, be it dad or mum, or Aunt and Uncles or Grandparents.  We've had them all the in the past and we want to make the most of that gospel opportunity as we share the good news of Jesus, God with us.

So why have an Impromptu Nativity Service.  This service is a bit more wacky I guess.  Very simply anyone can come along and play a part in the Nativity, it is more light hearted and fun, and we have a very gifted young lady in church we writes great scripts for this.  It takes a lot of improvising, last year one of King Herod's henchmen was batman, and you never know how many shepherds, kings, Josephs and angels you are going to get.  Why do we do it?  We have friends who come every year with their children dressed up to play different parts and who love it, we hope it'll become a tradition in the community.  It is light hearted and helps show those who come that we love to have fun.  But again it provides an opportunity for people to come along and hear the gospel taught.

Why Christmas Eve?  This is the first year we've run this service so I may think differently about it by the 27th, but the theory goes something like this.  We have had a number of people from the community ask us if we do a Christmas Eve midnight service.  Whilst we are not going that far, ours is at 5pm, we are hoping that it becomes something of a traditional way to mark Christmas Eve for our community.  It'll be traditional with lots of Carols, Christmas readings and a 7-10 minute talk.  We are praying that this service will include all those who've been to the two above and others from the surrounding area.  Unlike in many middle class areas most folks in our area aren't away over Christmas, they are here.  So we'll pray and we'll trust God and do it.

Why Christmas Morning?  What better way than to start Christmas (well 6 hours in for those whose children will be up around 4am) than singing God's praise and reminding everyone what christmas is really about.  And there is real joy in being able to do that with your church family too.

So there we are, that's why we are doing what we are doing over Christmas.  Please be praying for gospel fruit as people meet Jesus.

Can't stop listening to this

I came across this reworking of God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen at the weekend and I can't stop humming it...  Brilliant.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The tragedy of watching life on a loop

Sometimes it feels as if life is merely a repeating series of cycles, but then I guess if you've read Ecclesiastes you'd expect that to be the case.  One of the great frustrations is watching people repeat the mistakes of others without recognising that they are doing so.

I guess the area where this most commonly happens is in a gradual drift.  First of all you begin missing a few things because of work commitments or family things.  Soon with a promotion or change of hours you find you "can't" make home group.  Then something happens and you miss a few Sundays.  But when people raise concerns you reassure them that you are fine, that your personal relationship with God is strong.  But as the pattern continues and you drift out to the fringe of church, increasingly giving up serving others or investing in your church family, you gradually begin to feel not part of things and your heart begins to cool towards God.

The tragedy is not just that this happens but that the bible so often warns us against it.  In the parable of the Sower we see one seed that grows up and looks good initially before getting choked by the cares and worries of this life.  Or we read in Timothy of Demas who has deserted the work of the gospel because he loved this world.  Or we read the book of Hebrews, a whole book inspired by the Spirit filled author, addressing this issue of gradual drift and the dangers inherent in it.  And yet whenever I have spoken as pastor to someone about this issue they conclude that that isn't them, that somehow they are immune from that danger.  But all the while I am speaking to them I am aware of that danger in me, that any of us can find our devotion to Jesus choked and challenged and ultimately overturned.

Watching this process happening and all your warnings being ignored is painful and frustrating.  You know what is coming but feel powerless to stop it, and you pray God would warm their heart before it is too late, as they ignore the loving outstretched arms of the church family towards them.

It's partly a result of our over individualised culture.  Maybe the church is partially to blame too as we teach people about their 'personal relationship with God' when we should be emphasising our corporate relationship with God.  Believers need each other.  The moment we start to think we don't need our church family and that they don't need us we have laid the theological foundation for drifting and spiritual shipwreck.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Class divides and Church, Part 4

Having looked at some of the reasons why our churches might be middle class or certainly more accessible to the middle class, the question is how do we change that?  I want to tentatively suggest some ways that might be helpful.

Develop a vision of a classless (gospel) church.  As you read Acts you can't help but be struck by the believers all encompassing vision of who both the gospel and church was for.  We need to do the same, to develop and cast a vision of a truly classless church.  We need to challenge the unwritten rules of church, to challenge the assumption that middle class values are gospel values, and preach a better, more biblical vision to our churches.

Perhaps churches ought to think about selling existing buildings and moving church to working class areas. Encouraging those who are willing to relocate too but asking the more middle class to commute on Sundays.  Because the middle classes operate by network not neighbourhood we can reach the middle class from a working class base location, we cannot do it the other way round.

We need to think about restructuring church so that all can access everything (e.g. home groups, things that cost, transport).  We need to make preaching accessible to all by painting pictures,  telling stories and making practical concrete applications not just preaching abstract ideas.  We need to make Sunday school a place where we teach to those with varied learning styles, where we disciple, invest in and pastor young people from difficult backgrounds.  We need to share meals not in homes but as a fellowship all together where everyone is welcome and where a range of food is available.
We need to ensure that as churches we value the skills of everyone not just those who are good with words. How can church enable those with practical gifts to serve?  How can it make the most of the God given practical skills those from working class occupations have.

We must recognise that right now is a time of unprecedented opportunity for middle class churches to reach the working class and deprived areas of the UK. Cuts have left these areas in greater need than ever, largely because they are easy targets. These communities have no voice and no connections to protest the loss of a children's centre or youth club or community resource, we can be their voice and serve and lead them to Christ. There is a great gospel opportunity and need to serve in working class areas without charging, providing services and support.  Not riding in as the white knights who will do the rescuing but getting alongside the community to empower it and enable it to flourish and develop.

But maybe that all feels a bit too extreme.  Sell buildings, relocate and so on.  Well there is another way there are churches already working in such areas but as you can imagine the needs always outweigh the resources to meet them.  As you read Acts you find wealthy churches giving generously to meet the needs of others.  Could our wealthier more middle class churches partner with a church in a working class or deprived area?  Could it part fund a worker there?  Could it encourage short term missions teams to help run holiday clubs, staff CAP centres and so on?  Could it partner in the gospel by praying regularly for such a church?

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Class Divides and Church, Part 3

Yesterday we looked at a few possible reasons why church in the UK is perceived as and appeals to middle class people, today I want to suggest some more.

Middle class people generally value objectivity and rationality.  Our sermons reflect that tendency, partially because that is what our hearers value but also because that is the background of many pastors and preachers and that is certainly the way they are taught to preach.  However, people from working class areas judge authenticity by passionate engagement with truth rather than by detached logic.  It is not that they are illogical but rather that they want to see someone who passionate believes in what they are saying.  Discussion about truth will be passionate and at times heated in working class environments and that is not a sign of people falling out, or not listening to one another, it is them passionately sharing the truth and engaging with it.

Middle class people, and therefore, the vast majority of churches are ‘respectable’ and not forthright.   There are certain unwritten assumed rules about how we will interact, what we will speak about, how we will answer the question 'How are you?'  For those from working class background such interactions may be perceived as unreal or fake, because life just isn't like that.  We need instead to honestly reflect and lament the reality of living in a broken world in our service and in our conversation, and talk openly about the hope and transformation the gospel brings in those.

Our conversation is also another area where there is a stark contrast in approach to relationships.  Questioning is middle class, we ask one another how our weeks have been, how the family is, and so on in a series of questions.  However for someone who is working class that can seem like an inquisition, as if we are on the hunt for something, as if we don't believe them and are looking to catch them out.  By contrast in working class communities they communicate via storytelling, recounting their day, or an incident while the other listens before then sharing their stories.  If we want as churches to have a church that is cross classes we need to learn to story tell as well as ask and answer questions.

An issue I had been unaware of until we moved Grace Church to meet in Hayfield is the difference in the attitude towards use of homes.  Those churches of middle class background tend to utilise homes lots, we meet there for home groups, for leaders meetings, we rightly use it for hospitality etc...  And that is right.  However, that can also be barrier to those from the working class for whom entering someones home is hard.  We need as churches who want to be cross class to be finding ways of meeting people where they are at and where they find listening to the gospel comfortable, as well as gradually easing people into hospitality and making them feel comfortable with it.

The Bible assumes churches will be bridging divides, reaching groups unlike themselves, being multicultural and multi-class united around the gospel (see Acts 6, 1 Corinthians 11, James 2).  The Bible assumes churches will bridge economic and class divides, not that we will be planting separate churches in such areas for such people but church that bridge the divides.  So if we aren't, are we really gospel churches?  Is this our Jew Gentile issue, where just as the early church and its leaders had to be confronted and challenged to move beyond their comfort and their prejudices we do too? 

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Class Divides and Church, Part 2

We need to stop and ask the question why are our churches so middle class in nature?  Here are some the contributory factors:

Our church are situated (planted) in middle class areas, or are in working class areas but are commuter churches.  Many of the churches situated in working class and deprived areas are struggling or have closed and been sold for other uses.  Many new plants are started in middle class areas because they are the people we know and the need we see because they are part of our network. And often those churches that are in working class or deprived areas are still middle class churches where people drive into the church building because that historically is where they meet but few if any live within walking distance of the church.

We operate in networks through work, education or hobbies which span a town or city or wider afield. The working class, by contrast, operate in neighbourhoods.  This means that middle class christians have little contact with those from working class or deprived backgrounds.  We spend our days with those in our work places our communities and our networks.  We will rarely if ever meet someone from a working class area within them partly because of a lack of social mobility but also because they live life based around the neighbourhood.  That means if we want to reach such areas and communities we need to live in them and serve in them and commit to them.
We put on events with middle class appeal.  Think about the last 3 evangelistic events your church has run and my hunch is that they would be for people like those already in the church.  In other words we put on events that appeal to people like us, therefore limiting their appeal to those different from us.

Because churches aren't in or connected to working class and deprived communities our Churches don’t play key roles in working class areas.  This means working class and deprived people cannot see the gospel tangibly lived out in front of them.

We have a class prejudice (we like/value people like us).  Everyone of us suffers from this bias, we valued those most like us, we naturally find them easier to relate with and therefore have fewer issues and conflicts and misunderstandings.  Until we recognise this and face up to it not just individually but corporately as churches large swathes of Britain will remain unreached.

We wrongly assume middle class values are gospel values.  In Tim Chester's Unreached there is a helpful table which provides a list of hidden class rules which determine how each class operates.  The tragedy is that some of these we have confused in our churches with gospel values.  Therefore what we preach is sometimes a mishmash of middle class values masquerading as gospel values.  This is a huge topic which I've blogged on before and will come back to again.  But let me give one quick example - in the application to read the Bible - we assume that a middle class value - reading/formal education - is a gospel value.  Actually we would be better to talk of listening to and obeying the Bible because that is a more biblical application.  The bible looks not for us to read God's word, but to hear God's word and put it into practise in tangible ways.  Speaking of it and applying it in such a way is more working class than middle class.

Monday, 10 November 2014

Class divides and church (part 1)

Last week at Yorkshire Training I did an introductory session looking at church and class divides.  the aim was to provoke the trainees and others their into think about church.  Here part one of what I shared with them, the rest will follow later in the week.

“To be valued in Britain at the beginning of the twenty first century a person has to be either middle class or ethnic and with no viable way to participate publicly themselves, this leaves white working class people feeling that rather than being valued as the primary movers against unfair hierarchies, they have become, ironically, a block to equality. Meanwhile, when made synonymous with the so-called underclass or non-working class (those for whom the collapse of the community and disappearance of conventional sources of manufacturing employment has had devastating consequences), the white working class way of life…is increasingly portrayed as a cultural disgrace.” Gillian Evans

Society has changed, the divides have grown.  With this dramatic social change we need to ask ourselves as churches have we mirrored the shift society has undergone in terms of attitudes and approaches or have we been counter cultural as we are called to be?  Classism is as much an issue in Britain as sexism and racism. If America’s hair trigger is race ours is class and we have been blind to it. Tragically our churches mirror society rather than stand out from it, they are riven with classism. Church in the UK has become a largely middle class pursuit.

Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote this in the late 1970s, it is telling wake up call:  “The impression has gained currency that to be a Christian, and more especially an evangelical, means that we are traditionalists…I believe that this largely accounts for our failure in this country to make contact with the so called working classes. Christianity in this country has become a middle-class movement; … far too often, as nonconformist men have got on in the world, and made money and become Managers and Owners, they have become opponents of the working classes who were agitating for their rights.”

He wrote that nearly 40 years ago and yet the situation remains largely unchanged, in order for us to reach the non-middle class in Britain that needs to change.  If we want to build fellowships that reflect our communities we need to share the gospel with all regardless of class.  We need to build a classless church.  But how?  What are the barriers to this?  What do we do currently that makes our church appeal to the middle classes rather than others?