I like Anthony, he’s a mate of mine from theological college who took Allana and my wedding. He’s a straight-talking guy who thinks deeply, so I asked Anthony the question I have been struggling with: “Why do you think so many Christians struggle to talk about their faith?” -And the follow up question: “and what can we do to help?”
His response deeply challenged me, “I think we have become ashamed of the Gospel. We don’t speak or act like we believe it works or matters anymore! We get embarrassed to talk about sin or our need of repentance, instead we just tell people that God loves them, and the cross is a demonstration of love, and people shrug their shoulders and walk away and say: ‘So what?’”.
As Anthony said this, I was reminded by a quote from William Booth: “The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”
Scripture we believe comforts the afflicted but also afflicts the comfortable, and yet too often we pull our punches and try and make our message seem more palatable for an enquiring world; Christianity has always been controversial, the Cross Paul writes is: “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1.Cor.1.23).
It is a gritty message, but nature teaches us that without the grit in the oyster there would be no pearl. We are called to be salt -which when it gets into an infected wound really stings- or light which when we have become used to the darkness hurts our eyes.
Anthony has a gift of teaching and I began to wonder so often we think of growth just as “new people coming to Church” but growth more accurately is measured by the fruit of people’s changed and transformed lives. Anthony has grown people with a deeper understanding of what they believe and why they believe it.
I wonder whether to have properly and deeply fed some ‘sheep’ is more fruitful for the Kingdom of God than to have entertained a load of goats? Yet, playing to a big crowd of people who are enjoying what you are saying does feel successful -and the Diocese will love it!- but ultimately the main recognition we are seeking has nothing to do with numbers in a service book but rather the “well done good and faithful servant” from the master himself.
Jesus never spoke of making converts but rather disciples, and a disciple is someone who makes disciples -someone who reproduces the DNA of Jesus in our lives and the lives of those around us.
Sadly, I fear that sometimes Church has become a bit consumerist, indeed our language reflects this “I have come to be fed” -rather than share/serve/love/give/bless- it is the language of getting, rather than giving. A verse that Anthony used to sometimes say at college has stuck with me “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2Tim.4.3).
When I preach am I faithful to God or just playing to the gallery? As I have said earlier in this piece I am passionate about Church unity, but although we need to be loving and wise we also need to remember truth really matters, and to have within our grace-filled relationships space to stretch/challenge and help us all grow together in Christ.
Peter writes in his Epistle challenging the Church to move from spiritual milk to meat, a call to grow up and become wise and discerning, to understand what we believe and why we are to believe it. Growing up is uncomfortable, full of growing pains and a soft diet is popular (who wouldn’t want to live on ice-cream forever?) but comfort makes us sleepy and lethargic and is, I believe, literally killing the Church in this country.
When my dad was a Vicar by the entrance of both vicarages was written the words “I am not ashamed of gospel for it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe”, for me over the last few weeks this has become my prayer: “Lord, I don’t want to be ashamed of your gospel, give me great boldness and confidence in you and your good news, and remind me again, that it is your power to bring salvation to all who believe -help me to share it faithfully and well whenever you give me the opportunity”.