On Comic Relief

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It is that time of year again. Folk shaking buckets at you and the ever-so-fun sponsored charitable acts. Woe betide if you don’t throw your coins at the strangers insisting you give them money – it’s for charity. Are you some sort of monster? Now wind down your window and give us your cash!

I have written before about my dislike of Red Nose Day (see here). The reasons I personally don’t get on with it are legion. Admittedly, some of those reasons are more legitimate than others. I accept my loathing of the forced fun is not necessarily widely shared and certainly, of itself, is not reason to withhold charitable donations from the needy. Here are some more credible reasons why I am wary of throwing my lot into Comic Relief.

Assumption that ‘giving to charity’ is an inherent good

Don’t get me wrong here, I think giving to worthy causes is very good. I am all for charitable giving. However, we have reached a point in society where simply ‘giving to charity’ is deemed a good almost regardless of who the charity happens to be. Under the umbrella of ‘charitable work’ you could work for entirely opposing charitable purposes without ever being questioned. The reason we are often given for Comic Relief is that it is ‘for charity’ as if that, of itself, is necessarily a good. But there are charities whose purposes most of us wouldn’t support. For example, giving to many religious organisations is often charitable. If I said I was giving to charity, that would be seen as inherently good. If I said my charitable giving was to my local church, or mosque, or some such, I suspect there would be less universal approval.

The problem with Comic Relief is that in the name of ubiquitous ‘charity’ it is deemed an ultimate good. The social pressure to engage just because that word ‘charity’ is invoked is immense. It is almost cultic in its application. Comic Relief encourages this thoughtless approach to charitable giving.

Lack of transparency

A similarly linked concern is the lack of transparency. Charitable giving is not always the obvious good that is presumed. Therefore, we ought to be giving to those charities whose aims are genuinely good and who lead to good being done in practice.

There are many charitable organisations with whom I simply cannot agree on their aims. A more obvious example would be the British Humanist Association. This is an organisation that promotes a philosophy with which I deeply disagree and who actively work to limit freedoms for people of faith. This is not a charity I would want to support.

Likewise, there are charities that I believe have good intentions, whose aims are laudable, but whose practices do more harm than good. Take Kids Company as a case in point. Here is a charity setup with the expressed intention of supporting inner-city deprived children. That is clearly a very laudable thing. However, some of the practices of the organisation – such as giving children cash payouts – was criticised as rather exacerbating many of the problems faced by inner-city children. Though the organisation had laudable aims, some its practices were down right detrimental to its own cause as well as creating other problems in areas beyond its own concern. Not only should you know about the specific aims and intentions of the charity you support, it is important to know about its practices and whether you can support the means of the charity as well as the ends.

Now consider Comic Relief. It acts as an umbrella for a whole swathe of different charities. There is simply no way we can ever fully investigate all the charities to whom it will give. We aren’t ever going to know all their aims and gain an understanding of their basic practices. I don’t necessarily want to say this is the fault of Comic Relief but it is the reality. There is a lack of transparency, by its very nature, over where your money is going. Though the pictures on TV are of starving Africans getting food and homeless people receiving shelter, there are hundreds of charities supported doing wildly different things. It surely cannot be good to simply give your money away and not know to what you are giving, especially if it goes to charities you would feel deeply uncomfortable supporting if only you knew.

There is a better way

Let me be clear, I am not encouraging a lack of charitable giving here. I am not saying do not give to charity and do not support good works. What I am saying is make sure you know where your money is going and what you are supporting. With that in mind, there is a better way.

Rather than giving to an opaque umbrella organisation, work out which charities you do want to support – find out about their aims and their practices – and then give money to them. If you want to raise money on Red Nose Day itself, that’s fine. Just don’t give the money to Comic Relief, give it directly to the charity you actually wish to support. This has the dual benefit of knowing precisely where your money is going and the charity receiving more of your donation because there are no administrative costs or middle men to go through.

Even better, why not identify a charity you really want to support and give to it regularly? I could do a sponsored whatever once per year and give X amount to charity. But isn’t better if I give regularly and stay informed about what my charity is doing and how they are using the money I give? Just by taking a more regular interest the charity is more likely to grow because people see the need and consider volunteering. Regular, ongoing gifts are usually more valuable than one-off single donations.

I am all for charitable giving. I am just for thoughtful, considered charitable giving. I am not for money being thrown at some nebulous concept of charity. I am for people engaging with specific charities with actual aims and practices that we understand and can support wholeheartedly with our eyes open. It is my view that Comic Relief undercuts such good charitable giving.

Anyway, do forgive me if I don’t do a sponsored funny walk in a big wig (what larks these things are!) nor throw some coins into your bucket. And it would be terrific if we could just dial down the derision for those who choose not to partake. After all, it’s not really charitable giving when we force people into it, is it?

Three simple responses to the London terror attack

TOPSHOT - A picture obtained from the Tw

Once again, a crude terror attack has taken place in our capital. Five people have been confirmed dead – including one police officer and the perpetrator – whilst around 40 others have been seriously injured. Details of the events can be found here.

So how are we to respond to such attacks? Here are some simple things we might consider.

Carry on as normal

There is no doubt at all that those who carry out these attacks are looking to do much more than kill a handful of people. They don’t want to hurt a few, they want to strike fear into the many. It is heartening, then, that the Houses of Parliament are sitting as normal today. There is no change to the schedule. London itself has carried on much as before. This is exactly the sort of response required. To change our behaviour and begin to live in fear is to let the terrorists succeed.

We must now be sure not impose knee-jerk reactive safety measures. No doubt there will questions about what could be done and what lessons can be learnt. Whilst it is conceivable that some preventative measure might have been possible, this is only true if the attacker was on the radar of security services (for which there has to be a reason) and there was some intelligence that said something was going to take place. Barring these things, and prevention is only a conceivable possibility even if these things are true, there is nothing that can be done. We cannot account for someone hiring a car and mowing down innocent by-standers.

The natural impulse is to now start asking ‘what can be done?’ And history suggests that we will seek to do something, even if just to make ourselves feel better. Such somethings tend to be ineffective against the problem at hand and rather effective at curtailing the liberty of all those who would seek to live peaceably. Let us carry on as before, let us not begin curtailing the freedom of all because of one man. Let us show that we are not scared and that that a liberal democracy will not cease to be a liberal democracy simply because a tiny, insignificant number wish to do harm.

Love you Muslim neighbour

I can say from experience that your Muslim neighbours will be more terrified than anyone today. Regardless of what some may believe, the vast majority of Muslims in no way support this sort of terrorist action. Most Muslims people believe Islam to be a religion of peace and wish to live peacefully. We can get into discussions about what the Qur’an actually says, or what certain brands of Islam demands, but these shoot past the issue. Many, if not most, Muslims do not recognise Islam in this way. Muslim people in Britain will today be terrified that they will all be tarred with the same brush and potentially targeted as a result.

The best response is to love our Muslim neighbours. Let us not begin a game of guilt by association (as if the Muslims near you have any link to the man who carried out the attack anyway). Let us truly reflect the truth of the gospel and love our Muslim neighbours. Let us listen to their concerns and fears, show them that we do not believe they are the same as this man and let us show the love of Christ to them. If a terror attack is designed to spread fear, the Bible tells us the antidote to fear is love.

Consider eternity

Whilst we should not shrink back in fear, the truth is that at times like these we are confronted with the reality of death. The world is not as God originally intended it to be. Death is simultaneously the most natural, and yet most unnatural, thing in the world. Inevitably, our thoughts at this time must turn to the reality of our finite span.

The brutal truth is that none of us will escape death and we cannot know when it will come to us. The question is whether we are ready to face it? The Bible tells us ‘it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes the judgement’ (Heb 9:27). Just as death is inevitable so is the judgement of God. The question is not so much are you ready to die but what will you say when faced with a righteous and holy God?

For the Christian, the answer is not that we are good people. It is not that we hope we’ve done enough to warrant getting into Heaven. For us, the answer is Jesus Christ. It is by our union with him, through the forgiveness of our sin in him, through the righteousness we receive from him, that we are counted right with God. The reason we can say we are ready to meet our maker is because we have nothing to fear in standing before him.

As the apostle John says:

13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.17By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:13-19)

Jesus came to be the saviour of the world. By faith in him, our sin has been dealt with at the cross. So now, we have no cause to fear because God loved us enough to send his Son to die for us and, by faith, grant the forgiveness of sin. Where sin has been forgiven, there is no fear because there is no threat of punishment any longer. Are you, on that basis, ready to meet your maker?

If a terrorist atrocity is designed to engender fear, let us know that perfect love which drives out fear. Let us carry on as before, let us love our neighbours (especially our Muslim neighbours) with that perfect love that comes from the Father. Let us know the joy of freedom from fear because of the perfect love and forgiveness we receive from the Father.

Reporting on Martin McGuinness’ death says something about modern sensibilities

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News rolled in yesterday that Martin McGuinness had died. You can read reports here, here and here amongst others.

Most of my academic work has been focused on Northern Ireland. It was a major focus of my undergraduate History & Politics degree, the political development of Loyalism formed the basis of my dissertation and my Master’s thesis focused upon the role of Evangelicals in the politics of Northern Ireland. Since then, I have had an article published in the Evangelical Review of Theology & Politics on Evangelical interpretations of The Troubles and the role of eschatology in forming their views. So, I am fairly au fait with the goings on in the region in both the political and theological arenas.

What has been interesting about the reporting is that whilst there is a recognition of McGuinness’ past, there seems to be a disproportionate focus upon the last decade of his life. Everybody seems willing to acknowledge his one time provisional IRA commandership, and his subsequent rise to become the Chief of Staff on the Army Council, but they are also keen to emphasise his role as a peacemaker and chief negotiator for Sinn Fein during the peace process. Much is made of his willingness to enter a power-sharing government as Deputy First Minister alongside the Rev Dr Ian Paisley with much talk, even from Paisley’s son, about whatever occurred in the past it is how one finishes one’s life that is important.

I find such sentiments commendable but misplaced. As a Christian, I am all for the view that ending well is vitally important. Whilst it is true that McGuinness laid down his weapons and sought to bring about his aims by constitutional means by the end of his life, it is telling that he at no point repented of his previous actions. We have a man who did not disavow the violent means he once propagated but one who, for strategic reasons, decided to change course when an opportunity to further his cause constitutionally arose.

Let us just be clear what led Martin McGuinness on the road to peace. The IRA had been infiltrated by British intelligence to the point that it was going to implode and the majority of members brought to book. Around the same time, Tony Blair swept to power in 1997 and Sinn Fein relentlessly targeted that government for assurances of immunity for those involved in terrorist activities and other such unjust concessions. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement provided a great opportunity for McGuinness to exploit his aims constitutionally.

Having been a key player within the negotiations, Sinn Fein portrayed the agreement subsequently as a sell out for Republicanism and portrayed themselves as more authentically Republican than their peaceable SDLP counterparts. This led to huge electoral gains for Sinn Fein who, at the same time as agreeing to decommission IRA weaponry (a reality questioned by the DUP and undermined by various weapons cache discoveries), framed the GFA as falling short. Whilst the DUP made similar hay with the GFA from a Unionist stand point, and made huge electoral gains from the dominant Ulster Unionists nigh on wiping them out as an electoral force, they were not party to the negotiations and thus rejected the GFA before, during and after. Sinn Fein, by contrast, were party to the negotiations and central to the agreement yet characterised it as a poor deal for Republicans and overtook the SDLP as the dominant Nationalist/Republican party.

All of this is to say that Martin McGuinness did not choose the path of peace because he renounced his violent past. At no point did McGuinness ever apologise for the death and destruction he both ordered and carried out. His move into peaceful constitutional politics coincided precisely with the infiltration of the IRA and subsequent moves to prosecute its members. The GFA provided early release for those currently serving prison sentences for terror activities and led to cover for those subsequently known to be involved. The opportunity to court the Blair government led to “comfort letters” offering immunity to those on the run from the law and other such unjust deals. McGuinness spied an opportunity for Sinn Fein both during and following the GFA to meaningfully work towards his goal of 32-county Irish Unification. It was this opportunism – both to avoid the rule of law and to meaningfully advance IRA aims constitutionally – that led Martin McGuinness down the road to peace.

Nobody can deny that Martin McGuinness choosing to follow the path of peace was a major part of the peace that now holds in Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, it is also impossible to deny that McGuinness was a major reason a peace process was required in the first instance. When Julie Hambleton – who lost her sister, Maxine, in an IRA car bombing – was asked her views on Martin McGuinness speaking at a peace lecture in Warrington, she replied that it was like ‘asking Myra Hindley to give a talk on child protection’. Praising a man who shot and bombed, and ordered many more shootings and bombings, both within Northern Ireland and on the British mainland, and who remains unrepentant about the so-called need for violent struggle at the time, is like applauding a wife beater for finally deciding, after many decades, to stop battering his wife. It is not praiseworthy that McGuinness gave up armed conflict, it is shameful that he ever took it up.

It is also worth contrasting the comment following Ian Paisley’s death to that surrounding Martin McGuinness. McGuinness was a man who engaged in violent killings and yet, because many sympathise with both his wider political views and his specific political aims for Northern Ireland, he is lauded as a man of peace. Ian Paisley, who never killed anybody and – despite the efforts over many years of some to implicate him – has never been linked with violent conflict and has consistently denounced it on all sides. Nonetheless, many still viewed Paisley as a ‘dangerous man’ and heaped opprobrium upon him (see here, for example). McGuiness killed many people, yet because he held the “right” views is lauded as a peacemaker. Paisley, who never killed anybody, held the “wrong” views and was excoriated. Whilst I rarely agreed with Ian Paisley politically, what first fired my interest in Northern Ireland was why a man so openly against violence was treated with scorn whilst those who openly espoused it were lauded. I found myself in the rather uncomfortable position of seeking to defend a man with whom I disagreed politically yet who often did not deserve the derision he received, especially when compared with those actively encouraging violent conflict.

As one who sits happily on the left of the political spectrum and who takes no ideological view on the position of Northern Ireland (save a constitutional one that says a 2/3 majority view within the region should prevail), the comparison is instructive of a modern way of thinking. A man who holds the right views but behaves atrociously is seen as more palatable than a man whose views do not chime with mainstream thought but who never engaged in,  nor encouraged, violent activity and consistently denounced it throughout his career. As I have mentioned before (see here), it is a blindspot that is a major problem. It is a view that says I will justify unconscionable behaviour when it is in the name of a cause to which I am sympathetic. It is this same mindset that happily sees authoritarian tendencies in the government close down speech I don’t like, behaviour I find objectionable and all manner of things simply because it is a view or behaviour of which I happen to disapprove. It only ever seems to concern some when these same tendencies close down words and behaviours that affect my freedom to say and do the things I want to say and do. We have now reached a point where supposedly right thought trumps any sense of right action.

I would love us to assess the life and work of Martin McGuinness with an understanding that thoughts and actions must be assessed together. Hagiography ought not to be the order of the day.

How do you grow a church when converts can’t stay?

A church and mosque in Oldham, Lancashire, England, United Kingdom, Europe

There is a traditional church growth model that is brilliant in its simplicity. You plant a church into an area and send your people out on mission. As they take the gospel out, local people respond to Jesus Christ and come into the church. As these local people join the church, they are discipled within the church and go out to reach others. All the while, the church leaders are training those coming in who grow up to maturity and become church leaders who, in turn, train up the next generation of converts. This model sees growth by local conversion, training within the church and new generations of disciples raised up for a sustainable, long-term gospel witness.

The above model works brilliantly in some areas, but it typically only works where there is an existing steady community of people or an incoming population likely to settle and remain in the area. It also only works well when converts are not ostracised, or endangered, as a result of their conversion.

In Oldham, this model for church growth simply does not work. In our area of Glodwick, our primary (but not exclusive) mission field is to Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. With all the will in the world, we are not going to get local Muslim people converting to Christianity being able to settle and remain in the locality. It would not be safe for many of them to do so. Whatever fruit we may see from our work amongst such groups, though we will see growth for the kingdom, it will not generally lead to growth in the membership of our local church.

Another group to whom we have a significant mission is asylum seekers, particularly those from Iran. Again, however, though we do have some Iranian believers in membership we are conscious that they are not a steady and settled group. Those who are still awaiting asylum may be moved at any moment to another area. Those who have had their asylum granted must find housing that may not available for them locally. They are also in need of work which is not easy to come by in Oldham. Very often, though we see fruit among such people and some do come into church membership, long-term they are not a group that are likely to settle and remain in the area.

The question is how do you build a church when your converts, of necessity, cannot remain with you? A related question is how do you effectively church plant (which we would love to do when we are able) when those won for the kingdom cannot stay to be discipled locally and then sent to lead churches in nearby needy areas?

Given the number of Iranians within our congregation, we could theoretically find a Farsi-speaking minister and plant an Iranian church locally. As I point out here, this isn’t a great gospel strategy. It might look good on our CV (see, we planted a church!) but it will almost certainly be a church that can only reach Farsi-speakers. This means, at best, it will be a church that draws people from a wide geographical area based purely on language. It also means we are undercutting the gospel imperative to mirror the truth of the gospel in the makeup of our churches. We are institutionalising churches by ethnicity and language which the gospel actively encourages us not to do (cf. Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). Doing this segregates God’s people for purely pragmatic language reasons and ends up creating neither local church – being as they draw those of like language from a distance – nor church that mirrors the unity into which the gospel calls us.

We used to have a Congolese church meeting in our building later on a Sunday afternoon. This was precisely what we found occurring with them. They would draw a number of French-speaking Congolese people from a wide geographical area who had absolutely zero connection to the local community nor had any great desire to reach them. Coupled to this, given that they laid out their stall as a French-speaking Congolese church, they inevitably only reached French-speaking, black African people (largely only Congolese people). They couldn’t credibly have a mission to anybody else because it would be weird at best, and impossible at worst, for any ethnically and linguistically different person to engage.

It is for this reason we have chosen to actively translate as much of our service as we can into Farsi. This means the Farsi-speaking contingent are able to engage with the same sermon and service together as one church with everybody else. We do not have a church within a church nor one church with separate meetings. We are consciously one in Christ Jesus. We have one or two other smaller groups who speak other languages. We seek to include them as best we are able to encourage the church to reflect the unity of the gospel.

The problem we have, however, is that we cannot rely upon converts coming into the church, staying and ultimately leading because the vast majority of those who come to know the Lord through our church are in no position to stay local when they do. This means the church functions in a similar way to a mission post. The difficulty is that for a mission post to function, there needs to be a steady stream on people willing to commit to the mission from outside (if converts can’t remain and commit to mission from inside).

In some areas, this is less of a problem than others (though, no doubt, still a problem). In sought-after areas, or areas of high employment, or areas with a university, there will be a steady stream of outsiders coming into the area. A number students will likely stay in the area they studied, those moving in for work will often look for a church and those churches in affluent areas don’t have too much difficulty enticing people to settle down. In areas like Oldham, there is no university feeding us students, no major employers bringing workers into the town and being labelled ‘most deprived town in England’ makes settling down a hard sell. It is difficult for us to grow by conversion, given the problems associated with converts remaining local, yet no obvious way for us recruit believers from outside to help in the ripe mission God has granted us.

For us, it is only going to be by a move of God’s Spirit and a recapturing of the missionary-heart that drives us out of our comfort zones to serve people and place that are not like us that will permit the work to continue in places like Oldham. The answer to both of our questions is quite simple:

Q: how do you build a church when your converts, of necessity, cannot remain with you?
A: other churches must send workers to build the kingdom.

Q: how do you effectively church plant when those won for the kingdom cannot stay to be discipled locally?
A: other churches must send workers to support the existing mission of the church with a view to some of them being sent locally to plant churches.

Whilst the answer is profoundly simple, it is highly unlikely to happen. Churches are too guarded with their resources to send out so many unless it redounds to their good PR. People are unwilling to move to places like Oldham when they can serve in valuable work in areas that require considerably less sacrifice.

Oldham is a borough of some 220,000 people with very little gospel witness. The areas of the borough with sound churches are not well resourced. There are areas of the borough with no gospel witness at all. We would love to plant in these areas and we have a vision that we will plant when we are able. We may seek to do this in concert with others. But unless the existing gospel-centred churches are properly resourced with finances and workers, the current gospel work will fade away and the areas with no gospel witness will be that much less likely to get any.

Can we please stop over-resourcing “successful” larger churches? Or: on sending resources where they’re needed

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One of the difficulties of running a church in an undesirable area is the problem of partnership. I have noted some of these issues here, here, here, and here. Short of a gospel-centred missionary spirit, few people are going to come to towns like Oldham.

Even before we begin discussing the sharing of resources, however, there often seems to be an inbuilt bias towards the larger so-called successful churches. For example, it is not at all uncommon for systems to be setup by those in larger churches that inevitably serve churches like theirs. It often feels like those with vast resources create systems that will permit them to utilise even more whilst those with little money or people cannot access those same systems. If you create a system of providing workers that requires churches to raise up and fund workers from within in order to receive another worker, you have effectively determined that those with the financial and human resources to do this (who, by definition, need extra workers the least) may gain more, whilst those in dire need of such resources can’t have any because they don’t have the money or people to function within your system.

It is also common for organisations to give the big ‘successful’ church far more air time than those labouring in small churches. Those who lead larger churches are given platforms because they are large and notable. Due to such publicity, their adverts for mission trainees and workers and pastors are more widely publicised. On top of this, people who have heard of your church and engaged with writings by those church leaders are always likely to generate more interest. Again, this leads to larger churches receiving more workers more readily.

This same principle is often at play when it comes to conferences. Those at larger churches are often presumed to be the most able speakers whilst those from smaller churches are often overlooked. Often, this has nothing to do with the relative quality on offer and more to do with the fact nobody has bothered going and listening to what the smaller guys are like.

When larger churches are prepared to work with smaller ones, it often extends only as far as sending a few visiting speakers. The impression (sometimes) given is that the larger church is far too big and successful to have those taking their first steps into preaching ministry bringing down the quality of the weekly preaching, but the smaller parochial guys who are desperate for help won’t mind our lower quality offerings and it will help train our people for us. Whilst the sharing of speakers is a great way to partner together, and should be encouraged, it can belie a view that the small unsuccessful church is not important enough to worry about sending our best people. It was a blessing to us that this last Sunday a local church sent their Senior Pastor to preach for us. There was no sense that the small inferior place down the way could ‘make do’ with someone who has never set foot in a pulpit (not that we are against helping to train those taking their first steps into ministry, as I have explained at length here – see particularly points 2 and 3). We linked with a church recently and specifically wanted to give their green speakers opportunities to develop their preaching gifts. But it’s worth noting this was us offering, not them foisting such people upon us.

The dynamic is played out again when it comes to regional or national discussions of gospel initiatives. The large (or ‘strategic’) churches inevitably become the centre of focus. A single church, out in the sticks, several miles away from the inner city is never really going to be considered worthy of attention. Unless your view of ‘strategic importance’ revolves around little to no gospel witness in an area, places that are not in densely populated, reasonably affluent inner city areas will inevitably find themselves totally overlooked when it comes to gospel initiative. Again, it means the small churches in undesirable areas will receive no support while the larger churches, in areas where it is typically easier to build a big congregation, get even more help.

The question is how do we resource and support small churches in undesirable areas? How do we stop larger ‘successful’ churches pulling in ever greater resources that they need less than the overlooked smaller churches labouring away in areas to which it is typically hard to move people?

Let me suggest just three simple things we might do:

  1. Proactively advertise those churches that have no local or national recognition. It would go a small way to helping if folk had actually heard of the churches who require more people. Rather than always looking to the ‘big hitters’ to tell everybody how to do the work simply because they’re large, why not find some smaller churches to speak about their work. This means give the small guys opportunities to write articles on a regular basis, let them speak at your conferences, give them a platform so people might actually hear of, and about, them and their work and thus make it that little more likely they might possibly respond to their calls for workers.
  2. Proactively seek out the leaders of smaller churches. Of course folk on national executives of any given organisation have heard of the big-name speaker at such and such baptist church because they’re a big-name. Having already heard of them, these people are usually approached for regional and national roles because these are the guys we have heard of. It all becomes very cyclical. All the while, the guys we’ve never heard of – labouring away with scant resources – may be just the guy you need for X task. But how can you know if you’ve never bothered taking the time to visit the church or meet with the leaders?
  3. Proactively encourage people to move to smaller, rather than larger, churches. The point seems simple to me but uniformly ignored. Larger churches, by virtue of what they are, simply do not need more workers compared with their smaller counterparts. Small churches have vanishingly small numbers of people upon whom all their work rests. It tends to make sense to divert resources to the areas that need them most and, in the Christian world, this is usually smaller churches. We cannot take a business-based approach to this and say we divert resources to our ‘most successful’ areas because this rests on the presumption that unsuccessful areas, as a business decision, should ultimately be discontinued altogether. This approach would lead to the death of any gospel witness in any place where the church has not grown to whatever size we consider to be a great success. It is those areas with no gospel witness, or with a small witness that is in danger of dying because of lack of resource, that need the most resources sending to them.

In short, the plea is simple: can we start proactively resourcing small churches instead of sending ever greater resources to the large churches that need them least?

 

Tony Blair is against populism because, in reality, he is against democracy

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The one good thing about Tony Blair’s intervention on any issue on which I disagree with him is that his intervention is usually detrimental to his cause. The level of belief in his own involvement stands in exact inverse proportion to its reception from the British public. And is it any wonder?

Let us look at what Mr Blair is now arguing. First, he denounces what he terms ‘frightening populism’. Let us just look at the definition of populism:

populism
ˈpɒpjʊlɪz(ə)m/
noun
noun: populism
support for the concerns of ordinary people.
“it is clear that your populism identifies with the folks on the bottom of the ladder”
the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.
“art museums did not gain bigger audiences through a new populism”
[Source: Google]

Others define populism as a political doctrine that believes the common people are exploited by a privileged ruling elite and seeks to remedy this problem.

The issue here is that populism is being used as a derogatory term for anybody who happens to espouse policies that the majority of people actually want. In truth, it is often bandied around when the people vote or demand policies that do not accord with the majority view amongst the ruling elite. Blair may despise what he calls populism but he sounds troublingly like Sir Humphrey Appleby in this scene from Yes Prime Minister.

In comments made with no hint of irony whatsoever, Blair has claimed that he wants to combat the populism which is undermining the west’s belief in democracy. He goes on to argue – as stated in The Guardian – ‘Labour’s “essential duty” was that the party should be opposed to Brexit at any cost, keeping open an option that allows the British people to think again if they dislike the deal secured Theresa May’. In other words, democracy is being undermined because the will of the people is being enacted. What is popular doesn’t accord with the prevailing view among the ruling elites and thus democracy, according to Blair, is being undermined. He is, therefore, setting up an organisation that will undermine the popular vote in order to promote the views that he has determined are in the best interests of the people (even if they have voted to say they don’t want them).

In a psephocracy such as ours, elected representatives are vested with power by the people. Whilst they are, as Edmund Burke argued, able to exercise their own judgement, their power comes from the people. That is, if the people don’t like what they are doing they can vote to remove them at the next General Election. This means, at least to some degree, all politicians ought to be concerned with populism. There should be a conscious effort on the part of politicians to act in line with the will of the people. After all, it is the people who put them into power and it is the people who will determine whether they ought to stay there. When it comes to referenda – when our elected representatives defer a decision back to the people in a direct democratic vote – it is all the more important that the decision is upheld. Though any elected representative can, in the ordinary scheme of things, claim to be using their judgement on behalf of the people, they cannot make this argument in respect to the result of a referendum in which they took the decision – as is their prerogative – to devolve their decision-making power back to the people.

It is, therefore, rich for Tony Blair to decry populism and argue that it is responsible for undermining democracy. His call to stand against populism by refusing to support the Brexit vote is itself an undermining of western democracy. The elected representatives of the people chose to delegate their democratically mandated decision-making powers back to the people. Just as the people voted for their representatives to make the decision, the representatives deferred back to the people on the matter of continued EU membership. Having given their decision, albeit a close-run one, it is democratically vital for the elected representatives to enact the will of the people. It is not the people who voted for Brexit who undermine democracy. They, just like our elected representative, used their own judgement to make their own decision. Just as our elected representatives used their judgement to defer back to the people, the people used their judgement to vote to leave the European Union. It is not the people who vote – regardless of which way they voted – who undermine democracy, it is those who insist that the will of the people should be ignored who hold democracy in contempt.

The irony, of course, seems entirely lost on Tony Blair. For one, he decries what he sees as populism leading to the Brexit vote. Yet populism suggests that the people are being exploited by a self-interested ruling elite. What exactly does Blair think this intervention is doing to undercut that presumption? His view is manifestly that the people voted wrongly and the ruling elite ought to do all within their power to stand against their decision. Might it be, just possibly, that this sort of view is what drives the populism he so resents? To be asked your opinion then told you are a stupid dupe when you express it, and then to be told because of your gullible idiocy we – that is those in power – must do all we can to make sure we undermine your ridiculous decision, hardly screams we are servants of the people working in your interests nor undercuts the central claim of populism.

It is also interesting that Blair continues to presume this is a ‘right-wing authoritarian populism’. He knows his intervention will be met with force but states: ‘I am aware of all the problems and baggage I bring with me. The moment I even start to engage with this, I will have a phalanx of rightwing papers that are going to go into kill mode’. But what of the double leadership win of Jeremy Corbyn? Clearly here is a level of populism being promulgated on the left. And it can’t have escaped his notice that some of his fiercest critics come, not from the right, but from these quarters. Ask the so-called Corbynistas about the biggest threat to the Labour Party and you will almost certainly hear them say Blairites. I think this video from the most recent Labour leadership contest rather sums up the attitude from many on the left too.

These sorts of interventions do his cause no favours at all.

I am not of the view that those who voted to remain in the EU must now shut up. I do not believe that democracy demands they can no longer make the arguments they think are relevant. Just as nobody is called to say nothing for five years if their preferred government isn’t elected, I don’t think remainers are democratically bound to say nothing on the issue forevermore. What I am clear about is that the will of the people should not be frustrated.

When Scotland voted to remain in the UK, whilst the SNP and other nationalists were quite within their rights to continue making the case for independence, it would have been wrong for them to seek to push through independence despite the result. When the government you want isn’t elected, whilst you are entitled to continue making your case and holding that government to account, you are not permitted to install your own party despite the result of the election. In the same way, remainers are entitled to continue stating their case and holding the government to account for impact of their decision-making now we are leaving the EU, but they do not have the right to seek to keep us in the EU come what may in spite of the referendum result.

This is the fundamental problem with Tony Blair’s intervention. He has made it quite clear the Labour Party should ‘be opposed to Brexit at any cost’. To be so is to hold the people, and democracy itself, in utter contempt. There is a legitimate case to be made that all we have decided is to leave the EU but the terms on which we have decided to leave were not listed on the ballot. Therefore, there is a legitimate argument to be had as to what represents an acceptable deal. What is not legitimate is to openly work against the result of the referendum or to surreptitiously seek to keep us in all the mechanisms of the EU without official membership. Either position is to effectively stick two fingers up at the British public.

I shall leave the final word to Tony Benn in which he is quite clear about where the power comes from, the fundamental issue with the EU and perhaps why Tony Blair (in respect to Peter Mandelson) has form on this issue:

A case for gospel unity: translation over segregation

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I have often wondered what the Early Church did when faced with swathes of different nationalities entering their churches but with no help from Google Translate, no simultaneous translation equipment and no credible way to produce a translated script. It is possible the operative language of each church was determined by their locality but also likely that they simply decided to operate in the Greek lingua franca, especially if faced with multiple languages in one meeting. Evidently it is not one of those issues on which scripture offers any clear cut guidance.

Muslims sometimes like to claim superiority on the issue by insisting that everyone learns Arabic for the purposes of reading the Qur’an. What they often don’t tell you is that the vast majority of Muslims simply cannot read or understand the Arabic language. Although the Qur’an is read in Arabic by the imam, mosques still operate in local languages and dialects. One of the reasons for different mosques appearing in a locality is because people speak different languages and thus prefer to worship where they can understand the goings on. Whilst the Muslim world still suffers from the same problem faced by 16th Century Christianity – that only a learned few are capable of reading the Qur’an – Arabic has not become the hoped for universal language of the Islamic world. Most mosques in Oldham still primarily operate in Urdu, Bengali, Pahari or Sylheti.

We are often quick to speak about multiculturalism in churches, and happy to speak about multiethnic churches, both of which come with some issues that need addressing (and they are not the same thing). For example, every area of the UK has a local culture and any church made up of people from anywhere other than the local culture is, to some degree, multicultural. Being multiethnic is an extension of multiculturalism, simply meaning your church will not be homogeneous in terms of colour, nationality and culture. Nonetheless, it is entirely possible to be multicultural and multiethnic without having to face the problems of being a multilingual church.

Most churches in the UK are unilingual. Typically, they operate in English and expect anybody coming to their church to have sufficient English language skills to engage with the programme. There are growing numbers of unilingual minority language churches. Historically, the UK had a rich seam of Welsh-speaking unilingual churches. As immigration has increased to the UK, other types of unilingual churches have cropped up. These function in exactly the same way as English-speaking unilingual churches, differing only in the main operative language. So, for example, we get Chinese churches operating in Mandarin and Iranian churches operating in Farsi. Those coming in would be expected to have sufficient Mandarin or Farsi to engage with the goings on.

It is possible for churches that operate in the national language to include those who speak a different first language. For example, English-speaking churches in the UK can operate in English and expect, to some degree, foreign residents to begin learning English, not least given the need for everyday operation in the English language. Those churches that operate in minority languages will find it almost impossible to draw in anyone who is not already fluent in their operative language. For example, a Chinese church in the UK is highly unlikely to gain any non-Mandarin speakers and cannot realistically expect many to improve their Mandarin given most people will operate on a daily basis in English. Only those already fluent in Mandarin are ever likely to join that church. This tends to mean that churches operating in minority languages become more homogeneous than those operating in a mainline national language.

As I have noted here, minority language churches very often elevate cultural and ethnic differences above the gospel imperative for visible unity among the nations. Whilst recognising the importance of being able to understand what is going on, it is often the case that cultural and ethnic differences lead to ‘birds of a feather’ churches. When the language is right, the same type of people go and we end up with a homogeneous ethnic group defining their church almost entirely by their ethnicity.

From the linked article:

At the risk of severely irritating some of my Welsh brothers and sisters, this issue seems particularly perverse in many, but by no means all, Welsh-speaking churches. I am quite prepared to concede that in certain communities there may be some who speak no English and/or the vast majority of the community truly have Welsh as a first language. But in many places, where just about all speak English but only a select number can understand Welsh, it does seem to be an anti-gospel perversity that insists on elevating the exercise of cultural distinctives over and above the need to make the gospel understandable to all. It certainly elevates cultural distinctiveness over the importance of gospel unity itself, which surely extends as much to language where we are able as it does to submitting on issues of second, or third, tier importance.

The problem is perhaps more understandable among minority-language churches that serve groups who cannot understand the mainline language sufficiently to engage with a church operating predominantly in English. Nonetheless, the issue still remains. Homogeneous ethnic groups form churches because of their language. It is almost an institutionalising within the church of the Babel curse which the gospel is supposed to remedy.

Inevitably, churches must operate in a primary language. No speaker – no matter how multilingual – has more than one mouth from which to speak. However, if minority-language churches tend to lead to homogeneous ethnic churches, and if such homogeneity undercuts the visible representation of gospel unity that ought to be pictured in the church, then it follows that minority-language churches are not the way to go. Churches, perhaps, ought to operate in the predominant language of their area (whatever that may be) whilst working hard to include those who speak a different first-language rather than encouraging them to hive off into their own homogeneous church.

I would see a good case here for translation over segregation. Even where we run separate Sunday services and meetings based on language, we run the danger of birds of feather flocking together and – even if this is not our intention – having two churches operating in the same building divided by language.

As an aside, just as we have women’s meetings, men’s events and other groups targeted at specific people, there is no issue of itself with having groups for those with a shared culture, ethnicity or language. It may be appropriate to run such things at times. However, if we are splitting the Sunday gathering by language or there are almost no occasions where people of different languages and cultures are sat together as part of the same church sharing fellowship with one another, to all intents and purposes we are running two churches divided by language.

It should also be noted that if we are running specific language groups and the majority of individuals are coming to the meetings in their first-language and eschewing mainline meetings operating in the majority language, then again we are running two churches.

Even if we argue that the minority language meetings are not the main focus of the church, if the minority language speakers go to meetings in their language and not those in the majority language, then we have one of two problems. Either, we have a homogeneous church running a separate language group that fails to include minority language speakers in the church proper at all; or, we have two churches in which one group treats the other as a second-class church because they are not meeting as part of the mainline church. In either case, it is not terribly desirable.

As an aim for gospel unity, should we not endeavour to include as far as possible those who speak minority languages in the main meetings of the church? If we are all one in Christ Jesus, should we not try to visibly manifest that unity by at least sitting together under the same teaching and sharing fellowship together at the same time? Whilst nothing is ever going to be perfect this side of glory, could we not endeavour to translate our services – and perhaps encourage and help those currently limited to learn the mainline language – so that they can engage with us together in the church?

Perhaps this may mean incorporating elements of the minority language into our church services. It may mean letting people pray in their own language so that they can engage in prayer together with the rest of the church. It may mean having Bible readings in two or three different languages rather than just the one. It may mean investing in some translation equipment and allowing people to translate elements of the service simultaneously so that all are listening to the same teaching and sharing in the same fellowship at the same time. It might mean singing some songs in a language you don’t understand and having a translation of them in a book.

In all these things, isn’t unity in the gospel – especially unity that is visibly expressed – more important than our relative comfort with all that is going on? If church is not all about me, but how I can serve others, what a reminder to have to slow down and do things differently because people who don’t even speak my language want to engage with the same gospel that unites us in Jesus Christ. I don’t want to hive off my brothers and sisters from another country just so I can get home to my dinner bang on 12. I want to visibly express our unity in Jesus Christ. I want us to sit under the same Word. I want us to sing and worship together despite our differences in language.

What are we really after in the church? Do we just want to sit with people like us? Are we going for comfort and ease of things happening the way I like? Is our main concern getting back for lunch, or the football, or whatever? I would rather my service took longer, things were a bit more chaotic and we had to work a bit harder if it meant that we weren’t just homogeneously comfortable but we were genuinely and visibly unified. If Babel was a curse, it seems odd to me in the extreme for the church to actively encourage it by segregating their congregation by language. If the Early Church could manage to integrate, with all our technological advantages, surely with a bit of thought we can do it too.