Re-engaging with charismatic and Pentecostal christianity

December 10, 2018 Leave a comment

We are all only too aware of the explosive growth of charismatic and Pentecostal churches in New Zealand and elsewhere since the 1960s, and the decline of most other forms of church since the 1960s. The 60s have been called the “expressive revolution” which lead to the significant culture changes that came to be labelled post-modernity in the 1990s. This can be seen as “the recovery of the experiential to complement the cerebral”.

Some have said “testimony is the poetry of Pentecostal experience” and a significant engagement with the charismatic movement was a critical part of my coming to faith as a young adult after leaving church in my later teenage years. It was also central in my ministry in a Baptist church. I ended up on the Board of Christian Advance Ministries, which was my introduction to ecumenical Christianity, and we developed a close relationship with neighbouring Knox Presbyterian Church Lower Hutt.

The charismatic movement itself has actually passed and, like many others – reflecting on some of the various negatives in it as well as benefits – I have moved some distance from the movement. However, over the past decade I have come to see that re-engaging with it is critical for our future as a Church – not re-capturing particular forms in which it was expressed last century, but engaging with the experiential and aesthetic dimension of faith that is the domain of the Spirit.

Part of the reason for that is the change in western culture that means younger people are more open to spirituality than older generations, as the recent McCrindle research, Faith and Belief in New Zealand confirms. But, just as strong a reason has been the dramatic rise of world Christianity, especially in the global south – African, Asian, Latin American. Christianity is now predominantly a non-Western religion and the spirit is alive and well and active within the global church, and most of it is charismatic and Pentecostal.

  • There have been particular difficulties for the Reformed tradition in engaging with this. I think a number of factors have led to this.
  • Calvin himself is a problem in his limiting the gifts of the Spirit, apart from pastors and teachers to the early period of the establishment of the Church when there was no Church.
  • Then there is the problem of the enlightenment. I remember Leonard Sweet, when visiting New Zealand, said the Presbyterian Church is the Church that is most wedded to the enlightenment.
  • There is a deep suspicion of experience and the personal, and I wonder how much this a consequence of the Scots suspicion of emotion.
  • A focus on correct doctrine, liturgy and books of order squeezing out the immediacy of the Spirit.
  • An over focus on Christology, which squeezes out the Spirit. Both are needed in balance: Christology for unity and the Spirit for creativity and diversity. It can result in a binity rather than a trinity and Christ becomes the law-giver rather than a life-giving presence.

Two theologians have been enormously helpful for me, both of whom I was introduced to while doing theological study in the 1970s. The first is Tom Smail who was a Church of Scotland minister. Tom was chased out of the Church of Scotland because of his charismatic experience (a la Andrew Irving). Tom’s reformed theology, which was inclusive of the work of the spirit in this dimension, was a Godsend for me and many others, especially in the Presbyterian Church here, where he visited more than once.

The second is Jurgen Moltmann who’s movement out to A Broad Place from the German reformed tradition though his engagement with global Christianity, including Eastern Orthodoxy, Pentecostalism and non-western Christianity, has led to him becoming the global theologian.

The movement ran into significant problems from the mid-80s into the 90s and basically petered out, although leaving much good fruit. For me, basically it moved from being an empowering and releasing of the people of God for mission, to concern about their own internal life.

  • A focus on enjoying the experience of worship.
  • John Wimber’s engagement with the Kansas City prophets and a number of what turned out to be false prophecies all around the world, which damaged people enormously.
  • Our own inner healing and the Toronto blessing.
  • And in many places a prosperity gospel.

So many, like me moved away, some throwing out the baby with the bathwater and becoming deeply cynical calling themselves post-charismatic, something I was never quite prepared to do because there had been so much good in it. Helping me as I have sought to re-engage have been the writings of James K A Smith, reminding us we are not just “brains on sticks”. Particularly an article: “Teaching a Calvinist to Dance” and Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Theology. He sees the gifts they bring to us that we need are:

  • An openness to God’s surprise – “Most Reformed folk have learned habits of worship in ways that effectively constrain the sovereignty of God by adopting highly defined and narrow expectations of the Spirit’s openness”.
  • A kind of enchanted theology of creation that sees the Spirit continually active in the world.
  • An affirmation of embodiment as seen in the emphasis on physical healing as well as the “physical” shape of charismatic worship.
  • A special place for story, narrative, and testimony in how we know.
  • A unique emphasis on eschatology and mission.

So, with all this in mind what does it mean to be charismatic today? Well, in one sense, it is to be post-charismatic because the movement of the 60s to mid-90s is over, but it is not to be a-charismatic or anti-charismatic – it means being in the “chastened” stage. I have found the idea of a second naivety that Paul Ricoeur articulated in reading the bible: a naïve reading of the biblical text gives way to a critical reading, which in turn gives way to a second naivety characterised by greater wisdom coming from this critical awareness, but still reading it as the Word of God for us today.

In this case, it will be a re-embracing of the movement characterised by great wisdom and discernment and minus the hubris and triumphalism. It will also be minus the dualism that characterised much of the charismatic movement. God works through our humanity, not bypassing it. We are not just empty conduits through which God’s spirit passes. The mind is part of that and so the complementary nature of the cerebral and experiential needs to be kept in balance. Also, a focus on only the immediacy of the charismatic can lead to a down-grading of the more ordinary means of grace. As Paul Fiddes puts it:

“Grace perfects rather than abolishes or overrides nature, working with the grain of our created human nature to glorify and serve God. Spiritual gifts happen in the realm of human intuition in response to the inspiration of the Spirit.”

And James K A Smith claims:

“It should be our aspiration that our humanity is laid open to God in every dimension, body, soul and spirit. Both cognitive and intuitive aspects of our nature are involved in this and inform and shape each other mutually.”

One of my concerns in all the missional church talk, and much of the writing, is that this dimension is missing. When Jesus said to the disciples: “As the Father has sent me so I am sending you… he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20). They were sent into God’s mission in the same way Jesus was, in the power of the Spirit: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me…..” (Luke 4).

I have found the most helpful writer on the missional church is Craig van Gelder, more latterly with Dwight Zscheille. In The Missional Church in Perspective, recognising the global trends indicated above, they write:

“These developments point toward the vibrant role of the Spirit in the missional church in cultivating a Spirit-shaped imagination. Focussing primarily on Christology in the missional conversation has tended to lead the church toward a backward-oriented vision, one that emphasises imitating what Christ has done in the past. We can lose our sense of what God is doing in the present and will do in the future. The Spirit is the primary way in which God acts in the world in the present. Living within God’s trinitarian life means the continual discernment of the Spirit’s movement. The missional church is a community led by the Spirit. It is a community that constantly looks for signs of the Spirit’s leading in its own life and in the surrounding neighbourhood. Its communal life must be pregnant with anticipation of the Spirit.”

I believe a critical question for us as we move into a very challenging period ahead is: Are we willing to be open to what God in Christ is doing through the Spirit in many parts of the world today, joining in partnership with the people in those places and also those from there who are already here with us?

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Easter and Timaru: surprises in faith.

April 18, 2017 1 comment

In the weeks leading up to and following Easter Steve (principal of the Knox Centre) suggested as staff we take turns sharing an Easter surprise that was sustaining us. I was going up to my home town Timaru for a few days over Easter to catch up on some old family friends, as I had not stopped there for a while and some were well advanced in years (two of them 98). In reflecting on Easters, my mind went to Timaru and the experience of the 125th Jubilee of Timaru Boy’s and Girl’s High Schools in 2005 and the privilege of preaching at the church service on Easter Sunday at St Mary’s (something I felt was significant having grown up Brethren and then Baptist, which left one feeling like an outsider in the 1960s). I preached on the lectionary text, John 20. 1-18 and especially Mary hanging around the empty tomb saying “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” Our school motto was a very enlightenment one, scientia potestas est ‘knowledge is power’, and I reflected on the fact that we children of the 60s were told in many different ways that religion was no longer necessary and faith in the risen Christ belonged in the realms of myth – the Lord had been taken away! Many of us, though, I suggested were like Mary, still hanging around the tomb unable to quite leave faith alone.

 

The service opened up a continuous stream of conversations with people I thought did not have a religious bent in them at all and supported the argument of most of my work, that while church decline is a non-negotiable reality and seemingly continues, probably the majority of people continue to be religious (or spiritual) and engage in at least some kind of occasional practice. It was a delightful surprise, as was the request from the principal to have it published in the school magazine, which it was [you can find it on my sermons page John 20. 1-18]. As I reflected on this for our staff devotion I was reminded that it was an Easter camp with the Timaru youth group as a 20 year old, who had wandered away from faith over the previous three years, especially as a university student in Christchurch, that my biggest Easter surprise occurred. First of all, that I was there at all – persuaded to go by a girl I had gone home to Timaru to see – and then the biggest surprise of all that for the first time in my life I actually encountered the risen Jesus while sitting under some trees at night talking with her about our lives and faith, and that changed the course of my life forever.

 

Perhaps, I should have realised that going home for Easter (a rarity in the 50 years since I left) might have been a time for surprises again. I was pleased to discover that there was a combined service on Good Friday in which both the Baptists (my home church) and Presbyterians were involved, as it meant I could gather with both my church families at once, especially as both the Presbyterian ministers had been students of mine. It was a wonderful service – with Pentecostals, Anglicans, Methodists and Salvation Army there as well, and all participating and bringing their own particular contributions. But it was full of rich surprises for.

 

When I arrived I met Brent Richardson, one of the Presbyterian ministers who I had arranged to do a bike ride with and hopefully some golf. Then another person came over said welcome, it’s??… then after some hesitation ‘Kevin’ isn’t it. It was Gordon Rosewall the minister of Life Church, where the service was, who I had met only once but had read some of my material. ‘You must come up the front and sit with the ministers.’ Then a young man came and sat beside me – younger than my children. When we exchanged identities he was Ian Goodman, the new minister of Wilson Street Baptist church – so that led to some helpful conversation, a good connection and some things to follow up on. Then Rory Grant, the other Presbyterian minister, came over and asked me if I would like to help serve communion. Finally, in the service they were taking up an offering for the 24/7 Youthwork in Timaru (young people working in schools supported by local churches). I always have a deep interest in this as my son Simon began this, working in Riccarton High School an initiative taken by Duane Major and Spreydon Baptist Church, which has since grown into a national ministry. After the workers were introduced the person who managed them was introduced, and when he came up it was a face I knew, but couldn’t put a name to. Turns out it was Josh Taylor, the vicar of St Johns’, who had been a student in a couple of courses of mine and someone I felt was on much the same page. He was keen to catch up which we did over coffee the next day, and again some things to follow up on. I also had a wonderful time connecting with a number of people who had been significant in my life and journey, and spent some wonderful time with Brent riding right around the outskirts of Timaru. This too was a significant ‘spiritual experience’ as it was largely on a series of bike trails around the cliffs, beaches and bluffs of the waterfront and up Saltwater Creek and the wetlands, the playground of my somewhat idyllic childhood when in the innocent 50s we were able to roam far and wide.

 

So, what’s the point of all this? Since mum died I have not really stopped in Timaru, apart from for the Wilson Street Baptist Centennial (see an earlier blog), and with most of those I knew also no longer there, having either left or died, the few remaining significant people getting close to that and my old church having declined significantly and made up mainly of people now I didn’t know, I thought I had really lost my spiritual connection with the place. However on this Good Friday finding so many ministers there I had connection with, even though some were younger than my children, reconnected me with some where I realised again is a very large part of who I am today. It reminded me again that people and places from our past, however long ago, are all a rich part of the fabric of what we are today both humanly and spiritually.

 

One of my heroes is Paul McCartney, and I once heard him say “If I ever forget I’m just a lad from Liverpool I’m finished.” Every now and then when I think ‘I’ve done pretty well’, something happens that brings me down to earth to remind me that I’m just a kid from the wrong part of town in Timaru – but  as I grow older in my journey in faith I am deeply grateful that God has used all different parts of that heritage to continue to weave the tapestry of my life into what I continue to find an exciting venture with the risen Christ. And once again a trip to Timaru at Easter reminded me that the risen Christ continues to surprise us with spiritually and humanly enriching encounters.

 

A reflection on the state of the church in New Zealand through the window of Timaru

For those of you who have read this far and might be interested I was also confronted with a snap shot of what has happened to the church in New Zealand and the challenges of the future. One of the persons I had arranged to meet was Bob Auty, who has been a kind of bell weather person for me. He has been very much at the heart of Wilson Street Baptist all my life, influential for me as leader of Life Boy’s, the driving force of the Tennis Club (incredibly gracious when in my last year at High School I beat him in the club championships and pushed him off the No1 spot in the team) and for the 50 years since I left Timaru always welcoming, listening and praying whenever I turned up. He was the driving force of the Centennial at the end of 2014, even though he was over 80 and suffering from Parkinson’s. Now he was suffering from serious heart issues and had not been able to get to church for some time. He also told me another significant person for me was leaving Timaru to be with family elsewhere, as he was losing his sight. These were the people who were in Bible Classes in the 1950s, the peak of that movement, and were the youth leaders when we baby boomers hit our Bible Class years in the 60s. Unlike many of us they stayed loyal to church, and often home town, and have kept our churches going for generations. Like Bob many are now unable to be active and many others have died.

 

Over a decade ago I wrote an article “Towards 2015” [see in my publications page] suggesting that looking at the demographics for mainline protestant churches, if we thought it was bad then the real crisis would hit about 2015. It has, and Bob and his friend reminded me of that. What I found in conversing in Timaru with the Baptist, Presbyterian and Anglican ministers is that all of those churches were in the same state – elderly and desperately trying to find young families and youth or face death. And there were two churches of each denomination! All competing for the same limited market in a provincial city where the population has been pretty static since I left those 50 years ago. It was a sobering reminder, in the midst of all the positive experiences, of the challenging reality the church faces and the need to find radically different ways of engaging in mission. But Easter reminds us that after Good Friday and Saturday come Easter Sunday, and faith rises again.

 

[PS. Apologies there are no photos – this was all so unexpected I never took my camera and didn’t even have my phone on me much of the time]

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Against the Odds

November 11, 2016 Leave a comment

against-the-oddsI have finally completed the long incubation and given birth to a book on Murray Robertson and Spreydon Baptist, [Against the Odds: Murray Robertson and Spreydon Baptist Church] a church and ministry that have been so foundational for much of what I have done in my own life in ministry and theological teaching, I began in 2009 but a variety of factors meant a much longer journey than anticipated, but it is a much richer and better book for the time (like a good sermon). It was wonderful being able to get it completed to be launched at the 150th Anniversary of Spreydon, now South West, Baptist Church which was a img_0463wonderful weekend in itself, meeting up with many old friends including a number from University days when I first came to Spreydon at the end of 1969. A privilege to take part in some of the events and share in an inspiring worship service on the Sunday celebrating the church’s past and anticipating its ongoing journey into the future.

Following this I spent a part of two days at the Baptist Hui (Assembly) in Dunedin, speaking briefly at the Baptist Research Association dinner and Sutherland lecture and again meeting up with a number of significant people from my past – including some in ministry who had been young people in the two Baptist Churches I had pastored and Murray Cottle and Lindsay Jones who were in my year group which began at Baptist Theological College in 1976 and are still going strong. It was also stimulating meeting some new young ministers and students, some of whom knew me through my writing which they were using in their research. As one of my friends said to me “it shows the power of the pen still” to continue to have influence on those beyond who you meet. Motivation to get my head into the next book on my agenda.

A highlight was a serendipitous meeting and good conversation with Craig Vernall the Baptist leader for the past few years. Along with a good number of others he bought a copy of the book (the baptists2main reason I was there) and after reading the book on his flights back home sent me the following. “I read your book on the flight back to Tauranga. It was a very inspiring read and captured the heart and story of the Spreydon/Robertson journey so very well. Thanks for writing this book. It records a significant Baptist story. Something we’re not that good at as we often struggle to celebrate what God is doing in our midst.”

Actually I felt that finally completing this book and the time back at Spreydon/South West and the Baptist Hui completed a circle of reconnecting up with Baptist family and heritage which is still a very big part of who I am and for which I am very grateful. While I was doing my doctoral research I was endeavouring to help the church in New Zealand, and Baptist church in particular, understand the difficult context we were in, and surprisingly discovered that if we just continued doing what we were, then the future would be even more challenging. That was not especially well received by many Baptists and is part of how I ended up at Knox and in the Presbyterian Church and felt rather alienated from my Baptist family. Fortunately when my earlier two books came out at the end of 2013 it began a chain of events with being invited to present seminars in various Baptist contexts, including at Carey Baptist College (where I had studied and later been on the board), preaching at the centennial of my home church in Timaru (written on in an earlier post) and now these events. I am experiencing it as a wonderful gift of God’s grace as I enter the final phase of my career.

You can find details of the book and how to purchase it in my publications page.

 

 

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Suffering, music and creativity: reflections on a week in Ireland.

Over the past few days I have spent a wonderful 6 days in Ireland. First two in Northern Ireland, hosted by Drew Gibson of Union College, exploring the magically beauty of the north coast for a day (Drew was a missionary in Kenya and when he first took some of his friends from there to see it one said “Gibson there’ll be no Irish in heaven.” “Why’s that?” “They’re already in heaven) and another day in Belfast, and the main memorials and signs of “The Troubles”. Illuminating conversations with Drew about how it impacted him and some of his friends who joined the paramilitaries. Then down south and the magical culture and music of Galway, the magical beauty of the countryside and Cliffs of Moher, the history of Limmerick, invasions and battles, and finally Dublin. The magnificent beauty of IrIMG_4601ish Celtic culture combined with Christianity through Patrick illustrated so powerfully in the amazing Book of Kells.

Then with it being the centennial of the Easter Uprising of 1916 a lot of historical exhibitions were happening, so I explored all the anguished suffering since the English arrived, particularly from the Tudors on and above all Oliver Cromwell. The crushing of any Irish resistance, the confiscation of lands given to Scots and English settlers, and the execution or slavery, of so many Irish. At this point Catholicism became fused with Irish identity as a point of resistance to the English. Those who stayed were left with a quarter acre of land on which potatoes were the only crop they could grow enough to feed a family. Then the famine and the English did next to nothing in the way of providing any relief, despite the fact that the wealthy landowners made huge profits from exporting the produce of their stolen lands. 2 million Irish left for overseas to get relief and 1 million died at home. If it was not for money sent home from all those who did so well in the USA many more would have died. Genocide really, first from Cromwell and then Victorian England. And then as the Irish spirit began to rise again in the twentieth century and the hope for home rule grew, resistance and division from the Ulster Protestants allied with the British military, more suffering for 100 years. And all this from a Protestant Christian country!!!

The other side of Ireland was all this music and joy of the Irish people expressed where ever you went. You did not need any itunes, live music was everywhere. And the generosity and hospitality was as good as it gets. In the evening I went to a night of Irish music and dancing with a meal and some Guiness. Wonderful, spiritual and we all joined in with great joy. I was struck with this painful 5 centuries of suffering and death and this joyful expression of wonderfully creative music and other arts. It seemed paradoxical. But as I reflected I realised in my own world of music, popular at that, it seemed that great musical creativity came out of suffering, just looking at the second half of the twentieth century.

American country music came out of the hardships of those living in the Appalachians and eking out an existence. Of course many of them were Irish and Scots and brought there music with them. Then black soul and rhythm and blues coming out of the suffering of the blacks in the south. ThIMG_4600ese two came together into rock and roll in the 50s as the Johnny Cash and Ray Charles movies showed. And folk music came out of the hardship of the depression and the dustbowl in the Midwest ending up landing in all the creativity of Bob Dylan. Then to go into my era, the British rock explosion, which picked up from American rock and roll when it became domesticated, came out of those youth raised in the hard times of the north in post war Britain. It was a hard life if you read the biographies of those artists. Of course at the forefront of this were the Beatles and I recall a comment Paul McCartney made in a documentary of the concert he organised in New York post 9/11. He of course grew up in a large Irish Catholic extended family in Liverpool and his father was a band leader, hence his wide musical tastes. But he said how his parent’s generation survived through the depression, war and post war scarcity was largely through coming together and making music. And then the history of those bands for their first four or five years was usually pretty hard, living off scraps. Lennon and McCartney of course both lost their mothers while teenagers, but they along with Dylan were voted the 3 top song writers by a Rolling Stone poll (in the reverse order I have to acknowledge).

I may sound a bit like an oldie now who thinks all the good times have passed, but I wonder if this is why there is often a lack of real creativity in much contemporary music. Perhaps it also explains why the one great band of the latter part of the twenty century was Irish,U2. It has of course wider implications, because most of the moves in contemporary culture and society is to remove suffering from the lives of people (euthanasia being most extreme) and yet the biblical record and theology sees suffering as often having a significant formative and redemptive role in life, something we need to reflect and work on more in our understanding of the fullness of the gospel. Sadly of course some strands of contemporary Christian interpret the gospel as being the removal of suffering in this life. How much of the fullness of life would we lose it that were the case?

 

Anyway some initial reflections that were running through my mind over my last couple of days here. I would welcome any comment that would help refine and develop my thinking.

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Rugby as religion

November 6, 2015 Leave a comment

The film Bull Durham begins featuring photographs from the collection of Annie Savoy, whose wall serves as a shrine to bygone baseball superheroes. To the background of a gospel melody Annie confesses: “I believe in the church of Baseball. I’ve tried all of the major religions, and most of the minor ones…. I’ve tried ‘em all… And, the only church that truly feeds the soul… is the Church of Baseball.”

For Annie baseball functions like a grand myth that gives meaning and makes sense of life, and having been in the US for the opening of the season have experienced the religious devotion it inspires. One observer writes “The decline of religion as a source of significant meaning in modern industrialized societies has been extravagantly compensated by the rise of popular culture, of which the billion dollar sports mania is the most visible manifestation.” For NZ it is rugby. On the morning of the 2011World Cup final Michael Laws wrote, “rugby is is more than our national sport. It is our religion, our soul”. The rugby section in our newspapers is called “Rugby Heaven.” The lift out after NZ had won began “this is… Rugby Heaven. Thankyou Lord at long last.”

I first reflected on this issue reading an article in the Economist suggesting that if Karl Marx had visited a western society today, instead of Victorian England, he would have declared sport and mass entertainment, not religion, was the opiate of the people.

This topic raises the question, “what is religion?” George Santanya thought of religion as “another world to live in”, having doubtless no idea that what he thought of as religion would for many be displaced in the most immediate and existential sense by sport. For millions, sports certainly do constitute a popular form of religion by shaping their world and sustaining their ways of engaging in it. Paul Tillich defined religion as “the state of being grasped by an ultimate concern… which itself contains the answer to the question of meaning.” Again, for many sport is their ultimate concern for which they are willing to “sacrifice any finite concern which is in conflict with it”. Emile Durkheim, defined religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things… which unite us into a single moral community”. In many societies sport now functions to do this more than traditional religions and for us at no time more than the final stages of a rugby world cup.

In the US sport has been identified as a form of ‘civil’ or ‘cultural’ religion by some. Harry Edwards suggests it is “essentially a secular, quasi-religious institution” and Michael Novak that “sport is, somehow, a religion.” He notes the joy of victory often prompts a religious response, for winning generates a feeling that “the gods are on one’s side”. The rituals of sport provide a mythic structure in which participants repeatedly experience death and resurrection providing a sense of transcendence. In the UK Desmond Morris sees soccer sees as a quasi-religion fulfilling powerful social-psychological needs, to be together in significant groups, to voice support and experience catharsis. In 1965 Hans Mol labelled rugby a national religion in NZ, arguing it represented the solidarity of the community against other groups, and in common with traditional religions “emotional commitment, the strict ritual of time and rule, the legends of the past and a stable, orderly context.”
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The word ‘religion’, comes from ‘religare’ meaning ‘to bind’. This binding comes about through conflations of ‘ordinary’ and ‘transcendent’ qualities such as order, hope and charisma and reaches its ultimate context in celebration. Followers are transformed into ‘fans’, which comes from fanticus ‘inspired by a deity, frenzied’, from fanus ‘temple’.

Finally to suggest three other ways sport fulfils some religious functions: (1) First is in providing an experience of transcendence or ecstasy. Living in Dunedin there was an enormously transcendent experience for days after the Super 15final, as there was throughout the country in 2011. (2) The high days and holy days of a former society have been transferred from religion to sport. The Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for Americans. For NZ it is the RWC or America’s Cup final. (3) A final way is the idea of pilgrimage, an important part of traditional religions. It is a concept re-emerging today and we experienced it in 2011 with pilgrims from Ireland or elsewhere. For New Zealanders, apart from Gallipoli, no pilgrimage is more sacred than to an overseas RWC.

I initially wrote this for Tui Motu in mid October, wondering whether all these religious experiences would be experienced by New Zealanders on November 1, both here and in London. Wonderfully what was obvious was that we did, and it has continued on for all of this week.

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Rethinking Ministry for Today

August 20, 2015 1 comment

Recently I was involved in the induction of Malcolm Gordon as National Music, Worship and Arts Coordinator with the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership, a role he has been doing for some time. This is a new ministry position in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, and one which is proving very significant, with wide demands for his time not just in New Zealand but also Australia and Scotland. In discussing with him how he came to this position, and what future ministry might be like for him, it illustrated for me once again what has become a common theme of discussion and conversations recently, particularly among our younger leaders; that our current understanding and model of ministry in the Presbyterian tradition is creaking at the joints and not serving us very well. We are increasingly trying to squeeze the increasingly wide variety of ministries we need into a very narrow box, and for many the fit is increasingly uncomfortable. This was Malcolm’s experience as he tried to fit the calling and gifts he had for ministry into the only real place we have, as minister of word and sacrament in a parish setting. I would like to suggest that we need to undergo a significant re thinking of the theology that underlies our practice of ministry in order to better meet the needs of our context.

Our inherited understanding and form was primarily developed by John Calvin during the Reformation in the context of Christendom, when everyone belonged to the church and was Christian. There ministry took place in the church, and was aimed at ensuring everyone was truly Christian. This was to be done by ensuring the gospel was purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered, hence ministers of word and sacrament. On top of that a third element was added, discipline or pastoral care. In looking at the ministry gifts set out in the important text in Ephesians 4, Calvin saw only pastors and teachers as continuing gifts; apostles, prophets and evangelists were temporary gifts needed for the establishment of the church where it did not exist and had since ceased. This understanding served us well during the period of Christendom which in one form or another still existed in western societies till the middle of last century.

However to many of us it seems clear that is now an inadequate understanding for the post-Christendom context we are in today. If the church is to continue playing a vital role in societies like New Zealand where the church is no longer central then its ministry ca not be focussed solely, or even primarily, inside the church. In a world where the church is now marginal, or in some cases absent, we need to find ways of equipping and ordaining those who have apostolic, prophetic and evangelistic ministries (and may be others also), to enable the ministry of Christ to reach into places and communities where the church is not. We still need those who are gifted as pastors and teachers to serve as ministers of word and sacrament in the church, but these other ministries need to be trained and ordained to serve alongside equally as ministers of the gospel, as the church endeavours to reach into new fields of those who are not yet part of Christ’s church.

Over the past two years I have heard a repeated cry from those who are finding our current model is not serving us well in many of our rural communities, in planting new churches, in many of our ethnic contexts, with young adults and in community or workplace ministries. It is important that we do not just respond pragmatically to make this possible, but do what the Reformers did centuries ago and re examine the scriptures and the tradition of the church in which we stand in the light of the new context we find ourselves in and allow the Spirit to open our eyes to new ways that God might be able to work in our midst and our communities today.

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Church, Mission, Spirit

April 15, 2015 Leave a comment

As I preached on the lectionary gospel for the first Sunday after Easter, I was reminded again of how critical it is to keep mission and Spirit together, for our understanding of who we are, and what we are to do, as the church of the risen Christ. John 20.19-23, and in particular the words of Jesus, As the Father has sent me so I am sending you, followed by his action of breathing on them saying Receive the Holy Spirit is, perhaps, the critical text in the development of the terminology missional church, which today is used everywhere and just as commonly misunderstood.

First of all we need to note the use of the word “church”. Unfortunately some of the missional church material actually gives little place to the church. Notice here that Jesus sends and breathes on the gathered community of disciples, not just individuals. In the Old Testament, God called a community of his people through Abraham to be a missional community, a light to the nations, to demonstrate to them what God’s purpose (mission) was; the restoration of all of creation to a condition where once again he could look at it and see “that it was good.” It takes a community to demonstrate that, and so after Israel failed, God’s purpose was to form through Jesus a new community, the church, to take up that calling. God’s mission can only be forwarded through community.

What is that community sent by Christ to do? To continue what Jesus had begun to do, the manifesto which he set out in Luke 4; to bring “good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.” It is important to note that the first thing Jesus does after this is to call the disciples and form a community to engage in this mission. This is what the church exists for. It is our calling. We are God’s missionary people, participating in God’s mission in the world.

How do we mere mortals do this? The same way Jesus did, in the power of the Spirit. Jesus waited until he had received the Spirit before commencing his mission and he called on the disciples to wait until they had done likewise before they commenced theirs. Jesus went from the Father in the power of the Spirit and we need to go from Christ in the power of the same Spirit.

A break with any one of these three elements which belong together is problematic. There are those trying to engage in God’s mission as solo individuals, but if God is about “reconciling all things together” then only reconciled communities can give witness to that. There are churches that are all about mission, but have no sense of the empowering action of the Spirit in their midst, and so find themselves unable to confront the powers that hold people and communities captive and oppressed. Many good things happened in the charismatic movement of the 70s and 80s, when it focussed on renewing churches for the sake of mission in the world. In my view, it ran out of steam and dribbled away in the late 80s and 90s when it became internally focussed on those in the church having a good time among themselves, and on the experience and blessing of individuals. So there are other churches with plenty of talk about the Spirit but none of that energy going into mission.

If we are going to be a truly “missional church”, it is critical that we keep church, mission and spirit tightly together with the risen Christ present as our centre.

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