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Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Are We Over-Complicating Evangelism?

As someone with a heart to share the Gospel with others, I’m often thinking of better ways to “do” evangelism. Not that I believe that there is a one size fits all approach or that we should focus too much on methods. It’s important to remember that the Holy Spirit of God is the catalyst for all conversions and that we need to pray for Him to be at work in and through us.

However, it’s good to consider whether our various efforts are bearing fruit and if not, to consider whether our chosen methods might be creating unnecessary barriers, or even, perhaps, whether it might be time for a different approach. There is an ever widening gap between the church and the world, between Christians and non-Christians. It follows, then, that we need to be thinking about how we can bridge this gap.

My thoughts often turn to social enterprise as a means of reaching people, as this is increasingly popular. The evangelistic coffee shop idea. I had thought about combining this with a Christian book shop or library due to the decline of the presence of Christian literature on our high streets. The Salvation Army have recently opened a big charity shop with an attached cafe in my town. Visiting, though, there is no difference between this set-up and any secular coffee and charity shop. People are not going to be particularly receptive if someone just sits down and starts sharing the Gospel with them whilst they are trying to drink their coffee. This idea, as an outreach opportunity, necessarily fails at the first hurdle.

What about a coffee, or book, shop that is overtly Christian? It’s worth asking, how often would non-Christians visit, and for what purpose when there are so many non-religious options out there? Mostly, these places end up being visited, and sustained, by people from the church that started them. Unless it’s made clear to visitors at the outset that they might be interrupted and spoken to by a keen evangelist, we have the same problem as the secular environment; the people just want to drink their coffee in peace!

Some might argue that Gospel literature can be left on the tables and the building appropriately decorated with Bible verses etc. This is true, and if the Spirit prompts someone to pick up a tract or to start memorising a Bible verse, then great. But, if all Christians carried tracts and left them everywhere they went, this would easily cover the few non-Christians who might enter a Christian premises and end up taking away a tract or reading Bible verses on the walls. If people are that openly curious about Christianity already, then surely they would just go to a church!?

Turning then to other forms of passive outreach using social activity; sports clubs and activities and the like. How often have we actually managed to effectively share the Gospel with attendees? How can we get people to even attend without tricking them with mumbled explanations about what will happen when they get there, and then pouncing on them later when it’s too late for them to leave? How can we keep these programmes Gospel focused and stop people being distracted by the activity? How often do these activities end up being closed down after decades because they have become nothing more than another social event? How many people actually end up in church through these activities?

These questions are more relevant than ever in our anti-religious, apathetic, materialistic age. As people are growing increasingly indifferent to Christianity, perhaps, we need to strip away the exciting activities, comfortable surroundings and pleasant environments. Maybe, these things are distracting people from their real need and presenting a confusing picture in terms of what Christianity is all about.

What if our attempts to create the perfect platform for sharing the Gospel are resulting in barriers that we then have to find ways to remove further down the line? 

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Is it time for a less complicated, less expensive, and more direct approach?

I’m going to suggest three options that are comparatively cheap, direct and effective:

Open Air Work/Street Preaching

People are not often coming into our churches, we need to take the Gospel to them. The Open Air Mission evangelists go out into the high streets of England with a simple board. Using their board for the presentation, men preach a short Gospel centred message to the people passing by. Christians in the crowd note those who show interest and attempt to talk to them. Literature is handed to others walking past. (United Beach Missions do similar work.) You can read There Is Still Much To Do! by Andy Banton to find out more about this work or attend their Training Day on 14th April 2018.

Utilising our Church Buildings

Having highlighted some of the issues that can arise when we use social enterprise as a tool to share the Gospel, is there still a case for using our church buildings for evangelism? Of course, there is. Those who are blessed with buildings, especially in central locations, know how effective they can be when utilised. When a building is clearly a church, or used as a church building all of the time, people who enter it know what they are getting themselves into. They are choosing to enter an environment where they may expect to be spoken to by Christians and to hear messages from the Bible. Likewise, when activities take place in the church or a building immediately attached to it, there is no confusion. We need our church members to be proactive in inviting people to our church events and making sure they are upfront about what will happen when they attend.

Personal Contacts/Friendship Evangelism 

This is where any natural contact with non-Christians is important whether through work or just where we happen to live. All of us should be seeking to cultivate these relationships with a view to sharing the Gospel when the opportunity arises. Our words should be backed up by our prior behaviour. Let's not wait indefinitely to actually tell people, though, as none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. Pray first and then go for it!

It’s easy to be perpetually busy in Christian activities, but let’s make sure we are actually getting around to sharing the Gospel with the folks we are involved with. If we are running activities, whether in the church or outside, that have morphed into mere social events and there is no way to rescue them, perhaps we should consider closing them down and starting again. Likewise, if the things we are offering people are distracting them from the Gospel, our programmes might need a rethink.

My disclaimer here is that we must help people practically and they have various needs. This is a call to ensure we start with the Gospel and present this as the answer to the person’s most pressing need of forgiveness of sin and peace with God. At the very least, we must offer hope along with practical help.

The enemy will provide plenty of reasons why confrontational or direct evangelism is not the way to go, but these days it might be exactly what your friend, neighbour or relative needs to wake them up and make them stop and think. They aren’t going to be mad at you for being culturally inappropriate when they get to Judgement Day!

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Helpless Addict or Slave to Sin?

In a previous post, I asked the question, “What are you living for?” I suggested various things that people live for and how these can become idols if we don’t keep them in their proper place.

What happens, though, when we find ourselves obsessed with things that seem to have the power to control us? When we’ve already succumbed to the temptation and find ourselves in the grip of an addiction from which it seems impossible to break free.

I’ve just finished reading, The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. Perhaps, some of you are already wondering why on earth I would be reading such a book. Don’t worry, I found myself wondering the same thing several times as I progressed.

I read this book because I wanted to see whether the perspective of the author on shopaholism is what had resulted in the crazy numbers of sales of this series. In other words, I was curious about how the author would deal with something that, judging by the title, she classes as an addiction. What solutions would Sophie Kinsella offer for those trapped in these situations?

I definitely set the bar too high by expecting to find anything really useful in a worldly book written to appeal to the masses. Kinsella takes a light-hearted, humourous, (and in places offensive), approach to the subject of shopping addiction. She recommends; ignoring debt letters until your cards are cancelled, continuing to spend like a crazy person whenever you feel unhappy or just whenever you see something you want, lying to all and sundry about anything and everything, including lying on your CV to get a job that you know nothing about, and borrowing from strangers. Oh, and sleeping with someone because they are rich and famous.

Kinsella’s message is not very subtle: poor Becky Bloomwood is at the mercy of her addiction and unable to do anything about it. First, she tries cutting down her spending only to find that she ends up spending more money by investing in things she needs in order to cut down. She abandons this plan and decides she needs instead to make more money. After a few failed projects, she eventually manages this by a stroke of luck, and that is the solution to her shopping addiction because now she can get out of debt and continue spending in a self-indulgent fashion.

I’m aware this is a fictional character, but the author is attempting to comment on the realities that some people face. This isn’t Alice in Wonderland where everything is topsy turvy and things get curiouser and curiouser in a nonsensical universe. Becky Bloomwood is, by all accounts, a relatively normal girl attempting to navigate life and struggling due to her addiction to buying things, whether or not she can afford them.

Kinsella turns her character’s very real obsession with spending and shopping into a joke, or at least something that is normal. She underpins and cements society’s erroneous belief that if they could just make more money, then everything would be okay, and they would be happy. She forgets that most people live to their income; they increase their standard of living according to how much they earn. It will always be the same people in debt and struggling to make ends meet however much they earn. Even those who win huge sums of money often end up bankrupt and miserable.

Money cannot buy happiness. The Bible tells us to be content with what we have and not to covet/desire the things we don’t. The more things we have the more we will want because eventually we will become dissatisfied and want something better.

"Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13 vs 5

As someone who has struggled with addictions to, among other things, gambling, alcohol and smoking. I can look back and see the point where I gave in to the temptation to play the slot machines, drink too much and buy a pack of cigarettes. Each time I did these things after that first wrong choice, it became easier, and I needed more of whatever it was to keep me interested and satisfied. The more I gave in, the more the thing began to take over my life and to control me. At times, I was living for my next drink/night out and the thrill of risking (losing!) some money to make more. It was all I could think about and my life revolved around the obsession.

This is how I know that, despite what the experts may tell us, addiction to anything begins with giving in to a sinful temptation. The Bible speaks about our consciences being seared with a hot iron or becoming dulled if we persistently ignore them. Ending up addicted to anything is not about genetics, or life’s circumstances, it’s about sinful choices. This is evidenced by the lives of those who come from terrible backgrounds but still manage to make something of themselves.

Kinsella’s book is full of bad language, in particular frequent uses of God’s name as a swear word. At one point, the character, Becky Bloomwood, even writes a diatribe about having become a “born again Christian” to her bank as a reason for not paying off her debts. The tone used in the reply from the bank is contemptuous towards the character but also towards God. I was surprised to find this mockery of the Christian faith in this book as it has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter.

On reflection, I realised that God has everything to do with this subject. Sophie Kinsella has thrown in a laugh at the expense of a God who she rejects and considers worthy of contempt. The fear of God, in generations past, has all but disappeared, leaving a dangerous irreverence and willingness to mock a Deity who is considered insignificant and irrelevant. These books have become so popular because the author’s modern-day readers feel the same way about God and are not afraid to join with her in expressing it.

Kinsella no doubt began by blaspheming as a child, she ignored her conscience telling her that it was wrong to speak God’s name in this way. It became more frequent and her conscience was dulled. Now, she has become a best-selling author and is helping to sear the consciences of her readers who soak up this material and allow the name of God to be profaned without a second thought.

I’m sure you can see the parallel between the willingness to use bad language and the way other addictions develop. It all starts by ignoring our God given conscience and choosing to give in to sinful temptations. (Of course, sin begins in our hearts which are corrupt, but that’s another topic.)

Do people end up at the mercy of their addictions? Yes, of course they do. We can see it all around us, whether it be addictions to shopping, drugs, alcohol or something else that has taken over our lives and become an unhealthy obsession that consumes us.

What, then, is the solution?

The first thing is to recognise that whatever it is that has enslaved you began with a sinful choice. Don’t blame it on someone else, or your background or circumstances. Take responsibility for it and face up to the consequences.

The good news is that there is hope. God created us and knows exactly how we are wired and how our bodies and minds function. He is the only One who can truly help us to break free of these addictions by enabling us to exercise self control. We may also need support and help from other people and practical advice about changing habits and behaviours, but it all starts with acknowledging that we have sinned against God and by asking for His help.

All sin is against God and the Bible says that we are all guilty. Giving in to temptation and allowing any substance, habit or material thing to take over our lives is a sin as it has become an idol to us. God sent His only Son Jesus to die on the cross for our sin. Jesus paid the penalty so that we don’t have to. He literally stepped in and took our place. It is through Jesus that we can be free of addictions and obsessions that are controlling our lives.

I read another book recently, From Alcoholism to Africa, on the subject of addictions, and extracted this quotation which sums up how all addictions, (including shopaholism), can be dealt with:

“Whilst I was reading the Bible I could not find any sin called 'alcoholism' or any reference to me being a sick person, it was called 'drunkenness' and the Bible said if I acknowledged, confessed and repented my sin I could be forgiven. Also in 1 John 1 it says that if I am without sin I am calling God a liar and the truth is not in me. The Word of God is the Truth and it is the truth that sets me free. God was definitely working on me as I read the Bible.”

Praise God that we are not helpless addicts, nor do we need to be slaves to sin, because Jesus died to set us free!

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Are Cessationists "Missing Out"?

I don’t often blog about this topic because it tends to make tempers flare. However, in recent weeks, I’ve been finding myself in constant unintended conflict with Christians who disagree with something I’ve written or posted on-line that would fall into this category. I’m hoping I can use this post in response so that I don’t have to get into further debates about this.

I find these discussions extremely discouraging for several reasons. Firstly, the huge numbers of people who are being led astray due to their excessive focus on signs and wonders. Secondly, the fact that those who hold to a cessationist position, or who have cessationist leanings, seem to be increasingly rare despite this being the traditional, historical position of the church. Thirdly, the complete misunderstanding of what a cessationist actually believes.

To be clear, a cessationist believes that the sign gifts that appeared in the New Testament, specifically tongues, prophecy/words of knowledge, casting out demons and healing, ceased, or died out, with the apostles, or with the completion of Scripture. They don’t usually believe in modern day prophets or apostles. They are cautious about accepting at face value reports of dreams and visions, especially of Jesus appearing in person and communicating with people. They evaluate all reports of miracles and the supernatural through the lens of Scripture. They usually believe that God communicates via the Bible rather than in an audible voice. They believe that the Holy Spirit always points back to Jesus rather than drawing attention to, or placing the emphasis on Himself.

The conflict I’m referring to isn’t usually coming from those who hold a continuationist position but who recognise the need to check everything against the Bible. It is also not from those who cautiously examine all phenomena and test the spirits to see if they are from God. I have many friends with these views and conflict is rare.

I’m referring to those who fall into the aggressively argumentative camp. Those who are not happy just to hold their own views about what the Bible says, but wish to convert others to their way of thinking, whatever it takes. The people who find it offensive that others believe something different to them and who refuse to recognise that an alternative viewpoint has validity.

Amongst other things, I’ve been told that my spiritual life is fake, that I’m not a Christian, that I’m dead in orthodoxy, that I’m a Pharisee, that my views are toxic, that I’m arrogantly presumptuous, and that I’m missing out on the work of the Holy Spirit, and that people feel sorry for me. One person even sent me a private message  stating they were going to “defriend and block” me on a book sharing website. This person had begun a debate on a book review I had written. The worst suggestion, to date, has been that I'm in danger of committing the unforgiveable sin (blaspheming the Holy Spirit) by questioning whether these things are from God.

I’ve had people detail all of the incidences of charismatic phenomena/supernatural occurrences in the New Testament. Then, they remind me that God doesn’t change, that He is all powerful, and that it must be my lack of faith that causes me to question or doubt. One person even said that the reason I haven’t been healed from an auto-immune condition is due to a lack of faith on my part. 

These people approach me in the street at my free Christian book table, comment on my social media posts and debate on my book reviews and blog posts. They attack me for expressing my sincerely held beliefs about what the Bible teaches. They assume that I am ignorant and in need of enlightenment. 

Perhaps, most discouragingly, many are astonished to hear my views because they have never heard them before. They are in churches where constant supernatural manifestations have become common-place and any other way appears strange to them. They have not been taught to exercise discernment or to test the spirits. They often comment that these things must be from God because they are good, forgetting that the devil comes as an angel of light to cause confusion.

My point here is not to argue about which position is correct hence continuing the conflict referred to above, which I’m fed up with. Obviously, cessationists and continationists can’t both be right; either the gifts have ceased or they haven’t. Theologians have debated this for many years and I’m not hoping to resolve the issue here!

I want to remind Christians, that both positions are honestly held, and that there shouldn’t be a need for hostility, or any type of conflict. In most cases, the Bible has been studied to form conclusions, and posting something about the cessationist position on-line isn’t a personal attack on a continuationist, and vice versa.

Here are some resources that, alongside the Bible, helped me in reaching my cessationist viewpoint:

Strange Fire Conference:

John MacArthur/Grace To You:
Charismatic Chaos and Strange Fire books, and Sermon Series

Peter Masters:
The Charismatic Phenomenon/Illusion

Got Questions:

Tim Challies:

R.C Sproul:

All Christians, regardless their interpretation of charismatic gifts, should be aware of these Bible verses (and others not listed), that call for discernment:

Matthew 7 vs 15
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Matthew 7 vs 22-23
 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.

Matthew 24 vs 24
"For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.

2 Corinthians 11 vs 13-15
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

2 Timothy 4 vs 3-4
“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

2 Peter 2 vs 1-3
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

1 John 4 vs 1
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

Monday, 29 January 2018

What Are You Living For?

Most will be aware of the political and religious controversy surrounding the former Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron. Farron, an evangelical Christian, was, in 2017, repeatedly questioned by journalists about whether or not he believed gay sex was a sin. He eventually answered that it was not, but then realised that he had effectively denied his faith. He resigned.

I’ve seen some negative publicity in Christian circles now that Farron has reversed his original statement. However, I sympathise with him. He was caught between a rock and a hard place. Farron learned, the difficult way, that Christians cannot reason with, or hope for any understanding from, an increasingly hostile world, let alone the secular press. His experience proves that light has nothing in common with darkness and that Christians should be in the world but not of it.

When I first heard Farron’s recantation, I thought immediately of the disciple Peter’s denial of Jesus. Was this not a similar situation? Peter, on repentance, was offered immediate and complete forgiveness by Jesus. 

I’m convinced that, given the right circumstances, any one of us could end up in the same position and succumb to the temptation to deny what we believe. Surely, that’s the point of the Bible story: If Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples, could deny Him, having been warned, what hope is there for us in our frailty and weakness? 

As fellow Christians, we can learn from Farron’s very public fall from grace by considering what we are living for. It’s easy to say we are living for God and that He is our number one priority, until it costs us something. We are increasingly attached to the world with God tagged on to the edge of our lives.   

In the Bible, idols were made of wood and stone, it was easy to see when the people departed from God to worship them. Now, there is a lot of talk about idols of the heart but we still tend to think of idols in terms of relationships and people. The truth is that anything can become an idol if it stands between us and God or if it gets in the way of that most important relationship. This includes things that may be beneficial, if they become an obsession or are taken to an extreme. 

In a previous post, I mentioned things that were likely to become idols for non-believers (and some believers) at Christmas; money, food, gifts, sex, alcohol etc. These are the obvious, tangible things, but what about the things that are not so visible that we covet or that grip our hearts.

How we spend our time; what we do and the things we spend time thinking about. Our use of time is a good indicator of where our priorities lie because we make time for the things that are important to us. 

I end up in a lot of discussions about the content of Christian books due to being an avid reader and book reviewer. Christian authors are increasingly compromising their standards in order to appeal to a secular audience, or even a Christian audience that has lost its way. Their arguments usually begin with the need to make books more real for an authentic reading experience. 

Readers rally around to support them because their sinful nature is attracted to the graphic details. Is it not the truth, though, that rather than trusting God for their success, these authors are choosing popularity and ambition over Him? They are forgetting that God honours those who honour Him and that we should not love the world or anything in the world. Success has become an idol. 

Are we, as Christians, any different from our non-believing neighbours and friends? Does God and His plan for our lives take centre stage, or have the things of the world crept in and crowded Him out? Do we care about our lost friends and neighbours, or are we preoccupied with worldly matters? Have we grown cold and lost our first love?

Perhaps, it will take a Tim Farron experience to wake Christians up. When everything you have worked for and dreamed of is in one hand and your faith in God is in the other. Then, suddenly, you are confronted with the startling reality that the two things you are holding onto are incompatible and you are forced to make a choice. Which will it be: idols of any kind or God?

Farron was forced to count the cost of following Jesus, and having ventured down a path, seemingly of no return, he faced up to his failure and dealt with his sin. Remembering what, and Who, he was meant to be living for, he chose Jesus over his career and reputation.

He revealed something of the struggle that had been raging in his soul when he quoted martyr Jim Elliot, 

“He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” 

Earthly idols in all their forms will one day be swept away. Let’s pray that we will each put God on the throne of our lives and cast out any idols lurking there. Then, we will be able to say with confidence that we are living for Him.

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

1 John 2 vs 15-17

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.

Revelation 2 vs 4 (to the church in Ephesus)

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.

Philippians 3 vs 18-19