The Silver Bullet of Gospel Growth – Not Having a Building

centrifugal-vs-centripetalI’ve been putting together the preaching programme for next term. And we’re heading back into the book of Acts. We won’t finish it this time round. But it’ll take us into uncharted territory as we progress through chapters 14-20. And some of that will be hugely encouraging as we trace the spread of the gospel through 1st Century Europe.

One of the things that I’ve had my eye on as I’ve read through these chapters is Paul’s missionary strategy for reaching people with the good news of the gospel. It seems as though he had a twofold strategy. He went first to the Jew and then to the Gentile. In other words, for as long as he was able he preached the gospel in the religious institutions of the day. He ran Christianity Explored in the synagogue while he could get away with it. But sooner or later that became unwelcome. And he was kicked out. But it didn’t matter. Paul then concentrated on taking the gospel to the irreligious; the Gentiles. To that end he was forced to use other buildings. If the gospel wasn’t welcomed by the religious establishment he’d have to use secular space. In Corinth he made much use of the house of Titius Justus, a God fearing convert. And in Ephesus he hired the Hall of Tyrannus (a person not a place).

There are clear parallels with our own situation at Christ Church Balham (CCB). We do not have a building. Our gospel ministry is not welcomed by some of the religious establishment. Historically the Diocese of Southwark and some local churches find our biblical  convictions and patterns of ministry offensive and have refused us use of their buildings (even though some of them are dying on their feet).

Our situation here at CCB is not that dissimilar to that faced by Paul. We meet in many locations. We meet in a (currently) ropey but in the fullness of time shiny new school hall in the morning, we meet in a dark and occasionally distracting pub function room in the evening, we meet in homes midweek for Growth Groups, we meet in a drama studio for ‘Knowing God’ and we meet in a curry house for the ‘One Life Suppers’.  That’s terrific. It gets the gospel out of the four walls of a church building and into the local community. And I have to keep telling myself that. Because as a recent post has  revealed, I occasionally hanker after a building, convinced that it’s the silver bullet to church growth. But it didn’t seem to be in Paul’s day. The gospel seemed to get along alright without the church’s need to call a place their own. And I have to keep telling myself that too! It’s no secret that I’d love us to have a permanent base in Balham. There are things that I think we could do that we can’t do at the moment. For example, I imagine ‘Boppers‘ would be easier with our own space in which to store the toys and a kitchen from which to serve an arresting array of homemade baking options! But I strongly suspect that one of the things that we’d continually have to fight against is the building-centric dynamic that would very quickly become the norm. I fear that we’d fall into a pattern of centring everything on getting people to come to our building rather jettisoning people out into the community. Our challenge is to continually remind ourselves that we’re meant to be a centrifugal church rather than a centripetal one (see diagram above for Physics lesson). In other words not merely sucking non-Christians into our building and church life but spitting Christians out from our building and church life. We must never become a holy huddle that retreat to the safety of our bunker to escape from the hostility of ‘the world’. If we ever have a building it’ll be nothing more than a base camp from which we strike out to explore the community around us and hit them with the good news of the gospel of peace.

There are implications to not having a building, of course. We’re unlikely to reach those who are keen for church to take place in church buildings. Obviously. And that’s ok. We can’t do everything. There are churches near us that can provide for people like that. St Nicholas’ Church in Tooting is a Church of England one that I wholeheartedly recommend. And Trinity Road Chapel is an FIEC alternative. But CCB can reach people who wouldn’t normally darken the door of a church building.

And that’s our challenge.

Evangelism on Fire

Fire TriangleEver heard of the fire triangle?

For a fire to burn it needs three essential ingredients: fuel, oxygen and heat. If you remove any one of those three elements then the fire goes out. Fire extinguishers work by removing one or more of those three from the equation. The fire blanket smothers the fire by removing the oxygen. A CO2 extinguisher cools the fire by drastically reducing the heat. And a foam extinguisher isolates the fuel. As you can see, my time in the Combined Cadet Force wasn’t wasted!

For a fire to make progress you need each one of those three elements. In the same way, for a church to make evangelistic progress it needs three essential ingredients: good news to proclaim, a messenger to share it and an audience to engage with it. Take any one of those three elements away and the fire goes out. Where do you think that your church is weakest?

Are you clear on the gospel? Are you good to go with the gospel? And are there people willing to listen?

Where do you think you’re weakest?

For me, it’s the audience bit. I know the gospel. And I’m willing to share it. But I have become aware that although we know and are known by lots of people in and around Balham, we know far too few at anything more than a superficial level. We simply haven’t invested as we would have wanted to in deep non-superficial relationships. There are lots of reasons for that which I won’t bore you with. But we’re determined not to make those reasons excuses. Excuses won’t ignite the evangelistic fire that we long to see burning in our lives.

But the summer offers lots of opportunities to strengthen the audience component. We’ve got more time. There’s opportunity. And lots of the church events that usually fill up our diaries simply aren’t happening. The church programme is considerably lighter than usual. And so it’s a great time of year to be able invest in non-superficial relationships with friends that God has brought into our lives. So why not host a BBQ and have both those from your small group Bible study and your workplace along? Why not go cycling with a bunch from church as well as others who also love time spent on two wheels? Why not take a longer lunch break with a colleague in the park? Why not organise a game of frisbee on the common and then share post match analysis with a drink at the local? Why not go for a summer walk along the coast with a gang from church and friends you’ve made at your spin class? Why not have a picnic in the countryside with the family of your son or daughter’s best friend from school? The possibilities are seemingly endless.

I take it that we all want the evangelistic fire to burn bright in our church. And so I wonder whether we could all spend the summer paying more attention to the audience component.

Devoted, Deluded and Door Knocking

JWI might have been a bit harsh. Number two son certainly thought so. Because my exchange with the two Jehovah’s Witnesses on the doorstep caused him to turn his attention temporarily from the Wii and pay attention to what was going on in the world around him! And he actually asked me ‘Dad, wasn’t that a bit harsh?’ He may have had a point. My kids often do when they challenge me! But not content with picketing every major bus stop and tube station with their newly designed literature and corporate logo, they’re now doing what they do best; door knocking. Whatever you think of their theology (and what I think of it will soon become clear), you have to admire their devotion to their cause.

It’s fair to say that the exchange got ugly early. I was pressed for time, they’d knocked on my door when I was engrossed in something else and they were masquerading as Christians. It got my goat. And so I decided to cut to the chase.

‘My issue is that you don’t have a big enough view of Jesus’.

‘What do you mean?’ the astonished man responded, temporarily thrown from his pre-prepared patter about giving me the invitation of a lifetime to attend some heretical mass rally at the ExCel Centre.

‘You don’t think Jesus is divine’ I suggested.

‘He’s the Son of God’ he retorted, presumably thinking that I’d be fooled by his semantic sleight of hand.

‘But do you think he’s divine, do you?’ I pressed.

‘No’ he said looking over his shoulder at his silent but senior minder.

‘And that’s my issue. You’re deceiving hundreds and thousands of people into believing a lie. You’re a menace and you need to stop and leave’.

‘There’s no need to be so rude’ he countered.

‘Yes there is’ I suggested, in a louder voice than I was expecting, ‘you’re not treating Jesus as he deserves to be treated’. But I think it was the ‘you need to repent of that or leave’ which signalled that our exchange was over.

When Peter instructed Christians how to respond to those who want to know the reason for the hope that we have, he talked about gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). I’m not entirely sure I exhibited either. In fact, I’m certain I didn’t. Is the fact that he wasn’t actually asking me for the reason for the hope that I have ample justification for my borderline rudeness?

Is Christianity Good for the World?

That’s the question of this year’s Balham’s Big Question.

We’ve posed it online here, on various social media sites and in person on the streets of Balham.

But how has it got to this? Honestly, how on earth have we got to a situation where people are genuinely asking the question ‘is Christianity good for the world?’ To us Christians, it’s inconceivable that anyone should be in any doubt about the answer. After all, when Mark began his gospel he started with these words, ‘the beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ – the Son of God’ (Mark 1:1). Mark wasn’t unsure. He was convinced that Jesus Christ is good news. That’s what the word ‘gospel’ means. Jesus Christ has always been and will always be very good news for the world.

But in our neck of the woods, the good news has become the bad news. At least that’s the perception. And we’d like to change that. We’re putting on a week of mission events as one of the things that CCB can do to help the people of the Balham area hear the good news of Jesus Christ. We want to do so with events that they can access, in language that they can understand and in venues with which they’re familiar.

We’ve got a Question Time tonight at which people can pitch their questions and hear some answers from our panelists Andrew Nicholls, Leonie Mason and Nick Tucker. We’ve got a Men’s Curry Night on Friday at which I’ll give a talk entitled ‘Is Jesus just for girls?’ (The answer is no – but I’m planning to have a bit more to say than that). We had a women’s evening last Monday with their ‘Girls’ Night In’. I’ve blogged about that here.  On Sunday we have a guest service in the morning when I’ll speak on ‘Christianity: a faith for people who don’t do religion’. And Sunday night we’ll reveal the results of Balham’s Big Survey and Dan Strange will answer the question ‘Is Christianity good for the world?’

We’re pleased with what we’ve ended up with. We’re hopeful that this will work. But please pray so that our efforts to help our friends, neighbours and colleagues are not in vain? We’d love to help them see that the answer to the question ‘is Christianity good for the world?’ is emphatically yes.

Running the Race

Running has been good for me these last few days. It’s given me an opportunity to let my mind wander and to reflect on one or two things that people have been saying at church. I’m also supposed to be praying. But I go for long runs, honest. I have time for both. So I suffer from mental drift when I pray. But at least it’s godly mental drift!

One of the things that’s come up of late has been the issue of assurance. It’s come about because as we’ve pressed people to engage with AP4L, to get involved in inviting friends and speaking about the gospel they’ve been brought face to face with their unwillingness to do so. Inevitably people have responded to that in a number of ways. Not all of them constructively.

I think the feeling has been that I’ve reduced the Christian life to being involved in AP4L. And by encouraging people to get involved and challenging them when they’re not, they’ve felt that I’m undermining their confidence that they’re Christian. If I’m saying that a Christian should do these things and they’re not doing them then you can see how they might think that.

But consider this illustration to see whether it sheds any light on the issue. It came to me whilst running; I was heavily oxygen deprived so it may not be right on the money!

If I claim to be a runner what would you expect? You’d expect to see me running. Not all the time but some of the time, at least. If I’ve never run then my claim to be a runner sounds pretty hollow, doesn’t it? If I haven’t run in a while does that mean I’ve stopped being a runner? Not necessarily, it probably means that I need someone to give me the encouragement to get back in habit. Does the fact that I own running kit make me a runner? No. Does the fact that I belong to a running club make me a runner? No. If I claim to be a runner I ought to run. Runners run. And if I’m part of a running club the guys in charge ought to encourage me to run. If they don’t you’d wonder what they were doing.

In the same way Christians speak about the hope that they have (1 Peter 3:15). Jesus promsied us his Spirit so that we’d be equipped to turn to Christ, live for Christ and speak about Christ. Christians follow Christ and therefore we testify to him. It comes with the territory.

But increasingly I’m finding that people are troubled by the ‘ought’ of the Christian life. They have an idea of the Christian life in which the second half of Paul’s epistles should be left out. It’s all about what God has done for us in Christ and it’s not what we do in response. That’s overstating it a little. But that’s the sense of it.  The idea that there are obligations placed upon us as we follow Christ is something that people think undermines grace. Grace has become the ‘catch all’ term for God’s acceptance of us whatever we’re like. I want to defend that. God’s grace does mean that we receive what we don’t deserve; namely eternal acceptance through Christ’s imputed righteousness (Romans 8:1). But God’s grace is not only limited to saving us, by his grace he changes us. In Titus 1:1 Paul teaches that the knowledge of the truth will lead to godliness. God’s not done with us at conversion. He wants to sanctify us to become like his son.

So how can we get past this apparent impasse?

Let’s be clear on what I’m not saying.

  • I’m not saying that being a Christian and doing evangelism are the same thing.
  • I’m not saying that doing evangelism makes you a Christian.
  • I’m not saying that if we stop doing evangelism we’ve stopped being a Christian.
  • I’m not saying that if we don’t want to do evangelism that we can’t be a Christian.

But I am saying this.

  • I am saying that being a Christian involves doing evangelism.
  • I am saying that doing evangelism is one of the evidences that we are Christian.
  • I am saying that if we’re not doing any evangelism that we need encouragement to get back in the game.

Pauls’ instructions in Colossians 4:5&6 are pretty clear. I’ve blogged on them a while ago. There’s an exepctation of obedience there. We should make the most of every opportunity. We should make sure that our conversations are salty and distinctive. And if we don’t we’re being disobedient. And that’s one of the many sins for which Christ had to die. Does it mean that I’m no longer acceptable to God, no. My acceptability before God depends not on my performance but on Christ’s righteousness. But does that mean that God’s not disappointed, no. But he’s not going to kick me out of the family. It’s like this;

Rufus is one of my sons and I love him to bits. There’s no doubt about that. But he can be disobedient, no really! When he is, I’m disappointed. And I communicate that. He’s not stopped being my son but he feels my displeasure at his behaviour. Being a Perkins carries an obligation. There are certain family rules. There’s no disobedience, no dishonesty and no direspect. You can’t become a Perkins if you keep those rules, you’ve got to be a part of the family. But once you’re in the family, by birth, those are the ways that we operate. So there are things that are expected of him.

It’s the same in the Christian life. We don’t become part of the family by keeping the rules. But now that we’re in the family there are ‘rules’. There’s a Christian way of life that we’re to live; it’s called discipleship. And it’s what Jesus called us to in Mark 8:31-38.

If we’re unwilling to be involved in evangelism that raises some questions. But I don’t think that anyone is saying that. They just feel guilty for not doing what’s ‘expected’ of them. And that would be the staff’s fault for pressing the obligation upon them, I suspect. But what would people have us do? We recognise that none of us is what we should be. None of us is living the Christian life that we should be. But we’re here and we’re paid to help one another become more like Christ and to mature in our godliness. And so we want to lovingly encourage everyone, at whatever age and stage, to make progress in their Christian life. We can be better and with God’s help we will be.

Social Action and Evangelism

What is the relationship of godliness to evangelism?

Mention the words ‘social action’ and ‘evangelism’ and you’re likely to generate a discussion. Usually the discussion generates a whole load of heat and not a whole load of light. And so it was with huge appreciation that I read Tony Payne’s efforts to provide illumination! [Social Involvement and Evangelism: How They Relate, Tim Chester and Tony Payne, Briefing #317, February 2005]

He argues that ‘social action’ is really a subset of Christian living. And so to understand the relationship between social action and evangelism he simply replaces the word ‘social action’ with ‘godliness’. Do that and the following six assertions follow.

1. Godliness isn’t the same thing as evangelism

We should be godly and we should be evangelistic. But they’re not the same thing. They are related but different. And therefore we can distinguish between them. In the same way we can distinguish between social action and evangelism.

2. Godliness isn’t a competitor to evangelism

We’d never say ‘I can’t do godliness today because I’m too busy doing evangelism’. It’s not either or. It’s both and. We pursue godliness and evangelistic opportunities. And as we pursue evangelistic opportunities we don’t neglect the activity of godliness. In the same way we mustn’t pit social action against evangelism and put either of them at the bottom of the agenda.

3. Godliness isn’t an optional extra in evangelism

Godliness is not something that we can choose to ditch. It commends our evangelism and reinforces it because godliness is what the gospel produces in us. In the same way social action will adorn and commend the gospel.

4. Godliness isn’t a tactic to lead to evangelism

Godliness may open up some opportunities for evangelism. But that’s not why we do it. We do both because we’re supposed to Godliness is not a means to an end. It’s the end. It may attract people to the gospel, or it may not. People may love us for our godliness or they may hate us. In the same way social action isn’t a tactic to get a foot in the door.

5. Godliness isn’t earning the right for evangelism

We don’t do godliness because without it we don’t have the right to evangelise. We don’t need permission to preach the gospel. In the same way social action is not the permission we need to enter a community with the gospel.

6. Godliness isn’t the silver bullet for evangelism

Godliness isn’t the key that unlocks people’s minds and makes them receptive to the gospel. It may influence them, or it may not. It may influence them for good, or it may not. People need their eyes opened so that they can see the truth. Godliness doesn’t do that. God does.

When you put it like that, it’s helpful. Isn’t it?

In the same way social action isn’t the magic ingredient to help people suddenly understand the gospel.