Jesus and Outrage Culture: Poking the Beehive (part 2)

In each Outrage Culture event, there is a beginning: a moment when something is said, or done, whether intentionally or not. Someone waves a stick at a beehive, and the bees swarm.

The story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11) is a famous biblical example of outrage.

Jesus went to the temple courts, and a crowd gathered around him to hear his teaching. This outer court where Jesus stood was a public place for the Scribes to gather their students and teach the Law. People looked on in interest.

In this case, the beginning of the Outrage event was when a woman caught in adultery was dragged in front of Jesus and the hostile crowd. They were ready to expose Jesus and hurl insults at him. Would he forgive this harlot as he had been known to do and break the law? Or would he keep the law and condemn the woman for her sins (and thus lose his reputation as the defender of the people on the margins of society)? The religious bees were swarming.

If you make an incendiary statement you will potentially provoke a swarm: the risk is, the swarm might just fly back on to you. I’m not just talking about intentionally aggressive talk. Sometimes, the 21st century liberal past-time of pointing out the oppression of the subaltern will do it.

For example, in 2015, SBS soccer journalist Scott McIntyre tweeted that Australia’s ANZAC war memorial day was:

  • “a cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation” and
  • “Wonder if the poorly read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.” And
  • “Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima.”

Outrage Culture rarely leads to healthy debate. In this case, following McIntyre’s tweets, the then Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull publicly spoke out against him. And he was sacked by SBS for the ‘crime’ of a sort of national blasphemy.

Christians are not afraid to wave our sticks at hives. And we often get into trouble. This has been going on since New Testament times. Remember Paul’s words, ‘Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels’ (2 Timothy 2:23). There are many contemporary examples I could site to demonstrate the ignoring of this instruction.

Just last Monday, on the ABC show Q&A, Lyle Shelton, the CEO of the Australian Christian Lobby, was questioned about the ACL’s recent guest, Eric Metaxes, who has made comments on a number of occasions that the proud Lutheran church in Germany in the 1930s sleepily let the ideology of National Socialism infect their church. In the same way, says Metaxas, the proud mainline church in contemporary America is also asleep, not teaching the Bible, and is letting new secular ideologies such as “issues of sexuality” and Obamacare take over. [You can hear the actual quotes of Shelton and Metaxis here]

I’ve always wondered why people insist on making Hitler Germany comparisons in public; it doesn’t matter what you say, you’re stuffed – you will be stung. I know we should be able to grasp the nuance of an argument, but we don’t. It’s not a mistake to make these kinds of comparisons, however, if you want to provoke a response (I suspect that is the case for Metaxas). Whether you agree with him or not, his excuse is that he recently published a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and so WWII is often the historical context of discussion points in his interviews and speeches.

ACL’s Lyle Shelton did his best to defend Metaxes, but fellow Christian panelist Julie McCrossin described the comments as introducing an “an intensity and a savagery that is not normally part of our pluralistic society” and “brutality.” Very strong words. Perhaps she’s right?

After doing my homework on Metaxas, I came to see that he has been portrayed on Q&A and elsewhere unfairly. Sure, he is an evangelical Christian and a proud Republican, and we might not agree with his views on ethics and public policy, but he is a million miles from being a rightwing crazy. In 2012 he was the keynote speaker at the Washington D.C. prayer breakfast attended by Obama. The Eric Metaxas radio show, broadcast daily across America from the Empire State Building, attracts high profile media guests such as Dick Cavett and Peter Hitchins, and Christian scholars such as Rodney Stark and Craig Keener.  People across the political spectrum appear on his show. There are still some people who believe in freedom of speech in America.

Vice President Joe Bidon photographing Eric Metaxas and President Barack Obama at the Washington D.C Prayer Breakfast 2012

I wonder if the people protesting out the front of Metaxas’ Melbourne appearance on 27 April 2016 at Scott’s Church were interested in fully understanding his perspective or broad message? I doubt it. Incidentally, there were other right wingers out the front who made the peaceful protest aggressive. I’m sure they weren’t across the details either. The bees have little regard for a rational discussion. As I will discuss in a future post, Outrage Culture is a child of German Romanticism: what we feel matters more than what is true.

You might not be a politically conservative provocateur like Lyle Shelton or Eric Metaxas, but have you ever waved your stick at the beehive? Perhaps you’re a politically liberal agitator, responding to the many and varied gestures and comments that fly across your finely tuned micro-aggression radar? Perhaps you’re a facebook preacher who likes to point out the sins of society to all your ‘friends’?

Just remember that your typed and broadcasted comments are being recorded and noticed. What will people see? What are you expecting will happen? Is this how we strive for the Kingdom of God?

Next post, we will examine how Jesus chose his moments carefully with outrage. We will see how, with the unnamed woman caught in adultery, he kept the bees in the hive.


Should Christians believe in Freedom of Speech?

i am charlieSince the recent terror attack in Paris I’ve had a few people ask me about what I think about Charlie Hebdo and especially about freedom of speech. It intrigues me that only about a year ago, the Urban Left in Australia were (in the most part) rallying against the Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the Attorney General George Brandis’ Freedom of Speech (repeal of s.18C) Bill 2014. The consequence of Abbott and Brandis’ amendment would be that people would have more freedom to say what they think, and not be at risk of litigation from others who might be offended. Advocates for this change were even willing to say that people should have the right to be bigots if they want.

And now, less than a year after Abbott took the Bill off the table, many of the same people who opposed it have been holding up signs saying ‘I am Charlie’ (code for)’ I am for freedom of speech.’

In response to this contradiction of values, former Liberal Party Minister Amanda Vanstone wrote an insightful piece in The Age on January 19, arguing:

For those who don’t think much beyond a level that might appear to be, shall we say, deeply shallow, the inconsistency may not have risen to surface consciousness.

The outpouring of apparent support for free speech around the world has warmed the hearts of many. Is it really support? Or is it, and I think this is more likely, just another example of today’s de rigueur team sport of conspicuous compassion. Put more bluntly, it may be just a very elegant way of saying, “Look at me, I am a thinking, caring person”.

It is one of those “costs so little, feels so good” sort of things people can say or do. Charlie Hebdo has poked fun and caused offence indiscriminately for years. “Je suis Charlie” placards support their right to do just that.

And I think Vanstone nails it when she concluded that,

Sadly, all too many recognise a disaster of any type as an opportunity to improve their own position. Be there, look concerned, improve your image. It can be sickening to hear the modulated voices of concern.

I agree that there is fine line between the virtue of public displays of solidarity in justice causes, and mere self-promotion. I remember in my undergraduate years some of my fellow students who joined in with the trips up north to protest against the Jabiluka Uranium Mine: going in part for the cause, and in part for the girls. So whether one cries “We are the 99%” or “#iwillridewithyou” we need to check the genuineness, and consequence, of participating in these popular protests. Not that I expect that anyone can have completely pure motivations, but it is striking (as in the case of the Australian participation in the Charlie Hebdo protests) when our espoused values can be the exact opposite of our private values. We want acceptance in the tribe so much that we are willing to betray our own consciences. (I guess it is possible that some may be against unrestrained freedom of speech while wanting to show solidarity for their fellow community who died from terror violence. But that does not seem to be the essence of the ‘I am Charlie’ movement.)

I have found this contradiction of values to sometimes be the case with regards to secular people’s publicly espoused values about faith. I have had people tell me at the start of a conversation that they are an atheist, then some time later they acknowledge that really what they are is spiritual but not religious. Then another half an hour goes by and they reveal that they in fact pray and have had their children baptised. Without the evidence to back up my claim, my hunch is that more secular people than we expect will publicly identify as atheist/not-religious (because that’s a key qualifier for the secular urban majority like being socially liberal) but privately they dabble with the notion of a God who they can petition.

It is easy to be sloppy when it comes to the formation of our values. For the Christian, however, this should not be the case. We do not have a silent God or an obscure faith, rather we have a God who reveals mysteries (Daniel 2:29) and he is given us the Bible so that we can have everything that we need for salvation (2 Timothy 3:16).

Should Christians be in favour of Free Speech?
So let’s return to Charlie Hebdo and the issue of free speech? Should Christians be in favour of free speech? To tell you the truth, I think a Christian can be faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ and sit on either side of the debate. But as I begin to discuss this, you will see just how complex this all is: complex issues interlocking with other complex issues.

Part of me wants to be in favour of free speech, because it’s a nice ideal, and the preacher in me doesn’t like the idea of others telling me what I can and can’t say. And I do believe that I should be able to return the favour to others: let them express their views. Therefore, like all minority groups will say, if freedom of speech is to be tampered with, let it not be so that I can’t express my views! (This is a problem we are going to have keep in view).

There are, then, several problems to consider. And the biggest problem lies in the concept of ‘freedom.’ Neo-classical liberalism, which emerged in the late Nineteenth Century, promotes the idea that human freedom comes from being unrestrained, and, therefore, government interference in the lives of the people should be minimised. Thus, freedom of speech is one of those freedoms that the neo-classical liberal wants to vehemently protect.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that the foundation of neo-classical-liberalism is false. Christians believe that true freedom comes not from being unrestrained to make one’s own decisions but from life in the Triune God.

  1. Freedom is a gift from Jesus:
    • ‘So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.’ (John 8:36)
  2. Jesus’ gift to those who believe is the freedom that comes from receiving forgiveness of sins and being set free from the burden of the law:
    • ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1).
    • ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.’ (Romans 8:1-4)
  3. Once forgiven and saved, Christians then receive the freedom that comes from having the Holy Spirit dwell in them:
    • ‘Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.’ (2 Corinthians 3:7)
  4. Therefore, freedom comes from the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:
    • ‘To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
  5. The disciple who has received salvation, then can go on experiencing the freedom that comes living out the gospel applied – which is especially about being obedient to God and being other person centred:
    • ‘You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.’ (Galatians 5:13)
  6. Ultimately, freedom in Christ is the destiny of the whole universe:
    • ‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.’ (Romans 8:20-21)

The Christian may or may not believe in free speech, that’s up to them to decide. Either way true freedom does not come from having free speech or from having boundaries around speech. Rather, true freedom for the Christian, as indicated above, has the ‘content’ which is the Gospel. In this content, Jesus has given us examples for how to apply the gospel to our lives.

In Matthew 7:12 Jesus said, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.’ This means just as I would want others to give me the right to talk about my faith publicly, so should I want that right for other groups – even those who oppose me. Just as I would want those critical of my faith to still maintain respect and graciousness in our public and private words, so should I have respect and graciousness towards those with whom I disagree. This is what it means to have an open and charitable dialogue with the no religion tribes about Jesus. In fact, if Jesus is my example, those whom I can be most aggressively critical towards are my own people (Matthew 12:34); but even then, the disciple of Jesus must never incite persecution or violence.

If you keep looking at the content of the Gospel, high at the top of the list of priorities is the Christian’s responsibility to be an ambassador for the Kingdom of God, promoting love and justice in society. Christians must stand up and show Christlike (Good Samaritan) love to persecuted people (Luke 10:25-37; John 7:53-8:11).

Given this is the case, I can understand why a Christian might want to place restrictions on free speech. We want to protect those on the margins and have a society where minority groups are not verbally abused and where people don’t stir up hatred against each other.

However, if we don’t want the freedom of speech laws to hamper our ability to speak publicly about our faith, we are going to have to work hard at learning to speak about those challenging issues that relate to persecuted minority groups (such as other religions and sexual minorities) in a way that is faithful to the gospel, challenging and also gracious and loving. Unfortunately, enough damage has been done in our history so that we have a bad reputation in the broader society for being ungracious rather than having speech ‘seasoned with salt’ (Colossians 4:6).

Freedoms should consider the cultural history
Complete Freedom of Speech might work in some societies, but not in every context. Societies don’t exist in cultural and historical vacuums. Germany, for example, has their horrific historical context of the holocaust: so their legal concept of Volksverhetzung (laws against the incitement of hatred against segments of society) makes sense. Similarly, with Australia’s history of persecution and violence towards the Aborigines, it is understandable (in light of Andrew Bolt’s racial vilification court case) why so many Australians were anxious about the proposed changes to the Freedom of Speech laws.

Don’t think that, however, that I’m necessarily arguing against the Christian’s choice to be in favour of free speech. If that is what you choose then go ahead! But as you do, make sure you apply the Gospel faithfully to your life. Don’t wrongly believe this is how you will find true freedom. Keep your focus on standing up for those in society who are persecuted – over and above protecting your ‘right’ to free speech (an American right not an Australian right – while we have some rights in Australia as protected by law, we don’t actually have a Bill of Rights yet, and we certainly don’t have a law that ensures complete freedom of speech in that neo-classical-liberal sense).

Seek the Peace of the City
In the early chapters of Daniel we read of Daniel taking the advice of the prophet Jeremiah who told the Jews in exile to embed themselves in the Babylonian community and to build their lives there (Jeremiah 29). Most of all, they should seek the peace and prosperity of the city (Jeremiah 29:7) which is the very thing Daniel did when he stepped up to interpret the King’s dream and thereby save his fellow public servants from being killed (regardless of the fact that they were pagan magicians and sorcerers). While Daniel should be an inspiration for us, he is only a shadow of Jesus, who would come about 500 years later to be the true saviour of the world. Jesus not only brought peace to the city, He brings peace to the whole world, for He is the Prince of Peace. Defend freedom of speech or not, either way, seek the peace of the city – don’t be an inciter of hatred – rather protect the lives of minorities – for that is the Jesus way.

We don’t need to be sloppy with the formation of our values. We also don’t need to be confused about where our freedom lies. We have Jesus and his Gospel which brings true freedom. Whatever our views on freedom of speech are, let us pursue consistency (rather than inconsistency) of values by drawing them out of the Gospel. Let us imitate Daniel and seek the peace and prosperity of our city. And let us imitate Jesus: the personification of divine grace, as we interact in our complex world.

A Spirituality of ‘Boring’: Finding the Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life

In contrast to my last post, which encouraged a spirituality of adventure, now I want us to consider finding the extraordinary God in the ordinariness of everyday life.

It’s not hard to find preachers who will tell you that God wants to give you an amazing life. Of course, the discerning theologians among you will know that the truth of this all depends on your definition of ‘amazing.’ boringAuthor Michael Kelly argues in his book Boring: Finding an extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life (2013) that while it’s good to chase your dreams, and have a spirituality of adventure [see my last blog post], we also need to be careful that we don’t start finding our significance with God only in what is big, showy and exciting. Kelly’s point is that we should resist thinking that being ‘extraordinary’ (in the popular sense) is what matters to God:

What if the whole idea of “ordinary” is a myth? And what if a life of great importance isn’t found by escaping the details but embracing them? What if God actually doesn’t want you to escape from the ordinary, but to find significance and meaning inside of it?

Kelly wants us to learn to find the beauty of God and his gospel in the ordinary. Learning to do this is important for any Christian who wants to experience spiritual nourishment. Sure, you can walk the Camino trail in Spain, spend time with the Taize community in France, or go to the Hillsong conference in Sydney, but what if you could experience transcendence while cleaning your bedroom?

In Colossians 3:23 Paul tells us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” He wants the Church to be a people who do not have their hearts and minds focused on earthly things, but on things above.

This requires a kind of mindfulness. Merri Creek Anglican member Ed Cavanough recently gave a great talk about being heavenly mindful. He urged us (along with the Apostle Paul) to embrace our new lives as people who have been “raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1) by setting our hearts and minds on “things above” (Colossians 3:2).

I loved this idea of Christianising mindfulness, so we are not just being mindful in the earthly here-and-now, but so we become mindful of God in the here-and-now.

Mindfulness has become an important practice for helping some people overcome depression and anxiety. When they struggle to move on from the difficulties they have experienced in the past, depression can set in. Mindfulness can certainly help people move their focus away from the past and onto the present.

Mindfulness is not necessarily Biblical — it is, in fact, Buddhist in origin — yet Ed did not reject mindfulness as a concept but used it to build a bridge to Paul’s idea of a ‘Godward posture’ or, as the writer of the Hebrews says, to: “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

In the last couple of blog posts I have written about the problem of being religious but not spiritual (RBNS). Heavenly mindfulness is another great way of becoming spiritually nourished for people who only experience dry religion.

How, then, can we become heavenly mindful? What are some discipleship practices that can help us find God and the beauty of the gospel in the ordinary?

  • Say grace before your meals
  • Pray in the car on your way to work
  • Put a cross up in your kitchen to remind you of Jesus when you are doing the dishes
  • Read your Bible and pray each day
  • Make a point of asking your Christian friends about how their faith is going (not just about their work and family)
  • Pray for the little things as well as the big things (“God, please help me to find my keys”)
  • Practice the spiritual disciplines which help you focus on God, such as meditation, silence and fasting
  • Choose a posture of gratitude to God, which could include, each day, making yourself name ten things for which you are thankful
  • Put a Bible on your desk at work as a prompt to involve God in your decisions and interactions with colleagues (you may even want to read it!)
  • Set reminders on your phone to pray (there is a good app calledCommon Prayer for Androids and iPhones that can send reminders).

The list I have given is not meant to be prescriptive: hopefully you will think of your own approach. The point is to build systems that bring God into your everyday life.

A Spirituality of Adventure

If you consider the ways in which Western culture has radically shifted over the past century in regards to politics, economics, media, or technology, you would be sympathetic to anyone complaining of change fatigue. Institutions and individuals have found themselves tumbling in an awkward and painful period of transition.

The Western Church has lagged behind, with a confused identity: what does it mean to lose our traditional authority? As a result, we’ve grasped in the darkness with regards to worship, mission and even theology (think about all the anxiety around gender and sexuality).missional spirituality

In their 2011 book Missional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside Out (IVP), authors Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson describe this cultural context as, “liminality … a threshold, an in-between place of ambiguity and uncertainty, disorientation and transition.”

Liminality does not have to be a threat; on the contrary, we can perceive it as an exciting opportunity. Australian mission and church specialists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch point to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings as an inspiring example of someone responding to a higher calling and consciously stepping into disorientation. He left the comforts of The Shire, with a high chance of failure, and ventured into the mysterious and dangerous regions of Middle-earth.

But most Western people do not have the Frodo sense of adventure. Most people respond to liminality by trying to create for themselves continuity and success, safeguarding themselves against surprise or loss. Helland and Hjalmarson argue, however, that the secret of the Kingdom of God for Christians is to follow God into danger:

“Only radical commitment to God’s kingdom, as we walk in the ways of Jesus in the power of the Spirit will enable us to welcome newness and surprise as we join God on a mission to reach lost people who also experience liminality.”

In my last post I suggested that too many from our Western Christian context are Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS). We participate in Christian religious behaviour, hold to a Christian identity, but experience constant spiritual dryness and so look to other contexts for our spiritual nourishment. Perhaps we contribute to our spiritual dryness because, instead of trusting God in the adventure, we opt for middle-class security. Helland and Hjalmarson write,

“The author of Hebrews described Abraham as going-but-not-knowing. And so it is with us. It is difficult to grasp what a mission-shaped spirituality is like while we live in such a security-focused culture. When tomorrow looks the same as today, when our world is stable and predictable, we have little need for faith.”

Let’s face it, churches that try and avoid liminality by safeguarding themselves against loss and being change-resistant, bleed a slow death. Alternatively, churches that are open to God, daily responding to his grace, allowing him to make them more Christlike, by the power of the Holy Spirit, find themselves spiritually alive. Frost and Hirsch write in The Faith of Leap (IVP, 2011):

faith of leap“When we embrace liminality – that in-between, discomforting place … and engage it head-on, we discover the truest sense of adventure. In fact … without the adventure we lose the necessary pathos by which we can truly understand the human situation and the meaning of the church.”

I am inviting you to jump off the ten metre high diving board of faith. Join a church plant team, step up into a new and challenging ministry, form friendships with marginalised people, or mentor someone. Take a risk for the Kingdom of God. This will require courage. I know that I have experienced some of my most spiritually enriching times over the past eighteen months while leading the Merri Creek Anglican church plant. I also know, however, that now that it has been eight months since we launched, it would be very easy for us to return to being comfortable Christians.

If you are RBNS, then perhaps you’ve moved too quickly to set up for yourself safety measures against change and loss? Surrender your insecurities to God, and follow him into the unpredictable and messy liminal space. You never know what kind of adventure you might have.

Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS)

It is amazing how many Christians I know fall into the category of being ‘Religious But Not Spiritual’ (RBNS). Perhaps this is not surprising. 21st Century Western Christians often admit to a dryness of faith: we come to church, tick all the religious boxes, but don’t feel spiritually nourished. We don’t feel connected to God. We don’t feel spiritually alive – at least not when we are doing Christian activities. As a result, like parched sheep in the desert, we go looking for the water elsewhere – like

This reality of the rise of RBNS should ring some alarm bells for us, considering the simultaneous rise in popularity outside the Church of ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR).

In the last three years the notion of SBNR has caught the attention of sociologists and religious writers. Seven percent of all Americans describe themselves as SBNR (a higher percentage than Atheists, Episcopalians or Jews) and this seems to be a growing trend. Some SBNRs go as far as to argue that religion is an obstacle to spirituality. [Link] In Australia the percentages of SPNR are much higher. In the 2011 Australian census, 64% ticked one of the Christian denominations as their religion.  However, McCrindle Research has demonstrated that one-third of the 64% refine their answer as: “spirituality more than religion.” [Link]

The New York Times and the Huffington Post have both run a series of articles on SBNR, and in most cases, critiqued the concept as lacking substance, being un-profound, and self-centered.

Chicago based Congregational minister Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a popular essay in the Huffington Post called ‘Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me’ [Link] which sardonically cut to the bone of how cliched and un-insightful people are who describe themselves that way. The popularity of the essay caused her to expand it into a book: ‘When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough’ (Jericho 2013). Daniel “dreads” the predictable conversations she has with these people: they think they are so rebellious against the status quo, and unique in finding God in the sunset.

‘Spirituality,’ Daniels argues, fits too easily with individualism, hedonism and complacency. In an attempt to woo back the SBNRs, she makes the case for organised religion: “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

Daniel’s line of argument has many supporters. Jesuit writer Rev. James Martin S.J., for example, bemoans the fashionable status of ’spiritual’ and the unfashionable status of ‘religious.’ [Link] While he knows full well the reasons people might stay away from organised religion (bigotry and arcane rules) it is unfair to overlook the many positives – traditions of love, forgiveness, charity, and social change led by religious leaders such as Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce.

According to Martin, the great problem with SBNR is that it assumes that faith is just between you and God. There is no one else who can speak into your situation or to challenge you if you go off track: “Religion checks my tendency to think that I am the centre of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.” Religious community corrects our naive individualism: God communicates through the group as well as the individual. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic order, the Paulist Fathers, sums it up by saying that religion enables one to “correct and connect.”

Of course, I do want to affirm that spirituality is good. Rabbi Scott Perlo writes, “Spirituality is an individual’s direct, personal connection to God … It is spontaneous, malleable, and paradoxical. It is self-reliant, charismatic, and brilliant. Spirituality makes us feel alive.” [Link]

But Perlo also points out that spirituality is me-focused, it ignores bonds between people, and it does not know that God’s voice can be heard when spread over community and time. Spirituality lets go of the past, it might be smart but it is not wise: “Though fiery and inspiring, spirituality is, in a word, thin.” Religion, on the other hand, is thick. Religion has generations of learning and it is wise. Perhaps, religion is a little too thick, such that it “smothers spontaneity and individuality” and “struggles to see people as different from one another.”

Thus Rabbi Perlo and Rev. Martin argues that we need to be spiritual and religious. Martin writes: “Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centred complacency divorced from the wisdom of community.” Religion and spirituality are opposites on the same plane, and our goal should be to hold the two in tension.

Christian spirituality, therefore, cannot be fully understood unless one is connected to a Christian “religious” community which shares common beliefs and disciplines. Church community is hard, but it is in the friction of inter-personal tensions that growth occurs. Presbyterian writer Bruce Reyes-Chow points out that: “in community our spirituality and our religiosity converge.” [Link] You might even hate each other, but through the processing of that hate, spirituality deepens. The Apostle Paul calls the Church a Body, where there are many parts, and no part is more important than the other. Reyes-Chow argues that: “as a Christian, it is by living with both the beauty and the brokenness of humanity that we discover who we are and who we are becoming.”

Marlise Karlin, founder of the Simplicity of Stillness Method, challenges the case for ‘spiritual’ needing ‘religious’: “Being accountable to a community doesn’t necessarily mean they will teach you reverence for humanity. How often have groups of people stood together, with a false sense of morality on their side, purely by the numbers who gathered?” [Link]

Karlin believes ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ people have equal access to selflessness and grace as long as they have an experience of infinite love. She believes she can guide people into the state of peace using her Stillness Method, no matter what religious affiliation they may or may not have. Therefore, she challenges Rev. James Martin and the advocates for the cause of religion, to stop being divisive and to focus on the source of truth in our hearts where we will find peace and inclusivity.

The fundamental problem I have with Karlin is her basic premise that our spiritual goal should be inner peace and inter-personal peace. While those goals are noble, they are not everything. She sidesteps, for example, the need for a moral compass, or the pursuit of justice. Like most 21st Century Western advocates of SBNR, she fails to consider that true, life-transformative spirituality might involve suffering and self-sacrifice. And, the real irony is that she argues that religious teachers like James Martin should not promote division by encouraging inter-personal and inter-institutaional correction – which is itself a corrective suggestion.

Religion needs spirituality: the Christian faith needs to be spiritually alive. So if you are a person who rolls your eyes at the thought of those pathetic Postmodern Secular SBNRs, you might want to pull the plank out of your own eye for being RBNS. The risk is you might just give up the ‘Religion’ and settle with being SBNR yourself.

A challenge I want to put to my own church, Merri Creek Anglican, is to be a Church that “Nourishes Spiritual Seekers” – and that we begin with ourselves.


For more on this theme, listen to a recent sermon I gave on Colossians 2:16-19 which asks, “Does God care if I do Yoga?”.



The strangely new radical discipleship choice to attend church services most Sundays

For almost 2000 years, Christians have regularly met together at least once per week (usually Sundays) to read and teach the Bible, sing, pray, break the bread and drink wine to remember Jesus’ death (communion), and build community together. This was a natural continuation of the Jewish Temple meetings, affirmed by the writer of the Hebrews (Hebrews 10:23-25), with direction to be orderly by Paul (1 Corinthians 14), and modelled in the Acts of the Apostles.  At first: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (Acts 2:46).  And eventually the Churches created their own Temple style meetings using the rooms in the larger houses of wealthier congregation members (Acts 20).

Due to legal complications concerning property ownership rights, services held in dedicated church buildings was uncommon until after Emperor Constantine in the Fourth Century.  Of the few church owned buildings before Constantine, the earliest known is Dura Europos on the Euphrates River (eastern Roman Syria). Archeologists believe it was a house, bought by Christians, and renovated to suit church purposes between 240-250.  After Constantine authorised the Roman Church, he commissioned Basilicas, and church services begun to occur, for better or worse, in architecturally dedicated worship spaces.

There is not space here to trace the history of Christians and their attendance at church services to the 20th century, albeit to say that the model of temple and house gatherings continued in different forms and with different emphasis right up until contemporary times.

The point of this article is to consider the retrograde step of Western Christians, in the past 15 years, to attend services far less regularly.

In my context of Melbourne, Australia, this shrinking commitment amongst some Christians to attend weekly services seems to reflect a shift in priorities: families fitting in extra school activities, weekend holidays, going out for brunch with friends, and seeing church services as “a religious product that is provided for me” rather than an expression of Christian unity and covenant: thus, we have consumer Christianity.  Some church attenders express a sense of boredom: a criticism that may or may not be fair.  Perhaps the services are dull and predictable.  But if the said Christian is beginning from a place of apathy and spiritual dryness, then the expectation that services should inject them with all that they need to be excited about their faith is unrealistic and misguided.  If the Christian’s faith is childish (rather than child-like), they may  be unfairly comparing their local service, its preaching and music, to large Christian conference gatherings, or podcasts of the flagship churches.  (Perhaps the online marketing of churches to Christians via sermon podcasts and groovy websites has had a bigger negative impact on the local context than we expect?)

Of course some blame does go to church leaders, who haven’t worked to adapt their ministry to a culture changing rapidly around them.  Just like the local corner hardware store, now a quaint relic, that once was the go-to place for hammers and nails, but whose owner didn’t make any changes to his business plan when the hardware megastore opened up around the corner.  Or like the publishers who led their newspapers into redundancy by pressing on exclusively with print media as the advertising dollar shifted online.  Church leaders who have dug their heels in and preserved a bygone church culture for the sake of sentimental comfort rather than seriously respond to the challenge of relevancy, have limited their audience to a narrow pool of churchy people.  Ironically, even the Pentecostal movement in Australia is now dangerously holding on to past cultural forms, rather than adapting for new cultures (a quality they once held high): notice the commitment to mid -2000s Hillsong ministry forms.

Also, many church leaders suffer from one or more the following problems:

  • laziness
  • lack of skill
  • apathy
  • boredom
  • cynicism
  • burn-out
  • anger and bitterness at their own lack of results or circumstance
  • turned on more by denominational politics and bureaucracy than their faith in Jesus
  • overworked
  • under-resourced
  • lack of vision
  • low emotional intelligence
  • unresolved personal sin

And the big one:

  • lost their commitment to The Gospel

Why would you want to regularly attend a church service with a leader bogged down in the mire of despondency?

Some writers on the mission of the church from the 2000s have tried to argue that less of an emphasis on the Sunday church service could be a good thing because, in their opinion, there has been too much effort to imitate the mega-attractional church. The missional finger has pointed for a while now at churches who sink all their cash into performance based ‘digital worship’ (with lots of screens etc…), slick music, and a middle-class-upwardlymobile-alpha-male-pastor (with a sexy wife and a minibus of kids).  These churches have supposedly forgotten their mission to the world.  The other point that needed to be made, but is now twisted as a cliche excuse, is “we don’t go to church – we are the Church!”

Whether it is a shift in priorities, a lack of leadership, or a well intentioned missional trend, attending services with one’s local church once every three or four weeks has not caused an increase in mission activity or passionate spirituality (as could be predicted).  Rather, it has led to churches with loosely committed apathetic members – many who pick and choose to attend the community gatherings around convenience or what “worship product” (preacher, topic, music etc) is on offer that particular Sunday.  Let’s face the reality that, except in churches with high mission accountability amongst its members, Christians are not substituting Sunday services to get out and be ‘incarnational’ or ‘present’ or whatever missional weasel word we might want to dribble.  Let’s also face up to the sad truth that for many churches there is little sense of covenantal community or extended spiritual family.

I want to advocate for the mission focused church to also believe in Temple gatherings.  The church that I lead, Merri Creek Anglican, is a mission focused church, and we also believe in the long term power and importance of the weekly church service gathering. Watch this video and see why it’s so important…

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch. 5, The Essence of Gospel Renewal.” Reflection

Chapter 5 introduces an important corrective to evangelical thought – there are not two but three possible human responses to God.  Keller draws from the writings of Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards to build a case for what has become key to his preaching.  The responses are:

(1) A gospel motivated heart response to the grace of God

(2) Moralistic Religion

(3) An irreligious rejection of faith

Churches are filled with two types of people who behave Christianly (1) and (2), “Yet they do so out of radically different motives, in radically different spirits, and resulting in radically different kinds of inner personal character” (p.63).  Those who respond religiously think “I obey; therefore I am accepted” – thereby rejecting Christ and becoming their own saviour.  While they may look obedient, they are in fact “avoiding God as Lord and Savior by developing a moral righteousness and then presenting it to God in an effort to show that he “owes” you.” (p63)  Thus, there are two ways to reject God – religion and irreligion.  The way to truly accept God is by a heart response to his grace.  These people have the epiphany, “I am accepted by God through Christ; therefore I obey.”

Keller focuses on exposing religion because it is one of the Church’s biggest problems.  Even for people who have once had a genuine heart transformed gospel response to God, they can easily slide into religion because as Luther has argued, religion is the default of the human heart (p64).  This default position can cause the Christian heart to be divided between religion and the gospel. Churches must, therefore, always be on the case against religion through prayer, teaching and discipleship.

I have found amongst young adult Christians, strong evidence of the religious.  For most young adults that I meet and counsel, their motivation for obedience is driven more out of fear of the shame and loneliness that might come from rejection by their community.  The problem of course is that the community can quietly shift its own standards.  If enough of the young adults from church go out and party and get wasted, then that becomes socially acceptable amongst the church community, so drunkenness comes off the sin list.  In the last few decades, there has been a liberalising of the consensus amongst evangelical young adults about what sexual behaviour is acceptable before marriage (see Relevant Magazine and ThinkProgress.)  This has resulted in a culture of don’t ask don’t tell. These young adults are religious because they keep coming to church and performing the Christian activities, but they don’t have heart that has been transformed by the grace of God.  Their desire to be obedient is ultimately driven by selfish motives.  They keep coming to church for lots of complex reasons, one of the main being that their identity has become “Christian” because of family upbringing etc… and they find it hard to let go of that. What they need is to experience gospel renewal: they need their hearts reset by God’s grace.

The case for the gospel heart response to God can easily be found in Scripture. God saved the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led them into the desert, and then gave them the law.  Their obedience to God’s law is because of their deliverance not the cause of their deliverance.  But God warns them that they can be circumcised in the flesh and not in the heart (Lev 26:41; Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).  In Philippians 3:3 (and Romans 1-4), Paul lays out the three responses to God: uncircumcised pagans, circumcised in the flesh but not in the heart (proving their worthiness to God through law keeping), circumcised in the heart (obedience to God as a heart response to their salvation in God).  Why is religion a flawed response to God? Because “As it is written, ‘There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one… who seeks God’” (Rom 3:11).  Religious people, according to Paul in Romans, will really find salvation by approaching God through Christ – through grace alone and faith alone. (p64)  Of course, Paul is borrowing from Jesus who contrasts the religious and gospel heart response:

Religion: The Pharisee (Luke 7, John 3), The respectable crowd (Mark 5)

Gospel: The fallen woman (Luke 7) or the immoral Samaritan woman (John 3-4); The demon possessed man (Mark 5).

In case we still haven’t understood, Keller sets out a helpful table on p.65 comparing religion and the gospel.  He follows this with one of this book’s most important words of application for teachers and preachers:

…If you are communicating the gospel message, you must not only help listeners distinguish between obeying God and disobeying him; you must also make clear the distinction between obeying God as a means of self-salvation and obeying God out of gratitude for an accomplished salvation. You will have to distinguish between general, moralistic religion and gospel Christianity. You will always be placing three ways to live before your listeners. 

The most important way to gain a hearing from postmodern people, confront nominal Christians, wake up “sleepy” Christians, and even delight committed Christians – all at the same time – is to preach the gospel as a third way to approach God, distinct from both irreligion and religion. (p.65)

…Moralistic behaviour change bends a person into a different pattern through fear of consequences rather than melting a person into a new shape.  But this does not work.  If you try to bend a piece of metal without the softening effect of heat, it is likely to snap back to its former position…Many people, after years of being crushed under moralistic behaviourism, abandon their faith altogether, complaining that they are exhausted and “can’t keep it up.”  But the gospel of God’s grace doesn’t try to bend a heart into a new pattern; it melts it and re-forms it into a new shape.  The gospel can produce a new joy, love, and gratitude – new inclinations of the heart that eat away at deadly self-regard and self-concentration. (p.67)

People need the heat of the gospel to melt them into a new shape.  As Paul instructs in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, by focusing on God’s grace, your heart will change.  And, through ongoing discipleship and encouragement from the Christian community, good teaching, and the Holy Spirit, we will start to understand and overcome our idols.  When we apply the gospel to the idols of our heart, and the Holy Spirit works to change us, the idols will be rooted out and we will stop prioritising other things above Jesus, and stop pursuing self-salvation (p.71)

Tim Keller, ‘Center Church,’ “Ch. 3, The Gospel Affects Everything.” Reflection


We have seen that the gospel is not everything, meaning it must be distinguished as an announcement of news, distinct from its results and implications, and that the gospel is not a simple thing, meaning it cannot be packaged in a single standard form.  My third contention, that the gospel affects virtually everything, builds on these two statements. (p.46)

In this chapter Keller shows how the gospel is not supposed to be a conceptual end in itself, but rather, as Leslie Newbigin writes, it functions like “a set of lenses, not something we look at, but for us to look through.”    Keller continues, “…the gospel creates an entire way of life and affects literally everything about us.  It is a power that creates new life in us (Colossians 1:5-6; 1 Peter 1:23-25).

The Richness of the Gospel

Keller presents a gospel summary from scholar Simon Gathercole which is based on Paul and the Gospel writers.

1. The Son of God emptied himself and came into the world in Jesus Christ, becoming a servant.

2. He died on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice

3. He rose from the grave as the first-fruits of a whole renewed world.

This summary is then expanded on with a neat three part idea:

The incarnation and the “Upside-down” aspect of the Gospel:

    • Jesus was the King who became a servant
    • His kingdom had an upside-down economy (the first shall be last etc…)
    • This pattern imitates Christ’s salvation (Phil 2:1-11)
    • He “won” by losing everything
    • The gospel creates a new kind of servant community
    • This challenges worldly notions of class, racial, and economic superiority

The atonement and the “Inside-out” aspect of the Gospel

    •  The outward signs of covenant matter less than the inward transformation that occurs
    • God’s kingdom “is not a matter of eating or drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17)
    • Not obey God so that he will love and accept me…
    • But know that God loves me so that I want to obey.
    • “Religion is outside in, but the gospel is inside out”

The resurrection and the “Forward-back” aspect of the Gospel

    • “Jesus is resurrected but we are not.  He has inaugurated the kingdom of God, but it is not fully present.”
    • The coming of the Messiah stage 1:
      • “he saved us from the penalty of sin and gave us the presence of the Holy Spirit, the down payment of the age to come (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14)”
    • The coming of the Messiah stage 2:
      • “He will come to complete what he began at the first coming, saving us from the dominion and very presence of sin and evil.  He will bring a new creation, a material world cleansed of all brokenness.”
    • “Christians now live in light of the future reality”
    • Evangelism should be telling the gospel and preparing for the judgment
    • Justice is motivated by the view that God will ultimately end all suffering
    • This understanding should prevent Christians from “dominion theology” which is the triumphalist delusion that the Church should (and can) take over society.  It should also prevent Christians from hiding away in a religious cave.

Keller then applies all this to suggest the ministry and values threads that should be evident in a church that takes this seriously. The inside-out atonement views of the church should lead it to want to do evangelism and church planting (making it look evangelical charismatic); the upside-down incarnation views should lead it to put emphasis on community, small groups, financial giving, sharing of resources, living with the poor (making it look anabaptist); and the forward-back resurrection views should lead it to want to get involved in the city, the neighbourhood, workplace ministry, and cultural engagement (leading it to look like a mainline church).   The message of the Center Church hypothesis is that churches should aim to embrace all of these qualities.

Keller then finishes the chapter by showing how “the gospel is not the ABC but the A-Z of the Christian life.”  He reminds us of the common errors made with the gospel (discussed in an earlier chapter) that it is not legalistic nor is it antinomian (law avoiding).  The gospel involves simultaneously realising  your utter sinfulness and your utter acceptance before God because of Jesus.

The gospel addresses everything.  Keller gives a series of test examples:

  • Discouragement and depression, Love and relationships, Sexuality, Family, Self-control, Race and culture, Witness, Human authority, Guilt and self-image, Joy and humour, Attitudes toward class.

The question is, “how do I get our church to embrace this kind of thinking?”  Keller’s answer, “There must first be a life-changing recovery of the gospel – a renewal in the life of the church and in the hearts of individuals.  We call this gospel renewal.”

The challenge for churches

Whether it’s an established church or a church plant, it is difficult to embrace and live out the whole vision that Keller is suggesting.  It requires highly gifted leadership and a commitment to disciple first, and implement programs later.  The danger is that churches will try and be a “Center Church” by starting a justice or evangelism program, or run a workplace ministry conference etc…  Programming a correction has always been a popular but not very effective strategy for mainline churches.  What I want to do when I plant the church in Northcote, is have a very well planned and executed discipleship strategy for the church, with the goal of seeing people find joy in Jesus, love for the church, and ultimately gospel renewal.     I guess this discipleship strategy will involve some programming, but the idea is that this will go to the source of the problem which is the need for renewal in the hearts of the people.  To mix pastoral ministry metaphors: for the people who have “dry toast” faith (joyless), they need to have the concrete smashed by gospel renewal.

Diskypleship and International Shark Mentoring

“Diskypleship”  as you might have guessed, is where discipling occurs over Skype.  Perhaps you have a mentor who lives a distance away, so you meet up online.  It works quite well.  What matters is finding the right person.  It can even work with audio only.  

I have been coached in missional leadership where my coach was in the UK and it was great.  I have also done international shark mentoring.  This is where you search out people whose advice you really want, but you only ask for one targeted and quick  “shark” meeting of 30min to an hour.  I’ve found most people respond well to this request.    Here’s my tips for the meeting:

  1. Aim high with who you target. Don’t think they won’t want to talk to you – they usually do.
  2. Know exactly what questions you want to ask
  3. Make yourself available even if it’s really inconvenient (at a crazy late hour).
  4. Ask for a referral and introduction to someone else who might have something more to offer

Last year I had a series of meetings with ministers in the US, none of whom I’d met before.  I got their details from friends that had connections, sent them an email showing that I wasn’t a total random, and they responded with interest.  This is a form of planned networking, and very beneficial.  Even if you’re an introvert, give it a go!