The church must reconnect with the poor and deprived: a bishop’s swing and a miss


In a recent article for the Church Times, the Bishop of Burnley – Philip North – has taken the Church of England to task for failing to listen to the working classes. He argued:

For the most part, the Church of England has reacted to the election of Donald Trump (News, 11 November) and the UK’s vote to leave the EU (News, 1 July) (the “Trump-Brexit phenomenon”) by jumping on to the middle-class Est­abl­­ishment bandwagon of outrage and horror. As if set to auto-pilot, the C of E has joined in with those who are decrying the collapse of the liberal consensus and bemoaning a new mood of division in our public life.

The Bishop stated ‘The Church’s agenda is being set not by the poor, but by academia, the moneyed elites, and certain sections of the secular media’. Going on to claim ‘it is their preoccupations that dictate the terms of the Church’s debate, and that pose the questions that it expends its energy on answering’. He goes on to aver that the Church of England has ‘become so discon­nected from many of these [deprived] communities that it no longer hears what they are saying, let alone amplifies their voices to the nation. And, until the Church re-invests in urban ministry, places the best leaders in the most deprived parishes, and returns to the estates it has abandoned, these voices will continue to go un­­heard’. You can read his full article in the Church Times which has since been picked up by the mainstream media.

In many ways, this is surely right. The Anglican Communion is dominated by the middle classes, whose concerns take precedence, and discussion is inevitably driven by the concerns of its academic leaders. Nor should we think this is a uniquely Anglican problem. As I have commented here and here (amongst other posts), other denominations also seem to be dominated by middle class professionals who have become somewhat detached from deprived communities and do not always understand, or encourage, those from poorer backgrounds to join, serve, lead or plant churches.

And yet, the Bishop of Burnley errs. The issue is not, as he claims, that the debate on sexuality, ‘has come to dominate the Church’s agenda to an extraordinary extent’. This is specifically not an example of middle class academic concerns dominating the CofE but a media obsession, propagated equally by the dominant liberal political elites drawn from the same pool, to which all Christian denominations have been forced to respond ad nauseam. It is not a debate the church (nor The Church) ever wanted and was never an issue the majority of Christians wished to spend any time. For the Great Commission was not to go into all the world and publicly denounce the gays but to go into all the world and make disciples. Christ, the apostles and most within his church never wished to section off homosexuals as some special category of sinner for whom particular arguments are required. It is simply not a fight the middle class, academically driven church have picked. Nor is it one that the least academic, working class churches are particularly interested in either. To paraphrase Malvolio: some churches are born argumentative, others become argumentative, and some have arguments thrust upon them. By and large, this whole sexuality issue seems to be a case of the latter.

Nor does the Bishop offer any great hope. As the great Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon once remarked, ‘discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s knowing the difference between right and nearly right’. And thus the 19th Century lower class dissenting non-academic teaches a lesson to the middle class academic 21st Century establishmentarian. For the Bishop of Burnley may rightly land upon the truth of Anglicanism’s middle class dominance leading to a general neglect of the poor but his answer seems to bear the hallmarks of that very same patronage. It is indeed the difference between right and nearly right. For the Bishop’s answer to this neglect of the poor is the sad, and more than a little supercilious, suggestion that we should ‘re-engage, listen to the questions, and offer some answers’ to the views of the poor. It smacks of the very middle class condescension that he says so characterises the church and in response to which he offered this censorious article.

What is perhaps most unfortunate is that, alongside his imperious tone, comes the suggestion that only when we (note the first person plural. Apparently all right thinking middle class Anglicans didn’t vote for brexit) begin to ‘re-engage, listen to the questions, and offer some answers’ to the benighted povvos that did, then they may ‘listen afresh to the gospel we proclaim’. Once again, close but no cigar.

Surely the gospel we proclaim should transcend issues of brexit and remain, party affiliation and, yes, even class. People will not reconnect with the gospel if we are happy to accede to their political opinions, they will respond to the gospel when the Holy Spirit works through the teaching of the Word and they see the inherent value, beauty and worth of Jesus Christ. Patronising the poor with a message of ‘we understand’ is not a fulfilment of the Great Commission. Reaching out across political, social, racial and intellectual lines with that great leveller – all fall short of the glory of God but salvation is open to all for in Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female (cf. Gal 3:28) – is surely more likely to reconnect people with the gospel because of the simple fact that it is the actual gospel. More to the point, the very gospel we proclaim is not patronising for in it we all, regardless of class and intellect, fall short of God’s glory and yet, in Christ, may all be co-heirs with him by faith. It is an equality agenda at its finest.

It is one thing to identify a problem in a church or denomination. It is certainly true that the church as a whole, not merely Anglicans, have become dominated by middle class professionals and academics who have, by and large, done little to reach those in deprived areas. Unfortunately, the Bishop’s answer is something of a swing and a miss. Of course the church (not just Anglicans) should seek afresh to reach deprived areas with the gospel (after all, Jesus himself said it is ‘good news to the poor’). The answer, however, does not lie in a patronising listening exercise whereby middle class Anglican clergy determine not to call those working class brexit voters idiots. If that is the new policy by which the Anglican communion hope swathes of heretofore truculent unbelievers will revive their flagging congregations, they seem on a hiding to nothing. If instead they recapture a love and passion for the true gospel of Jesus Christ, and develop a heart to share it with lost souls in deprived urban areas and council estates, then revival may be possible.

And there, in a nutshell, is the great need of the church at large. We need to recapture a passionate love for Jesus Christ. We need to rekindle our desire to see the good news proclaimed to all, not merely our own kind or those around whom we feel comfortable. We need to engage in genuine partnership across denominational lines based on essential gospel truth. Revival will not be found in political or social programmes, it will be based on grounding ourselves in the truth of God’s word and recognising that the gospel is good news for all the world but, as Jesus highlighted himself, it is especially good news for the poor. We ultimately need to recapture something of the vision of Jesus and then we may begin to reconnect with the marginalised working classes.

I can’t be self-interested, I’ve given a theological justification!


About a month ago, I wrote a piece titled Comfortable Christians are killing the church. I suggested church planting and revitalisation efforts in the UK, both within churches and larger national organisations, were being impeded by the unwillingness of Christians to move to where they might feel uncomfortable. I specifically pointed to places that, in reality, are not all that hard and yet the popular perception of these places mean few are willing to go. This, in turn, has led to a focus on those places that are in vogue where constituent members might be prepared to move. Where once pleasant market towns and villages saw Christians happily planting now, thanks in part to Tim Keller, the place du jour is the city, typically city centres and affluent suburbs. Such trends are leading to the death of the church in places like Middleborough, Rochdale and Oldham because those in relative comfort (and, for the record, these places are not terribly uncomfortable) simply will not deign to go in a spirit of gospel-heartedness or heartfelt care that poor people are dying in their sin.

I stand by my comments in the previous article. I make no bones about it and, if you’ve made it thus far, please don’t read on in the hope that this will turn into some sort of retraction. I firmly believe the church has reproduced the classist political cleavage that led to years of Northern deprivation and condemned people in such areas to a lost eternity for little more than the sake of relative ease. What I did not do in my previous post is flesh out how theological justifications are being used to underpin what is essentially a self-interested approach to church and mission.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for contextualisation. There is little point in waffling on about the original Greek ad nauseam to a group of people who have never set foot in a seminary (that would be true in most churches, most places). It is clearly right, just like Paul, to be ‘all things to all people, that by all means I might save some’. Contextualisation isn’t unimportant.

The problem lies not in the concept of contextualisation itself, but in the lie that unless I am like those I am seeking to reach I won’t be able to reach them. It is the view that only working class can reach working class, Chinese can reach Chinese and intellectual can reach intellectual. Of course, it is obviously true that such people can reach one another perfectly well and can often (though not always) understand cultural mindsets more readily. And let’s not ignore the fact that the apostles still took the gospel to their fellow Jewish people. But, and it’s a big but, they didn’t only reach the Jews as if they had absolutely nothing to say to the Gentile nations around them. Paul, an intellectual Jewish man, went to both educated and uneducated Gentile men and women. Nor did the ex-fishermen only countenance mission to fishermen while the ex-tax collectors focused only on their former colleagues.

In the name of contextualisation, however, church planters and core teams regularly seem to go to the places full of people like them. It’s less a response to Paul’s ‘all things to all people’ and more a case of ‘of course I’m going here because I fit in’. Contextualisation is a case of making the gospel accessible, without diluting its central truths, to those to whom we take it. It is a case of not making the gospel any more offensive than it inherently is by the way we convey it. But if we are already like the people to whom we take the gospel then we are not contextualising, we are just speaking to people already like me who think and act in the way I do. Ironically, this very argument of contextualisation employed to permit us to go to people exactly like us means that we end up avoiding the very thing we claim we want to do, contextualise the gospel.

If the apostles worked this way the gospel wouldn’t ever have reached the Gentiles. Which of the apostles was anything like any of us? Fortunately, the apostles aren’t like us in more ways than one and took the gospel to people, like us, who were specifically not like them.


Again, nothing wrong with the study of mission and thinking through what the Bible says about sharing the gospel and how we are to do it. But just as Orwell suggested some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them, so some justifications for our chosen mission field are so self-serving they require an MTh in missiology to suggest them.

The argument that indigenous people should reach indigenous people is a handy one for those who have an inherent desire to live near their family. It’s interesting how it quickly morphs into something approximating ‘I’m an intellectual so I need to be near intellectuals’ or ‘I’m a professional so I ought to reach professionals’ when we’re not from the area but our desire is to be with people with whom we feel an affinity. It’s also a fairly useful basis for not going anywhere we don’t like the look of, it’s just better for indigenous people from the deprived area to which I don’t want to go to reach their own kind. Never mind that there’s no churches in the area or anyone to train up indigenous people without people moving there – it’s missiologically inappropriate. We justify going wherever we want while retaining a clause to get us out of going anywhere we don’t fancy.

Once again, if the apostles insisted on this way of thinking we’d never get beyond the Jews in Jerusalem. Certainly the Samaritans would never have had a look in. Good to know we’re keeping up the faith once for all delivered to the apostles, only once it got delivered to us too we pull up the drawbridge and only let it down for people with whom I think I might connect.


If you’re still looking for ways to avoid somewhere, we can always pick holes in the church itself. Here the possibilities are endless. If we’re going to a church in need of help, we can decide the teaching is delivered in a way that’s not to my taste or the music isn’t so great, the evangelism isn’t the way I’d do it or I don’t feel I could connect with the people. Find out why the church isn’t perfect, and that’s easy enough because no church is, and use that as the reason you couldn’t possibly go.

If we’re looking to plant a new church, we can look for another church in the locality and decide we don’t want to plant on top of them. It’s very noble (though, we waive that if there’s a church in another area we do want to plant in). Failing that, we can always look to our core team. Of course, I’d go, it’s just our people won’t. As I can’t plant on my own, we’ll have to look somewhere else.

Here’s the thing, I appreciate not everybody is going to come to Oldham, Sunderland or West Bromwich and their ilk, honestly, I do. But can we just have a bit of honesty about the whole thing. Let me make these suggestions:

  1. Even if you don’t ultimately end up coming to a less desirable place, can we at least consider it honestly? I don’t mean mention its name with no intent of ever going, I mean genuinely consider it as a legitimate option.
  2. Seriously evaluate your motivations for going. Are you genuinely looking for where you can be useful for the kingdom or are you looking for a means of funding what you’d probably like to do even were you not a believer? Are you setting up a ‘artsy’ church plant in an artsy area because you basically want to indulge your artsy side and have found a means of funding it whilst salving your conscience by selling it as ‘for the Lord’? Or, are you genuinely going in a gospel-centred, servant-hearted endeavour for the good of the kingdom?
  3. Consider the state of the church where you’re going. Not all ‘hard to reach’ places are bereft of churches and not all affluent or edgy areas are replete (and, vice versa). It makes sense to go and help existing churches, or plant new ones, in areas where you will be used and where advance of the kingdom is likely. That is neither going to be the area choc-a-bloc full of churches nor in churches that are already doing well.
  4. If you do ultimately decide to stay where you are, or go somewhere reasonably sought after, please don’t dress it up. Can we admit, and be honest, about the reasons we perhaps didn’t end up somewhere harder?  It’s not always right to go, and not always self-interested to go somewhere else, but can we perhaps admit that sometimes we just don’t want to do what is uncomfortable.

Write to your MP about the investigatory powers bill

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You may or may not know about the Investigatory Powers Bill that is currently up for Royal Assent. The bill not only permits the mass mining of data, but enforces all UK internet providers to retain a record of every site visited by their customers. This goes much further than previous measures permitting the viewing of emails and website history with reasonable grounds for investigation. The internet history of every UK internet customer will be kept on file and can be accessed by a long and wideranging group of departments and organisations that simply have no business seeing such things (see here for a list of who will be permitted access to your data).

As a result, I have written to my MP outlining my concerns about the bill. I publish my letter below:

Dear Mr McMahon,

I am writing to express my alarm at the recent Investigatory Powers Bill that will force internet providers to retain a record of sites visited by their customers. I am especially concerned at the range of departments and organisations who are being permitted access to this mass data collection with little to no credible reasons given for why such should be permitted.

It was heartening to see the Labour leader voting against the measure but highly disappointing that the main objection was not from the Labour Party (and affiliates) en masse but from the SNP and Lib Dems.

I am highly troubled by the measure not only as a private citizen but as a local church leader with a significant number of asylum seekers within my congregation. Let me be as explicit as I can, these measures mirror with alarming precision the very measures implemented by those countries many of our communicants have been forced to flee. It is a well known fact that these are the kind of measures that not only tend to lead to, but are a specific mark of, totalitarian regimes. The many Iranians in our congregation can attest to it, as can some of those we support who are currently working in such countries.

These measures are indeed concerning in their own right, interfering as they do with a basic right to privacy. However, they are all the more pernicious when they are weighed against the increasing governmental interference in what we may freely say and, by extension, what passes as permissible thought. Coupled with the increasingly wide definition of ‘hate speech’, the government’s plans to OfSTED out of school religious settings (including Sunday Schools and holiday camps) and high profile cases such as that concerning Ashers Bakery, this feels like one further step on the road to an ever-real Orwellian dystopia. For, alongside what we are increasingly not permitted to say (or think) we are now going to be monitored to presumably make sure we don’t say or think the wrong things!

If this sounds unnecessarily alarmist, despite successive government’s promising that only terrorists need be concerned, I would point to the fact that numerous anti-terror laws and other civil laws have repeatedly been used to arrest peaceful street preachers, to silence political critics and demonstrators as well as being brought to boot in other arenas to stop those with ‘the wrong views’ adopting children or retaining certain jobs. Though I have no doubt these powers have, at times, been used against those who would commit terrorist activities, the regularity and consistency with which they have been used against those who pose no such threat give me absolutely no confidence these latest measures will not do the same. In fact, in this case, the investigatory powers bill insists our data must be kept on file, subjecting the entirety of the UK’s internet customers – which is the vast majority of the UK population – to measures intended to stop crime that the overwhelming majority will never be involved in nor even under suspicion for. This simply should not stand in a liberal democracy such as ours. It is evidence collection by proxy prior not only to being charged, or arrested, but prior to suspicion itself.

I would ask that you do all within your power to stand against this and any future such measures.

Yours sincerely,

Stephen Kneale

Minister, Oldham Bethel Church

Did Jesus actually turn water into beer?

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Did Jesus really turn water into wine or did he, as some aver, actually turn water into beer? It may seem like a stupid question. Partly, that’s because it is. It arises from some basic errors that masquerade as clever thinking in respect to the gospel writings. I raise it because, in a particularly silly article in the Guardian, I read the following:

If you’ve blown the dust from the original Bible like we have, you’ll know full well that Jesus Christ didn’t turn water into wine. No, he turned it into beer. The earliest scriptures state that Jesus, the lead character, turns water into shekhar [sic], a Hebrew word meaning strong drink and, crucially, a derivative of the ancient Semitic word sikaru – which means barley beer. The reason beer was banished from subsequent versions of the Bible was that, in an astonishing display of academic arrogance, 17th-century English translators believed beer to be beneath the son of God. So they took it upon themselves to transform Jesus Christ into a cork-sniffing, cravat-wearing wine-drinker, draped insouciantly on a banquette of an All Bar One. He wasn’t. He was a beer guy.

With similar, but slightly different, logic you can hear this on youtube:

This is all, of course, complete garbage.

We can look at the Greek of John 2:3:

κἀὶ ὑστερήσαντος οἴνου λέγει μήτηρ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ πρὸς αὐτόν οἶνον οὐκ ἔχουσιν

John 2:9

ὡς δὲ ἐγεύσατο ἀρχιτρίκλινος τὸ ὕδωρ οἶνον γεγενημένον καὶ οὐκ ᾔδει πόθεν ἐστίν οἱ δὲ διάκονοι ᾔδεισαν οἱ ἠντληκότες τὸ ὕδωρ φωνεῖτὸν νυμφίον ἀρχιτρίκλινος

And John 2:10

καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ πᾶς ἄνθρωπος πρῶτον τὸν καλὸν οἶνον τίθησιν καὶ ὅταν μεθυσθῶσιν τὸν ἐλάσσω σὺ τετήρηκας τὸν καλὸν οἶνον ἕως ἄρτι

We can note four uses of the word translated wine (οἶνος) across these verses. In each case, the specific word used is indeed the word for wine.

Neither can we suggest that this is a later 17th century addition nor, as the video claims, an addition by Pope Gregory in 349. In respect to the latter, Pope Gregory I became pope in 590AD, nearly 250 years after the video claims the Bible was finally placed in its canonical form. Athanasius in the mid-300s seemed confident that the canon had been agreed and, if any pope is to be associated with its final form, is likely to be Damasus I at the Council of Rome (though there is good evidence the canon had basically been agreed before this). Nonetheless, Damasus I encouraged what was to become the Latin Vulgate translated by Jerome in 382.

In any case, the gospel of John was written in Greek (despite the highly confused claim in the video that the Bible was written in “all sorts” of languages such as ‘Babylonian and Sumerian and whatnot’ – it wasn’t: it contains Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek). The Rylands Payrus, which can be viewed at John Rylands Library in Manchester, is a Greek fragment of John’s gospel dated to 90-125AD. Not only is 90AD within the latter end supposed of the apostle John’s life, this is an extant copy uncovered in Egypt. This means this Greek copy of John had made its way to Egypt some time before 100AD, giving strong evidence that the gospel was indeed written by the apostle after whom it is named.

Now, the date of John – and specifically the Rylands papyrus – is only significant for this discussion because it proves that a relatively early copy of the gospel, a copy well within the lifespan of the apostle himself, had been written in Greek, not Hebrew. This makes arguments referencing the Hebrew shekar a total red herring. For the gospel was not written in Hebrew, but Greek, and the manuscript evidence maintains that the water Jesus changed became οἶνος not shekar.

If John had intended to convey the Hebrew word shekar, he would have presumably used the Greek word σίκερα which is the standard loanword. Shekar is typically translated strong drink. It has a much wider meaning the ‘beer’ but can rightly refer to fermented barley drinks i.e. beer. The Greek has a specific loanword for shekar, σὶκερα. But John specifically does not use that word. He uses the standard word for wine, οἶνος. The only possible reference to shekar comes in the use of the word μεθύω (drunk). But clearly this is not a reference to the nature of the οἶνος Jesus made but the (potential) intoxication of the guests. In every instance of referring to whatever it was into which Jesus turned the water, we read οἶνος, that is wine.

So, did Jesus turn water into beer? No. The argument revolves around a basic false premise that the gospel was initially written in Hebrew (it wasn’t), that the Greek had no equivalent word for shekar (it does) and that οἶνος was a later addition with various reasons given for the motive in altering the wording (this does not stand up to the manuscript evidence). So no, Jesus did not turn water into beer. John intended to tell us that Jesus turned water into wine, without the Guardian’s additions of cravats and corks.

For goodness sake, can we just stop banning everything!


*sigh* Another day, another stupid ban passed by small-minded people. I would love to dress it up but there really is no other way to put it. The irony of such small-minded people banning a series of newspapers on the grounds that they are small-minded should not be lost on any of us. Nor should the irony of City University of London, famed for its school of journalism, passing a measure to ban The SunDaily Express and Daily Mail newspapers be lost on us either. In an equally ironic twist, lacking any evidence of self-awareness, the fascist-style ban – determining right thinking that can be permitted on the university campus – was passed under a motion titled ‘opposing fascism and social divisiveness in the UK media‘. You can read about the farce at one of the newspapers these bien pensants have deemed acceptable here.

Theoretically, I am exactly the sort of person who should, on paper, support the motion. I, for example, do not like the journalism of any of the papers up for banning at City University. I do not share their views and I find many of their journalistic practices highly unpleasant. At the same time, I spent considerable time living in Liverpool and am a Liverpool Football Club fan. Surely, if anyone should support this motion, it should be me. But I don’t. And, I repeat again, it is small-minded and stupid.

Here are several of the reasons why:

I support a free society

It is a basic hallmark of all anti-democratic, authoritarian and despotic regimes that the press is not free. It begins with censorship, then bans on particular titles quickly followed up by permission for only state-sponsored media outlets to operate. It doesn’t take a lot of thought to see how such censorship in the press has direct knock-on effects for freedom of thought.

Ian Hislop hits the nail on the head here:

What right do we have to expect our own views to be permitted if we think it acceptable to go round banning those of others? It’s easy to argue when we, and most the people we know, don’t like the thing we’re banning. But as more and more things are banned, things come closer to home. If we don’t reject the principle when it first rears its head, even on those things we don’t like, we have no right to defend it when it attacks the things that we ourselves believe.

We don’t train people to think by banning views they don’t like

How on earth can we possibly know that with which we disagree if we are never allowed to engage with it? If we ban everything we don’t like, we will either never encounter alternative views to our own or we will only ever meet straw men presented by people who don’t hold the view we dislike. Whilst such measures might mean we all assent to the same orthodoxy (see the point below), it will inevitably mean we never learn how to address views we don’t all already hold. If we don’t ever engage with views we don’t hold, how can we ever be trained to think properly?

It does sometimes seem that universities are more interested in training people in what to think as opposed to how to think. How you reason seems to now be subservient to the conclusion you draw. It is sadly endemic and is not unique to City University.

We don’t stop views we don’t like by banning them

If the history of authoritarian regimes tells us anything it is that censorship, bans and impediments to free thought do not squash the views we don’t like. Note the growth of the Evangelical church in places such as China and Iran. Think of the resistance in both fascist and communist authoritarian regimes. The ideas and views that the government sought to eradicate never went away, in fact, they often grew and expanded. People do not stop holding particular views because the government, or some other authoritarian body, tell them not to think them.

All that is ever achieved by bans of this sort is that unpalatable views are driven underground, where they go totally unchecked. They are free of debate because nobody feels free to own them and so nobody else can actually challenge them. Let’s be honest, the BNP went through a resurgence in the UK for a brief time whilst they were locked out of most mainstream political discussions. They were given  platform following their resurgence and since then found themselves bankrupt and now defunct. Is it coincidental that once their views were permitted expression they died as a political force? Possibly, but it is some coincidence.

The views of a few are dictating to the many

Perhaps most interestingly, the motion at City University was passed by c. 200 students. As a proportion of their c. 19,500 student body that is little over 1%. A tiny group are dictating to a much wider number.

When we look at this same issue affecting wider society, it is clear the same applies. Simply compare the readership of the likes of the Sun and Daily Mail to that of papers like the Guardian and The Times. Regardless of how much we may dislike the former, it is clear that they have much wider readership than the papers we (or, rather, I) might prefer. Whilst I wouldn’t dare suggest the Guardian or The Times themselves are pressing these bans, clearly the action is being pressed by some of their readers. Those who read a paper that offers minority views (certainly has a minority of readers) dictate bans to those with a much wider readership. The same applies whether it is a liberal elite or an authoritarian government. Those with a minority view seek to impose it on a majority.


As I have said many times before, the answer to views we don’t like is not censorship or banning. We either engage the views and explain why they are wrong or we simply choose to avoid it ourselves.

If we want to live in a free society, newspapers should be free to print what they want, retailers should be free to stock what they want and we should be free to buy, or not buy, whichever of them we want. We are certainly within our rights – as many in Liverpool have done – to refuse to buy something en masse and to ask retailers not to stock the offending rag. Retailers are free to make their own decision on that, whether out of principle or mere response to the market, the fact that nobody would buy the stocked item. What we are not within our rights to do is ban something because we don’t like it.

That is why this particular ban is jejune and infantile. In a bid to oppose ‘fascism’ they impose a fascist ban. In a country that lauds its free press, they move to ban certain press titles. In the name of permitting truth, they ban anything that does not accord with the truth as they would like to present it. In a bid to defend the many, they impose a ban despite the purchasing habits of the many they claim to protect. It is itself censorious, childish, patronising and pathetic. Those imposing it ought to be ashamed.

Study finds conservative theology leads to church growth


The Guardian have reported that a new study has found that theological belief is closely tied to church growth. Specifically, they state:

Churches that are theologically conservative with beliefs based on a literal interpretation of the Bible grow faster than those with a liberal orientation, according to a five-year academic study.

The study compared the beliefs and practices of both church leaders and worshippers in congregations that are growing and those that are declining. Uniformly, the study found that those experiencing decline hold to liberal theology whilst those experiencing growth are theologically conservative and often evangelical in practice. The paper reports that among the the key findings were:

  • Only 50% of clergy from declining churches agreed it was “very important to encourage non-Christians to become Christians”, compared to 100% of clergy from growing churches.

  • 71% of clergy from growing churches read the Bible daily compared with 19% from declining churches.

  • 46% of people attending growing churches read the Bible once a week compared with 26% from declining churches.

  • 93% of clergy and 83% of worshippers from growing churches agreed with the statement “Jesus rose from the dead with a real flesh-and-blood body leaving behind an empty tomb”. This compared with 67% of worshippers and 56% of clergy from declining churches.

  • 100% of clergy and 90% of worshippers agreed that “God performs miracles in answer to prayers”, compared with 80% of worshippers and 44% of clergy from declining churches.

The paper report ‘[David] Haskell [lead researcher] said he expected the findings of the study, which was not commissioned by any group or organisation, to be controversial’. He went on to say:

If you’re in a mainline church and that church is dying, and you’ve just heard that the theological position that you have is likely what’s killing it, you’re not going to be very happy about that, Theological orientation cuts to the very core of the religious practitioner.

The reality is that such findings ratify what has long been known. One does not have to conduct an extensive survey to know that the Evangelical church is growing in the UK whilst those wedded to theological liberalism have long been in decline and many have died altogether. Evangelicals across all denominations have long contended that, despite overall figures on church attendance, their churches are indeed growing. The findings will come as no real shock to anybody who cares to look.

What is perhaps more interesting, if perhaps unsurprising, is the direct link between church growth and theology. It has sometimes been assumed that Evangelical praxis has been the driver of church growth. Specifically, the Evangelical desire to actually evangelise, unlike their liberal counterparts who tend not to, was often identified as the fundamental reason behind church growth. Of course, one is unlikely to bother sharing the gospel unless there is a real belief in it and a theological imperative to do so. That is something, if not unique to Conservative Evangelicals, uniquely worked out by them. These findings show that Conservative theology, and specifically Conservative Evangelical doctrine (I suspect the Guardian are being a little simplistic in their ‘literal belief’ tag, for it depends exactly what they mean by that), is the basic catalyst behind church growth.

Again, though, this should hardly surprise us. If one believes Jesus Christ really and physically rose from the dead that inevitably has major implications that must be worked out in real ways. If you simply believe that is a historic story, embellished for the purposes of teaching moralism, you are left with little more than an fable from Aesop whose implications you can take or leave. If you aren’t even convinced it’s primarily a moral myth, you are left with a historical narrative that you believe to be entirely made up – there are no implications and giving up a morning a week, especially given the busy schedule of modern life, why on earth would you bother?

And at heart, that drives just about everything. If you believe implications abound from a real bodily resurrection of Jesus, and you believe if that is true the rest of the Bible must also be true, the Biblical mandate to meet together regularly will be seen as a command from the same God who raised Jesus back to life. Such a belief system inevitably leads to a strong desire to share scriptural truth with others. As the study notes, ‘because they are profoundly convinced of [the] life-saving, life-altering benefits that only their faith can provide, they are motivated by emotions of compassion and concern to recruit family, friends and acquaintances into their faith and into their church’. One can go further, the Bible even tells us to love strangers and our enemies. If we really believe it, and we really believe the Bible is God’s inspired word, that is a powerful motivator.

Compare that with the belief system of the theological liberal. If the Bible is a mere source document, at best valuable for moral thoughts, there is no more reason to follow it than there is to read Herodotus and do the same. If the Bible is not God’s inspired word to us, then we can read it as nothing more than the thoughts of men who may, or may not, have some good insights for us. The imperatives can be read as advisory and, when I don’t feel like doing them or I simply disagree with them, I can jettison them entirely. Any sense of community I receive from my church is not based on a shared belief, for we may all draw different and contradictory conclusions about what we a reading. The church becomes little more than a shared interest group, a special interest historical society, but one that doesn’t permit the insights of its members so much as it receive a lecture each week from the same teacher, who continues to carry out rituals that none of us believe are of any value or merit. It is not hard to see how such a system inevitably becomes empty and those looking in from outside cannot see the purpose in joining. The benefits of coming in could be enjoyed in any shared interest group, usually over an interest in which the onlooker is eminently more interested.

All of this is a potent reminder to the Conservative Evangelical of the importance of clear Biblical teaching. This study is, in fact, another evidence of the truth of the Bible’s claims:

I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Rom 1:14-17)

People grow up


The Evangelical Christian world is particularly small in the UK. It is not at all unusual to meet people I knew growing up, or from university, in a new town or at some other church. It leads to that strange feeling of meeting someone ‘out of context’. It is also not at all unusual to find friends and acquaintances from one context befriend, marrying or doing work with friends and acquaintances from an entirely different context, where it often feels like worlds colliding. And as small as the Evangelical Christian world is, the theologically reformed Evangelical world is smaller still. And so it is even more common to find people I knew from years ago, some 15, 20 or 25 years later, in ministry posts of one sort of another.

I suspect I am not alone in looking at some of those set apart for ministry, who I knew from another context, and thinking to myself ‘you sent him to there!’. Usually behind that is the sense that, if he is anything like he was when I knew him, he is surely not qualified or cut out for ministry. I have no doubt people will have looked at me and had exactly the same sort of thoughts. And how could they not?

People who know you from particular contexts, and then don’t see you for some time, have an idea of you that is effectively frozen in time. There are those who remember me from when I was 3 and simply cannot reconcile the fact that the little toddler they remember is an adult at all. There are those who knew me as a teenager who cannot fathom how that rebellious oik can be a church minister. There are those who knew me as a student and… well, the less said about that the better really. And, of course, the reality is that if I were precisely the same as I was then their shock and concern would be entirely appropriate. Any minister who behaved like I did at any of those points is neither cut out, nor qualified, for ministry. That is the brutal truth.

Yet, happily, I can say truly with John Newton ‘I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am’. Indeed, if God’s Spirit is at work within me at all – and, as a believer in Christ, he must be – Paul tells us, ‘we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3:18). Indeed, Paul tells us such progressive sanctification is God’s overtly stated will (1 Thess 4:3). This is the very purpose of Christ:

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph 6:25b-27)

If the Spirit of God is at work – and the Bible is clear that he must be if the person is truly a believer – we should not be surprised when people we knew in one context, at one point in time, move on to serve the Lord in ways that we would never have seen at the time. It is simply not fair to remember what someone was like at university and think ‘how have they gotten into ministry?’ I know what I was like as a student and I would hate for anyone to use that as a legitimate reason to preclude me from serving the Lord today.

If the Lord can work in such a sinner as me, why on earth should he not do the same in others? If it’s not fair for people to remember my teenage years and suggest I am incapable of ministry, it is no more right for me to do it to others – especially when I was almost certainly worse than them! The Biblical criteria for eldership are pointedly not retrospective,  they demand the character criteria in the person we know today. Indeed, how could they – as Paul says:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6:9-11)

If the character criteria for church leadership were retrospective, not one person would be capable of meeting them. Nor are they criteria demanding perfection, as Paul again says ‘Not that I… am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own’ (Phi 3:12). This means that the character criteria for ministry are neither retrospective nor  demands for spiritual perfection.

It means, when looking for leaders of the church, we deal with the person we see today. Does the person standing immediately before us meet the character criteria now or not? We are not asking whether this guy was a great witness at school or if they were the most theologically deep student (neither of which, incidentally, are listed as qualifications for eldership). Rather, we ask whether the person before us today clearly exhibits the criteria Jesus demands of his undershepherds. We ask these questions with a few others at the forefront of our minds. If I was to be judged today as the child/teenager/student/unbeliever I was, (1) would I be able to stand?, (2) would that be fair?, and (3) would we expect those in whom the Spirit is at work to be the same?