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Monday, 30 January 2012

"Without Richard Dawkins I would never have given God a second thought"

Who are the "New Atheists"?
A small band of atheists who call their beliefs, "The New Atheism", has arisen in the last ten years. They are led by four celebrity atheists, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens (now deceased) and Daniel Dennett (who together do not seem to mind being called The Four Horsemen). They have attracted a band of disciples who follow the celebrities mainly, it would seem, online (actual meetings of one of their societies, the "Brights" have not attracted great numbers of people).

When did they arise? 
Well, frustrated by the remarkable continuing power of belief in God in the world, they seized the opportunity afforded by the 9/11 attacks in 2001. Propaganda coup on a plate.  "Here is what belief in God leads to" they argued. "Religion leads to violence".   At the centre of the movement are men like Richard Dawkins and his book "The God Delusion."

What do they believe?
They say that faith is irrational, has a tendency towards violence and is undermined by science. But they believe these things in such a fundamentalistic way (i.e. they are right and everyone else is mad, bad or both) that they are looked down on by most scholarly atheists. The New Atheists reserve their greatest wrath for those in the general atheist movement that don't agree with them all the way - this is a classic characteristic of fundamentalism (there are only two categories of humanity: with us or against us). For this reason, many believe that New Atheism is a new fundamentalist religion.  

What are we to make of "New Atheism"?

A number of thoughts come to mind: 

(a) We ought to be informed, but not worried. There are no new arguments in this latest expression of atheism that haven't been said before; nothing to disturb a believer:

(i) The idea that we are forced to make a choice between faith and reason (either/or) is as flawed as it has always been. Faith and reason have always gone together, both in Christianity and in science (anyone who has spent an hour as a professional scientist will know that faith is a key component of science; scientists not only have to trust one another and a great body of literature which they will never be able to 'prove' themselves (life is too short), deep down they often have to trust axioms particularly in mathematics, which are, well axiomatic. Add to all of this the underlying trust in human reasoning: why trust a faculty thrown up by chance natural selection?).

(ii) Does science have all the answers? Science is profoundly limited in the answers it can provide. Since by definition it deals only with what can be seen and tested, it is unable to deal with all things emotional, moral and metaphysical, from the existence of God to how you should live to the meaning of life (in other words, most of the really important questions of life). This is not a criticism of science, for we are all grateful for the insights it gives and the benefits its sister, technology, provides. It is just a statement of fact: science deals with one small part of created reality. For example, science describes a piece of music as a signal which contains a certain frequency spectrum. All very helpful when reproducing or recording sound, but one tiny slice of reality and  irrelevant to the swelling emotions we feel when we hear Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings (or Adele's Someone Like You, if you prefer).

(iii) Does religion cause war? The horrendous major wars of the 20th century were not caused by religion. The truth of the matter is that there is something deeper in mankind (Christians call it 'sin') that is the root cause of war - not one's belief system.  And in a recent book The Myth of Religious Violence, William Cavanaugh, says "I challenge as incoherent the argument that there is something called religion... which is necessarily more inclined toward violence than are ideologies and institutions that are identified as secular." (p.5).

(iv) Does science undermine faith in God? Not in the least; quite to the contrary it daily reveals the majesty and glory of its Creator.

If you want to know more about this latest fundamentalist movement try Why God Won't Go Away written by Alistair McGrath, probably the world expert on this new movement. 

(b) We must never respond in kind. One of the characteristics of New Atheism is its hatred and vitriol against anyone who disagrees with them. "Nobody does nasty as well as the New Atheist websites" writes Alistair McGrath. We must ensure that our "conversation is always full of grace and seasoned with salt" (Colossians 4:6):  how we say matters at least as much as what we say.  

(c) We must thank God for his over-ruling power. This movement has made some people who were apathetic, interested. That is a good thing in an apathetic age. Satan always oversteps himself. In one case at least, Dawkins' anger against God was the start of one man's journey to Christ. Alistair McGrath recalls the incident in the book mentioned above: 

"… I’d just finished giving a lecture in London early in 2010. A young man came up afterwards and asked me to sign a copy of my textbook Christian Theology: an introduction. I asked him what had led him to study theology. He told me that he’d read Richard Dawkins God Delusion a year or so earlier and it seemed so unfair and one-sided that he felt he needed to hear the other side. So he started going to church. After a while he found he could not sustain his faith in the parody when confronted with the real thing. He was converted to Christianity – joyfully and decisively. “"Without Dawkins I would never have given God a second thought” (p. 99)

Let us pray that there will be many more who come to Christ through their engagement with the New Atheism.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

How America Was Won for the Gospel - lessons for today

37% - An Amazing Growth Statistic
Don't want to spoil the image, but according to historians Fink and Stark in their book "The Churching of America", the early colonial days weren't quite as pristine and godly as some like to imagine. Not all that many were puritans either in theology or practise, and the blunt statistic is that by around 1780 only around 17% of Americans went to church.

But then by 1980, 200 years later the percentage was 62%. How is the amazing statistic to be explained? A rise in 37% in 200 years.

We know that statistics can be deceiving, and that not everyone who 'goes to church' is a believer. But after adjustments have been made to both statistics, this is still a remarkable increase - how can it be explained?

Very simply, by church planting. One after another new church was planted. That's how America was churched.

But out of this fascinating story emerge some pretty sobering truths.....

(1) New churches were planted when old ones 'went to seed'
When old churches, and especially when old denominations went worldly, this gave opportunity for new churches with new structures to emerge. Perhaps the most tragic case of this is the puritan Congregational churches which were big at the start. These churches became formal and academic and eventually died, but this kind of "secularisation (worldliness) is a self-limiting process that leads not to irreligion but to revival." (p.43)

(2) The predominant growth took place among 'lay preachers and churches'
Clergy/lay is a distinction nowhere found in Scripture and implies unacceptable hierarchy. That being said, those churches where ordinary members worked at building the kingdom, whether in preaching, leading or serving, were the ones that grew and those who employed and focused on professional trained pastors dwindled.

(3) A great hindrance to church growth was the professional education of ministers
This of course sounds strange to western ears, but it is true. Not only were the growing new Methodist churches led by ordinary men without any professional theological training, the dwindling Congregationalists were led by increasingly trained professionals who, the more they were educated, the less effective they became. Increasing education reduced their effectiveness for many reasons:
  • they came from ever higher stratas of society so became less and less able to connect to the ordinary 'man in the pew'
  • they sought to be respected like other professionals, and became lazy in their pastoral duties
  • due to the high standard required of ministers, there was a shortage of them
  • as their denominations established seminaries - Harvard and Yale no less - the teachers became corrupted by liberalism, novelty and human logic - the curses of the academy:
“It may be that secularisation (worldliness) ensues whenever religion is placed within a formal academic setting, for scholars seem unable to resist attempting to clear up all logical ambiguities. Rather than celebrate mysteries, religious scholars often seek to create a belief system that is internally consistent. Finding that things do not exactly fit, they begin to revise and redefine. Whether or not this corrosive effect of scholarship is inevitable, this is what went on at Harvard and Yale, starting well before the Revolution.” (45)

“One of the most striking differences between the clergy of the upstart sects (e.g. Methodists and Baptists - sects in the eyes of the established Congregationalists!) and those of the colonial mainline was in their education. It was no secret that the great majority of Baptist and Methodist ministers had little education.” (76)
  • educated ministers no longer preached fiery sermons, but toned down their preaching to suit the high tastes of their now-elite congregations:
“Exhortations to repent and to be saved gave way to a “well-styled lecture, in which the truths of religion and the moral duties of man were expounded in as reasonable a manner as possible. Sermons thus became a species of polite literature…reviews of published sermons frequently were critiques of syntax and style rather than content.” (46)

Two central lessons
Two central lessons of this period of church history are (a) the Kingdom of Christ grows by church planting. (b) The Kingdom of Christ grows through the efforts of lay men and women, not professionals. We could read this lesson from the book of Acts. God is pleased to use the despised and ordinary things and people of this world. 

A sobering lesson of church history is that the moment we educate pastors in the way the world educates its professionals, we end up killing off spiritual life and killing the church.

The Bible's way of training is not academic, but spiritual and practical - the apprenticeship scheme - where the next generation of workers are trained by watching and observing the last generation. This is how Moses trained Joshua, Elijah trained Elisha, Jesus trained the Twelve and Paul trained Timothy. The early church grew through the powerful ministries of ordinary men and women including the apostles who were 'unschooled' (Acts 4:13).

God wants his people to use their minds; it's not a matter of using or not using our minds. It's a matter of how we use our minds. Loving God with our minds requires submitting them to God's Word.  

All data from the Statistical History of the First Century of Methodism, Charles Chaucer Goss

Monday, 9 January 2012

Five Reasons to Plant New Churches

The Basic Scriptural Reason

The basic reason for planting new churches is that this is the way the church grew in the book of Acts. One missionary journey after another resulted in new churches. The kingdom of Christ grew by the multiplication of churches......

Someone might argue "that was then, today we have lots of churches (buildings) - in fact more than can be filled by existing Christians. Shouldn't you spend the time filling the existing churches rather than planting new ones?"

Four other reasons

(1) Existing churches often lose touch with the world. It's one thing to say "fill the existing churches", it's another thing to do it. Many churches become inflexibly traditional and cease to be relevant to the culture around them. Their religious buildings put people off and their inflexible forms of worship are so distant from the culture that the Gospel is unable to cross the barrier. Why should a hoodie be expected to worship with a pipe organ (what's one of those?)? This doesn't have to be, but it often is. A new church has no traditional baggage and can adapt quickly to the culture.  

(2) Existing churches can't change because of structural reasons. Existing churches may observe the great barrier between them and the world, but because of powerful internal institutional forces within may be incapable of adapting to the needs of the world. These forces may be due to internal politics such as the influence of long-standing families or other pressure groups within the church. So folk within an existing church may want to reach the lost, but find it impossible.  A new church does not possess this baggage. 

(3) Existing churches often grow indifferent towards the lost. Sad to say, but churches easily become  inward looking for one reason or another, and cease to care for the world.  Eventually some of them even justify their cold-heartedness with beliefs such as "it's the day of small things", "the world is so hard to the Gospel today", "the great commission was only for the apostles", "it's because we are being faithful that no-one is being converted" (they are right about this; faithful to man-made traditions), all the while neglecting the Master's words, "go..make disciples..." and "the fields are white unto harvest." 

(4) Existing churches can easily become ineffective feeding centres rather than serving centres. In mathematics, the following is true.............

100 = 4x 25 = 2x50 = 10x10

.......but not necessarily in the kingdom of Christ. A church of 100 members may be far less effective than four churches of 25, two churches of 50 or ten churches of 10 members. Why? Because...
  1. the need to serve in a large church drops off as the numbers increase, "someone else will do it"
  2. ownership of ministry rises as top-down organisational commands give way to "this is the ministry God has called me to and I want to do it."
  3. relational organisation rather than organisational organisation. In a small church the family meet over coffee to decide who might look after children; in a large church a phone call takes place from an unknown stranger to another unknown 'church member' 
  4. the friendliness to new people diminishes as a church grows and lost-in-the-crowd syndrome emerges; "Is this your first week?", "No, I've been here for seven years!" "Same here".
  5. sacrificial giving is required - or we'll be closing doors
  6. evangelism becomes a survival strategy rather than an optional activity
In The Churching of America, Fink and Stark point out that America was won for the Gospel by the rapid planting of many churches over it's brief history, resulting in a church attendance growth from 17% in 1800 to  62% in 1980.

The plain fact of the matter is this: the Kingdom of Christ grows by church planting.