The Gospel Partnerships asked me to describe what it’s like to be left behind in the sending church once the new plant has started. Here are my reflections.
‘Who does he think he is?’
Growing up as a disillusioned teenager in a disastrous Anglican Church, we were required to recite the same liturgy every week. My mood would rise or fall depending on which version of the Rite for Holy Communion we would be using. Some seemed significantly shorter than others.
But it was the prayer of humble access that really used to press my buttons. It’s that phrase ‘we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under your table’. ‘Who does he think he is?’ God, I mean. To an arrogant fourteen year old they were enough to light the inner blue touch paper. They’re no less easy on the ears of a slightly less arrogant forty year old. But I don’t struggle with them in the same way that I used to. They’re true. I’m not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under the Lord’s table. And I’ve come to see that. Or rather, God has persuaded me.
What’s changed? Well, I’ve come to appreciate who God is and who I am. God is immeasurably, inconceivably, breathtakingly wondrous in the perfection of his righteousness, love and wisdom. I am not. I’m far from that. Even in my regenerative state as a man under divine reconstruction, I am not worthy. The Spirit of God may be making me more like Christ, but I’m still a work in progress – as are you. And we’re not worthy.
But that’s not the whole of the story, is it? Even though being permitted to scrabble around on the floor picking up the things that God brushes off his table would be a privilege, God goes further. He goes so much further. He invites us to sit with him at his table as a guest, to enjoy his companionship and to enjoy all the good things he lays on for us. It’s the difference between what we are by nature and what we are by grace. God graciously get us up off the floor, pulls up a seat and welcomes us to himself so that we might know him and enjoy him. For ever. He is the same Lord who ‘delights in showing mercy’.
It’s good for us to say the prayer of humble access. I actually love saying it these days. It’s very good for my soul to be reminded what I have because of God’s generosity to me. It may stick in our throats when we first hear it. But as we become more familiar with the God of the Bible and the wickedness of the human heart, we’ll discover it’s true. And we’ll be able to say it with conviction. And with joy. As many of us already do.
Andrew Atherstone, has recently penned a biography of Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury. The Oxford academic has ploughed through hundreds of parish magazines to give us a portrait of his views ‘unencumbered by nervous press officers’.
He talks about his book briefly here.
It’s already pre-ordered from Amazon, where this was the blurb
This biography of Justin Welby, the 105th archbishop of Canterbury, traces the story of his life and ministry from his earliest years to the eve of his enthronement in March 2013. It examines his conversion to Christianity as a student at Cambridge University, his career as a treasurer in the oil industry and his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Church of England – as a rector in Warwickshire, director of international reconciliation ministry at Coventry cathedral, dean of Liverpool and bishop of Durham. Based on extensive archival research, and interviews with the archbishop’s friends and colleagues, this study analyses his formative relationships, leadership style and priorities for the church. It highlights Justin Welby’s passion for evangelism, reconciliation and risk-taking, which mark a change of direction for the Anglican Communion.
John Bingham, writing in the Telegraph in his capacity as Religious Affairs Editor, provides a few highlights of the book here.
Late addition, this is the Amazon blurb on Andrew
Andrew Atherstone is tutor in History and Doctrine, and Latimer research fellow, at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and has published widely on a number of Anglican personalities such as Charles Golightly (Oxford’s Protestant Spy, Paternoster, 2007), and George Carey.
So that’s it then. I’ve almost caught up with my sleep. And there’s a bit of distance between the week of mission and now. People at church asked me what I’d made of the week. And so I had to begin formulating and articulating an answer. It’s overwhelmingly positive. I’m very grateful for the week at Brookes. It was good for me. It was good for the students. And most importantly of all, it was good for the gospel.
Here are a number of random observations.
Student leadership can work. I’ve had some ropey experiences of student led ministry. Students can sometimes be painfully disorganised. But I have to pay tribute to the Brookes’ Christian Union. They were magnificent. Student leadership isn’t always the most effective way of ensuring that the gospel gets heard on campus. You need good leaders. And Brookes has a number of those. It meant that people knew what was going on, where it was going on and who was doing it. They’d plastered the campus with publicity so students could access the events that they’d organised.
Lunch bars are really effective. People came. Where we were wasn’t the busiest campus in the world. But people pitched up and lots of them had no Christian faith at all. Lunch is a good time to provide something that people can access. And if you offer a student free food then you can guarantee a crowd! But since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, they had to listen to me for 20 minutes. But most of them seemed very happy to do so. And the interaction afterwards encouraged me to think that they’d really engaged with the issues, even when I hadn’t been at my engaging best!
Apologetics talks just stand alone. They don’t need wrapping up and hiding in something more appealing. The talk titles were reason alone for people to come. They didn’t come because we were putting on an evening event of Turkish Belly Dancers after which one of the members of the Christian Union would give a five-minute talk about why Jesus will fulfil you more than dancing. Just for the record, this wasn’t an event. At least not at Oxford Brookes. People came simply because the topic was their issue. Sure some probably came because their friends nagged them. And there was the free lunch. But it was hardly ‘Pret a Manger’. But lots simply came because these were talks that addressed their objection to pursuing any interest in the Christian faith. And they came back because they realised that they were being taken seriously. I’ve come away thinking that we need more apologetic preaching dropped into our regular preaching programme and not simply wheeled out for the annual mission. It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought. But I seem to park it every time I get back to church ministry.
Students benefit from discipleship. It’s no coincidence that the leadership of the Brookes’ Christian Union is strong and that there are (at least) two mature Christians reading the Bible with these fine young men and women. During the course of the week I met a male UCCF worker and a local male church worker. They make themselves available to the CU to encourage them in their Christian lives and train them in ministry. And so it’s no surprise that there are a number of male leaders right out of the top drawer. The young women were also excellent. But, in my experience, CUs are often less characterised by having good and godly blokes to take a lead.
We all too easily lose our passion for the lost. I felt chastened by the evangelistic zeal of the Brookes’ students. They were involved in the lives of their non-Christian mates. They were intentional about who to invite. They set aside time to pitch up to events. This week was big for them precisely because it was a chance for their mates to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. I left rebuked at the way that I’ve settled into a lifestyle that doesn’t always put evangelism at the top of the agenda. Our kids have been in primary school for six years, perhaps longer. That’s a long time of friendship with a large number of people. I’m not sure that all our kids’ friends’ parents have heard the gospel from us as we’ve shared a meal around the kitchen table. That’s not great. Lots of the students I met weren’t going to die wondering. They believed the gospel was the power to save, they loved their friends and they made the time to be involved. I felt rebuked. Rightly so.
Well I wasn’t expecting that. Three people said they wanted to follow Christ after the suffering talk on Thursday. Isn’t that amazing? And wonderful? And a whole load of others have signed up for the Christianity Explored course being run at a local church after the formal dinner in the evening.
After some late night alteration, I was pleased with the apologetic talk this time round. I’d managed to work out how the cross significantly helps us to understand God’s purpose in suffering. I’m pretty sure that Henri Blocher says something very similar in his book ‘Evil and the Cross’. But if I’ve read it (which I doubt) then I’d forgotten all the useful stuff he says. But the impact of the cross on suffering meant that I could spend some time legitimately explaining what was going on in Jesus’ death, which is not only more familiar territory for me, it’s also what people most need to hear!
I explained that three wrong answers are usually given to explain the existence of suffering in the world. There’s the ‘get rid of God’ approach so that suffering just is. There’s the ‘get rid of God’s power’ approach so that he’s well-meaning but impotent. And there’s the ‘get rid of his compassion’ approach so that he’s mighty but merciless. None of those tallies with the presentation of God in the Bible. The God of the Bible exists, for starters. So that’s a problem for solution one. And the Bible records his mighty acts of power. So that’s a problem for solution two. And he is love, which rules out solution three. And so I suggested the Bible gives us another option. It’s that this God is not only almighty, all loving but also all wise. And in his wisdom he has good reasons for allowing suffering in his world. To establish that this is the answer we looked at the cross.
As you might expect, given the subject, there was a tangible sense of engagement with the issue. And there were a number of quality conversations afterwards.
Friday’s talk was entitled, ‘Exclusive: Is Jesus the only way?’ This was the talk I was most anxious about. It has the potential to make people disproportionately worked up. I’d also left the preparation of the talk till the last minute. It was the first issue that I’d thought about during half term. And it all made sense back then. I’d even sketched out the rough outline of a talk. But I hadn’t looked at it in over a week. So it was far from fresh in my mind. And by the end of the mission my brain was nearly cooked. In the end I was greatly indebted to Paul Williams’ book ‘If You Could Ask God One Question’. He has a terrrific chapter in there on the issue of sincerity. He looks at Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3. Jesus tells this moral, sincere, devout devotee to another faith that he needs to be born again if he’s ever to see the Kingdom of God. And so Jesus answers the question of who will be accepted by God for us. The talk I gave wasn’t quite plagiarism. But it would be fair to say that Paul would recognise much of the better material in the talk!
And so the week came to an end. When I get some time. And after some sleep, I’ll share my impressions of the week.
That’s better. It felt like we got somewhere. Numbers were down on the previous day, which was a little disappointing but to be expected. This was Wednesday and we were competing against sports’ fixtures. But word may also have got round about the historicity talk! This time the audience engagement was considerably better. Perhaps the innovation of a phone number to text questions helped. I certainly think the quality of the talk helped. It was a whole load more engaging. The topic was ‘Outdated: Has Science Killed Christianity?’ I tried to argue that the approach of the New Atheists is to abuse scientific method rather than use it to investigate the evidence for Jesus. And so they hijack in the service of naturalism and ask it to justify an ideology that it simply can’t support.
It generated a fair few questions. One of them was brilliant. And, as you might expect, I fluffed it! The question said something like ‘does creation point in the direction of a creator, or not?’ And I ended up rattling on about the presuppositions which we bring to the debate whether we’re Christian or not. That’s not wrong. And it may have been helpful. But I failed to talk at all about God’s general revelation, which was an oversight! What I should have said was something along the lines that the Bible says that creation speaks of God’s existence and his invisible power and divine nature (Romans 1:18-20). But we suppress the evidence. And the reason that we do that is because we’re predisposed to keeping God at arms’ length. And so although God is ‘speaking’ to us in creation, we do not have ears to hear. But wonderfully God provides another word for us to listen to in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ. He’s less easy to ignore.
I did wonder whether I was the best person to be giving this talk. I’m not a scientist. I was an engineer. Once. But there are reasons why I got out of engineering. And they had to do with not being much good at it and not being remotely interested in it. But an engineering degree from Warwick University is not to be sniffed at. But it raises the question of whether I should have been doing the talk at all. I’ve had guys in our congregation say that people like me (non-experts) shouldn’t do talks where a specialist is needed. They’re not entirely wrong. If you had the choice between Professor John Lennox and me, it’s a no-brainer. But there’s only one of him. He’s large brained, clear thinking and engaging. That combination is rare. Specialists in a subject can be unbelievably dull. I really don’t have anyone in mind. It’s just the kind of sweeping generalisation that I’m in the mood for making. And so I want to speak up for the specialist communicators, the run of the mill pastors who are used to understanding stuff and explaining it. We may not be experts in the field of apologetics but at least we can be understood and engaging. We’ll need to work hard at understanding the arguments. And to do that we’ll usually try and climb on the shoulders of experts like John Lennox, especially but also other apologists. But when we do, perhaps being able to speak apologetically is a speciality! My own view is that you want people who want to win people to Christ not simply people who want to win the argument. Evangelists have to be better than experts because they’ll head for the gospel rather than simply their learning. But I’ve seen John Lennox do both. And it was electric. But apparently he wasn’t available!
Late night, early morning. After the disappointment of yesterday’s decidedly disengaging performance, I went back to the drawing board on the science talk. When I got to bed, I couldn’t sleep because my mind was spinning with Richard Dawkins quotes. And they’re hardly designed to lull into a deep slumber even the most committed Calvinist. The alarm clock had a five on it when I woke up. And I hadn’t even set it that early.
The talk title for today is Outdated: Has science disproved God? It was pretty stressful until late last night, when in God’s kindness it all started to come together. I just couldn’t work out what I was trying to do in terms of answering the question. But God gave me something to say that may even be quite helpful! And, God willing, it’ll do the job. I hope it provokes a few more questions than yesterday’s talk on the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts. In hindsight, it could well have been that I gave the seminal twenty minute talk on the trustworthiness of the biblical testimony to Jesus, and everyone was simply left speechless. I’m just saying it’s a possibility. It’s not what I think happened. Something else accounts for the tumbleweed moment when I asked for questions.
One of the things I’ve discovered in preparing these talks is how little I enjoy leaving stuff out. If the art of a good talk is knowing what to leave on the desk, then I’m artless! I quite like showing what I know. And if I’ve just learnt something then I want to show it before I forget it! Leave nothing of my extensive research out tends to be my modus operandi. But I’m repenting of that and the talks are much better because of it. I’ve read some terrific treatments of the science issue, among the best of which has been Andrew Sach’s UCCF booklet. I’m stealing one of his illustrations because it makes the point about the abuse of science so well. It’s the one about the light machine, if that means anything to you.
The effort that the Christian Union has gone to in running this week of events has been hugely encouraging. This is a big week for them. And they’ve done a great job. Both the UCCF student worker and a local pastor have clearly provided invaluable assistance to the Committee, and especially to the President. There’s been momentum building throughout the week and the numbers at the lunch bars have held up well. There must have been 50 or 60 in attendance yesterday.
The lunch bar concept is a great one. Occasionally people have 12pm lectures and so they can’t make it. But lots of people have been able to get along. Brookes is a split campus university. But we’re on the main one. Though I’m amazed how quiet it is. At Warwick (back in the day) the Students’ Union was heaving. The SU at Brookes is pretty quiet. I suspect that the student life is located in Oxford. When you live in a place like Oxford, that’s your campus. We didn’t have a resource like that on our doorstep. As much as I’m fond of it, who wanted to spend an evening in Coventry? Especially as a student. No, the SU was where we headed. But even though it’s quieter than I might have expected, I’m struck by how lunch bars are a great way to reach students. I suspect in a London context, like ours at CCB, lunch bars are a brilliant way to reach student who commute to university each day from their homes.