Why I’m just not that bothered about Tom or Kanye…

Over the last couple of weeks Christian Twitter has found a couple of new heroes. I assume lots of people are talking in real life as well. But certainly they keep coming up in my Twitter feed. And while there’s good reasons for lots of what’s being said, I reckon they point out a couple of problems within our evangelical culture.

Six months ago, probably the only Christians to know much about the historian Tom Holland were those of us who were sad enough to take more than a passing interest in the history of classical antiquity. He had written decent, popular level, narrative histories of the Roman world, and a big book on the rise of Islam. I’ve read a couple of the Roman ones over the years and enjoyed most of them. A few people might have seen him on the telly doing his own stuff, or on Dan Snow’s excellent 1066 docudrama. But you certainly didn’t hear much about him on ‘evangelical twitter.’

But now that he’s doing the rounds plugging his latest book, Dominion, he’s everywhere on it. From what I can work out, having listened to a couple of podcasts with him chatting about it, Holland’s basic point is a good one. The West’s value system comes wholly out of the Christian worldview, and is completely at odds with the values of the Greco-Roman world. True dat. But it’s not exactly new, is it? Jesus was counter-cultural, and we don’t really like infanticide or institutionalised slavery, or a system set up to benefit the rich and oppress the weak. The West has developed it’s value system through 2000 years of broadly Christian dominance of the culture. Really?! Wow! Who’d have thunk it…

But my problem’s not really with Tom Holland. He seems a top fella, and has some sensible stuff to say, especially about the utter banality of bishops talking about Brexit instead of original sin. But I just want to raise the question as to why he’s suddenly the Christian poster boy. Why do we have pastors on Twitter telling us what a great historian he is, as I saw this week. Is he? Or is he just making us feel better by saying what we want to hear. And how many of us are actually qualified to judge his qualities as a historian. I did hear Holland say that, as a historian, he’s not qualified to judge the authenticity of the resurrection account. That’s the job of theologians. Surprising how many theologians feel qualified to judge his qualities as a historian though.

The other elephant in the Twittersphere of course is Kanye West. And, before I start, I’ll declare my bias. As far as I can see he’s just a dude who talks over records. I mean, he’s no Hetfield, Grohl, or even Kelly Jones is he?! My radio is tuned to ‘the Uk’s only 90’s radio station’. I’m not really in his core target audience, am I?! But then neither are quite a lot of people who are going on about what a legend he is this week…

Now, don’t get me wrong, if Kanye West has trusted Christ for salvation, then praise God. If he’s using his working life to give glory to God, then let’s join him in glorifying his Saviour. When anybody moves from death to life it’s a miracle only the Lord can do, by his Spirit, through the blood of Jesus. But is it anymore newsworthy when he does it in a dude who just happens to make music for a living, and give his kids odd names?

You see, I wonder if the reaction of many Christians to both Tom Holland and Kanye West in recent weeks betrays that we’re just as celebrity obsessed in Uk evangelicalism as we laugh at our American brothers and sisters for being. We, deep down, long to be affirmed by the world. Long for people with a voice in the secular world to think Christianity’s cool, or credible, or even just not as outdated as everyone thinks it is. We still believe that getting celebrities to tell the world about the gospel (or summat vaguely connected to it anyroad) will mean it’ll turn round and trust Jesus (you know, like it did with Cliff!). We feel like we’re validated a bit when people with a voice in the culture say summat nice about us, or even Jesus.

Perhaps that’s the reason that evangelical conferences in the Uk still have the ‘preachers with a profile’ on the platform. Perhaps it’s why lots of evangelistic endeavour looks like getting the famous person to do a testimony, or the person with the ‘amazing story’. Because they’ll draw a crowd, and the more people who hear the truth of the gospel the better, right?! Perhaps it’s why churches with big name preachers, and big ministries, and lots of resources, in big cities, have lots of people. And average places, with average preachers, and few resources, scratching out a ministry of gospel life together and seeking to speak of Jesus, are always struggling for people to join them.

I wonder if at times we’re in danger of tearing 1 Corinthians 1 & 2 out of our Bibles. We certainly get quite excited when the wise and strong of this world get saved, or even throw us a bone. Perhaps we need to remember that when God really shows off he doesn’t do it with flashing lights, and a banging beat. He does it with a humiliated, naked, peasant; beaten within an inch of his life, hanging on a tree. Broken, beat, and scarred…and winning the victory over all the cosmic powers of evil. Destroying the wisdom of the wise and the intelligence of the intelligent. Wisdom through foolishness, strength through weakness. That’s what turns the world upside down. Not celebrity endorsements.

And, funnily enough, as far as I can tell, that’s the entire argument of Tom Holland’s book…

The (phoney) war of the Christian life…

The other Sunday at Spen Valley Church we started a new sermon series in the Psalms of Ascent. I love these psalms; brutally realistic about the fact that the Christian life is war, uncompromising in their call for us to depend entirely on the Lord’s keeping power for our peace and security, and full of hope of the joy of being one together with the Lord and his people.

Funnily enough, we started out at the beginning, Psalm 120. It really is brutal in showing us the Christian life as war. But as I started to think about the applications for us, it struck me that this psalm isn’t really about what we normally talk about when we think about the battle of the Christian life.

You see, we think about the Christian life as war because of the battle to pursuing holiness, or kill sin, or even because of the fight to keep trusting the Lord when suffering strikes or loved ones die. But the slight problem is that that’s not really what the psalmist’s problem is.

He’s fighting a war because of where he lives and who he lives among (vs. 5). Wherever it is that he lives, it at least feels like he’s living among pagans. And pagans (vv. 6-7) who hate everything he is and everything he says. He is a believer, one of the Lord’s people, who’s very identity is one of peace with God and his people. A man who wants to speak the good news of peace to all around him. And yet all this peaceful being and speaking only brings him war. It’s a fight to keep going, keep believing, keep speaking. So much so that (vs. 1) he’s repeatedly crying to the Lord for help.

There were lots of applications of this war for us as a church. Check them out here if want. But I just want to dwell on one for a few posts here. I might be getting this proper wrong, but I reckon that for a lot of us the psalmist’s experience isn’t really our own day to day experience. Now, I understand that if you work in academia or a similar environment, or even TV land, then you might regularly come up against people who don’t like the Bible’s view about certain social issues. But I reckon that for lots of us, especially in small northern towns like ours, the war the psalmist is talking about just isn’t something that causes us the same distress it does him. And I reckon there’s at least two fairly simple reasons for that.

Firstly, I reckon that often our default pattern of life is different to the psalmist’s. We might inhabit the same geographical location as plenty of non-Christians, both at home and work. But whether or not we dwell amongst them is another question entirely. It’s far too easy for so many Christians to avoid spending time amongst those who don’t know Jesus, and spend all our non-work time in the Christian bubble. Another meeting to attend, another committee to be on, another youth club to run, another shift at the church foodbank/drop-in/café to get on with. All our mates are Christians, and sometimes we even enjoy spending time with them. When asked at the prayer meeting to give a name of a non-Christian we know well, and want to share the gospel with though, if we’re honest, it’s a bit of a struggle.

Perhaps no-one hates us, because no-one actually, really, knows us.

Or perhaps we do know people. We’re even invested in people’s lives. But if we’re honest it’s quite hard for them to tell the difference between them and us. Yeah, we have that funny hobby on a Sunday, and we’ve got some weird thing about Jesus, and a few daddy issues. But the stuff we talk about, the stuff we get excited about, the dreams we live for, they’re pretty much in line with theirs. From what we say, they could easily make out that if our kids turn out normal and successful, our spouse is gorgeous, we get that promotion, we win the lottery, our team win the league, and our version of Brexit was delivered, we’d think life was quite tidy, thanks very much. Perhaps the idea of telling them that they’re a sinner heading for hell and in desperate need of Jesus as Saviour and Lord has crossed our mind, but…well, they wouldn’t like that, would they now?!

Perhaps no-one’s out for war, because we barely ever speak of peace.

In our town, probably 99% plus have never heard the gospel. It’s probably similar in yours. Unless we actually get out there and tell them, that ain’t going to change. They’ll never know they’re at war with God unless we live among them, speaking and living out the implications of the gospel of peace.

So what can we do about that? Well, next week I want to think about some of the systematic reasons why it’s so easy for us to live in the Christian bubble and how we can try to change them. But for now…? Pray. Go out of your door. Pray. Go somewhere, anywhere, where’s there’s people. Pray. Meet some people and get to know them. Pray. Tell them about Jesus and their need of him. Pray.

Repeat. Then repeat. And repe…

You get the picture…

Back to school…and the future!

Yesterday was a big day in our house. My son went off to high school for the first time. He’s quite the nervous soul, and so the last couple of weeks have been a bit lively! Not only have we had the joys of spending a ridiculous amount of money on compulsory school-branded clothing, and equipment he won’t use that often (over £200, even with buying the cheapest stuff we could find!), but we’ve had occasional tears, grumps, and the odd nightmare.

It was a long time ago that I first went to high school (probably well before some of his teachers were born!). But I still vividly remember the six weeks of anxiety about the stories of heads being flushed down toilets and what Year 11s did to little Year 7s behind Faggee’s Corner or on the Cage Walk. But I also remember that there turned out to be nothing to them. And I also remember my years as a high school teacher, and know that generally kids settle in quickly, get used to a different way of working, and most importantly make new friends fairly quickly.

5 years I spent in this place. Happiest days of your life…apparently!

So, as he went off in fear and trepidation yesterday morning, I was thinking about the friends he might make. And it struck me that over the coming weeks he might meet people who will be his mates for life. People who he has, as yet, never set eyes on who might be the guys he drinks in the Malt Shovel with in 40 years, or the blokes he works with, or the people he turns to when life falls apart down the line, maybe even someone he might walk down an aisle with one day.

You see, that’s Cleck. So many of the people I meet in the town have lived here all their lives. They grew up here. They all went to the same school, unless they went off to the grammar school in Hecky (by definition a minority). They’ve all known each other since they were 11, or 14 at least if they’re old enough to remember the middle school system. They all know each other’s mums and dads, and different family situations. They all remember that thing that happened when they were 16, and what she did to him when he said that to her. They still hang round together, not on Facebook, or Insta, or even on Friends Reunited! But in real life. Their best mate is still the fella they met in the classroom way back when. Lots of them are married to one another. Very often, it’s even generational. Families have lived here for as long as anybody can remember. Not only did they go to school with their best mate, but their dad went to school with his dad, right back to when their great-grandads worked in the mills together.

Cleck in 1900… Dark and satanic according to some poet or other

You see they’ve got history. Long history. Involved history. And that means that planting, and being, a church here might be a bit different to places where people tend to be a bit more socially and geographically mobile. There’s probably lots of things it means, but it means at least that we’ve got to rethink our timetable for growth. On the other hand, it means that setting up a solid little church invested in the local community could, by God’s grace, do great good over a very long time.

You see, planting a church in a place like Cleck simply will take a long time for lots of reasons. But the fact that nearly everyone knows nearly everyone, and always has, plays a huge part in it. As a church we’re all incomers. Some of us are even incomers to Yorkshire. Even my wife and I, who’ve lived all our lives within a 7 mile radius of Cleck, are still in many ways outsiders. And that means that deep relationships are going to take longer to grow. We’ve not got that history, we’re not from round here. Many people already have a huge network of relationships, whether family, or mates, or whoever. And therefore there’s less people looking for new friends, or new opportunities to get out and do stuff. It means getting into our community is going to take longer. And so planting here is going to be very different to planting in a mobile town or city where people are coming and going all the time. It’s going to take longer, it’s going to be more labour intensive, it’s probably going to be more frustrating. We’re going to need more support from outside, both in terms of people and finances. We’re going to have to be patient, and keep going even when it feels like nothing’s happening. We certainly won’t be self-sufficient, or self-funding, any time soon.

A place of memories for all who grew up here… The old school building

But it also means that, long term, there are huge opportunities here that might not exist in more mobile places. Because in 20, or 30, or even 100 years, by God’s grace we’ll still be here. Maybe not all of us, or even any of us. But, if the it’s the Lord’s will, then Spen Valley Church will. And, God willing, it will be full of people who grew up here. Who went to school here. Who have invested their entire life in this town. Whose mates are the people they met in Year 7 or even in Reception, or even before that. People who are simply part of the huge, complex, tangled web of relationships that make up Cleck. Who those around them have seen grow up, have seen go through the process of coming to know Jesus, be baptised, and get stuck into church life. People who have lived out the transformation of life that comes with knowing Jesus. People who are part of the very fabric of this town and are determined to proclaim the gospel of Jesus to those they’ve loved all their lives. Who demonstrated the keeping power of God in one place, in front of the same people, for 70 years. That’s just not possible in areas where people stick around for 3 years, or even 10, before moving on. That’s just not possible in places where all the kids go off to university and rarely come back. But I reckon that here, it just might be.

We’re still a million miles from that yet. But we are praying that God will be gracious in getting us there one day. That he might take a group of incomers and make us part of this place. That he might bring us more incomers willing to come and be part of this town for the sake of the gospel. And that he might use that process so that people might come in and know the rest that comes with belonging to the family of God in Jesus…