David’s Tent: Personal Impressions

At short notice, I booked a day pass to visit David’s Tent on Friday - my first time at the event. David’s Tent is (wait for it) a non-stop 72-hour Christian worship event, taking place on the Wiston Estate in Sussex over the August Bank Holiday weekend. 

The majority of delegates camp on site. I attended as a day visitor. When not inside the worship tent, those attending can relax in the beautiful location at the foot of the South Downs, visit the resource tent, chat with friends, attend one of a light programme of workshops and talks, sit around the fire pit or sample the varied street food options from the onsite vendors. There is also a children’s programme and a youth programme running all weekend.  

So, as a newbie, what were my first impressions of David’s Tent?

The Church is a Wonderful Thing

Being among thousands of Christians from across the UK was a powerful reminder of the glorious multi-coloured nature of the church of God. There is really nothing on earth like the church in all its diversity. Worshipping together with brothers and sisters of different races and cultures, I was reminded that, in many of our communities, the local church is the most racially integrated society in town. We are perhaps not always aware of this aspect of who we are - and it should be a cause for celebration. 

Emerging from Lockdown is a Process

The last time I had been in a large crowd was at the Memorial Stadium in January 2020 (Bristol Rovers drew 2 -2 against Coventry City in the 3rd round of the FA Cup, since you ask). I had not attended an in-person church meeting of more than six people since March of the same year, and as we all know, a lot has happened since then.

I needed to initially spend some time simply looking around and getting used to the novelty of the event. I’m not a great Christian conference attender, so there was a lot of adjustment I needed to do just to get used to the crowds, the sound and the sight of over a thousand people actively engaging in sung praise and worship.  

Biblical Prophecy is Very Powerful 

2800 years ago, while predicting the coming of the Messiah, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah announced that as Christ’s rule extended in the earth,

“the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness

    and praise spring up before all nations.” 

I am not sure whether Isaiah had any knowledge of the British Isles. If he did, it would have been of windswept desolate islands far to the north where the inhabitants worshipped the sun (rarely seen!) and where human sacrifice was a feature of their pagan religion. 

Fast forward a few millennia and, here in England’s green and pleasant land, thousands of inhabitants of these isles had gathered for a non-stop 72-hour festival of worship to the God of Israel whom Isaiah served. There are many ways of understanding this phenomenon. One way is to see it as a fulfilment of ancient biblical prophecy concerning the Kingdom of Christ. Understood in this way, David’s Tent is a tangible illustration of the tremendous formative power of the prophetic word of God. Isaiah’s words not merely predicted Christian worship throughout the Gentile nations; the spoken word of God was itself the ultimate creative force that caused these realities to come into being. 

A Spirit of Devotion

The idea of thousands of people paying money to attend a four-day event whose focus is non-stop praise and worship to God is both ludicrous when viewed from a secular perspective, and also glorious when seen through the eyes of Christian faith. 

The spirit of devotion that must underpin such an enterprise was wonderful to sense. I was reminded of the extreme love of the woman in the gospels who poured out very expensive perfume onto the feet and head of Jesus as an act of pure devotion. Her worship was criticised by some at the time as being wasteful, the money spent on the perfume being capable of helping poor people with practical material needs. Yet Jesus affirmed her act of worship as “a beautiful thing”.

I was struck by this same spirit of devotion to Christ represented at David's Tent. This was manifest not only in the big tent itself but in the volunteer team members who so warmly greeted my wife and I when we arrived and made us feel welcome as first-time attendees. My sense was that a free ticket to the event was not the ultimate motivation of these beautiful young people who choose to stand for hours in a field miles from the main activities doing nothing other than welcoming car drivers and showing them where to park. It felt as if they saw their practical service as a form of worship to God, every bit as valid as the sung worship taking place within the huge tent.

I found this very heartening.

A Well-run Event

The event itself seemed well-thought-through. Various groups of musicians and singers took turns to lead the worship in the big tent, which I estimated could probably hold up to 3,000 people. 

There was some limited seating at the back of the tent but the rest of the space was open. People stood, sat, kneeled or lay prostrate as they engaged with the worship. People entered and left the tent continuously during the worship sessions over the four days. I was surprised to learn that the worship went on all night with a quieter acoustic set. The worship musicians faced inwards on the square stage, effectively facing away from the congregation, emphasising that this was not a performance event but a shared act of worship. 

There was plenty of physical space at the event. A good supply of street food vendors meant little obvious queuing. The portable toilets were pristine - not a sentence I have had the occasion to write before. Mind you, it was day one. 

The Need for Training in Biblical Theology for Contemporary Christian Worship Leaders and Songwriters 

I found the content of the worship songs to be of varying quality. Kingdom Choir were magnificent. Apart from that, I was disappointed at times with lyrics that spoke very little about the attributes of God himself. With so much rich truth revealed in the Bible about the person and nature of God, it seems such a shame to omit this rich vocabulary in favour of more prosaic lyrics that speak of ourselves and our individual felt needs and responses.

More seriously, many of the songs evidenced a low level of engagement with the meat of biblical truth. Lyrics were often abstracted from their biblical and theological contexts in ways that I found superficial and unhelpful. Specifically, songs describing “love”, “power”, “faithfulness” and “grace” frequently included little explicit reference to the person and work of Christ, the Incarnation or the nature of the new covenant.   

In my five hours on site, I heard only one song that referenced the Trinity (at least all three-in-one got a mention) and one song that centred on the death of Christ. This particular song steered clear of the biblical teaching of the death of Christ as a substitute for sin, and its lyrics seemed to rest upon a moral influence theory of the atonement. More Abelard than Anselm, for those who are into this sort of thing. 

I heard the Bible read only once during the sessions I attended - a reading that consisted of one verse from Psalm 21. At various points, I felt that we were drawing near to God into a shared experience of his manifest presence, as if heaven were touching earth. I suspect that had someone read Revelation 5 at such a point, the congregation may indeed have been helped to “draw near” without any further exhortation. 

All of this matters of course, not least because of the didactic function of song in the church. If we are taught what to believe and how to apply it partly through what we sing, and if worship songs can and do have a formative role in our beliefs, values and actions, then it is imperative that such songs are deeply embedded in biblical teaching, language and themes.

Being encouraged to believe that “I will never be lonely” and that “my cloudy days are past” (as two of the song lyrics claimed) seems to me not to serve young believers very well. Such a belief does little to prepare them for lives that will be characterised by various degrees of suffering as an integral part of their Christian discipleship. 

Lou Fellingham and Stuart Townend are two examples of outstanding contemporary British songwriters whose worship songs are sung around the world. I appreciate that they may not be available for every Christian event but I was struck by the need for their gifts to be multiplied and passed on. At the very least, I would hope that the current emerging generation of worship leaders and songwriters might spend the next year studying and internalising Martyn Lloyd Jones' Eight Commentaries on the Book of Ephesians as a first step in their commitment to creating songs that are more biblical in their language and theology and thus more helpful and more edifying for the church.     

Where are the Fathers?

Those I saw at the event were mostly young - I would estimate in their twenties - though this of course may simply be another version from an oldie of, “Don’t the police look young these days.” I would estimate that females outnumbered males inside the tent by about 60 % to 40 %.

On the Friday night, of the seven worship leaders taking part, five were women. The Friday night session was hosted by an American woman and I heard an interview with a woman (while the equipment was being rearranged on stage in between sets). David’s Tent is certainly not a place where women’s voices are marginalised.

All of which left me with an unanswered question: where are the fathers? I may of course have simply missed them (while out getting a Thai green curry, for instance), but the low numbers of visible senior male role models, combined with the lower numbers of men present overall at the event, left me somewhat concerned.  

A Christian feminist response, of course, may argue that men have had quite enough of the leading roles for too long and that, any short-term imbalance in the opposite direction is merely a necessary corrective. Perhaps. Or perhaps we need to do some more deep thinking about what it means and looks like for men and women in Christ to truly complement each other in the church’s work, worship and service in ways that enable all believers - male and female - to grow together into “the full measure of the stature of Christ.”

Something More Important Than Covid

I was somewhat conflicted at the decision of the organisers of David's Tent to require certification of either full vaccination or a recent negative covid test in order to be admitted to the site. Temperatures were also taken on entrance to the tent itself. Though I perfectly understand the health and safety arguments in favour of this approach, I am generally very nervous about the drift toward covid certification for any purpose beyond international travel and a limited range of medical roles. Certainly, at a local church level,  it does seem to me deeply problematic that we would ever exclude a fellow believer from in-person fellowship on the basis of their (private) medical record.

That said, with many of those attending being under 18, and thus exempt from the certification requirement, and with full vaccination not offering 100% protection against catching or transmitting Covid-19, I was aware that we were not in a totally covid-secure environment (even if such a thing exists outside a lab.) With singing being associated with a high risk of transmission, and with a couple of thousand unmasked people being together in the tent (albeit with some open panels and a mild breeze flowing through), it was impossible not to recognise that the very act of worship together in this way carried risks.   

Christians should never be casual or indifferent to death or suffering - in themselves or others. Having said that, I have been reminded during the pandemic of the description of the suffering and overcoming church described in the book of Revelation in conflict with the devil: 

They triumphed over him

    by the blood of the Lamb

    and by the word of their testimony;

they did not love their lives so much

    as to shrink from death.

Avoiding death at all costs (at least among citizens in rich nations) has been the driving force behind the world's pandemic response. While Christians must not endorse or contribute toward a culture of death, we also affirm counter intuitively that there is something worse than death: namely, death without God. By not loving their lives so much as to shrink from death, the early Christian believers could endure a range of terrible events, including plague, warfare and state-sponsored persecution from a perspective of faith and faithfulness to Christ. 

Although I have no desire whatsoever to catch this dreadful disease, and although I will continue to take reasonable precautions to avoid it, when worshipping together with fellow believers on Friday, I was reminded that there are certainly worse things than catching it - and even worse things than dying from it.  For the Christian who has received eternal life as a gift through faith in Jesus, we do not face death and dying in the same way as the secular person does. Death is an enemy - but in Christ it is a defeated one and believers look forward in certain hope to the resurrection of the dead, the renewal of the cosmos and the restoration of all things in Christ.  

The late John Wimber was asked why, while carrying life-threatening illness in his own body, he continued to place himself under strain by travelling the world teaching, healing the sick and equipping believers to do the same. I recall him saying once in his characteristically pithy way that he would, "rather die doing this than stay at home waiting for that." As I stood among the crowds at David's Tent worshipping our great God, I confess the thought did cross my mind: if I had to go, I wouldn't mind going like this.

A Question

When attending any event for the first time, a question will often be. “Would I go there again?” In the case of David’s Tent, my answer is, “Given time, opportunity and circumstances, probably yes.” It does not attempt to be an event that is going to directly equip believers in gospel outreach, mission, kingdom work and service or in being salt and light in a secular society. But for what it is - an extended opportunity to lay aside other things and draw near to God in devotion and adoration -  it is a welcome opportunity for personal and corporate renewal. Despite the shortcomings of the event, the opportunity for such a focused retreat and opportunity for renewed devotion to Christ is to be welcomed, especially after a year like the one we've all had. 



Public Wisdom as a Gospel Pathway

How can Christians effectively tell the good news of Christ among a post-Christian culture as it emerges shell-shocked from a global pandemic?

In the Book of Proverbs, we are introduced to the striking female personification of Wisdom, who may help us answer this important question. 
Wisdom, we learn, is a very public-facing figure:

Does not wisdom call out?

    Does not understanding raise her voice?

 At the highest point along the way,

    where the paths meet, she takes her stand;

 beside the gate leading into the city,

    at the entrance, she cries aloud

From Allegory of Wisdom and Strength by Paolo Veronese, c. 1565

Wisdom in the Bible is not merely an inward-focused attribute, for contemplative mystics who have withdrawn from public life. On the contrary, she is making her voice heard for all people, believers and otherwise:

“To you, O people, I call out;

    I raise my voice to all mankind.

 You who are simple, gain prudence;

    you who are foolish, set your hearts on it.

 Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say"

Every day, millions of people conduct a Google search starting with the phrase, "how to...." Whether the request is about mental health, self care, practical skills, or more philosophical issues, the search at its most fundamental level is a request for Wisdom. As our battered societies start to emerge from the ravages of Covid-19, our neighbours, colleagues, business owners and elected officials are asking one basic question that is taking many different forms: how do we move forward? 

Biblical Wisdom is practical. In fact, it could be described as applied knowledge. Christian believers who have allowed their lives to be shaped by such Wisdom have much to contribute in a society that is asking practical questions. Without being arrogant or boastful, the truth is that our Christian faith has been teaching us Wisdom for living - for handling money, for relating to other people, for looking after a family, for promoting human flourishing, for working effectively. This is not to claim that Christians are sinless and perfect; but, as we have followed Christ for years, we have found that we have learned some important life lessons.   

Wisdom even has things to say to politicians and those in government:

"Counsel and sound judgment are mine;

    I have insight, I have power.

 By me kings reign

    and rulers issue decrees that are just;

 by me princes govern,

    and nobles—all who rule on earth"

Sharing such practical Wisdom, when asked, can be very helpful for others, including people of no Christian faith. If done with humility and gentleness, we may be of some service to our neighbours and colleagues. There is a sphere of public Wisdom which is applicable to all peoples in all places at all times; it is not exclusively for Christian believers.

If we are asked about how we learned these life lessons, it is not a huge step to say simply that whatever we have learned that has helped us navigate the challenges of life, we have found it in Christ. Wisdom actually invites us to make such a connection:

“The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,

    before his deeds of old;

 I was formed long ages ago,

    at the very beginning, when the world came to be..... 

 I was there when he set the heavens in place,

    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep...

     Then I was constantly at his side.

I was filled with delight day after day,

    rejoicing always in his presence,

 rejoicing in his whole world

    and delighting in mankind."

The personification of Wisdom was present at the creation of the heavens and earth, participating alongside the Creator with joy. 

Our neighbours are largely resistant to abstract concepts. Sharing the Good News should not be primarily about announcing disconnected theological propositions. Often we fail to communicate from the outset because we announce ideas rather than introducing a Person. 

The early followers of Jesus, all from a Jewish background, and all very familiar with the verses we have been looking at from the Book of Proverbs, had a particular understanding about the Personification of Wisdom. The apostle Paul refers to

Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

On another occasion, Paul writes to a group of Christians in the Greek city of Corinth, reminding them that,

[Y]ou are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.

Wisdom is found in the Person of Christ; in living by Wisdom, we are living in the Way of Christ. When we share Wisdom with others, we are sharing in part the Person of Christ. By implication we are inviting people to walk in His Way. Wisdom in this sense is Good News. 

The New Testament seems to have this in mind when it describes the ultimate reason for the church's existence:

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A battered society does not need celebrity psycho-babble. It needs sound judgement, practical actions that promote the common good. Followers of the Way of Christ can demonstrate and make known this Way of Wisdom. Many want to find it. 



Coronavirus and the Churches: Time to Pivot Again

At the end of March, hundreds of British churches switched overnight to running online Sunday services in response to the national lockdown imposed by the Government. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on churches was sudden and dramatic.

At the end of June, as the lockdown begins to gradually be lifted, has the time come for British churches to pivot again? Not this time back to congregational Sunday services - which remain banned under the terms of the emergency powers granted in the Coronavirus Act 2020 - but to much smaller expressions of church, meeting outdoors. With groups of six in England (or eight in Scotland) now being able to gather outdoors at a social distance, is it now time for churches to put their energies not into Zoom meetings but into multiple face-to-face gatherings in much smaller numbers?

Photo by Nandhu Kumar from Pexels

The case for a rapid pivot to smaller expressions of church could be made on several grounds:

  • The people of God desperately need face-to-face fellowship. From the point of view of pastoral care alone, most Christians and church leaders would agree that it is desirable that we see each other in real life in order to enjoy fellowship. Where this has not been possible, we are grateful for tools of technology that can at least provide some measure of human contact. The ideal, however, remains a gathered church in person - the body of Christ in the flesh (so to speak). Where two or three gather in his name, Christ is present in the midst.

  • The opportunity is safe and easy to implement. Just as creative minds were quickly able to apply practical solutions to running online Sunday services, we can now quickly move to weekly small gatherings of church members outdoors. These can take place in parks, gardens, on beaches and in the urban environment - anywhere outdoors where people will not be competing with traffic. We can limit the numbers and maintain social distance so that the gatherings are safe and comply with the law. A typical church of 100 members could expect to launch between 10 and 15 such groups next week. 

  • Traditional church services may not be possible till 2021. Research is showing that indoor groups of people are high-risk for covid transmission. Activities such as singing and physical contact increase this risk further. Pubs and nightclubs are high-risk environments; church services are not far behind in terms of their capacity to spread the virus between members. The outbreak in Korea was initially centred around a church. In Germany, churches have been able to partly reopen but congregational singing is banned (!) Against this backdrop, are church leaders genuinely committed to running Zoom services for another 12 months or more? And if a vaccine is never found, what then? Do we have a plan for socially-distanced indoor church services that provide the level of fellowship that Christians need or want?

  • Small groups at their best can be effective in disciple-making. In his compelling book John Wesley's Class Meeting: A Model for Making Disciples, Michael Henderson demonstrates the genius of the early Methodist movement in its ability to transform the lives of urban working class members who had been largely neglected by the established church. At the heart of this process was not only public preaching but a highly-developed ecosystem of close discipleship centred on the class meeting. It is fashionable in some middle-class churches to downplay the small group. The reality, however, is that there has never been a gospel-centred movement in modern British history that has made disciples of the urban poor as effectively as early Methodism. It is interesting that Wesley's class meetings, gathering weekly for fellowship, personal accountability and mutual instruction, were limited to six members each - the same number currently permitted to gather outdoors in England under current lockdown measures.  

  • Small groups would benefit from input from equipping leadership. Just as the Jerusalem apostles taught 'publicly and from house to house', the small expressions of church that could start outdoors tomorrow should be accessible and accountable to those with gifts to teach, equip and serve the members. If there were no longer a need for church leaders to be planning, running and evaluating online services, could their time and energy not be better spent visiting a small group most days to support and give input? Again, in a church of 100 members, a full-time leadership team of two could realistically visit the 10 to 15 small groups almost every week if they wanted. The modern Wesleyian circuit rider already exists and is probably sitting in an office planning the online Sunday service. A pivot to a radical small group model would be possible, if there were a will to do it. 

  • Small groups can sustain mission. I would not suggest that these groups of six to eight should try and replicate church services; nor should they be focused on the seeker. But, by nurturing the believers and providing fellowship and accountability, they can help to sustain Christians in their ongoing life as witnesses for Christ in their homes, families, streets and places of work. These opportunities are multiplying during the current pandemic.  There is no reason of course why those with the gifts to do so could not also start small groups for seekers that meet outdoors at a social distance. 

  • The summer months provide a window of opportunity. Although June is looking a bit sketchy weather-wise in Britain, at least we are not yet facing the pandemic in January. By starting an outdoor small group ecosystem now - this week - churches can refine and learn best practice while it is still dry-ish. We can then also plan creatively for the autumn and beyond. Two principles that may help this process are time flexibility and creativity. As the weather turns, groups should plan to meet between rain showers or on dry-ish days, rather than being restricted to a rigid weekly time slot. This of course is easy to do with only six people. We can also learn from pubs which have responded to the ban on indoor smoking by implementing new ways of defining 'outdoors' through the legal and judicious use of gazebos and awnings.   

I'm ready to pivot. How about you? 

The Priority of Teaching in the Household Style Church

Ask many Christians, especially church leaders, about "house church" and sooner or later you will hear concerns raised that such churches are prone to being weak on bible teaching. Some criticisms will go even further and portray such simple expressions of church as potential hotbeds of heresy.

The reality is however that household-style churches, if they are understood and operating according to principles set out in the New Testament, actually have the potential to be centres of strong bible teaching and learning.

Here's what I mean.

In any midsize or large local church there will often be a number of gifted bible teachers and preachers. Some of these will be elders or leaders in the church - indeed, one of the apostolic requirements of an elder is that they must be "able to teach". In practice, however, many of those with this ability will not exercise it very often - at least not outside of individual pastoral situations. A typical church will have a weekly Sunday morning service, with bible teaching and maybe an evening service as well. There may be a midweek bible study group - though in many churches these have been replaced by home groups lead by church members - and there may be occasional courses, conferences or one-off events at which the bible is taught. Some churches, following a pattern established in north American churches, may also have a Sunday School - meaning an adult biblical education programme supplementary to the main weekend service.

In such a church setting, the total public/group teaching work of the church may amount to no more than a few hours each week. 

This reality raises a number of issues. One of them is a practical question: if a pastor or church leader is only preaching once a week (at the most), what are they meant to be doing the rest of the time? The answer varies from church to church, but in my own experience of being in full-time church leadership for twenty years, non-preaching time often consists of some or all of the following: 

  • preparation and study; prayer; 
  • meeting individuals; 
  • attending planning meetings; 
  • strategic thinking; travelling; 
  • troubleshooting; 
  • interfacing with the wider community; 
  • practical acts of service; 
  • emails and other administration. 

The question is, are the church's teachers and pastors meant to be doing these tasks? Or are these activities the result of a church system that unwittingly minimises bible teaching and elevates organisational management? 

When the early apostles were arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, they were accused of having filled Jerusalem with their teaching. How had they managed to leave themselves open to such a charge? 

The Book of Acts tells us that the pattern of the Jerusalem church was to meet in the temple courts (the large setting) and in homes for more intimate fellowship, meals and breaking of bread. What is often missed, however, is that the early apostles taught in both settings - the large and the small. 

Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.      (Acts 5:42)

Let's try a maths exercise. Luke (assuming he wrote Acts) records that the number of men in Jerusalem who believed in Jesus at this time was around five thousand. The text makes it fairly clear that this figure did not include women and children. Let's speculate that this number of men represents a total church population of at least 15,000 people. Let's then speculate that an average Jerusalem home could accommodate about thirty people at one time.  If the total number of believers (including children) were equally divided between such homes when they met, we would discover about 500 "house churches" in Jerusalem in the middle of the first century. None of this is provable through historical means of course. It is a thought exercise resting on a number of suppositions. 

The twelve Jerusalem apostles are portrayed in Acts as spending their days teaching about Jesus in the temple courts and from house to house. In a typical week, therefore, if each apostle visited a house church every day, they might have taught publicly about Jesus at least seven times a week - in addition to any preaching they may have done in the larger temple court setting. This amounts to a total of at least 84 teaching sessions a week in Jerusalem by eye-witnesses of Christ and his resurrection - over 4,000 interactive sermons a year. If we compare this figure with a possible number of home churches of 500, we could envisage a scenario in which each house fellowship received a teaching apostle approximately every three to four weeks. 

This level of apostolic teaching (if it bears any relation to what actually took place) may help shed some light on the claim that the apostles had filled Jerusalem with their teaching. I wonder how many contemporary home groups or house churches are fortunate enough to receive that level of apostolic input in a typical year. I suspect very few. 

The thought exercise outlined above does not prove anything historically. It merely illustrates the fact that, if those with the gifting and calling to teach the word of God were released to do so as the primary activity of their working week, there is no inherent reason why such teachers, apostles, pastors or prophets could not be actively and fruitfully deployed in small household style churches if they moved around between them on a regular basis. Such a model actually allows for more bible teaching from those able to teach rather than less. By contrast, the current system of larger Sunday services, with all their inefficiencies of size, resource and administration, leads inevitably to less bible teaching, as those primarily gifted and called to do it find themselves spending time on maintaining an organisation rather than equipping believers in their homes and places of work.  

Church history actually gives us a working model of such a system of widespread decentralised itinerant bible teaching. Early Methodism, under the leadership of John Wesley, had a very well-worked-out system of such teaching with ministers assigned to several local "societies", "classes" (groups of about 6) and "bands" within a geographical area or territory.  

Many of these itinerant preachers and bible teachers were commissioned by Wesley not by the official Church of England to which they nominally adhered in the movement's early years. The effective use of such itinerant ministers went hand-in-hand with the growth of the Methodist movement - from around 15,000 people in the 1780s to 130,000 a decade later and around one million within 50 years of its founding. 

One writer of Methodist history notes that:
“Moving to and fro, the itinerant was a bond of union between the societies in the circuit, and his appointment in several circuits with the passing years knit them together in the connexion of which he was the representative. The system helped also to secure uniformity in teaching and administration......His doctrine and discipline and those of his predecessor and successor had been derived from Wesley and the Conference. To these he and they were all amenable. Different times and conditions may necessitate modifications; but for securing the unity. homogeneity, and happy co-operation of a new, scattered, varied, and rapidly-growing community, perhaps nothing better than the itinerancy within the circuits and from circuit to circuit could have been devised. Wesley's preachers had the mobility of Wyclif's itinerating poor priests and laymen, or recalled the Friars of the Middle Ages without their hampering vows.”

Decentralised models of church (call them "house church" if you want) both require and facilitate the emergence of bible teachers who focus on that activity as a priority, without the encumbrances of a settled organisational model of church congregations and Sunday services. 


Beyond Information Sharing: Preaching that Reveals Secrets

The prophet Jeremiah faced a challenge unlikely to be encountered by most modern preachers in the western world: his family were plotting to kill him.

...the men of Anathoth...are seeking your life and saying 'Do not prophesy in the name of the LORD or you will die by our hands'. (Jeremiah 11:21)

According to Jeremiah's own account of the incident, he was unaware of the conspiracy before it became an immediate threat. His insight into the plot came about, he claims, as a result of God revealing it to him:

Because the LORD revealed their plot to me, I knew it, for at that time he showed me what they were doing. (Jeremiah 11:18)  

The exact reasons for his family's extreme hostility are not fully given in the passage (Jeremiah 11:18-12:6) but it centred around their strong dislike of the prophet's message.

Great bible scholars whose opinions I respect and whose qualifications greatly exceed my own suggest that Jeremiah may have come to an understanding of the murder plot through a message being passed on to him by someone who was aware of it. The late John A Thompson, for instance, cites the influential archaeologist and biblical scholar Dr John Bright when he writes:

A sympathetic relative who brought the news may well have been Yahweh's informant
(JA Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, p. 350, NICOT series)

While it is quite possible that this was the case, there is an alternative view at least worth considering: that the news of the plot on Jeremiah's life came to the prophet through immediate divine revelation, without any human intermediary.

The following factors seem to suggest that this was in fact the case:

  • the repeated insistence in 11:18 of the agency of Yahweh in disclosing the deeds (“revealed”, “he showed me”)
  • the inclusion of the possible word-for-word content of the revelation (12:6)
  • the absence in the passage of any reference to a third party 
  • the use of the word “reveal”; its only other use in the book indicates an immediate disclosure, without human means (38:21

The frequency in the book of auditory and/or visual messages as a means of divine communication with the prophet, messages which included the prediction of invasion, defeat and exile at the hands of the "enemy from the north", also suggest that the revealing of a secret conspiracy was not outside the scope of the spiritual possibilities experienced by Jeremiah as he sought to follow and discharge his call to be a "prophet to the nations" (1:5).

Taking a wider biblical view, we can see the revealing of secrets as an aspect of many of the great teachers, prophets, reformers and apostles of both the Old and New Covenants. These include Daniel's ability to describe both the content and the meaning of Nebuchadnezzar's unspoken dream (Daniel 2), the insight Jesus had of the Samaritan woman's five previous husbands and her current domestic arrangements (John 4), Peter's discernment of the motives and action of Ananias and Sapphira in their financial dishonesty (Acts 5).

A striking example from church history is from the preaching of Charles Spurgeon. The person on the receiving end of the revealed secrets explains:

Mr. Spurgeon looked at me as if he knew me, and in his sermon he pointed to me, and told the congregation that I was a shoemaker, and that I kept my shop open on Sundays; and I did, sir. I should not have minded that; but he also said that I took ninepence the Sunday before, and that there was fourpence profit out of it. I did take ninepence that day, and fourpence was just the profit; but how he should know that, I could not tell. Then it struck me that it was God who had spoken to my soul through him, so I shut up my shop the next Sunday. At first, I was afraid to go again to hear him, lest he should tell the people more about me; but afterwards I went, and the Lord met with me, and saved my soul. 
The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon [Curts & Jennings, 1899], II:226-27)

Commenting himself, Spurgeon says:

I could tell as many as a dozen similar cases in which I pointed at somebody in the hall without having the slightest knowledge of the person, or any idea that what I said was right, except that I believed I was moved by the Spirit to say it; and so striking has been my description, that the persons have gone away, and said to their friends, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did; beyond a doubt, he must have been sent of God to my soul, or else he could not have described me so exactly.’ And not only so, but I have known many instances in which the thoughts of men have been revealed from the pulpit. (ibid)

The link between revealing secrets and the power of the word of God is stated explicitly by the writer to the Hebrews:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 

Jeremiah, like some evangelists and pastors today in parts of the Muslim-majority world, experienced such extreme hostility to his message that his life was at risk. It was through an act of divine disclosure that he come to know of this danger and was able to take preventative measures (Jer 12:6).

In the age of encryption and Wikileaks, secrets are everywhere and feature powerfully in the activities of governments, corporations and nations. Individuals also carry secrets, for good or evil. As Christian believers read, hear and (especially) speak the word of God, may we do so not as mere conveyors of general information but as those who speak with that revelatory edge to our communication, confident that "there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries." As Daniel expressed this discovery:

He reveals deep and hidden things;
    he knows what lies in darkness,
    and light dwells with him.

As the church learns to speak with such insight, may the hearers respond not with adulation of the human messenger but as Nebuchadnezzar did when he fell prostrate, with reverence for the God who reveals:
"your God is the God of gods and the Lord of kings."


House Building - Archaeological Insights and Spiritual Principles

I got totally inspired last night when eating with friends from church as we were discussing Psalm 127 - "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build labour in vain."

One of our members is a very gifted linguist and was sharing an insight into the cultural context of the psalm, namely that house building in that age (c 10th century BC) was primarily conceived of as horizontal rather than vertical. The addition of rooms adjacent to an existing structure, around a courtyard, would have been the main understanding of the idea at the time, rather than of building higher into the sky. (In fact, a quick look through a concordance reveals a rather negative view in the Old Testament when it comes to tall man-made structures - think Tower of Babel, etc)

This insight got us thinking about how the idea of "the Lord building the house" does not have to mean that one thing completely depends on another for its stability. The building process is more "organic" than "engineered", if that makes sense. This approach contrasts with a view of the Christian life that is unduly shaped by linear processes determined by stated goals and targets.

The idea that we have a vision/target/goal, and that we are to work backwards from that point to construct our Christian lives is one that is widely held and practiced. If, however, we define our goals more broadly - I would argue more biblically - then we can allow for developments which are apparently more random, which do not appear to fit into an engineered model of a narrowly-defined goal-focused life. Biblical goals, for instance, include such elements as, “we make it our aim to please him”, “the goal of this instruction is love” and the command to “walk in the Spirit” and to be “transformed through the renewing of our minds.”

Building, in this sense, is more about God-centered character development, ethical behaviour in the personal and social spheres and spiritual maturation, rather than the accomplishment of tasks which lead from one to another in a structured sense. This organic vision of “house building” is more communitarian than individualistic, is as concerned with ethics and process as it is with outcomes, and is also able to incorporate elements which would not normally be part of a design if we were to think purely functionally. Elements such as Joseph being sold as a slave, Jonah running away from God, and David’s adultery were all elements that, in the gracious and judicious divine house-building process, could be incorporated and used to further the purpose of God in the lives of these individuals.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build labour in vain.

Saint Augustine (Lives Biographies)Saint Augustine by Garry Wills

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finished this interesting biography on holiday recently and enjoyed it very much.

It was my first dip into the life of Augustine, though had read some of his Confessions earlier.

Roman Catholic prize-winning writer Garry Wills takes a sympathetic, historical and non-hagiographic approach to his subject, one of the most influential figures in the western Christian tradition.

Was interested to learn many details of Augustine's life that were new to me: getting a young woman pregnant at the age of fifteen, co-habiting with her till he was in his thirties, joining a Trinity-denying sect at 19, etc.

Appreciated the writer's ability to paint both the historical and theological context to Augustine's life. Had not focused till now, for instance, on the fact that Augustine was contemporary with Jerome, Ambrose and Pelagius, nor on the fact that he virtually never left Hippo and the surrounding region after his installation as bishop in 395 AD. Also learned more about the Donatists (with whom I have had a vague interest for years) than in anything I had previously read. Augustine's debates and disputes with them are a running theme through the book.

Augustine's power as a writer, scholar and preacher are well-illustrated throughout, and the 145-page book is full of quotable sections both from the subject himself as well as his friends and enemies:

"Augustine thinks in questions" (Karl Jaspers)

"Augustine felt two duties incumbent on him - to expound the whole circle of knowledge in Christian terms, and to refute other schools within Christianity or outside it." (Wills)

Wills' summaries of Augustine's writings are useful as a launch pad into (hopefully) reading them fully in due course. His concise style makes Augustine's profound reflections accessible to the non-specialist , but without being so brief that they appear superficial. Augustine's reflections on the nature of time (there is no such thing as the present) and his formation of the Doctrine of the Trinity in terms of the human soul are both high points in his original writing and in the author's intelligent summary.

Wills takes a rather more sympathetic view of Augustine's approach to the use of coercion in religion than I am comfortable with, though he does so against the backdrop of a contemporary scene that was far harsher than the portrayal of Augustine we are presented with: he opposed the death penalty, torture, and frequently called for clemency in the administration of justice.

A fine introduction to a giant in church history, well-written, and definitely recommended.

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Not so Small Groups are the Answer!

I am deeply persuaded by MIke Breen's analysis of the cultural and anthropological case for expressions of local church that look and feel like traditional extended families.

Note, it is extended families, not nuclear ones (though the latter are also important).

Groups that are 20-30 in size have a particular role in discipleship, and in Breen's experience, are also much easier to engage naturally in mission.

What do you think?

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Salt, Light and Housing: Good News for Generation Rent?

English: South Lambeth, Springfield Methodist ...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The current housing crisis in Britain may provide an opportunity for churches to provide a service to their communities that is prophetic, as well as mutually beneficial. 

The number of British households renting in the private sector has more than doubled since the mid-90s, from 8% to 17%. No longer the preserve of students or young singles, increasing numbers of families in their thirties, fourties and fifties are being shut out of home ownership. The reasons for the growth of the so-called "Generation Rent" are several:

  • high house prices
  • insufficient housing stock to keep up with demand
  • lack of affordable mortgages caused by lenders limiting their loan-to-value ratios
  • the selling off of council-owned properties since the 1980s 

Meanwhile, there are over 40,000 church buildings in the UK. While many are used a great deal, others have surplus space: hours of under-use during the week, as well as physical space that is never used at all. The latter category, especially in older buildings, often includes high ceilings and roof spaces, which are expensive to heat and maintain.

What would happen if even a fraction of the churches decided to creatively explore using this surplus space for affordable housing?

I'm not necessarily proposing night shelters in the nave - though some have already gone this route.  Rather, I am thinking about permanent long-term homes, integrated into the fabric of existing church buildings. The goal would be to provide both affordable accommodation and space for the congregation to continue to meet in.

Whereas the conversion of church buildings into housing is nothing new in the UK, such projects have generally involved a complete change of use of the building and have been carried out by the private sector.

An alternative could be to refit part of the building while the rest continues to be used as a place of worship. Woodlands Church in central Bristol has pioneered this approach, with a number of student flats built into the roof of its Victorian building. Sound insulation, and an additional floor between the roof and the main hall where worship services take place - means that noise overflow is not a major problem.

Financially, there are several models for how such schemes could fit well with a local church's moral ethos and with its commitment to reach out to the wider community. The instability of the current rental sector is one of the big pressures, felt especially by families with children. Long-term rental agreements, with guaranteed rents, could go some way towards offering an alternative. Rent-to-buy options, or direct sales are another, though the latter would not address the fact that many working people cannot raise the deposit needed to secure a mortgage in the current climate.

Self-build options could help reduce costs and raise the quality of the build; partnerships with housing associations and others with expertise in the housing sector could provide additional alternatives.

The income from such arrangements could, after paying for the costs of the initial building work plus ongoing maintenance, support specific ministries within the local church. Heating and other costs are also likely to be offset by such a scheme, depending on the exact specifications of the plan, and the extent to which renewable technologies are incorporated into the re-fit.

The photo is of Springfield Methodist Church in Wandsworth, part-converted into 28 affordable housing units, while at the same time raising the money for a new meeting place on site for the church congregation. Does anyone have any experience or other examples of this kind on initiative taking place at the moment? 

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Free Church Self Righteousness over Women Bishops Vote?

New Testament Window
New Testament Window (Photo credit: Henry McLin)

Reading some of the comments and articles by those in the so-called free churches, new church networks and non-denominational churches, I must confess to feeling somewhat uneasy at the tone some have taken on last week's vote in the Church of England Synod over women bishops.

Phil Moore, leader at Queen's Road Church Wimbledon, is fairly typical of this strand of comment when he writes that

"the debate is revolving around entirely the wrong question.

The big question is not whether there should be women bishops. It is whether there should be bishops at all."

Good in parts, his article is something of a curate's egg (another ecclesiastical office which I'm fairly sure Phil would take exception to).

On the one hand, and against the idea that the monarch is the "head on earth" of the Church of England, how can anyone who takes the New Testament seriously fail to agree with his statement that  

"the New Testament is very clear that Jesus is the Head of the Church and that anybody else who tries to usurp his title had better watch out"?

On the other hand, Phil insists that,
"The New Testament tells us that [Christ] has chosen for his Church to be led by teams of elders (not by bishops, regardless of whether they are male or female)."

Can anyone fail to miss the irony of inserting a word which is not found in the New Testament ("team") at the expense of one which is ("episkopos", translated as overseer or bishop)? 

I appreciate that many of my free-church brethren will respond that the term episkopos denotes something very different in the pastoral epistles from its later and more developed meaning of a senior leader of clergy and churches in a defined geographical area. I would agree with them. Ignatius may have been motivated by noble ideals, but his episcopalian solution was probably misguided, in my opinion.

This, however, is an issue of definitions rather than terminology in an absolute sense. It is quite legitimate to argue (from 1 Timothy for instance) that the churches should indeed be lead by bishops, as long as we define the role in terms of "eldering" and overseeing and strip it of its clergy-laity connotations.  

The tone of some of the comments from my part of the church is also hard to hear when my type of church is quite happy to use terms never found in Scripture to describe some of its leaders: "lead elder" and "senior pastor" are two that come immediately to mind. Our hesitation to use the biblical word "deacon" might also be worth pondering.

An additional concern I have is with the implication that the Synod debate is "not an issue for us" since we are not Anglicans. Krish Kandiah of the Evangelical Alliance correctly (in my view) addresses the fact that this concerns the whole church, since the name of Christ is publicly invoked in the discussion and its outcomes. Matthew Hosier, although no fan of the episcopalian system, gives a somewhat broader, missional view of the matter from a non-conformist perspective.

I am sure that I am not alone as a member of one of the newer strands of the church in affirming the unity, catholicity and universality of the church. It's just that this message has not been sounded very clearly by some in my neck of the woods in the last week or so. 

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