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Tuesday, 12 October 2021

What then shall we sing? Choosing the right songs in a Hillsong Age

Photo by Zac Durant on Unsplash 

The Crest of the YouTube Wave?

I will not forget attending a wedding some years ago - but not for the right reasons. Not the beauty of the bride or the solemnity of the occasion, no,  I remember it because I was unable to join in any of the sung worship. Why? Because I had never heard even one of these songs - even though I listen to and love contemporary Christian music.

It was as if the great river of historic Christian hymnody was irrelevant for today. 

As if no-one in that congregation mattered unless they were between the age of 18 and 30. 

As if Christian music was invented in 2010 and the current crest of YouTube Christian music was all that counted.

Such an event stands for a mindset that believes we should sing whatever Christian songs are riding the apogee of YouTube popularity. It does not really matter - not really - what the words are, nor whether the tunes are singable, all that matters, or so it seems, is that we are keeping up with the musical Jones'.

But if riding the crest of the wave is not the way forward, how do we choose the songs we sing?

For some folks the die is set by tradition. Some will only sing the Psalms, for example, because only those words can truly and fully regarded as Biblical. That's fine.

Others put their trust in the editors of one particular hymn book, outside of which  heresy doth lie. That's fine too. 

Remember we all have traditions and traditions are good. Without tradition a church lurches from chaos to chaos week to week. Even people who don't think they have traditions have traditions for "we don't have traditions" is their unique and particular way of doing stuff.

Many believers are wide and eclectic in their choice, not wanting to chain themselves to any particular stream or tradition (apart from Gospel truth) but wanting to sing the best of the old and finest of the new. Such are convinced that Scripture allows us to sing a wide palette of "psalms, hymns and spiritual songs" (Colossians 3:16). 

How then shall we choose?

Principle 1: Do the words line up with Scripture?

This is the first, and in one sense the only principle. Are the lyrics doctrinally accurate and sound? Songs are remembered by the mind and they enter the heart and soul, so we want to make sure that they are in line with Scripture.

One great principle brought back from the New Testament during the reformation was "sola scriptura." Scripture alone shapes all of our doctrine and life, whether at home or in the church. 

Scripture alone should set the standard of what we sing. Do the words we sing line up with the doctrine of Scripture?

There is a danger here of adding to Scripture Alone other principles; of adding Scripture Plus principles. 

Scripture Plus

Scripture + Author is one common but flawed Scripture Plus. This could also be called the argument of "guilt by author's life" We come across a song that is doctrinally sound but then - and we can do this today like never before with the internet - we examine what we can of the author and if we find it wanting we reject the song.

The problem with this approach is, Where do you stop? If you are to be consistent you should examine every single author, not just the newbies. When I Google my college lecturers from just the 1980s Google returns no results - so this method is going to be rather limited, if Google is where you go for your info. It's inconsistent and unfair to condemn living authors but leave past ones unjudged.

And surely, if we decide to use this "how good is the author" principle, no-one should sing the hauntingly beautiful - but surely sound:

1 Jesus, the very thought of thee
with sweetness fills the breast;
but sweeter far thy face to see,
and in thy presence rest.

2 O hope of every contrite heart,
O joy of all the meek,
to those who fall, how kind thou art!
How good to those who seek!

3 But what to those who find? Ah, this
nor tongue nor pen can show;
the love of Jesus, what it is,
none but his loved ones know.

4 Jesus, our only joy be thou,
as thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be thou our glory now,
and through eternity.

...because the lived-around-1100 AD  author, Bernard of Clairvaux, played a major role in stirring up Crusades in which hundreds of innocent people died for a profoundly unChristian cause. 

It could be argued, using Scripture + Author, that singing any song by Mr Clairvaux is tainting our hands with innocent blood. 

And to be completely consistent with Scripture + Author, should we sing any of David's Psalms, for was he not an adulterer and a murderer? 

The moment we deviate from Scripture Alone we end  up in a quagmire of impossible inquiry which turns us - dangerously  - into the judge and jury of all hymn writers, ancient or new. 

And suppose we manage to give a particular author the green light? Do we really know that that man or woman did actually live a godly life? Especially if they lived before the internet age? Better, surely, to be tuneless than to be sorry.

I say 'before the internet' age, as if the internet was the deposit of truth. Tragically it is all too often the locus of slander, bias and prejudice. 

Another flawed Scripture Plus approach is Scripture + Stable. In this method we may be happy with both the words and the author, but we regard the theological stable he or she comes from just a wee bit too dodgy. A stable too Arminian perhaps, an association too Charismatic, whatever. This argument could also be called "guilt by association." 

So we find a wonderful song, we have every reason to believe the author is a true believer, but we discover - on the web again - the truth or the lie that he or she is connected to the wrong people. At some time in their lifetime they spoke to this dodgy person, went to that dicey conference, hung out with this shifty movement. So the sound song is condemned because of some connection, real, imagined or slandered on the web.

The fatal flaw of this "guilt by association" Scripture Plus methodology is that if you look at all the wrong places on the world wide web you could most probably discover slander that says Charles Wesley ("O for a thousand tongues to sing") was a multiple murderer and Frances Havergel ("Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to thee") was a petty thief.

Slander is a big sin on the Internet. Slander is a really big sin to God but many fine Christian songwriters are suffering slander on the web. Slander is one of today's under-the-radar sins.

There is of course a valid point behind both of these cautious approaches. If a church sings lots of songs from one particular stable which has significant doctrinal weaknesses then members of the congregation in these days of internet surfing may possibly be led astray by that stable. And if a present author was living a known immoral lifestyle then we would not want to be seen to commend that.

For all sorts of reasons, on a case by case basis, local churches may decide not to sing this song or that.

But to make Scripture Plus, whether Scripture + Author or Scripture + Stable the blanket principles behind our choices will either render us either hypocritical judges, or if we are truly consistent, mute worshippers, since all authors are sinners, and the only perfect Man who has ever lived, did not leave us a song. 

No, the only reliable, the only objective, the only humble principle is Scripture Alone.

Principle 2: Is the tune 'congregational'?

A secondary but important principle for congregational singing is: How easy is it for the congregation to sing the tunes? Some tunes are fine for practised musicians but mighty difficult for the ordinary believer in the pew to join in with.

And, thinking of the tune, we must not become so intoxicated by the melody that we lose our judgement about the words. It's happened to me. I have so loved the beauty of a melody that I have overlooked the soundness of the lyrics.

Principle 3: Does the Song have wide appeal?

One of the great reasons for choosing older songs is that the church has had time to weed out the poor stuff. How many hymns did Charles Wesley write? The BBC tells me 6000. How many do we sing today? One thousandth. A Handful. Why? Because time has culled out the poor ones.

The church, over time selects the good and rejects the bad. (For that reason could it be a sound principle not to sing any song until it is at least ten years old?!) 

Old and New

The wisest approach is surely to combine the old with the new. When the Psalmist said "Sing to the Lord a new Song" (Psalm 96:1) he did not add "And chuck out the old." 

Our worship  songs should straddle all the age ranges found in our churches. The saints who have sung the songs of Zion from Christian Hymns, Redemption Hymnal or Mission Praise should not feel excluded. 

Nor those of us who love the precious new.

And all to the praise and glory of God.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Ten Reflections on the Art of Parenting - thirty years on

 The Most Challenging Role in Life

 Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

Having just dropped my fourth and youngest son off at university at the age of 19, I've been reflecting on three decades of parenting four children. 

Of course my days of parenting are not over. Children continue to need their parents after they leave home. But the foundational years have now passed by and they shall not return.

I would not pretend to be the world's best parent, and I am sure I have made many parenting mistakes, but my wife and I have tried to prayerfully make the Scriptures our guide. We have been immensely helped by three Christians, James Dobson, Rob Parsons and Catharine Vos, of The Child's Story Bible. 

Scripture tells us four foundational facts about our children which inform Christian parenting. 

First, children are a gift from the Lord (Psalm 127:3). Kids are not toys or must-have accessories, they are precious gifts from God.

Secondly - and this follows from the first - children do not belong to us. We are mere stewards of all God's gifts, and one day He will ask us "How did we look after that precious one?" Knowing that our children do not belong to us frees us from the curse of control ("this is what I want my child to be or do in life") and from the snare of idolatry ("kids are there to meet all my needs"). 

Thirdly, children are fallen sinners (Psalm 51:5), so they will naturally blameshift, want to do wrong, and will need boundaries and loving discipline. I will never forget one of our little ones after he deliberately dropped a book out of the window of our moving car declaring, "the book let go!" 

Few errors have more harmful ramifications on parenting than to assume that our little ones are angels who can or will never do wrong. No, they are sinners who will  automatically stray if left to their own devices.

Fourthly, children do not know best, parents do. That's why God has given them parents; to lead, nurture, teach, guide, direct and instruct them (Ephesians 6:4). 

It is not the responsibility of the state to teach our children, it is not the responsibility of schools or the internet to instruct our little ones, and children themselves cannot bear the heavy weight of self-education. No, parents, you bear that burden before the Lord.  

In no particular order, then, here are the lessons I have learnt.

#1  Parenting is the most challenging role in life

If we take it seriously. The reason this task is so challenging is plural.

First, the art of parenting is more about the parent than about the child. That may come as a surpise, but who we are, how we react, how we live, what priorities we adopt in our own life are the determining factors in the formation of a child. The words we say to our children are often less significant than the life we live before them.

Take a child in a rebellious mood. The least helpful parenting response is to fight fire with fire. Personal calm and Holy Spirit self-control are the only tools that will bring about a godly outcome. 

Personal sacrifice is the second reason parenting is so challenging. For a long season of our lives (in our case thirty years), our children will be a major occupation of our time, thoughts and energy. 

Paul's ministerial policy was "life in you and death in us" (2 Corinthians 4:12) and we could not do better than to adopt that policy for the ministry of child-rearing. This has been our parenting mantra over the years! We have often said it to one another, especially in the tough times, "Life in them, death in us! Life in them, death in us!"

This means in practice that we will often be exhausted and stretched, we will have to submit, we will have to 'die' to parent well, but then, by the grace of God, we will see 'life' in them. 

Thirdly, parenting requires self-criticism in at least this regard: Most of us had parents who were unbalanced in some way. (Those who think not merely prove the point.) It is then all too easy to swing, pendulum-like, in the opposite direction. 

If our parents were too harsh, we can easily become too soft, and so on. Good parenting requires parents to critically ask what imbalances lurk in their own backgrounds. My own parents - godly missionaries - probably did not spend enough time with their children. I've tried to correct that, how successfully I do not know.

The first task in solving a problem with one of our kids, then, is to look prayerfully and squarely at the parent in the mirror and ask: what is it about me, rather than he or she, that needs to change?

Seek first the kingdom of God

#2  Put spiritual matters first

This means  more than reading the Scriptures with our children each day and praying with them, though it does include that. It means chatting to them about all the issues of life from a Biblical and Gospel point of view, in the car, around the table, when we walk in the streets and on holiday. 

What do we impress most upon our kids? That our desire is for their salvation? Or that they be educated, successful and rich? Every day we are emitting a multitude of verbal and non-verbal signals about what really matters most to us.

If parents never talk about the Lord in the home, they should not be surprised if children drift away from church and faith in their teens. Kids will see through the sham of Sunday-only religion when the questioning years of teenage arrive.

But if we seek the kingdom of God first, the Lord will add all other things (such as homes and education, etc.) in as well.

We found that ten minutes devotions before bed each evening, except for Sundays, was ideal. We read a story from a children's Bible that was appropriate to their age, discussed it, prayed with them and taught them to pray. When they were in the later primary years and beyond we used Catharine Vos's The Child's Story Bible, which we read from cover to cover who knows how many times.

#3  Take the example of God the Father as your model of true fatherhood

At the baptism of Jesus, his heavenly Father said to him in a voice from heaven, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:17)

"This is my Son" - God the Father was so proud to be related to his Son! Let us say to our kids- natural, adopted and step: "You are my son, my daughter, my child, I am so glad you are in our family!"

"Whom I love" - tell them often that you love them. Even when they are older and may adopt a 'don't really want you to say that to me' disposition. The world is a cold place where they will rarely hear those precious needful words.

"With him I am well pleased" - tell them that you are proud of them in the right sense of that word.  

Kids go through Phases

#4 Commend them for doing good

Connected to the last point, commend your children when they do good. I learnt this from Rob Parsons but you can find it in Colossians 3:21, "Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged" and from the example of God the Father with his one and only beloved Son in Matthew 3:17. If all we do is correct our kids, we will, like a dripping tap, little by little, discourage and embitter them. "Catch them doing something good" and praise them for it!

This is particularly important when we are going through parenting phases where we seem to be correcting our children all the time.

#5  Remember - kids go through phases

Childhood and teenage years are - by their very nature - seasons of change, sometimes rapidly so. I well remember panicking when our first child was passing through a difficult phase, but he came out on the other side in due time. Children change and it is unwise to focus on or over-react to this or that phase. Give them slack, love them, and it won't be long before they pull right on through.

#6  If you are a dad, get a grip

It is not for accident - and certainly not for patriarchy - that Scripture urges fathers to play a major role in child-rearing, (Ephesians 6:4, Colossians 3:20). Tragically men often tend to back out and leave it to their wives. 

Because it is hard. 

A friend of mine told how many of his male work colleagues would work late each evening and give the impression to their wives that they had to work. But they confided in him that they were only going home late to avoid the chaos of tea time and bath time.

"If I ever leave home" one parent has said jokingly, "it will be at tea-time!"

Scripture urges men in particular to rise to the task of rearing their children in the teaching and nurture of the Lord. That means spending time with children and being involved in their day to day lives. Find ways of connecting with them - even if it involves an activity they like but you do not. 

Love, fathers should remember, is spelt in the language of children with these four letters:

T. I. M. E.

#7  Learn to distinguish between childish irresponsibility and wilful disobedience

I learnt this enormously helpful advice from James Dobson. How often parents make this mistake: rebuking - or worse - a little one for the wrong reason. The child spills her drink or splashes mud all over you. This accidental mess is all part of the learning process. It is merely childish irresponsibility. The child needs to be taught how to hold the cup not chastised. 

Chastisement and rebuke should be reserved for wilful disobedience. The child has deliberately spilt their drink or defiantly splashed mud having been told and taught not to do so. 

The same action, maybe, but the child's intention is a world apart: and so should our response be. 

And when corrective discipline must be used, James Dobson wisely advises "bend the will but don't break the spirit." The purpose of discipline is to bring about a change of behaviour (bending the will) not to destroy the child's spirit with angry words and actions.

#8  Don't take all the praise, don't take all the blame

Rob Parsons again. The grace and mercy of God is the sole reason a child turns out well, so don't take all the praise (not often a weakness in Christian parents, I hear you say?) And if they take a wrong turn, don't be too hard on yourself, especially if this wrong turn is in their teenage or beyond years when they have become independent moral agents.

#9  There's more to life than children and family

Any good gift can transmute into an idol, but all idols are fools gold. God has placed us in church families as well as biological ones. And the only eternal family is our church family.

 It is a big - but common - mistake to build our lives around the kids. If we do, then when they leave us, we could find ourselves bereft of companionship, perhaps full of resentment or we may even become manipulative towards them.

All of us should have wider circles of friends than our children - and then when we age we will not lay the whole burden for our care upon the insufficient shoulders of our kids. 

#10   Let them go

Finally, when the day comes - is that aged 18? - let them go. If we let them go freely they will come back to us for friendship or when they need help. If they feel manipulatively tied to our apron strings, resentment will drive them far away - and possibly into unhelpful arms. 

The father of the prodigal in Luke 15 did not manipulate his child into staying home nor did he berate him on his way out of the house. If he had, the thought of returning to dad may not have been entertained by the prodigal in his hour of desperate need: after all, who wants to return to an old nag? 

The Lord gave us children to bring up, and one day that work is done. 

Hold on to the Promises

Love your kids dearly and pray for them fervently. And when you pray, hold onto the promises the Lord has made. For if, by the grace of God, parents have taught children God's ways, they can humbly and prayerfully hold the Lord to this promise:

"Start children off on the way they should go,
    and even when they are old they will not turn from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

Hold the Lord to his own promise! "Lord we trained up our child in your ways, please fulfill your promise, keep them close to you and don't let them drift away."

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

The Weirdest People in the World - Book Review Part 3


 The News So Far

So far, Joseph Henrich says that western people are very unusual. 

Of course this comes as a big shock to many of them who arrogantly assume they live in the stratosphere of human existence and that everyone is - or should be - like them. 

But compared to the majority world, and the majority of people who have ever lived they really do occupy the extreme end of most  behavioural spectrums. They are WEIRD - not a term intended by Henrich to bring them down, by the way, though at first sight it may seem that way.

WEIRD stands for:

W estern

E ducated

I ndustrial

R ich

D emocratic

And the reason, suggests Joseph, is that they can read. And they can read because of the Reformation....1500s onwards.

I don't believe that's all there is to it, because in the very first chapter of his book, which he calls "Weird Psychology" Henrich begins to list all the features of Weird people....

...and some of them sound very much like the fruit of the Gospel.

What are Weird People actually like?

What then is so unusual about westerners? Are you ready? Some of these attributes are positive, some are clearly not.

Henrich is always, by the way, comparing Weird people with majority world people.

Here goes:

"Unlike much of the world today, and most people who have ever lived, we Weird people are highly individualistic, self-obsessed, control-oriented, nonconformist, and analytical. We focus on ourselves - our attributes, accomplishments, and aspirations - over our relationships and social roles." (page 21)

We are very individualistic. One indicator of this is the way Weird people focus on guilt while majority world people focus on shame. Guilt is something internal. We set personal standards and aspirations for ourselves and when we don't meet them we feel guilty. These standards and aspirations are really important to us. By contrast, the priorities in the majority world are relationships. And so their primary negative feeling is shame - they have let others down.

Another way our individualism is manifested is the way we answer the question, "I am......" Weird people answer it with personal qualities or achievements. I am a mechanic, I am curious, and so on. Majority world people answer the question with "I am the daughter of", "I come from the tribe of" or "I do this role in society". 

There are some positive traits Weird people exhibit. Weird people, lacking deep social ties tend not to give family members jobs, while nepotism is rife across the majority world. Weird people tend to be more friendly across the full range of their relationships, while majority world folks tend to be friendly to those in their social groupings or tribe but cold to those outside (see Hutu and Tutsi). 

Weird people are obsessed with what they think about themselves, their self-esteem, while majority world people are concerned about other-esteem, how they are viewed by others.

I'm just listing all this stuff.

Weird people don't care what others think about them, they're not prepared to conform to a group, majority world people care a great deal what others think about them and tend to conform. Weird people are prepared to wait for a future reward if its better than a present one, majority world people prefer the here and now, making Weird people appear more patient. Weird people obey rules better than majority world people. Weird people are prepared to risk a friendship if it means the difference between telling the truth and loyalty. Majority world folks are prepared to lie in court to protect a friend. Weird people trust strangers more than majority world folks. Weird people tend to make more judgements about the inner intentions or motives of people. Weird people think analytically rather than their holistic majority world pals.

See the list below for a fuller analysis.

Some Reflections

Joseph Henrich - I've read the conclusion! - is going to say that reading plus some Catholic family rules are responsible for all this Weirdness, but lets remember that an unbelieving scholar is spiritually blind, so we should listen to his facts but not follow his conclusions.

It seems to me that not literacy, but high literacy, may be the cause of some of the traits listed above, in particular analytical thinking. Anyone who has studied a subject for a few years on the trot in a western college will have developed an analytical mind. These kinds of minds, because they break problems down into constituent parts, find big picture holistic thinking difficult.

But there are positive traits among weird folks that I would suggest owe themselves much more to the widespread impact of the Gospel spreading out from the Reformation, than from the simple act of reading.

If Weird people really are more reliable across the whole spectrum of their relationships (faithful), prepared to face up to friends when they want them to lie (honest), struggle with personal failure (which causes guilt), more obedient to rules (law-abiding), trust strangers (trusting) and are prepared to wait (patient), well these qualities look much more like the fruit of the Spirit. Not directly in the lives of western unbelievers, of course, but the spin-off of Gospel lives lived in the west. 

The negative weird traits listed above,  such as obsession with self, rank individualism, our inability to see holistically (because of the worship of high education which turns minds into analytically narrow-minded computers), our neglect of communal ties and our resistance  to conform; all these I see as step-children of the so-called Enlightenment (a lexical oxymoron if ever there was one).

Jesus once told a parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13)

The church which started with the Twelve has become the largest tree in the  garden and it blesses non-tree life such as the birds.

In this parable Jesus teaches that the influence of the church goes far and deep into the structures of the society where Christians are found to live.

Surely it is this truth Henrich is charting, albeit unwittingly? Christians have let their light shine and that light has lit up Weird cultures who have then been blessed with "Christian" graces?

We'll have to see...

Friday, 17 September 2021

The Wierdest People in the World - Book Review Part 2



The Profound influence of Reading

So everything psychology knows is skewed towards a tiny proportion of the world's present and historic population. So most of psychology is either plain wrong, or profoundly imbalanced. (Review, Part 1)

As a believer did you wonder why, when you read psychology texts, you sensed you were so often reading jibberish? Well, now you know. 

OK, so the world has to rewrite all its text books on psychology. 

(Oh the glorious advantage of revelation, where standing above the transient so-called-knowledge of a passing world, God, the one who created us in the first place, sees and knows all things and has authored final and ultimate truth in the Scriptures. What the Bible teaches about mankind is true for all time, set against the lies of the academy.)

Anyway, why is the West so weird? 

Here is Henrich's first reason: we can read. It turns out that the act of reading actually changes the brain itself and has many knock-on effects on the rest of our thinking.

Psychological studies were all conducted on highly literate university students - that's why those findings are so way out. Lots of people in the world today are illiterate (at least 10%) and many many more are poorly literate. Very few are highly literate. And widely literate societies are a new and unusual thing.

So what does literacy do to our minds? Although he doesn't say this, my guess is that what he describes are the effects of high literacy, not simple literacy.

Says Henrich, among various physical and neurological effects reading increases our ability to remember, but reduces our ability to identify faces and narrows the way we think from more all-life holistic thinking to more analytic processing (page 3-4). 

This last effect is perhaps the most important: literacy (or at least, or especially high literacy) narrows our vision of the world.

The effect of the Reformation

One can easily chart the rise of literacy in the West. It starts to rise in the 1500s, so guess what caused it? 

The Reformation.

The Catholic church was quite happy for folks to languish in illiteracy for then they could not read the Bible and discover the errors of priests and popes. But Evangelicals like Luther knew that the only way to be saved was through God's Word, and so he wanted people to learn to read the Bible.

Instead of relying on a Latin Bible no-one could read Luther translated the Bible into German for the ordinary lads and lasses on the street. And he encouraged them to learn how to read.

And so literacy - as well as the Gospel - spread out from Wittenberg!

You can even draw a nerdy coloured map to show that the degree of literacy was proportional to how close a city was to Wittenberg - the closer the more literate, the further away, the less literate!

Since salvation is for everyone, the Reformation encouraged both boys and girls to read. (Note the difference with respect to what we hear is happening in Afghanistan today. I say 'what we hear is happening' because western media with its own shibboleths can be wildly imbalanced). 

All this is documented in Henrich's book. 

The Catholics, out of envy and a competitive spirit, then also introduced schooling, but never to the degree of the Reformers. The literacy differences between the two movements are very stark.

When the Gospel was taken to the world by the Reformers, guess what? They took with them literacy. Missionaries translated the Bible into the languages of the peoples and encouraged them to read.

Since western people could read, when industrial possibilities came about, guess what? There were lots of literate farmers able to work the machines and ramp up industry to what we call revolutions. 

Enough for one blog, but we're only up to page 17.


The gospel of Jesus Christ has wide-ranging effects. 

Christians encourage reading. Because we are 'people of a book', because God has spoken primarily in Scripture (he also 'speaks' through creation), to fully share the Gospel we must encourage people to read. Hence the vital and amazing work of Bible translators such as the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

Christians encourage both men and women to read the Bible. With regard to salvation, in Christ there is no male nor female. So Christian mission encourages both men and women to read.

So far, so good, or so it seems. What's to argue with or complain about?

Here's my initial guess at where things may go wrong.

Literacy is one thing. High literacy is another. To teach people to read is a noble endeavour. But since most of the big-name reformers were scholars who were highly literate themselves, they, unwittingly pushed not only literacy, but high literacy.

Unwittingly they expected of their followers not only the ability to read the Scriptures but to engage in the highly theoretical gymnastics of their theoretical - and so often secondary - doctrinal arguments. 

Instead of teaching the people to follow Christ simply, they wanted them to understand and get passionate about detailed doctrinal squabbles of their day, many of which, in turn, were generated by the highly scholastic education they themselves had experienced (or endured). Remember the more literate you are the more analytical your brain becomes and the less you are able to see the big picture, the less you are able to see life holistically.

This is my guess, so far.

The problem is not literacy, but some of the unhelpful side-effects of high literacy. 

The other reformation

There was of course another reformation. Running parallel to the one we have all heard of. A group of evangelical Christians saw much further than Luther and Zwingli. They saw that the local church community should be a loving Acts-like fellowship. Doctrine was the biggest concern of the cerebral big-shot reformers. True life was the passion of the anabaptist reformers. (If only they had worked together!).

But here's why I mention them. By and large the anabaptist reformers were ordinary literate folks, whereas the big-name reformers were all highly literate scholar types. 

Perhaps that is why the magisterial reformers (the name given to the big shot reformers who used the power of the local magistrates to push through reform) were so analytically and doctrinally focussed. And perhaps with their literacy but not high literacy, that is why the anabaptists saw the Gospel more holistically.

Let's see!

If you want to read a brief account of the noble but forgotten Anabaptists, you can do so here: LOST REFORMERS

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

The Wierdest People in the World - Book Review Part 1



 Westerners are W.E.I.R.D.!

Having been brought up in the East (Pakistan) and spent many years in close friendship with South Asians, I have always felt an outsider in the West, though technically I am a Yank.

In other words I have always felt a bit weird.

But now - and it is official! - it's not me who is weird, it's the West that is Weird, and at last I have found the explanation of why westerners, rather than me, are the weird ones!

The phenomenal and global "triumph of the West", you see, obscures a fact: the way western folk act and think is truly unusual compared to all the other cultures of the world across time and place.

That is the verdict of Joseph Henrich. 

WEIRD stands for:

W estern

E ducated

I ndustrial

R ich

D emocratic

Most cultures who have ever existed and most cultures that exist today are not Weird and do not think or behave like we do. (There you go, I have included myself in the wild weird west).

Understanding this may prove very helpful to believers, for perhaps large doses of Western Evangelicalism have been unwittingly shaped by this wierdness.

I plan to review the contents of this (too long, 680 pages, why can't people write books 100 pages long?) book over the coming weeks, as I read it myself. My single purpose is to explore how evangelicalism has been / may have been unduly shaped by our culture. 

So that we can repent.

Sometimes it really helps to be an outsider

The author found himself appointed teacher of a subject he'd never studied himself! Unusual appointment! This immediately meant that he did not think the way everyone around him did. Rather than this being a drawback it proved to be a great advantage because he was able to see things with fresh eyes.

This is what the prophets of old were enabled by God to do spiritually. They stood outside the established religion of their day, looked in and by divine revelation were able to see what no-one else could see.

Not saying Henrich is a prophet, but his unusual book owes much to his status as an outsider. 

As he got to work, he began to ask the no-one-else-has-asked question. "Of all the studies of people made by ye scholars how many of them have been on WEIRD people and how many of them have been on people from the rest of the - majority - world?"

In other words, Have the conclusions psychologists have made about human beings in general  been based on studies made of just one tiny group of the globe's population? 

Answer - yikes! - 96% of all studies (and hence conclusions) were based on questionaires from western (hence WEIRD) people!

"almost everything we - scientists - knew about human psychology derived from populations that seemed to be rather unusual" (page xiii)

First Conclusions

That's enough of a bombshell for one blog. We'll discover next time how exactly westerners are weird.

Westerners need to humble themselves, that's the first conclusion we should draw out. In our unbelievable arrogance we think that our generalised conclusions about mankind are true - when we have failed to take into account most of the world's noble peoples. (We have, for an example, the unbelievable audacity to think that democracy is the only way to run a country and imagine we are being noble by exporting it / imposing it - by force if necessary - to/on other countries. If a vast 'democratic' nation can only come up with a Biden or Trump as presidential candidates, there is surely something massively wrong with our prized 'democracy.' Democracy is just one way to run a country, certainly not the only or even the best.)

Second, we should adopt a very healthy scepticism to all the findings of psychology, and all the treatments of the same. Their findings have been based on a very small portion of the world's wonderfully varied population and hence their treatments are likely to be weird and unreliable.

Third, it would be good to know, as a Bible believing evangelical, how deeply our Christianity, our belief and practice,  - true no doubt - has been shaped by our weirdness as much as it has been shaped by Scripture.

True growth always involves a Nehemiahic clearing away of the rubble before we can build for the glory of God.

Fourth, I've always been intrigued as to why the greatest church growth across the world today is among charismatic-pentecostal churches. Perhaps the educated weirdness of the West automatically filters out the supernatural elements of true New Testament Christianity. 

But perhaps where peoples and nations are blessed with ordinariness rather than weirdness, no such filter hinders the work of the Holy Spirit?

Tuesday, 17 August 2021

The Lost Art of Discipleship


The Lost Art of Discipleship

Western Evangelicalism, the community I love and belong to, is far from Scriptural Christianity. That will always be the case because there is so much space to grow in every age.

But presently, our obsession with numbers, infatuation with the academy and rank individualism all hinder the great commission of our Lord to make disciples. It is my personal conviction that a reformation in discipleship is among the western church’s greatest needs and this article sets out to explain the what and the why.  

What is ‘Discipleship’?

If we had asked the Eleven disciples what Jesus had meant by the command “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16-20) they would surely have replied something like this, “Jesus wants us to do for the world what He has just done for us over the last three years.” And what had Jesus done for the Twelve? He had spent many long hours with them in person teaching them by both lip and life his ways. He did not invite them to a Sabbath sermon once a week but lived with them day by day and taught them as they went along. Verbal teaching and living example were entwined in one transformational environment. For example, he taught them to love their enemies by word (Matthew 5:43-48) but also demonstrated it by life; few hated him more than the Pharisees, but he was pleased to eat in the home of one (Luke 7:36) and to speak to another by night (John 3).

We might say that the teaching style of Jesus was less ‘classroom’ and more ‘apprenticeship’ where the student learns by both hearing and observing. This is what discipleship is – teaching another the ways of Christ by both lip and life. When Jesus expounded his discipleship commandment he said “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20). Not merely teaching them, but teaching them to obey. And if we were to ask how the ‘teaching to obey’ took place in his ministry, surely we’d have to say that it was by life as much as lip.

In this teaching methodology, we should note in passing, Jesus does not over-ride the normal means of influence God has hard wired into the social universe he created in the first place. How does one person influence someone else? By spending a lot of time in the communicating presence of the other. It really is as simple as that, and it works both ways. “Bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33) and positively “whatever you have learned or received from me, or seen in me – put it into practice.” (Philippians 4:9). The Holy Spirit takes this God-created method of influence and uses it to form Christ in disciples.

Paul’s ministry follows this discipleship pattern. When he arrives in a new town he spends a lot of time with the people teaching them verbally and reinforcing that teaching with an open life among them. So much so that he was able to write to the Thessalonians “You know we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6) and “we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” (1 Thessalonians 2:8). To the Corinthians he wrote both “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 11:1) and “(Timothy) will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.” (1 Corinthians 4:7)

In sum, the discipleship command of Christ is to take a small number of believers on a prayerful journey, spend many long hours with them in our homes, on walks, over meals, teaching them and doing life with them, such that what we teach is observationally reinforced by what we do. Through this life-lip combination we are to pray that they will grow in the likeness, grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.

We should note one big difference between the discipleship practice of Jesus and ours. Jesus set a perfect example and could therefore disciple the Twelve on his own. But not so us, because no single believer reflects the character of Jesus fully, but a new follower will see something of the beauty of Jesus in a group of existing believers. Surely this is one of the reasons Paul takes a Gospel team around with him. He can point to their lives as well as his own. So Timothy, “I have no-one else like him, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare.” (Philippians 2:20)

The ‘art’ of Discipleship

When we analyse the discipleship method of Jesus we observe the following traits. First, Jesus only admonishes the Twelve on big mistakes and errors. He overlooks, we must assume from the Gospel records, many smaller foibles and weaknesses, but he does not overlook the likes of pride (Mark 9:33-37), prayerlessness (Mark 14:37-38) and faith-lessness (Matthew 8:26). Second, we note that Jesus takes what we might call unshaped men. He does not invite the religiously preformed Pharisees and Sadducees into his band. Why not? Because he would have had to spend thirty years deprogramming them first. Jesus takes unformed men and then intensely disciples them in the first few years of their journey  such that the foundations are set for the rest of their lives. We all know the crucial importance of first years.  I have a friend who keeps raptors. He has discovered over the years that how a bird is trained in its first months shapes its character for life. As with birds, and as with children, so with disciples: first years are crucial. Many problems pastors face among the sheep arise out of poor discipleship or a lack of discipleship in the first few disproportionally influential years of their walk with Christ.  

Thirdly, Jesus spent eons of time with his disciples. Suppose he spent just two hours a day with them, that works out as thousands of hours over the span of a three years. No wonder, “when they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13) When we ponder why the Gospel seems to be having so little influence in a particular convert’s life, lament how little Jesus Christ is being formed in them, and perhaps beat ourselves up for not praying enough for them or imparting enough doctrine to them, could it simply be that this younger believer has spent too little time in the presence of godly older believers?  

Fourthly, Jesus’ teaching style is both formal and informal. Sometimes he has a body of teaching he wants to impart to his disciples and so he sits them down on a mountainside and instructs them. At other times the teaching arises out of an immediate event. What better time to teach folks about humility when they are arguing about who is the greatest? What better time to challenge faith when fear overtakes them?  In these informal settings truth is viscerally imparted, imprinted and remembered.

Hindrances to Discipleship

If discipleship is our task, the evangelical world I live in and love presents at least three major hindrances to the calling of every Christian to be a disciple-maker.

First, our obsession with numbers. Jesus invested in twelve men. Humanly speaking, is it really possible for us to meaningfully disciple more than a small handful of people at a time? And yet much in the evangelical world, aping as we often do the secular world, is about numbers. For example, pastors so easily aspire to be like the celebrity pastor-heroes whose churches are large and whose YouTube channels get the most hits. Few dream of shepherding a small flock into deep discipleship.

It is surely a Scriptural rebuke to our hang-up with numbers that apart from the size of the Jerusalem church, a size intended to reveal the supernatural origins of the Church (3000 and then 5000, Acts 2:41 and 4:4), we know nothing about the sizes of the churches in the New Testament: no church is condemned for being small and no church is praised for being large. Our wide-ranging infatuation with big numbers is a hindrance to the art of discipling a few well.

A second hindrance to discipleship is our obsession with the academy, by which I mean the vast influence of the teaching style and ethos of the academy upon the church. In the academy, teaching can be divorced from teacher. What matters is what is being taught, not the life or example of the teacher. Out there in the colleges of the world it does not matter if the teacher is a distant figure, or if their daily life does not line up with their teaching. In the academy mind and doctrine is prized over life and character. What you know is what counts, not your character or your daily life.

Our obsession with the academy is easily discerned with two questions to pastors: What would they most like to be known as, a disciple-maker or a scholar? And who do they admire most, clever pastors or disciple-makers? Deep in our ecclesiastical history we have been more influenced by the big-name Reformers who often came from the ranks of the academy than by the lost Anabaptist reformers who came from the ranks of the ordinary.

For sure, if we think that our task is merely to impart true doctrine at a distance we will never disciple the world.

Lockdown has perhaps exposed to us all the desperate need of the human element in disciple-making, because with only the doctrinal element left in place through online preaching, we have witnessed, have we not, the spiritual decline of some, if not many?

A third hindrance to disciple-making is the radical individualism of western culture which has deeply infected the church. This individualism refuses to take into account the impact of our actions on those around us, including young lambs in the flock. We simply do as we please. A seemingly mature Christian will, as a simple example, miss vital meetings for the poorest of reasons unable or unwilling to acknowledge the impact of their action on a young disciple who is looking up to them as an example.

Needed: A New Reformation

If we are to see this generation transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit into the likeness of Christ, we must forsake the ethos and methods of the academy, our obsession with numbers and the self-centred individualism of our age. We must return to the loving, simple, sacrificial, pure and human ways of our Master. The consequences will be enormous, not only upon those we are commanded to disciple, but upon ourselves too. Why? Because discipleship has a sanctifying effect upon the disciple-maker, whose whole life must be an open book. This fact becomes a spur to personal godliness and Christ-like behaviour.  

In this great discipleship task the Lord Jesus has been given all authority and promises to be with us always to the very end of the age.

 Photo by Christopher Sardegna on Unsplash