Month: November 2013

the ordinary holiness of a church

Empty, expectant?

I’m glad to say I’m part of an ordinary church.

We meet in an ordinary building — a former Salvation Army Citadel (although it doesn’t look like it’s built to withstand much of an onslaught).

Things are neat enough. And functional.

But, as a physical space, it’s not exactly beautiful.

More down-at-heel. Boasting a tattered op-shop vibe. (A little like our congregation I guess.)

And yet it’s also cosy. Wadded with memories. Lived in. A family home.

The laughter and tears of children trodden into the carpet along with scattered glitter and crumbs.

When it rains, it’s soft. So insistently there — only a few feet away. Nearby. But not confined to that one location. (A little like our God I guess.)

Some days I wonder if I can almost hear the ghost of our prayers — ours and those of the generations before us. The inaudible echo of so much faith and doubt.

And during Advent I can’t shake the feeling that our bland and gnarled building is a cocoon — within which we slowly squirm and heave, waiting for transformation.

If this isn’t holiness, perhaps it’s its shadow…

why I’m giving up on meeting one to one

Your standard one to one meeting

Meeting with people one to one — to chat about life, pray and read the Bible with the aim of growing as disciples of Jesus — is one of the more stable features the kind of university (aka ‘college’) student ministry I serve in.

But it’s become increasingly clear to me that I need to give it up.

Huh? Give up meeting one to one? What am I smoking?

Let me explain how I reached this conclusion.

To start with, there have been some pragmatic factors pushing me in this direction.

In particular, I’ve only been on campus two days/week for the second half of this year. But I’d already begun meeting with a bunch of students — some currently in leadership, some potential leaders, and some in particular need of pastoral care.

I didn’t want to stop meeting with any more of these people than I had to. But my time and resources were limited.

So I decided to try combining my one to ones into triplets.

After only one semester of trying it, the results are far from conclusive. But tentatively I can report that…

  1. I was able to keep regularly meeting up with almost all of the students I had been meeting with in first semester.
  2. I was forced to act on my conviction that ministry is as much caught as taught (instead of simply telling the student leaders to disciple someone else, I was able to work with them to do it).
  3. I am starting to re-examine the rationale for my pre-existing preference to do discipleship one to one.

I’ve barely even begun thinking through the third point. But I’ve been stimulated by a chapter from Transforming Discipleship by Greg Ogden, which someone recently pushed my way.

Ogden argues very strongly against our tendency to model discipling on the Paul-Timothy relationship. To his mind, this brings with it an unhelpfully asymmetrical expert-learner dynamic — something like which is perhaps encoded in the language of ‘investing in someone’ that I typically reach for to describe these meetings.

I’m not sure I’m entirely with him.

Theologically, I am drawn to the idea that we serve one another out of our shared weakness and interdependence (rather than me serving you out of my strength and independence).

The most deeply Christian way to serve is to help each other love and trust Jesus more. And anything that helps us actually live this has got to be a good thing.

But the New Testament does seem to grant the possibility that individuals will make an asymmetrical contribution to others — even if it also always recognises a degree of reciprocity. (I’m thinking here of passages like Romans 1.8-15.)

Equally, I don’t buy that switching to triplets will automatically address the more toxic aspects of this dynamic. A tendency to see yourself as God’s gift to another person (in a bad way) won’t necessarily be mitigated by adding an in extra person.

I am, however, inclined to agree that our theological rationale for privileging one to one as the context for discipleship is inadequate.

Or maybe I’ve just inadequately understood and digested it?

sex and the sound bite

CAD u37 Condenser Microphone

Conversations about sex and sexuality can get pretty heated. And more than a little awkward.

It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’re public conversations (online, on TV, or radio talk shows) or private conversations — with curious kids across the breakfast table, long-term friends over a meal, or near strangers at a party.

They just have a tendency to get very messy, very quickly.

Maybe it’s the nature of such feelingful conversations. Where people are deeply invested. Often in unforeseen and unforeseeable ways.

Such conversations are especially likely to explode when one or other party attempts to speak with a conservative Christian voice — especially on topics like homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

I’ve had conversations like this blow up in my face. And I’ve heard about it happening to people I know. Sometimes with tragic consequences.

In our culture of the sound bite and catchy slogan, you sometimes can’t even get past saying where you stand without being labelled and written off (one way or the other).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to play the victim here.

I’m just trying to think out loud about whether there’s anything to be done to facilitate better conversations — where we give each other enough airtime to communicate and learn.

One prominent Christian pastor I know of simply refuses to speak on such topics unless his conversation partners are willing to give him 3 hours to explain himself properly — setting his views in their wider biblical and theological context and addressing some of the often-unexamined ‘defeater beliefs’ thrown up by competing world-views.

Now there’s obvious wisdom in this. It isn’t necessarily an act of conversational cowardice.

Some things just take time to explain well. When I spoke about same-sex marriage recently, I took nearly an hour (including question time).

In addition, conservative Christians aren’t alone in needing to plead for time and sustained attention to explain themselves like this. Anyone who’s ever tried to answer a climate sceptic or explain some of the less ‘common sense’ examples of biological evolution can find themselves in a similar position.

But I doubt I’m alone in wanting something more. Something sharper.

What I’m after is some kind of counter-sound bite. A conversational foot in the door.

How can we win a hearing for the good (and confronting) news of Jesus — including his vision for us and our sexuality — without compromising or selling out?

I have a few thoughts to share. But before I do, I’d love to hear if you have any ideas?