Sunday, December 28, 2014

2015 Policy Review

Isaiah 7

Ahaz came of age in a time of uncertainty, rumours and threats. His little Kingdom, like a cork on the sea, seemed to be at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Over the horizon lay the mega-power of Assyria – the military monster poised to have nations like Judah for breakfast. Around him were the other small powers, all in a flap and desperately trying to figure out ways to escape Assyria’s clutches. Two of them, Israel and Aram, had teamed up in the face of their shared enemy.

For Judah this was a galling development – Israel, part of God’s covenant people, Judah’s own flesh and blood, was now in league with idolaters in order to save its skin. Ahaz now faced the consequences as Israel and Aram turned on him – Israel’s policy of anti-Assyrian co-belligerence had a sting in the tail! Judah was panic-stricken by these developments (v2).  But in the midst of the crisis God speaks. Isaiah is told to take his son and meet Ahaz as he inspects the siege facilities (v3).

The message is simple: the threats faced are not to be feared – not that Israel and Aram were imaginary or couldn't have the power to harm – but they were not the final word. They were not the masters of Judah’s fate. The ‘Sovereign Lord’ is speaking now (v7) – that is, the Lord who controls everything: politics, the weather, the outcomes of battles, even the very heartbeat of kings.

So… Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. (v4).

Be careful – the temptation is to meet threat with threat, scheming with scheming, unholy alliance with unholy alliance – to match human might and ability with dependence on your own. In other words, Ahaz, your hope is not in being stronger, smarter or quicker than your adversaries – but in the Sovereign Lord. 

In 1940 Britain teetered before the greatest threat to its ongoing way of life it had ever faced. The military monster of Nazi Germany had eaten up the European continent and looked set to invade a massively out-gunned Britain. Churchill, on becoming Prime Minister that May, gave one of his most famous speeches to the House of Commons. In it he said: You ask, what is our policy?  It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us…You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory; victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.' It was a call to arms and a declaration of Britain’s refusal to falter despite the seemingly impossible odds.  
For Ahaz and Judah – God’s call was not to arms but to Faith. 
If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all. (v9)

If Ahaz were to address the nation that day – he should make it clear that his policy, in the hour of crisis, was ‘Faith’. Faith on all fronts, faith with every ounce of strength and every breath that God gave him. Sadly however, for many, including Ahaz, faith just seems too ethereal to hang their hopes on. The nuts and bolts of hardware, the promises of others, cash in hand, good marketing - all seem much more useful and substantial. But the Word of God is unambiguous: If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.

In a world where everything in our lives can be swept away in a moment, where there is nothing in that can be guaranteed – hear the word of the Lord - the only sure policy is ‘Faith’. That is, faith in God - who cannot be overcome, who cannot be thwarted. Faith in God - who can be trusted, who knows and cares about you. Faith in the God who is good.

Grounds for Faith
So good, that He gives us grounds for faith – the provision of a sign to bolster weak faith and to give people confidence to ‘stand firm’ in it.  Ahaz is offered a sign (v10) – a token of God’s reliability if He is trusted. Astonishingly Ahaz refuses – his mock piety a cover for faithlessness (v12). Ahaz will do his own thing, thanks very much! It was a decision that could only lead to ruin (v17), he became the fulfilment of Isaiah’s warning – by not standing firm in faith he very simply would not stand at all.

In his abounding grace God nevertheless gave the sign – the sign of a virgin who would bear a son called Immanuel (v14). It was a promise that in the centuries ahead would be a lifeline to Judah and Israel – the promise that deliverance would come, that God would rescue His people, and a Kingdom of peace and justice would be established upon the earth. It was the sign made good at Bethlehem – the sign that the God and Father of Jesus Christ is trustworthy, faithful and to be believed.

2015
Where will you look for help, protection and deliverance as you face your fears in the coming year - whether social, financial, medical, vocational, spiritual…? What will be your policy for 2015? Make it faith – faith on all fronts and in all circumstances. Because only faith will lead to ultimate victory - the defeat of sin and death - and the glory yet to be revealed in us. 

This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. (1 John 5:4)

Ask the God and Father of Jesus Christ to give you the strength not to falter in faith however great the odds against you might seem. Faith is the ultimate practical policy because only those who stand in faith will stand at all.

Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God. (1 John 5:5) 

Monday, December 08, 2014

Rev Richard Coles: Don't leave us this way!

The Rev. Richard Coles is, according to The Guardian, ‘Britain’s top media vicar’. Known for his appearances on QI, Have I Got News For You and Radio 4, he’s been all over the airwaves in recent weeks publicising his ‘out in time for Christmas’ book – Fathomless Riches. What makes him particularly interesting is that, along with Jimmy Somerville, he was formerly part of the Communards – whose 1986 release ‘Don’t leave me this way’ was the biggest selling UK single of that year. Richard Coles’ life story is one literally full of ‘sex, drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and his book by all accounts is a no-holds barred telling of all three. A story which, of course, makes his current vocation as a Church of England vicar all the more intriguing.

Coles comes across as decent and personable. He is articulate, expresses himself humbly and has ‘seen life’ in a way that makes his current pleasantness all the more admirable. He is, however, impeccably liberal in his theology – his move into ministry driven it seems by a search for purpose and moderation rather than any deep repentance or radical conversion. Indeed, you suspect, it is precisely his subversion of many traditional Christian teachings that makes him such a darling of the media. His is the voice of Christianity as the BBC would like it to be; it is the teaching of the Bible if it had been written by Harriet Harman.

So what exactly is the Gospel of Richard Coles and indeed all those other Christian clergy thought passable enough for Radio 2’s Thought for the Day? A good example of it was his short contribution to an edition of This Week (4/12/14) which began with an observation that our society is too preoccupied with material things and consequently other important but non-financial aspects of life are often not valued enough. The finish was, as befits a songwriter, beautifully poetic – ‘This is my Autumn Statement: at the year’s end and in gathering darkness let’s look beyond Black Friday, Cyber Monday and the fading digital radiance of a discounted 50 inch TV, to a wholly unimaginable light breaking in an wholly unexpected place’.

Sadly the subsequent studio discussion offered no explanation about that light or that place – instead we got Coles arguing for enshrining in Law the UK’s overseas Aid budget at 0.7% of GDP, while Michael Portillo pointed out the increasing irrelevance of the Church of England in the nation. Richard, of course, was charming and affable throughout all this – but therein lies the Gospel of today’s media-endorsed clergy. It is the Gospel of ‘let’s all just be a wee bit nicer to each other’. Now nothing wrong with encouraging folks to up their game in being patient, civil and thoughtful – but the Gospel it is not! A fruit of the Gospel yes, but the message that got Jesus crucified and the apostles persecuted – really?

Nevertheless, endlessly repeated on ‘God Slots’, the newspaper columns written by Ministers at weekends, and the invited religious input on ‘the topic of the day’ - is the Gospel of ‘God is nice, He thinks you’re really nice, so let’s all be a bit nicer, Amen’. Thus establishment Christianity has become little more than Comic Relief without the jokes.

VIRGIN RECORDS
Coles’ parish is ‘St Mary the Virgin’ (in the Diocese of Peterborough) so we might hope that he would realise more than most that the ‘wholly unimaginable light… in a wholly unexpected place’ is much more radical, edgy and indeed confrontational than a better citizenship programme. For the Virgin Birth, at the centre of that event, was not a gentle nudge to greater philanthropy but a crashing indictment of humanity’s utter helplessness and its need of total rescue.  The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ was a declaration by God that no amount of human endeavour, however well intentioned, can come close to dealing with our fundamental problems.

Sadly though the ‘Virgin Birth’ is an aspect of that ‘unimaginable light breaking in’ that Coles seems to find genuinely unimaginable[1]. After all, how primitive, naïve and consequently embarrassing to believe such old fables – far better to understand it as a later embellishment giving a pious veneer to a more earthly reality. But the Virgin Birth cannot be put away without putting the stark truths of the Gospel away – because in it is revealed the reason why Christianity exists.

The Virgin Birth is a sign of our utter helplessness
In the centuries preceding the birth of Christ and in the centuries since, the story of
humanity has been an endless cycle of conflict, suffering and failure. The 20th century began with huge optimism that the future would be one of progress towards greater harmony and happiness throughout the world. Instead of which it was the bloodiest and costliest century of war and killing ever experienced. The 21st century has begun with 9/11, conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, not to mention the ever present ravages of disease and poverty. Today’s children will not do better than their parents – they too will ultimately fall foul of the same incurable human weakness, greed and pride as every generation before them.

The Virgin Birth announced that there is no hope inside our humanity – our only hope is outside intervention. Thus in Bethlehem a new humanity was born – not of the old flesh but conceived of God’s Holy Spirit. No increase in the Overseas Aid budget, no charity single, no legislation, no social taskforce, no political settlement – can ever put right the catastrophe of the human heart. The Virgin Birth puts paid to any illusions of human self-help or improvement.

The Virgin Birth is a sign that we too need a supernatural new beginning
The message is clear – and should be self-evident – that old humanity, our humanity, is a dead-end. That, of course, is not a message people like to hear, indeed it is a message that Rulers fear, because it confounds our pride and displaces every political claim to be our saviour. The Virgin Birth, however, cuts open history with the introduction of a new humanity – born not of ‘natural descent, nor of human decision, or a husband’s will’ – but born of God.

The Virgin Birth was nothing less than the demolition of our delusional self-sufficiency. Being a bit nicer or even a lot nicer will not suffice – what is required is nothing less than being born again. It’s as total as that! In Bethlehem’s manger, given at a cost to be paid 33 years later, was our second and only chance to live the life we were created for.

To make the Gospel of Jesus Christ little more than a call for moderation and bit more effort is simply to perpetuate the tragedy of lost, floundering and dying men and women.

Praise God, that in the gathering darkness, He did not leave us that way.


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[1] Of the Anglicans I’ve spoken to during the course of my tenure at New Humanist – the Rev Richard Coles, Francis Spufford, Linda Woodhead, Richard Holloway – I have yet to find one who doesn't accept evolution and the Big Bang, who seems really to believe the virgin birth or the Assumption, or who puts great stock in miracles or angels. 
https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/2912/editorial-woman-trouble

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Take the high road into ministry

Written for FIEC website

Scotland has a great history of theological education – and it looks to have a good future too. Andy Hunter reflects on that heritage and shares one initiative that will help prepare more men and women for ministry.

Take the high road into ministry primary imageArticle Tags Pathways


Did you know that for almost 250 years Scotland had four universities while England only had two?
Did you know that central to John Knox’s vision of a Reformed Scotland was the establishment of a school in every parish? Knox was passionate about education because it was the means for every citizen to read the Bible for themselves and to be a nation of thinkers.

In the following centuries Scotland flourished – punching above its weight in its contributions to invention, science, engineering, literature and in the media. It led Winston Churchill to comment,
“Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”
This premium given to education was also seen in Scotland’s theological training institutions, starting of course in those ancient universities. Added to these over time were a range of Bible and ministry training colleges that prepared men and women for service all over the world. It was an investment in Gospel education and training that was foundational to raising up generations of able pastors, evangelists, missionaries, church workers and teachers.
Such provision of good Christian education and training remains vital if Scottish churches are to once again rise to the challenge of reaching the nation for Christ. Fortunately, despite the overall decline in church numbers and thus the base for colleges to draw on, there are still a range of strong evangelical training providers north of the border. These range from degree level providers to church apprenticeship schemes. Indeed there has perhaps never been such a variety of courses and options to fit the different needs and circumstances of potential trainees.

Which way?

However, for an individual contemplating more vocational forms of Christian ministry, and conscious of the importance of preparing themselves with relevant and quality training, the array of options can be confusing. This is especially true as many people are now looking to move into such ministry later in life, often with family responsibilities and having already had some partial training in various forms. For all ages there are financial considerations and the need to identify the training that will best prepare them for the particular type of ministry they feel called to.
Before any of that is, of course, the very basic consideration of whether vocational ministry is the right path for someone to go down in the first place.

Pathways

Thus it was with all these thoughts in mind that FIEC brought together a group of Scottish church leaders and trainers earlier this year. Mindful of the huge help that FIEC’s The Hub Conference has proved to be for people in recent years, the hope was that something similar could be held in Scotland. That is, a conference for anyone (supported by their local church) who is in training or thinking about getting training for vocational Christian ministry. A conference that would cover teaching on the nature of Christian ministry, its practicalities, the character required of Christian workers, as well as outlining the opportunities and challenges for the gospel today. In addition it would connect potential trainees with trainers, and give a chance for individuals to discuss their situation with some experienced leaders.
Pathways
The result of this is Pathways – a conference organised by a partnership team involving FIEC, Cornhill Scotland, Charlotte Chapel, Chalmers Church, Tilsley College and Deeside Christian Fellowship. The conference itself will include other training providers along with teaching and input from a range of church leaders from across Scotland.
The hope is that Pathways will be a catalyst in raising up a new generation of gospel workers for Scotland and beyond; men and women educated, trained and equipped to serve Christ effectively and powerfully in our time. Scotland’s heritage has shown the immense gospel fruit of investing in such foundations. Pray that Pathways might have a key part in reviving that blessing.
Pathways is being held at the Erskine Bridge Hotel, Glasgow, Friday 30th January to Sunday 1st February 2015. Go to www.pathwaysconference.org for full details and to book.
Andy Hunter photo
Andy Hunter - FIEC Scotland Director
Before joining FIEC in November 2013, Andy worked for Greenview Church in Glasgow for nine years, prior to which he trained at Oak Hill College in London. He is married to Jessica and they have three children.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Down and Out in Bethlehem's Hills?

Luke 1 - Christmas is coming! 
After 400 years of silence and apparent inactivity God is about to break in afresh to human affairs. 

This new chapter in God's Great Story will begin in the lives of Zechariah and Elizabeth, followed by Mary. An unlikely trio to kick-off the greatest event in human history.

Zechariah & Elizabeth – yesterday’s people! A couple ‘well on in years’ (v7) – the prime of life behind them, thoughts more on retirement than revolution. Perhaps they had once imagined that they would do great things for God – the young couple with a great ‘evangelical pedigree’. Elizabeth a descendant of Aaron himself. Zechariah with his calling to Temple ministry. But the years had passed and many dreams had no doubt been left unfulfilled.

Mary - not on the radar! A peasant girl from ‘no hope’ Nazareth (John 1:46). Someone not even with the basic status, in first century eyes, of being a married woman. A woman neither of wealth or fame – making up the numbers in the hinterland of God’s people.

Yet these are the very people God uses, and loves to use - confounding the wisdom of the world, confounding even our own expectations. As someone once said, ‘God doesn’t have a shelf’ – no-one is ‘over the hill’ in God’s plans, no-one is too ordinary to be used by God. 

So for those who think they’re past it and their usefulness to God has long gone – remember Zechariah & Elizabeth. For those who think they're just ‘nobodies’ destined to be insignificant – remember Mary.

Finally, I couldn’t help smiling at Zechariah’s reaction to his angelic visitation. Here is a man confronted by the visit of an angel – leaving him understandably terrified (v12). The angel announces that Elizabeth will have a child – and Zechariah’s reaction is, ‘How can I be sure of this?’ (v18). ‘Well Zechariah, how about the fact that that AN ANGEL has just miraculously appeared before your eyes!’ It seems ridiculous that Zechariah can see an angel but think his wife getting pregnant is just too much to believe. Yet, of course it’s so authentically human…

Christians are generally quite happy to believe that Jesus could die for the sins of the world, walk on water, feed 5000, be raised from the dead, will come back in the future and bring history to an end…etc. While simultaneously doubting that God’s can really enable them to overcome a sinful habit, or restore a marriage, or provide for their needs if they were to step out in faith to serve Him full-time...etc

Poor Zechariah, all those years of waiting and he almost blows it! But God is so gracious and will keep him right. We are such slow learners at times but fortunately God is an exceptionally patient teacher.

Praise God who delights to use has-beens, the obscure, and even the ‘slow to believe’. There's no such thing as 'down and out' in the life of faith.  

Monday, November 17, 2014

Pathways Conference

Post by Andy Hunter.

PATHWAYS CONFERENCE 
30th Jan - 1st Feb 2015
Erskine Bridge Hotel, Glasgow
pathwaysconference.org 


Friday, November 14, 2014

5 Myths about joining FIEC

Reflecting on my first year as FIEC’s Scotland Director these are some of the most common misconceptions about FIEC that I’ve encountered.

1. FIEC imposes its beliefs on your church.
This is sometimes expressed in the comment, ‘So if we joined FIEC we’d have to accept its views on A, B & C’. Well no, you’d only join FIEC if ‘A, B & C’ were your views. After all why would a church that didn’t share the theological convictions and ministry vision of FIEC want to join? FIEC would be the last group to expect a church to act contrary to its beliefs. Indeed, should an existing FIEC church decide it no longer shares the Fellowship’s views then, as an Independent church, it has absolute freedom to leave. There are no impositions or ‘handcuffs’.

On the other hand, for churches that share FIEC’s core theological convictions and ministry vision, it is a wonderful family to be part of. No stressing about what potential partners might really believe or deny, no tensions in key areas of ministry practise, no anxiety about organising a joint event with partners which could cause embarrassment. Instead, the confidence of knowing your gospel partners are on the ‘same page’ as you are in all the key gospel beliefs, while having the freedom to be different in every other way.

FIEC doesn’t impose its beliefs on anyone – it’s a fellowship of churches with shared core beliefs.

2. FIEC is preoccupied with orthodoxy and tradition.
As with any church group that is nearly 100 years old and covers the length and breadth of the country, FIEC has no doubt had its failings in these areas – along with its share of unfair stereotyping. However, such a perception of FIEC is increasingly out of date. FIEC today contains a broad spectrum of churches in regard to their origins, culture, formats and activities. Indeed some of its churches are at the leading edge of cultural engagement and contemporary mission in the UK today. Take a look at FIEC’s Together magazine for examples.

FIEC is not, and never has been, a grouping concerned to preserve or promote particular musical genres, fashions, Bible versions, or other stylistic features of church life. The heart of FIEC is simply to be a family of independent gospel churches, working together to go and make disciples for Jesus in every community. Thus it’s a fellowship comfortable in engaging with and learning from other gospel movements such as Newfrontiers or 9Marks. It’s why, across the country, FIEC church leaders are active - and often leading participants - in Gospel Partnerships, A Passion for Life, Word Alive and a host of other cross-church ministries. It’s the reason why over 60 churches, old and new, large and small, have joined FIEC in the past 3 years alone.

Correct doctrine is, of course, at the heart of genuine gospel unity. So FIEC is unashamed to be concerned about it – but it’s a concern tempered with humility and generosity as befits a family of over 500 unique churches. 

3. FIEC is expensive to join.
Firstly, FIEC has no joining or membership fees for churches – it is possible to be part of FIEC and not contribute anything financially. For some churches that’s the financial reality. Obviously, to be able to serve its churches and run its ministries FIEC needs an income and to that end churches are asked (not required!) to make an annual donation. Guidelines are given for this based on the size of a church’s membership and thus its likely resources and ability to contribute. Some churches give more than the suggested donation, some less, some nothing at all.

‘Ok’, you may say, ‘but isn’t the suggested donation quite significant assuming churches would want to pay ‘their way’?’ Well for a church of 50 people the recommended donation equates to just under 40p per member per week. As with the TV Licence fee you can either baulk at it or marvel at what good value it provides! Like the TV Licence fee you might only use some of the services it provides, but it’s good that the rest exists for the benefit of those using other bits. It’s also noteworthy that the FIEC office and staff run on a budget that is less than some of its largest churches.

Importantly, suggested donation levels to FIEC are not gratuitous but fund strategic gospel workers and projects around the UK. Just as a church’s overseas missionary giving goes to support gospel workers (in a whole range of ways from salaries to administration) and gospel projects (from church planting to training), so it is the case with FIEC donations. It’s why FIEC encourages churches to allocate their giving to FIEC under their budget for mission rather than under administration.

Supporting FIEC financially is, along with all other giving, a choice for churches to make. The money given, however, is a modest component of most churches’ income, and it goes a long way in supporting a national gospel vision.

4. You can’t be truly Brethren / Baptist / Congregationalist etc … if you join FIEC.
A simple look at the list of FIEC affiliated churches should be enough to dispel this myth. From its earliest days FIEC has contained churches from Brethren, Baptist, Congregationalist, Mission Hall and other Independent church backgrounds – none of which ceased to lose their identities by joining. Brethren continue to worship in open communion services; Baptists continue to be overseen by a pastor and deacons; Congregationalists still baptise their children and so on. FIEC is what ‘it says on the tin’ - a Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches’.

Indeed FIEC churches continue to participate in many other networks and affiliations such as Evangelical Alliance, Gospel Partnerships, Affinity, EFCC, Grace Baptist Associations, Acts 29 and so on.  FIEC’s ‘uniformity’ is simply that its churches are free from ties that would undermine the core beliefs of FIEC churches (such as an affiliation to a grouping that accepts serious error).

FIEC does not detract from a church’s identity and distinctives – it simply connects Independent gospel churches with shared gospel convictions while respecting and honouring the diversity found in the body of Christ.

5. You can do everything FIEC does without joining.
Certainly FIEC is not the only place to fund and help organise gospel training; it is not the only body concerned with supporting pastors and their wives; it is not the only network that provides resources and tools for church planters. Other groups are also promoting and supporting women’s workers and Christian legal services are available elsewhere - the list goes on. In many ways, churches live in a crowded market place today with plenty of options and offers when it comes to ministry support and vision.  That in itself is something to celebrate – no one organisation, FIEC or otherwise, is the ‘be all and end all’ of gospel ministry in the UK. No-one is suggesting for a moment that FIEC has all the answers, is the complete package or makes redundant other providers of gospel support. Churches will flourish aplenty outside FIEC and praise God for that.

But FIEC has a unique dynamic which for many churches will be a key part of their gospel vision and strategy. For Independent churches in the UK today FIEC provides the ‘Judea & Samaria’ part of their mission strategy – along with ‘Jerusalem’ (their local outreach) and ‘the ends of the earth’ (overseas mission). Today the UK is one of the neediest and yet most gospel-resistant places in the world. How can local churches be part of reaching its most unreached communities? How can local churches support other local churches in often isolated and difficult places? By being part of a family of churches that connects them.

Very practically FIEC brings together a wide range of ministry services, resources and gospel initiatives – all linked to a vision that sees the local church itself being the instrument at the centre of gospel renewal in the UK.  For Independent churches of all backgrounds, small or large - FIEC is a hub to connect their different ‘spokes’ of energy, gifts, ideas, potential, resources, personalities, wisdom, and shared desire to see the nation impacted again for Christ. So that the plenty of one can help supply the need of another.

Churches could do all the things that FIEC seeks to do – but FIEC helps to join those dots into a strategic national vision - and in doing so connects churches to each other so that they can be that bit more than the sum of their parts in standing for Christ.

SO JOIN US
If you are an Independent church with a desire to be part of a national gospel movement with a vision to see the UK impacted again for Christ – why not get in touch and join the 60 churches who have become part of FIEC in the past 3 years.

You can check out our website or contact us for more information or to arrange a meeting.

Ask for a copy of FIEC’s Strategic Plan or why not get a copy of our new book ‘Independent Church – Biblically based and Gospeldriven’.


Friday, October 10, 2014

Sautéed Frog or FIEC

We’re familiar with the observation that if you put a frog in hot water it will immediately jump out, but if put in cold water you can gradually increase the heat and it will passively sit there while you eventually boil it. Now I’ve no idea if that’s actually true or not – but we understand the point: we react to immediate threats but can be overcome by equally deadly but just more subtlety applied danger. 

The great threat facing evangelical Christianity in the UK today is not full frontal persecution but the culmination of decades of attrition that has blunted its distinctiveness and sapped its confidence. Yes there are incidents of heavy handiness by the authorities in dealing with evangelicals and undoubtedly the framework of society is no longer a friendly place for Bible believing Christians – but on the whole we are not faced with imminent imprisonment or the kind of state endorsed full-on harassment often experienced elsewhere in the world. If we did, and perhaps if we do, our reaction might be a bit more energised than the slow fatalistic retreat we have settled for up until now.

For at least two generations, probably three, evangelicals have endured a relentless ‘drip drip’ of negativity towards their beliefs and way of life. Sometimes the negativity is, and has been, direct and hostile but more often it has just been a rising tide of indifference, incredulity and detachment. The effect can leave Christians, unable to get any traction for their own values and beliefs, feeling worn out and alienated. The resulting temptation is often either to give way or to give up.

Giving way becomes tempting because we yearn to relieve the pressure points (and indeed the loneliness) in those areas where our beliefs most jar with those that prevail in society. So we keep quiet on the controversial stuff, get all ambiguous and philosophical when questioned on it, and dress ourselves up in the buzz words and fashionable causes of the day. Thus we slowly morph from a people out of step with the world and calling on it to change – to being a people skipping and twisting to get in step with it.

The alternative (and often the follow-on) from giving way is simply to give up. The mismatch between ourselves and the culture in which we live can lead to a crisis of faith. The sense of being antiquated in our beliefs can lead to feeling embarrassed and the temptation to slip away and relax with the crowd becomes intense. The lure of this can be all the greater if we have spent our energies going from one ‘magic ministry bullet’ to another over the years – each one promising to be the great fix that will turn the tide and reinstate Christianity to its former glory days in society.

The reality, of course, is that the Gospel is not any less out of step, less out of date, or less relevant in Scotland today than it was in 1st century Rome or 20th century Moscow. As Lord Reith purportedly replied when it was suggested by a young BBC aide that it was perhaps time ‘to bury Christianity’: ‘Young man, the church will stand at the graveside of the BBC’ - just as it did at the graveside of Caesar and Stalin. Nonetheless the pressures are real and the above temptations take their toll. Our generation's ‘shift’ in the Kingdom of God might be to ‘dig in’ and ‘plod on’ without seeing the great harvest we pray that God is preparing - after all not every generation gets to surf the wave of revival.


Whatever happens, if evangelicals are, in the meantime, to avoid being imperceptibly overwhelmed (like the frog) then they need to find each other, encourage each other, challenge each other and show real commitment to each other. The spiritual environment of Scotland and the UK today means that isolationism is to risk a slow creeping death. 

FIEC was formed in the 20th century precisely for such a need - an ‘association of mutual helpfulness’ in which like-minded evangelical churches could support each other spiritually and practically. A fellowship in which gospel churches whether large or small, urban or rural, new or old - could help envision, encourage, equip and enable each other. Exactly the kind of association needed in the 21st Century by Independent Evangelical Churches if they are to keep faithful and keep going. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Should auld acquaintance be forgot?

PLEASE NOTE: THIS IS VERY MUCH A PERSONAL BLOG POST RATHER THAN A MINISTRY ONE. Christians can & do have opposite opinions on this non-theological and non-moral matter. So if you're not interested in non-ministry stuff then just skip this one.


As a Christian my ‘Kingdom’ is not of this world but is the eternal and everywhere Kingdom of Jesus Christ – the ‘king-dominion’ present across the world wherever there are men and women who are seeking to live under God’s rule. The kingdoms of this age rise and fall but the Kingdom of Jesus Christ will ultimately fill the earth and outlast the years. 

So the outcome of the Referendum on September 18th will ultimately, for all the drama and hyperbole now, be just another footnote in the history of a dying world. That means Christians should be very wary of attaching themselves to this debate in ways that might cause antagonism or create ill-feeling. It also means that any elation or despair felt on September 19th must be tempered by Biblical realism and Biblical hope - as neither The Union or Independence will solve our deepest problems. Rather it is Christ alone, whose power is contingent on neither outcome, who will still be the only Saviour worth Scotland’s trust. 

That is not to say I have no opinion or preference; in fact this is an issue I feel strongly about – but not for spiritual reasons, rather the everyday mix of emotion and pragmatism that influences us all. Biologically I am a ‘child of the Union’ with a Scottish father and English mother (who in turn had a Welsh mother). Politically I lean to the right more than the left, so thoughts of non-left wing governments are not the stuff of nightmares for me. These factors in themselves would probably make me pro-Union but more than that I’m perhaps just a bit cynical in my middle-age.

Firstly, my faith in grand political promises has worn thin over the years. A while ago I came across some old newspapers from the 1950s and noted that they were full of stories about problems in the National Health Service and worries about the economy. I fully expect that, in the event of Independence, Scottish newspapers in the 2050s will still be full of political wrangles about education, complains about welfare and accusations of economic mismanagement. My worry, however, is that we will have an intervening period of huge upheaval and enormous financial costs – all accompanied with a lot of ‘bad blood’ as negotiations over defence, currency, shared assets and even the ownership of artworks are painfully progressed with the remainder of the UK. At the end of which we will just be left with another set of politicians arguing over the same basic problems.

Where does the confidence come from that Scottish politicians will become much more just and capable if they have an office in Edinburgh as opposed to London?  Up until 2010 (just 4 years ago) the UK had 13 years of a Labour administration – which incidentally was exactly the government Scotland voted for. We had a Scottish Prime Minister and during every one of those years we had a Scottish Chancellor plus a sack-load of Scottish Ministers. Presumably those same Scottish politicians weren’t able to make all the changes they would have desired because they were constrained – by available finances, by interest groups, by international business and trading conditions, by European Union obligations and all the other political realities of Statehood. It seems unlikely, to say the least, that Scotland, being a tenth of the economy and population of England, would be in a stronger position to resist such pressures or negotiate more favourable terms for itself. If the 6th largest economy in the world struggles to get Amazon and Starbucks to pay their taxes what hope will there be for the country entering the world rankings at No.45?

Some hope that Independence will allow greater ‘social justice’ and ‘equality’ (terms of course, that can mean very different things depending on who you talk to – including some deeply un-Christian definitions at times); but a genuinely good society will not arise out of Nationalism but out of Christian principles. If the Gospel gains influence again in Scotland then society will improve; otherwise we can expect further moral and social decline even if we do get richer. As a Christian, money is not the least of my concerns but it’s certainly not No.1.

Independence seems to rest on a degree of hubris that Scottish people make better choices that English people. We are told that Scottish politicians would never take us into an ill-judged and catastrophic war such as in Iraq – but they did. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but Scots have to wait for it just like everyone else.

I worry about nationalism as a political agenda. I accept the SNP’s claim to be civic nationalists as opposed to xenophobic ones but either way the thrust seems to be divisive. That’s not to say I believe in a great international brotherhood of man with aspirations for some kind of global government (that would give me nightmares) but, where peoples have lived peacefully and rather successfully together for centuries, it seems to me retrograde and tribal to agitate for their break-up and separation.

I also bridle at the suggestion that I’m oppressed by England generally or London specifically. I have never had the council I voted for in Glasgow or the government I voted for in Scotland – but that’s democracy for you. I don’t like everything David Cameron stands for and I don’t like everything Alex Salmond stands for; but the beauty of living in Scotland just now is that neither gets it all their own way – which strikes me as ‘the happy avoidance of the worst of both worlds’ (now there’s a slogan for you!).

So much for the cynicism – but my tendency to the Union is not all ‘better the devil you know’. I love the fact that one of greatest, most international and exciting cities in the world is ‘my Capital’ (along with Edinburgh). I like the fact that Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, Steve Redgrave et al win medals for ‘my country’. I like the fact that Robert Burns and William Shakespeare are both part of ‘my country’s’ contribution to world culture. I like the fact ‘my country’ sits at the ‘top table’ in world affairs and decision making because I think on the whole it stands up for good things like democracy, the rule of law and being tolerant. I love the fact that my son was born in England but is a not foreigner. I love the fact that Edinburgh Castle and Windsor Castle, the Clyde and the Thames, The Proclaimers and The Beatles, The Black Watch and The Welsh Guard, the invention of the Steam Engine and the invention of the Internet, are all equally part of 'my country’s' heritage.

Should ‘auld acquaintance be forgot?’ – not for the sake of a few hundred pounds, not for some new branding on old problems, not for an even less constrained and more parochial politics, not for a narrower and contracted heritage, not for less ability to be an influence for good in a fractured and menacing world. Not for me. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Rotherham & the Hercules needed to clean up British society

Latest blog - published at CHRISTIAN TODAY 

Rotherham child abuse scandal: we need to clean up British society

Kingdom Vision

An article written for FIEC.
In less than two weeks, the residents of Scotland will be voting on whether their country should remain part of the United Kingdom. Andy Hunter explains why we should all take a prayerful interest in the outcome.
The televised leadership debates are over but the matter is far from settled. Up until September 18th (and perhaps beyond) the matter of whether Scotland should be an Independent country will be the preeminent preoccupation of most Scots.
The arguments around economics, politics and national identity are being exhaustively discussed and dissected – the prize being the ‘missing million’, that section of Scottish society who don’t usually vote and aren’t picked up in regular opinion polls. One thing both the ‘Yes’ and ‘Better Together’ campaigns are agreed on is that a ‘yes’ vote will change the whole equilibrium of the United Kingdom – irreversibly – for ever.

Kingdoms change

Some Christians may take the view that “kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall” and this is not something for the church to be overly interested in. Certainly at one level there seems to be little to choose between Westminster and Holyrood from a Christian vantage point; both parliaments seem to be avowedly secular and have passed a steady stream of legislation at odds with Biblical truth.
As John Mason, a Scottish National Party MSP, has stated, the environment for the Scottish church, Independence or not, is likely to be increasingly unfriendly. For these reasons, among others, Christians on both sides of the debate are rightly cautious in claiming any moral or spiritual high ground for their viewpoints.

Kingdom implications

However, Christians should at least consider whether the implications of Independence are more or less likely to help or hinder Gospel Work throughout these islands.
For example, would the further divergence of administrative systems and laws created by Independence be a burden or impediment to Gospel ministries currently working across the UK and thus reduce their effectiveness and capabilities? If Scotland did end up with a separate currency would that create problems for Gospel workers receiving cross-border support from England or vice versa? Currently workers abroad can see their income fluctuate significantly depending on exchange rates.
Conversely, would a smaller nation and political structure allow some of our able and engaged Scottish church leaders to have more influence with law makers and opinion formers? Would a new written Constitution give the chance for religious freedoms to be better enshrined in law? Could Independence reinvigorate the Scottish Churches and encourage greater Gospel unity?
None of these questions can be easily answered and in truth all are to some degree unknowable. However, they should be at least as much a point of interest for Christians as whether they would be £500 per year better or worse off.

Kingdom vision

For these reasons FIEC are hosting the Kingdom Vision debate in Glasgow on September 12th to give Christians a chance to reflect on how Independence might affect Gospel work and local churches. The debate held in Harper Memorial Baptist Church will hear the views of two Christians MSPs (John Mason, SNP and Murdo Fraser, Conservative) on these matters. Find out more here.
John and Murdo
Whatever the Referendum result on the 19th of September 2014, Scotland will still be a country in desperate need of the Gospel if it to see the kind of renewal that can heal souls and transform lives. The good news is that that hope is not dependent on either Union or Independence but rests in the eternal saving power of Jesus Christ. Please pray that Scotland might have a new Gospel beginning whatever happens on September 18th.
Footnotes
Yes/No photo by Elektra Grey Photography, used and modified under a Creative Commonslicence.
Photo of Scottish Parliament debating chamber by Shelley Bernstein, used under aCreative Commons licence.
Andy Hunter photo
Andy Hunter - FIEC Scotland Director
Before joining FIEC in November 2013, Andy worked for Greenview Church in Glasgow for nine years, prior to which he trained at Oak Hill College in London. He is married to Jessica and they have three children.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Doing unto others...

Last month Peter Tatchell, the human rights campaigner, called on David Cameron and the Commonwealth Games organisers to speak out against the criminalisation of homosexuality in many of the countries represented at the Glasgow Games. Tatchell and others point out that homosexuality is a punishable offence in 42 of the 53 Commonwealth nations. Penalties range up to life imprisonment and even, in parts of Nigeria and Pakistan, the death penalty. These measures are in place despite every Commonwealth country having signed up to the Commonwealth Charter which states: "there shall be no discrimination against any country or person on any grounds whatsoever, including race, colour, gender, religion or politics" (Article 7). 

Some Christians may wonder why they should be concerned about this, or indeed rally to the side of a campaigner like Peter Tatchell who has not been, shall we say, a great friend of the church in recent years. Further, Christians may be asking where such high profile media campaigns for fundamental human rights are being made when it comes to religion. In the same period that Peter Tatchell received considerable airtime on this topic, a brutal programme of persecution against Christians was being carried out by ISIS in the city of Mosul without any great outcry among the Western political class.

Nonetheless this is an issue that Christians would do well to make their voices heard on – and do so by supporting Peter Tatchell in his call to end persecution against homosexuals wherever that happens. Believing that someone should not be persecuted (or vilified) is not the same as agreeing with them. There are many things that Christians would regard as inappropriate, sinful even, but would see no benefit in criminalising – e.g. hetrosexual adultery or promiscuity. The same Bible passages that warn against homosexual activity include injunctions against gluttony, gossip and boasting – woe betide all of us if these should become grounds for imprisonment or state sponsored harassment. Law and morality are complex bed-fellows but we can all recognise that State Law can’t deal with all immorality – indeed often the best Law can do is mitigate the effects of fallen human behaviour by facilitating and thus managing the consequences of things we’d rather didn’t happen (e.g. the OT divorce laws). 


There is also an issue here of Christians having to treat others the way they themselves would want to be treated. Again this is a complex area and one that doubtless requires a number of nuanced qualifications. However, Christians cannot expect that in multi-cultural and multi-religious societies (where they themselves may be in a tiny minority) that their beliefs will be privileged. We may feel we are right and it would be better if our beliefs were privileged (i.e. held sway over others) but that is not going to be countenanced by a majority who don’t share our basic convictions and faith premise. Christians can, however, make the case that their beliefs and the resulting way of life should be protected – that is, allowed the same freedom to be held and expressed as others. If I would wish such freedom for myself – I should (indeed will need to) be prepared to grant it to another, even if I might personally be appalled by their use of it. In the end God will judge on such matters and we can confidentially leave that to Him.

For those outraged at the treatment of Christians in many places today; for those who would be horrified at the thought of LGBT friends or family members being publicly hounded or castigated; for those who believe that tolerance is more than, our secular culture’s definition of, insisting that everyone hold the same beliefs, but actually involves standing up for those you disagree with – then this is an opportunity to show that Christians are not just another pressure group only concerned with themselves.


This piece has also been published on CHRISTIAN TODAY 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

What's your vision for the Kingdom?

SOLAS DEBATE ON SCOTTISH INDEPENDENCE
CHARLOTTE CHAPEL - 11th June 2014

All are agreed that the decision on whether Scotland should become an independent country or remain in the United Kingdom is a political, economic and indeed emotional choice. But is it also a spiritual one? Or in other words, would God be voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on September 18th this year? 

It was to consider that aspect of the Independence question (among others) that SOLAS brought together leading Christians on both sides in Edinburgh this week. On the ‘Yes’ side were John Mason MSP and David Robertson of the Free Church of Scotland (and SOLAS). On the ‘No’ side, Murdo Fraser MSP and Richard Lucas of SOLAS

Both sides were quick to agree that this was not a moral issue or one on which any side could claim a higher spiritual position – but was a matter of judgement that Christians could rightly differ on. Indeed it was noted that it was a rare thing to have a SOLAS debate with Christians on both sides, as usually the subjects debated are ones with clear Biblical principles attached.

YES
The debate began with John Mason (a Scottish National Party MSP) outlining something of his testimony – brought up in The Church of Scotland, coming to faith through Scripture Union camps, and now a member of Easterhouse Baptist Church in Glasgow. It was while serving with Interserve in Nepal that he started to formulate his belief in Independence – observing how other small countries happily and successfully enjoyed full independence and self-governance. John outlined a number of what he saw would be the practical economic and social benefits of an independent Scotland. Independence, he believed, would give Scotland a greater chance of being a fairer and more equal society.

Regarding the place of the church and Christian influence, he was frank in predicting that, independent or not, Scotland like the rest of the Western World was going to be increasingly secular and the environment for Christianity was likely to be more difficult in the future. However, he stated that such adversity had actually caused the church to grow and thrive throughout history, and he was confident it would do so in Scotland. He also argued, however,  that an independent Scotland would give an opportunity for a constitution that could include safeguards for religious freedom.

NO
Arguing for Scotland to remain as part of the United Kingdom was Murdo Fraser (a Conservative MSP). Murdo is a committed, although he added ‘not uncritical’, member of The Church of Scotland. He began by outlining some of the historic achievements of the Union such as the abolition of slavery in the C19, the creation of the NHS in the C20, and the UK’s lead in being the second largest donor of overseas aid in the world today. He argued that the ‘immigration problem’ was a sign of how successful and esteemed the UK was, and that Scotland’s influence in the world was all the greater as part of that Union. Murdo also argued that Scotland was already in a position without Independence, through the Scottish Parliament, to make the social changes many desire.

Regarding implications for the Christian faith, Murdo expressed concern that the Independence campaign was viewed by many in the Scottish Secular Society as a way of accelerating their agenda. He also suggested that Scottish people were not more likely to vote for higher taxes or have a radically different society from that elsewhere in the United Kingdom. For Murdo the question was one ultimately of identity – which for him was to enjoy being both Scottish and British, rather than having that identity reduced.

BROKEN OR BETTER
The debate continued with follow-up contributions from David Robertson and Richard Lucas. David began by stating that his overriding concern was the spiritual state of Scotland and quoted Proverbs 14:34, ‘righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people’. He believed that the Union had gone past its ‘sell-by date’ precisely because it was no longer a union founded on Christian values. Increasingly he saw a rise of corruption and powerful elites making all parts of the UK more unequal and less democratic. He argued that a smaller nation state could allow more redress against such injustices and allow Christians to have more influence within the political system.

Richard argued that the issue was not one of ‘day to day’ politics but of national identity – that is, who do I feel responsible for and part of. He argued that nationalism sought to break that sense of collective identity by creating divisions, false problems and dissatisfaction between otherwise contented partners. He also questioned the economic arguments for Independence as a subtle form of greed at the expense of others. Richard stated his belief that nationalism was subjective and had no moral significance other than creating division.

FROM THE FLOOR
A time of questions from ‘the floor’ followed and covered a range of questions on policy implications.  One questioner asked what the evidence was that Scottish people would be better equipped or likely to create a more just society because they were independent – when Scotland has been just as quick to disregard Christian values as any other part of the UK. In response David Robertson said that he fully expected Scotland to continue to go ‘downhill’ along with England, but nevertheless saw more opportunities for Christian influence with Independence.

In the closing statements there was agreement on both sides that Independence in itself would not make Scotland a more spiritual nation, and that the ultimate hope for Scotland was in Christ.

REFLECTIONS
In less than 100 days those living in Scotland will have to make the most important political decision for the nation in over 300yrs. For the majority it will come down to politics, economics and emotions – but it is right that for Christians there should also be a bigger Gospel dimension to consider. Will it help or hinder gospel work in Scotland and indeed other parts of the UK? Would it create opportunities or throw up barriers to Mission? Will it be more likely to promote righteousness than facilitate sin? None of these are easily answered but they should be key in the deliberations of Christians and above purely political and economic considerations.

The evening was an example of the kind of Scotland all would want to see – considered, thoughtful, civil and good-tempered. It was great to see some representatives of the Scottish Secular Society present and to hear their questions (asked with good grace and indeed humour) – pray that the witness of Christians with different views treating each other with respect and gentleness will have a big impact on them.

Pray for John Mason and Murdo Fraser, Christian MSPs in the front-line of Scottish politics and whose example is a huge public witness to godliness in action. Pray for Scotland, pray for the growth and influence of Gospel churches - so that whatever the Referendum outcome Scotland would recover its Gospel heritage and be won again for Christ.