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Tuesday, 1 January 2019

New Year in Oldham

Somehow, I ended up with a lot of this week off work. For most people, this would be good news; a time to rest, relax, socialise or even take a holiday. I, on the other hand, don’t do so well with big blocks of empty time. Fortunately, I discovered Meetup some time ago, so when the restlessness gets unbearable, I can just go and meet a bunch of strangers for an event of some sort. It can also be a good opportunity to share the Gospel.
So, not being one to do things by halves, I booked half a dozen Meetups over the next week or so. The first was a curry in Oldham on Saturday evening. This went well; I met some new people, (one person I already knew from a previous group), and had some good conversations. Yesterday, I went on a longish walk and had a good chat with a girl from Canada. I was a tad perturbed that nobody else really spoke to me, but some groups are friendlier than others!
I wasn’t especially looking forward to the third event on my list; a New Year’s Eve party in a pub in central Manchester. However, as the churches I’m involved with weren’t doing anything and I’m still relatively new to the area, I decided that the prospect of spending New Year alone in my house (my housemates are away) was too depressing. Pretty tired from the walk, I forced myself to get ready and braved the cold weather for the second time to walk the twenty minutes to the tram stop. This was where the first slightly irritating thing happened. Both my cards declined in the ticket machine for no apparent reason so the tram I wanted to catch arrived and departed whilst I was still trying to buy a ticket. Never mind, I thought, as I patiently waited for the next one whilst wondering how on earth the group of girls wearing virtually nothing standing next to me weren’t freezing to death, these things happen.
Changing trams in Manchester, a dishevelled drunk man complimented the lady in front of him on her general appearance. He then turned to me and seeming to believe that I might be offended by his oversight advised me that I also looked good and he particularly liked my hair. Seeing my expression, he then apologised if what he had said had been offensive before staggering further down the tram. The onlookers seemed amused.
I reached the pub safely, chatted with a few people and tried to avoid making eye contact with a few of the guys who were circling the group like hawks. After a few hours, some drunken dancing began and I decided I really didn’t want to be there anymore. I left with another girl, said goodbye as she lives in the city, and walked the few hundred feet to the tram stop. This was when the already mediocre night deteriorated.
It was only 10pm and I had thought it would be the perfect time to make the hour’s journey home before all the New Year chaos. However, examining the sign boards, there appeared to be no trams at all running on the Rochdale line. I approached one of the yellow jackets to enquire about this because, being New Year’s Eve, they were meant to be running until 1am. They pointed to a flashing orange sign which began, “Due to a police incident at Manchester Victoria…..” Not knowing that it was serious I asked how long the delay was likely to be. Then, the man told me that several people including a police officer had been stabbed. I asked if it was terrorist related and he said that this had been mentioned. Not wanting to bother the man further, I headed off towards a line of waiting taxis. At this point, I was feeling pretty unsafe. I don’t often feel like that having lived in some comparatively dangerous places. But, there were groups of youths roaming around looking for trouble and smoking drugs, as well as some really odd looking people, who I'm sure only venture out in public once a year, emerging from various shadows, and obviously there were a lot of drunk people everywhere.
Realising I had no cash, I searched in vain for an ATM pushing through crowds of people queuing for the clubs. There was no nostalgia and I had absolutely no desire to be amongst them. I was by this point freezing, even with a coat, and just wanted to get home. Eventually, I found an ATM, with a queue, got my money and started to attempt to use Uber on my phone. The rates kept going up as I was trying to book and when it went to over £30 I just couldn’t bring myself to pay that much despite my predicament. I checked with a random cabbie who quoted £40.
Thinking the tram situation might change, I wandered back up to the tram stop and was relieved to see Victoria listed as a stop once more and a tram expected in a few minutes. A guard then informed me that this was an error and there were still no trams. He also said there were no replacement buses as people had refused to work on New Year’s Eve….He advised that the only option was to walk to Monsall which might take about an hour. His colleague immediately shook his head and pointed out that the walk went through a number of very rough areas. A girl later said she wouldn’t even do the walk in the daytime! I declined.
Every so often people were coming onto the platform to ask about the Rochdale line and the guard suggested we group together to get a taxi to Monsall. After a few failed attempts, I finally found a young couple who had already booked a taxi to Failsworth which seemed ideal. The taxi took ages due to the traffic deadlock and the police everywhere. Then the driver couldn’t find us and we couldn’t understand him due to his accent. We finally found him in one of those ridiculous scenes where two people are on the phone to each other and only realise it when they are literally eye to eye. He had turned up in a mini bus but that was the least of our worries and we were just grateful to be in the warm.
After giving the couple £10 for my part of the journey, we sat in traffic for a further period watching the clock ticking towards midnight. It struck whilst we were still on the way to Failsworth tram stop, so I celebrated the turn of the year in a mini bus, with three strangers, dodging fireworks that were being set off dangerously close to the main road, and navigating the smoke that had descended.
At Failsworth tram stop, I thanked the young couple and the driver, then ran up the large number of steps to the platform. Again, I felt slightly scared to be alone and wondered why there were no other people around. On the deserted platform in the middle of nowhere, I saw something orange flashing on the announcement screens and started to panic.
The sign began with the now familiar words, “Due to a police incident in Oldham town centre…..” At first I thought all the trams had been cancelled and I was going to spend the night bedded down in a doorway somewhere. Getting another taxi at this point would have been virtually impossible as the world and his wife were doing the same thing and my phone was extremely slow and nearly dead. Reading the screen more carefully and rationally, there were some trams running between Failsworth and Freehold. I waited for one of these thinking that maybe I could walk the rest of the way home. When it arrived, it was actually labelled Westwood which took me one stop closer to my destination. The driver advised us all to start walking as he kicked us out at Westwood. Having initially said we could walk along the tram lines, he then changed his mind as his health and safety training kicked in and he pointed us towards the main road with some vague directions.
There were only a few other people around who mostly seemed drunk, and to be trying to get to Rochdale, but even so, I was grateful not to be completely alone. I headed off following my phone GPS which said it would take 36 minutes to walk home. Some lads said something to me as they passed and I ended up having to follow them through some dark alleys. When another group of lads appeared I felt very nervous but they too passed on by. It was now heading towards 1am and fireworks were still exploding here, there and everywhere.
Walking hastily past some strange sights in Oldham town, I saw a fancy dress party with a nun standing outside a pub, she looked at me as if to say “what are you looking at?” Then a drunk man shouted to ask if I had a cigarette. The celebrations were in full swing and it was all a bit disconcerting. It’s weird that things which used to be my world are now so alien.
I finally saw what all the fuss had been about when I reached the junction of Waterloo Street in Oldham. A vehicle was on its side in the road partially obscuring the tram line. There were the usual array of flashing lights and yellow jackets around and a crowd of spectators, of course. I toyed with asking the police whether they were aware that the tram had been stopped several stops too early resulting in people, like me, having to walk a very long way unnecessarily. I thought if I told them people were being advised to walk along the tram lines, something might be done….
However, knowing that the police don't generally like being told how to do their jobs, especially by ex-officers and that they were probably upset about what had happened at Victoria, I thought better of it. I walked the rest of the way home noting that there were several cars full of men driving around aimlessly and I seemed to be attracting a fair bit of attention. Shivering and breathing a sigh of relief, once safely inside my house, I locked both doors.  
Happy New Year, I hope yours was better than this…..

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Is it Really Evangelism?

I have just moved to Oldham in Manchester and, as one person put it, become a “northerner”. I’ve moved here to help Oldham Bethel Church with their outreach, responding to a number of heartfelt pleas in the Pastor’s blog. Arriving, I found that several key people were away for the week so took the opportunity to join the “Reaching Rochdale” outreach week with a neighbouring church in Milnrow.

I was forced straight out of my comfort zone when, on day one, I found myself volunteering to do door to door evangelism in a predominantly Muslim area. Somehow, I then felt compelled to continue this work believing it would get easier with practice. I’m not sure that it got any easier, but I became slightly less afraid and more willing as the week went on. Given the choice, I still prefer open-air work and reverted to that when it was taking place. But, my experience was definitely valuable and will be useful for the future.

Back in Oldham, I've been tasked with surveying the area for a few months to see what is already going on and, hopefully in the process, noting any opportunities for additional outreach work. Spending a number of hours researching things today, it's immediately tempting to focus on the social needs of the area as there are plenty of requests for volunteers for all sorts of things. I'm sure I could get stuck in and happily fill my time with these things as the needs are great, but I have to keep bringing it back to whether there would ever be opportunities to share the Gospel with people in each role/organisation. If not, I need to move on and not become distracted. 

The enemy loves to keep us busy with work that appears to be Gospel centred but in reality is not much different to social work. I find that I'm back to my motto from the Logos Hope ship; help and hope must go hand in hand. I can't be offering help without hope as it's the ultimate tragedy; when I've made someone that bit more comfortable on their journey to a lost eternity.

I’ve taken part in a number of week long missions this year with the Open Air Mission and United Beach Missions. I highly recommend both organisations. Discussions about effective methods of evangelism have arisen frequently. It’s perhaps not surprising that if you throw a bunch of people interested in evangelism together for a week that they will have strong, and differing, views on the subject. What is concerning, though, is that there are some who think they are evangelising when they are not.

Jesus’ Great Commission tells us to:

“Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16 vs 15-16)

If we take the plain, everyday, meaning of the text, it follows that when we are not proclaiming the Gospel to people, we are not evangelising. We may well be facilitating other peoples efforts or serving God in other ways, but it is not evangelism.

Ive heard people come up with all sorts of things that they class as evangelism. Is it evangelism to attend a meeting at your church where someone is giving their testimony? How about if you invite your non-Christian friend along to hear the speaker? What about painting a childs face, or giving them a balloon, and talking to their parent about the history of beach missions? What if you give them a big smile, will the joy of the Lord somehow be conveyed to them? What if you pray for them as they walk past?

Of course, some of you know that these things arent evangelism, but there are others who are offended by my comments. Its worth reiterating that these things may well be good things to do, they may provide a platform for someone else to share the Gospel. In Gods providence, they may lead to profitable conversations later down the line. God may even be gracious and the person may actually ask you one of those questions we all hope for; How did you become a Christian? Why do you do this?Or even, What must I do to be saved!?But, most of the time, the person passes by and we wish we had made more of the opportunity.

In my experience, its much more difficult to get to these most important issues of the heart if we either dress the Gospel message up by entertaining people, or seek to dumb it down, or hide what we are really doing, when we first meet them. They arent stupid and most prefer honesty rather than being duped into something, then feeling deceived later.

We also need to remember that the Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1 vs 18.) If we hide the true Gospel to avoid offence, we are not attracting those who would be drawn to the Message, as well as not challenging those who will ultimately reject it.

Sometimes, I think we need to ask ourselves what were afraid of. Is it not just the enemy raising our anxiety levels and causing us to stumble? In the past, when I needed to force myself to do something that could be awkward or uncomfortable, I would think of the tag line from the Dr Pepper advert, Whats the worst that could happen?For those that remember the adverts, its never going to be as humiliating as that! Someone might slam a door in your face, or laugh at you, or belittle you (as happened to me recently.) You might even lose a friendship over it, but at least they have now heard the truth and you have done the loving thing in warning them. Ultimately, they are rejecting God and we should fear for them.

I appreciate that in open-air and door to door work greater risks can be taken; these people are probably strangers that you wont see again. However, what is the point of developing friendships with people either over a week, on a beach mission, or over a lengthier period if they are colleagues, relatives, friends and neighbours, if we never actually share the Gospel with them. It wont get easier to share if we wait indefinitely and none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.

In the Philippines, I had the terrible experience of twice hearing of the deaths of people that I had met just once and had not shared the Gospel with, one was a child. I cant carry that guilt because God is sovereign and I was later reassured that they had heard from other sources. What was it that had stopped me sharing directly during those first meetings; complacency and the belief that I had time to build relationships with them which would then make it easier to share the Gospel. That was a tough and painful lesson, and a reminder of the urgency of the work we are called to.

We were reminded recently that everything that happens in the life of a non-believer is completely meaningless. I certainly experienced that when I was back-sliding. Lets not allow our church events, friendships and conversations to end up adding to the futility of a life lived without God because we never get round to offering people what they really need. Dont leave it too late to tell someone that they need to repent and ask God for forgiveness through Jesus.

Lets make sure that we prioritise actual evangelism so that we can all be involved in fulfilling the Great Commission and seeing souls saved.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Inside the Mind of a Prodigal

In Christian circles most, if not all, people know the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke chapter 15. This story is especially useful in our current day. It proves that the Bible is not only relevant but can be applied directly to people’s lives thousands of years after it was written. This could only be possible if the Bible was written by a God who knew the future.

The story also proves that humanity, with all its celebrated progress, doesn’t change. We are still the same weak creatures falling victim to the same temptations over and over again. The devil doesn’t need to change his strategy because we still succumb to his original one.

In brief, the prodigal son demanded, then squandered, his inheritance on wild living until he reached the point where he was penniless and desperate to eat pig food because of the gnawing hunger. Eventually, he came to his senses and returned to his father requesting a position as a household servant. Instead, his father forgave and reinstated him. The story is a picture of God’s patience as we wallow in our sin, and His mercy and forgiveness when we reach the point of repentance.

You may think the idol here was money, but it was actually the things and experiences money could buy. The son was dissatisfied with his life and thought the grass would be greener on the other side. He thought he could find satisfaction in the pleasures of the world, and he probably did, for a while. His happiness, though, was always going to be temporary because our sinful appetites are never satisfied.

I love the NIV rendering of the key verse and turning point in this parable: “When he came to his senses….” This verse tells us that all that had gone before was senseless but it had taken a crisis point in the young man’s life for him to realise it. He had his head buried in the sand as he languished in the consequences of his sin, but there came what we might call a “light-bulb moment”.

I was a prodigal, once. I don’t recommend it. Prodigals are tortured souls.

The difference between those who have made professions of faith and wandered away from the truth, and those who have never heard the truth is stark.

The ever present knowledge that God exists and that one day you will appear before Him as Judge. The restlessness of knowing you can never be completely happy without God and that you will have to return to Him…one day. The desperate search for satisfaction in all manner of things to prove that life without God is possible, and preferable. The desire to enjoy worldly experiences without that nagging twinge of conscience. The gradual distancing from Christian family, friends and church, due to guilt. The anger when people presume to judge your lifestyle. The terror of going to a very real place called Hell, forever.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Romans 1 tells us that everyone knows that God exists because He has created them with that knowledge and they can see it in creation. The difference for a prodigal is that they know that they know. They can’t find safety in the crowds of agnostics and atheists because they know that they are lying to themselves. Perhaps, they refuse to talk about religion and avoid the subject altogether, for a limited time. A prodigal is consciously suppressing the truth about God which leads to a lack of peace and turmoil in the soul.  

Maybe, if no one prayed for you, God would leave you alone. Unlikely, because God cares for you much more than the prayer warriors. It’s one thing, though, that you can’t stop people doing, and trust me when I say that they will be doing it. Your parents, relatives and former church friends are praying, and will continue to pray, until you come to your senses and return to the Father who is patiently waiting for you.

Looking back, I can’t believe I spent those six years attempting to run from God. It was all so empty and meaningless. I shudder now at the risks I took each day as I gambled with my life and presumed upon God’s patience and grace. I could have lost my life many times either through recklessness, or through one of the many accidental tragedies that occur every day around the world, one of which took my younger brother during my period of backsliding. Then, where would I be? It doesn’t bear thinking about.

When I came to my senses, the overwhelming feeling was of gratitude and relief; I was grateful that I was no longer carrying my many sins because Jesus had paid for them on the cross, and relieved that I was finally at peace with God. I was no longer at risk of a lost eternity in Hell but had Heaven to look forward to.

Are you a prodigal? Are the brief and passing attractions of the world really worth risking your eternal soul?

Mark 8 vs 36

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Bridging the Gap by Going Out of Our Church Buildings

This will probably be my final post in the “bridging the gap” series as I’m about out of ideas! For more recent followers, I’ve been focusing on ways that Christians can bridge the ever growing gap between believers and non-believers. So far, we have looked at being real, keeping the focus on the Gospel and using words that people understand.

We need to think about this issue because people from the street are not just walking into our churches. We can be pretty good at hosting church events and inviting people, but what about those who would never attend because the event is in a church building. They don’t want the inevitable questions if they are seen, or perhaps, they are fearful of what might happen during the service.

To ensure everyone hears the Gospel, and to properly obey the Great Commission, we need to go into all the world and tell every person the Good News about Jesus. The Open Air Mission has evangelists all around the country who do this on a daily basis. I’ve just returned from their annual training day in Bromsgrove which was a great encouragement. We were reminded of the huge impact 160 people committed to open-air work could make across the country. Even more so should we all manage to get our church fellowships on-board.

A former full-time worker, probably now in his seventies, was asked whether open-air work still has a place in our society, or whether it’s had its day, as many churches seem to believe. He responded with a story about his own conversion, having been raised in a non-Christian home seemingly with no Christians even on his radar. He pointed out that currently less than 10% of the country is being reached with the Gospel through schools and churches. Someone had taken the trouble to step out of their comfort zone and tell him the Good News about Jesus when he was in his late teens. He is left with the devastating reminder that generations of his family are subject to eternal punishment. If his story ended there it would be pretty depressing, but this man is so grateful that someone took the trouble to reach him in his lostness, that he has dedicated his life to doing the same thing for others. How anyone could fail to be moved by such an answer, spoken with such conviction, about something so important, is beyond me.

What about the average Christian, though? Someone who just has a few hours here and there and wants more flexibility, or a little less confrontation. With the support of your church, you could try setting up a simple book table in your town. All you will need in a small fold-away table, deck chair (optional,) literature and a sign highlighting what you are offering. Then, find a space that isn’t in the way, I usually use a sizeable doorway, and set up.

Recently, I noticed what a difference good weather makes as people are much more willing to stop and chat, and just seem more cheerful in general. A typical few hours with a book table in my town produces the following types of contact:

My time began with a man from a different church advising that he had a load of Christian literature to dispose of and discussing methods of evangelism. He was quickly followed by an enthusiastic Christian lady who started off by encouraging me but then suggested I should give leaflets to people instead of waiting for them to be taken. I explained that I do give out leaflets as part of other outreaches, and our church puts leaflets through every door in the town over the year, but that for this outreach, I’m just making the literature available for those that God prompts.

Next, a white van man who has been mentioned in a previous post, made a bee line for me. His opening question was, “Have you got a copy of the King James Version of the Bible yet?” I informed him that I was sticking with my ESV. He told me that it was corrupted, that I was missing out and that he was just trying to help me, before walking back to his van calling loudly behind him that I should get a King James Bible. I resisted the urge to ask him if he was going to church yet….

Then, two at once, which can be tricky, especially when they start talking to each other and one seems to be leading the other off topic. An older man on a mobility scooter had been watching at a distance for a while and eventually made his cautious approach. We had just begun talking, and he was examining the literature, when an even older, white haired, lady walked between the man and the books and announced that she was a devout Catholic and congratulated me on having the courage to be out in the street. I never know what to say when this happens, as it’s not really something worthy of praise, but voicing too much humility can be counter productive.

The lady quite loudly took over the conversation stating that we were all the same before asking me what religion I belonged to. I was somewhat surprised by the question as my sign clearly says “free Christian books.” When I said I was a Christian she looked temporarily confused. I wondered whether she was just enthusiastic about the prospect of religion in general entering the high street. She continued talking to the man as if she had invited him to look at her books, and as if she needed to carefully explain things to him. When she spoke about people being oblivious to God, I managed to get in with a short comment about our sin and need of forgiveness before she was off again. The man interjected to ask for an Ultimate Questions booklet before taking his leave. The woman followed him along the street, still talking at him. I was a bit bewildered by the experience but grateful that the man took the book.

A quiet lady then took Where is God when things go wrong? by John Blanchard, after studying the books for a while. Then, a lady who I met at the book table on a previous occasion, who attends another church, passed by and we had a brief chat about how to get a mutual friend who isn’t a believer to church. I then overheard some young girls on the other side of the street, on seeing my sign, comment that they weren’t “holy” or “Christian”. One of the reasons for going out is to trigger this type of reflective conversation and to make people think about God.

Finally, a man who attends another church, out of the area, came over. After a brief chat about our shared faith, he seemed to veer off topic with questions about my age and marital and relationship status. Nevertheless, he encouraged me in the work and said he would pray for me before wandering off. Never a dull moment.

I thought it might be helpful for those who are considering this type of outreach to get an idea of what could happen if you brave the unknown. However, every town and every individual is, of course, unique, which is why prayer is crucial.  

Pray, try it and see what happens.

Mark 16 vs 15

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.