Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Way to Cell Church?

What is a Cell Church? How does it work, and is it the answer to the perceived famine in personal relationships in gathered church congregations? And since I used the phrase ... what is a gathered church.

This is not a scholarly article, but a reflection on conversations I've had with cell leaders in my current church. I have more conversations to have and more reflecting to do so this may well be a bit premature. (So there's all my getouts in case you disagree with me!)

So in my view a gathered church is a congregation that meets on Sunday for a worship service. It is common for people to come to this gathering but live outside the community that the church meets in. Often people don't see the other people in the congregation from one Sunday to the next. One means of addressing this is to have home groups, where the Bible is studied in a smaller more intimate setting. Traditionally this kind of church grows by new attenders at the gathered service becoming Christians, who may come in through personal invitation, an Alpha course or similiar, through a special event, or for the bravest ones, through curiosity.

Cell church exists as a network of groups that meet in people's homes. The Cell program of meetings and social events is structured so that they become in themselves, a worship service, an evangelistic event and an opportunity for close relationships to develop. The network is held together as one church in the Sunday gatherings, however for many, their Cell is their main expression of church. The church grows as people come along to Cell events, and join the gathered church through the cell. Cell leaders are encouraged to have a deputy and to coach them so that when the cell grows beyond twelve people the deputy leads a new group formed by some of the members of the original cell. This is called multiplying (rather than splitting or dividing).

In our church, both systems seem to be happening. Well sort of. There are cell groups made up of people who live in the community who seem to be the way into Christianity and the church for many people in the community. The cells are linked with a service provided to the community. The other cells consist largely of members who live outside the community and although the meetings use the Cell structure, and are for some members their main expression of church, the cells are not the main route into church. These cells do sometimes work together as a mission team providing services in the community or beyond in a way that might attract newcomers to the gathered services. The church has growing both through newcomers to the gathered service and through newcomers to the local cells. Advocates of gathered church might look on and say, why are so many folk in the "home groups" not attending the Sunday services, and advocates of cell might look and say why are the non-local cells not multiplying. But people are growing in relationship with each other, in genuine pastoral pulling together for each other. And new people are becoming believers, and for many more, encountering the people in the church has been good news in their lives. Not all the stories have happy endings (but then they haven't necessarily ended yet!). And each of the cells and the gathered church has had to face challenges and changes to any structure or standard pattern of working that they've adopted.

So its kind of messy. Or is it messy, or just far more intricate than any human designed system, like the pattern of veins in a leaf. I think I like that God uses human structures but stirs, moulds and bends with his breath, to re-create something so much more intricate and complex, constantly reminding us that it is through Jesus that the ultimate relationship is found, that restoration of relationship is something he designed, and that through his Spirit that the church grows.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Another day in the office, another theological debate ... Why do some Christians believe strongly in keeping Sunday as a Sabbath day, and others not. Is one lot right and the other wrong? This is not a common debate in Scottish churches nowadays. Most have felt comfortable that Paul's rejection of legalistic observances, and the specific verses Rom 14:5-6, Col 2:16, mean that Sabbath is not a big deal. But this is not true for all churches, and particularly not for some with strong links to the NW Highlands. (Is this cultural link significant?) Whether I agree or not with the Sabbatarian point of view, I have benefited from reflecting on the subject. (I would probably benefit even more if I actually studied the subject too!) The answer is not in this posting ... just some ideas that helped me think more carefully about Sabbath.

An argument against Sabbath keeping is that we are "under grace rather than the law", and that if we feel the Sabbath is binding then we are bound by the whole law. (I'm ignoring the debate over whether Sabbath is Saturday, or the "Lord's Day", because its to simplistic a get-out that avoids the main issue.)

It's often said that each of the 10 commandments is re-affirmed by Jesus or Paul in the New Testament, with the exception of keeping the Sabbath. If so are the other 9 commandments are binding? Again if we say yes then does the "partial law requires whole law" principle arise again? If we say they are not binding, do we say it is fine for a Christian to murder, lie or worship idols? Depends what you mean by "binding" really ... binding in Old Testament Law terms meant that disobedience led to death or expulsion from the people of God. It effectively meant rejection by God. In New Testament grace terms, behaviour that is contrary to these commands does not necessarily mean rejection by God, but it is behaviour that contradicts the new creation beings that we are in God's eyes. The behaviour is destructive to the Holy Spirit's work in making us more like Christ and therefore must be brought into the light of God's truth, where it can be acknowledged as wrong, the behaviour pattern rejected, so it can be included in the "washed away" pile. Faith in the efficacy of this "washing away" comes faith in the efficacy of Christ's death. Faith in the efficacy frees a believer to embrace "Kingdom of God" behaviour instead. (1 John 1:7-9)

So is Sabbath-keeping 'Kingdom of God behaviour', or to ask in another way, is 'not keeping the Sabbath' a behaviour pattern that 'contradicts the New Creation beings that God has made us into'? If in either case we were to answer "yes", then we would really be saying that in New Covenant terms, Sabbath keeping is a binding principle. I'll leave that argument there.

The Colossians passage mentioned earlier goes on to say that the Sabbath is a shadow of a reality that is found in Christ. Hebrews 4 talks of Sabbath rest that is in some way entered by those who believe, in that we rest from our own efforts (v10), yet it is incomplete at this stage. Jesus invites those who are weary to come to him and rest (Matt 11:27-30). In the context of v27, the rest that Jesus speaks of is resting in the knowledge that God is known by men through the revelation of the Son, and only in this way, not by our own efforts. In the backdrop of Heb 4, relationship with Christ, through faith rather than works, is the greater reality that Sabbath days pointed to. The Sabbath principle required faith in God to provide for daily needs. (Lev 25:20-21) Relationship with Christ requires faith that God has given completely of himself to enable us to have that relationship. This is why I believe that Sabbath days are "Holy to God" in the Old Testament ... they set the people apart as those who were allowed to exist (and prosper) because God chose to provide for them, not because of their own efforts or because they deserved it. They declare God's sovereignty and providence.

But in practical terms we need the pointers as well as the greater reality ... do we rely completely on our own efforts to get all our work done, all our needs met? Or do we allow ourselves to be vulnerable to not getting everything done by taking scheduled time out, and trust God to build his church, feed our families etc despite our taking that rest. Do our work rest patterns point to reliance on God or reliance on ourselves? (work-rest, rather than rest-rest, because the New Testament is full of the tension that God grows his kingdom and does his bidding, yet calls us to actively do stuff as part of the outworking of his kingdom).

And finally, I think Sabbath is inseparably linked to a favourite Old Testament theme of social justice. I get this from Exodus 23:10-12 ... and what's interesting here is that there are 2 Sabbath's established the Sabbath year, and the Sabbath day. The purpose given is that the poor and the wild animals may use the resting land to eat during the Sabbath year, and that the slaves and domestic animals may rest on the Sabbath day. One of the reasons I reflected so much on this debate, which I usually dismiss under the "Sabbath is Saturday so Sunday Sabbatarians are barking up the wrong tree" clause, was the prevalence of Sabbath desecration in passages about God's anger that I was reading from Ezekiel at the time my work colleagues were debating. (Ez 20, Ez 22). In particular, Ez 22 seems mainly concerned with the social injustices that resulted from the rejection of God as supreme and rejection of his laws, yet within that God seemed mad at the desecration of the Sabbath, which on the surface seems relatively minor, compared to the atrocities being committed. Yet when we recognise the link between Sabbath and social justice, particularly with reference to the Sabbath year, it seems likely that Social Injustice and Sabbath desecration were completely tied to each other. In Kingdom of God terms, do those of us who have any kind of power, who are employers, or leaders, who belong to consumer groups that drive demand for low cost high output industry, consider the effect of our demands on the poor, the vulnerable, or those at a power-balance disadvantage? Are we too far removed from the providers to be aware of their conditions? I'm not equating Social Justice with Sabbath, but I see a link that I think we find easy to ignore. (I think this goes beyond "if I buy milk on Sunday, I create demand for someone to work on [my] Sabbath day", but I guess it may include it.). This is a tough question, and is definitely not being asked from an "I solved it, what about you" point of view!

As far as the other arguments are concerned. I don't believe that one particular day is more important than another (I think the existence of Sabbath years as well as Sabbath days points to that potentiality). I think that the 1 in 7 principle is also a 6 in 7 principle, pointing both to the need to take responsibility for stewardship of what God gives, and to the need for regular rest and regularly acknowledging our faith in his provision. I also think the 1 in 7 principle helps us to understand that God has created us such that a certain level of work or demand is an acceptable, sustainable expectation to place on ourselves others, but beyond that is unjust and anti-Kingdom of God.

Comments welcome!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Judging Judgement (2)

So I'm breaking the silence ... thanks to Mr Slater's nudge. I think I can write something because I just preached on this on Sunday. I came away thinking, "man, why did you mumble and grunt it that way ... if only I'd thought a bit more and said it this way" ... so here's my chance to say some of the things I wish I'd said! (But not the whole sermon ... there's just not time!)

So in Ezekiel 22:30, Ezekiel talks of God looking for a man to stand in the gap and build up the wall. Ezekiel is tough stuff to read, full of God talking about waves of judgement (not heard a worship song use that line recently). Waves that will break down the walls the people of Jerusalem are foolishly relying on. Whats the wall? ... from Ez 13 its the words of the false prophets ... God will not punish, be at peace, God's not like that. Its a flimsy wall. By Ezekiel 22, its a breached wall. Who can stand in the gap and protect the people from the waves of judgement. Its interesting that God is seeking someone to stand in the gap, because, (and we can see it Ez 20 also) that means that God's ultimate goal is salvation. God is God who saves ... (Jeshua even!)
Where other god's might be glorified by the immediate punishment of dissenters, God's name is glorified by salvation. But if people will not accept salvation, then what they are being saved from inevitably happens. (Salvation can only happen if there is something to be saved from and something to be saved for.) Ezekiel is full of this tension. And by Ez 22, there is no solution. God seeks to save but there is no-one to stand for the people and save them. Instead they rely on a wall of false hope. The tension wants to explode.
But elsewhere in Scripture, the answer to the question (who is worthy to stand in the gap) is given.
Isaiah 41:28 .. "I looked but there is no-one" - 42:1 .. "Here is my servant .."
and in
Revelation 5.. "I wept because no-one was found who was worthy to open the scroll" -
"See the Lion of Judah ... is able to open the scroll ... I saw a Lamb ... as if it had been slain ..."

But in the context of Ezekiel, this Lamb who was slain, this Servant, this Jesus, who is therefore the only one able to stand in the gap, resolved the tension, not so much with "kiss of righteousness and peace (Ps 85:10), but in an a gut wrenching rupture of the Godhead. The person in the gap built up the wall with truth instead of falsehood, and in the shadow of that true and worthy one, we stand protected when the waves of wrath and judgement are let loose at last. This truth does not ignore God's wrath, but it is the truth of the love of God to save. The Godhead is ripped apart in that moment of crucifixion, "My God My God ... Why have you forsaken me", the fellowship of Father and Son is torn apart, the Father loses his Son, the Son is rejected by his Father, the sent out Spirit, has no united Godhead from which to emanate ... maybe even as the agent of God's power, the Spirit is turned on the Son to let loose the waves of wrath ... a moment of such cosmic greatness ... earthquakes happen, the sky darkens, the temple curtain is torn in two... its only because Christ stood in the gap that the whole of creation was not annihilated by the power of that moment ... yet in that moment the Godhead saved those who would be saved from judgement. God is glorified because salvation happened. God becomes the Father of many, the brother of many, the Spirit has a church to be sent out to. It is the moment that defines God (borrowing heavily, and less elquently from Moltmann here).
The truth stands firm as a wall. Reconciliation between man and God happens because the truth of what stood between man and God was addressed. It was painful. It cost God everything and yet defined God.
Following from this, we see something of the truth of this pain in communion/ the Lord's supper when we tear apart the bread that in rememberance of the tearing apart of Christ's body, (thanks to Mr Sargent for the thinking there ...) but do we also see in the breaking bread, the tearing of the Godhead?
Also, applying this to our own lives. (Now borrowing from Miroslav Volf)... Maybe we find forgiveness tough, and think, "...forgive others as God forgave us, well if God can do it so easily why can't I ... " It wasn't so easy for God, forgiveness needs to confront the truths behind why we are hurt, whether we confront those who hurt us, or we confront ourselves in acknowledging we are wronged and that receiving the wrong is painful, without being vulnerable to truth, forgiveness does not really happen.
Without judgement as a reality, what is reconciliation? So you say, "God wants to be a saving God, but he need judgement so he's got something to save people from?". This brings us back to the context of Ezekiel's prophecy. Look at what was going to be wiped out in Jerusalem. Priests who knew nothing of God or his way, but took the money and kudos anyway. Princes who shed innocent blood to bolster their own need for power (and presumably there were all sorts of people prepared do the actual blood-letting), Prophets who saw all this, knew it was wrong, but were too weak to say so, so condoned it instead by there refusal to condemn. Those in power denied the truth. The gross injustice experienced by the poor and ordinary cried out for judgement of a God who cares.

(As always there is a hole in the argument ... were the poor and ordinary saved from the judgement? It seems not, so obviously the judgement involved more than correcting injustice. I'll leave that one unresolved ...)

Monday, October 09, 2006

Judging Judgement (1): Punishment

I'm curious about judgement and punishment. We cannot ignore their existence in the Bible, although some might like to do so in the name of cultural relevance. On the other hand, the search for cultural relevance has revealed a blase approach to the way terms like judgement and punishment are used.
At a recent (and for the most part very informative and inspiring), Willow Creek conference, I heard Bill Hybels issue a call for church leaders to re-centre their message, so the the "trumpet call" of the church is clear (1 Cor 14:8). This recentred message was - "Substitutionary Atonement" is the core of the gospel message. Actually I'm good with that. What I wasn't so OK with was the narrow definition of atonement, ie that atonement is the "punishment to pay the price of sin", or in tech-speak atonement = propitiation.
But Hybels then went on to give an excellent overview of the principle of Atonement through the Old Testament. In particular, did you know that, although Adam and Eve clothed themselves in fig leaves, when God dealt with them and revealed the curse of the fall, he then covered their nakedness in skins (of the animal kind presumably). The message of this was that sin gave birth to shame, and required a dead animal to cover its effect. Good for the humans, not so good for the animal. The message implied by Hybels was, the animal is punished in man's place to account for the shame. This I think is a stretch. Far easier to see is the principle of "atonement sets aside/covers sin and removes its effect", or atonement = expiation. The action that covers sin is more serious than a few fig leaves because it involves something being "poured out" in the same way that the correct response of humanity to God should have been complete outpouring of self into God to filled by him in return. We've lost the ability to pour out, and the sacrificed animal, be it for Adam's skin clothes or for Temple Offering is the substitute outpouring. Latterly Christ's sinless outpouring gave all people the opportunity to participate in the outpouring through faith in its efficacy to stand as their own outpouring.
Except we can't walk away from the fact that something dies, and death is the effect of sin on humans if atonement does not happen, so there is some consequence to sin. And so for humans, since the consequence is related to the action and choice of humans, and to punish is to implement the consequence of a wrong choice or action, then it is totally fitting to call the consequential action that deals with sin, punishment. God does not punish the substitute, rather the action which is a punishment to the one who deserves it, is received by the substitute as an act of atonement. Therefore Christ took the punishment that was due to us, in order to set aside our sin, but Christ was not punished, he atoned. Without a substitute the action is merely punishment, whereas it is only when a substitute is poured out/ pours themself out instead that the action can be called atonement. So to major on punishment loses the atonement imagery of "cover/setting aside" and "outpouring", and potentially implies subordination of the substitute (not a problem if its a dove, big problem when related to Christ). To avoid using punishment altogether loses sight of consequence as something God speaks of throughout scripture, consequences implemented and consequences set aside, but consequences all the same. I'm aware I've bypassed the whole question of whether God's love subordinates holiness/sovereignty or vice versa. That's because I think that the question is warped. It tries to make fallable human understandings of these attributes define God, when it is the Trinitarian being of God who defines the attributes. Ie we shouldn't be defining the attribute from human experience and setting it up as a standard to measure God against.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Doodling Life

I remember one particularly thought-provoking reflective prayer time at bible college. We were asked to draw a squiggle on a piece of paper representing our life. We were to use the line to express the high points and the low points, then talk with a friend about the line and what the peaks/troughs represented. It was very helpful. We could see at a glance the places where we had most needed God or had felt most blessed. As helpful as this was, I began thinking today how restrictive lines are. We have our liberal/fundamentalist spectrum on a line; we all have to somehow fall somewhere in the spectrum. We have our "progress towards sanctification line", which becomes difficult to express when we mess things up. We have our "progression of history" timeline, which must be linear or we're all Buddhist. So naturally we try to express our Christian life in linear terms. We read the 23rd Psalm and think of the Valley of Shadow of Death as a trough on a line. We read about pilgrimage (Ps 84:5-7) and the linear thought makes sense. But what if we read these verses and as well as the road we also saw the landscape. There is so much that goes on round about us that affect our vision of the road. It stops the road from being linear. There are so many dead end valleys we walk through, there are roads that criss- cross ours and though we believe we've followed the road we realise that something ahead of us looks awfully like the road we just travelled down, there are times when the landscape is urban, surrounded by people we don't know, focussed on a task we're uncertain of the value of, ... the valley of the shadow of death takes on new meaning then. There are times we are not just on a peak but we feel we are soaring above the landscape, grasped by the complexity of it yet also aware of the ease with which we are bypassing that complexity ... and there are the quiet waters ... interestingly probably also a valley experience. As we consider the landscapes of life, we see a lot more than "need of God" and "blessing of God", peaks and troughs. Rather we see etchings, carved routes, landslides and erosion, we see much of what God has done to surround our lives with people, circumstances, landmarks and himself, sometimes to support or protect us as we make our messy choices and follow a messy route, and at other times to form us or guide us towards him, and towards his Kingdom consummation. So not only does the landscape change, but we change, we are formed and moulded with the landscape. Of coure I am limited by human imagination so all I've done is taken the linear metaphor and replaced it with a 3D metaphor. Just a thought though.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sin and Love Again

So, I need to go back to this topic. The week after my earlier post I heard two people talk about their journey to faith and how it was God confronting them with their sin that drew them to him. One of these actually made the same comparison as I did, although in a much more positive way ... she noted that our pastor had once told her that people seem to come to God in one of two ways ... being confronted with their sin, or being confronted with God's love ... she came the former way. And yes both these people do tend to go down the line of identifying specific actions as sin and look for ways to confront society with the horror of their sins. And now I 'm thinking that this is probably totally valid, but not a universal means of carrying out the Missio Dei. Its valid because that is how their stories unfolded, and doubtless countless others. My own story probably follows a line of looking for acceptance, and needing to know that the love of God was genuinely true and for me as much as for anyone else. I think that at the root of this is probably an insecurity that comes from awareness of personal sin, but is translated as a need for the love of God.
I think in general confrontation with personal sin requires a worldview that categorises actions as right or wrong. Where this is individualised or relativised, then the power of the confrontation is limited. However, along with any individualising or relativising of a worldview to fit one person there comes sooner or later a need for our worldview being legitimised. We do this by communally agreeing not to disrespect or subjugate the worldview of another if they don't disrespect or subjugate ours. However it doesn't work, we are always on the defensive for the one who will subjugate. This is because built in we have a feeling that our worldview doesn't actually hold up, because we know ourselves to be imperfect in judgement. Some have better natural judgement than others so many apparently successful judgements will also act to legitimise their worldview. But sooner or later our judgement fails, so we doubt ourselves, and the absolute legitimacy of our individualised worldview. This is where we look for outside help, outside legitimacy. And we are confronted with a God who sets the worldview in his terms, but unconditionally legitimises our existence and right to participate in that worldview according the the way he has made us. His love legitimises our participation in his worldview. What we to come to terms with is allowing him to own the worldview. We do not necessarily participate in it in the same way as all the others, but we do have to allow all the others who have accepted the terms to participate, and we must open ourselves to the possibility that yet more will participate.
How can there be terms and yet there be unconditionality. God has done something to allow us to participate with full legitimacy despite our fallible judgement and limited ability to define the worldview perfectly. God has taken on the role of defining the worldview, hence it exists and unfolds in his terms.
So some of us come to God because of his love. We need acceptance. We can't define sin as acts, but we can define our own need of something outside because we know we're not quite complete, or as capable as we'd like to make out.
So how can the "sin is abhorrent" and the "accepted at last" people be church together? More on that sometime ...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

So the gate was open

Well after 4 years of soul searching, we have now been accepted as candidates for mission in Linz, Austria by European Christian Mission. My wife, Kristine and I had our interviews with ECM on 11, 12 Sept. It was a pretty intense time, but good fun too. I enjoyed talking through the way I had formulated my own theology through my time of study ... so I was able to test whether I had become a raging heretic through my time at ICC, or had had the opportunity to redirect my personal heresies towards orthodoxy. True to form, I never used one word answers if there was an opportunity for twenty. Perhaps they figured ' well lets get him into a different language zone, it'll force him to be more economical with vocabulary and sentence length.' We also had to confront the issue of how certain we were that God was calling us/ leading us in this work. That's been pretty hard to express. In one sense I guess I'm always wanting to keep a back door open in case I was wrong in reading and sensing guidance from God out of my devotional life and our circumstances over the last few years. In some sense certainty limits God to act only according to how I feel he's been leading. Yet uncertainty can also be a limitation on the power of the Spirit of God to break through human fallibility and convince me of God's leading. I guess the crunch question was "what would we do if ECM said no?" One angle on certainty of calling might be to respond, "if ECM say no, then God has another plan for us to serve in Austria, for this much we know, we must serve him in Austria." However, my own response was slightly different. What we as a couple have been certain of is that God has been leading us on a journey to apply to work in Austria with ECM. We have tried to divert from the journey in case the route we were following was of our own making, but each time we found ourselves led back to the route that headed towards Austria with ECM. This interview was a gateway on that journey. We knew with certainty that we needed to approach the gate and to see if it would open. We did not know with certainty whether it would. If it did, we would know with more certainty that we were to work in Austria. We knew with certainty that God had led us to the gate, so if the gate was shut, we would find a new path when we got there. That new path might lead to Austria by a different route, and it would make sense if it did, but it might lead somewhere else. But it seems the gate is open...

So now we move into language training, communicating our vision for the work to others to raise support, medicals and moving. Communicating the vision ... hmm sounds like I might need to economise on words for that. I'll have a think about that and maybe practice with a post here.