A few reflections on the ‘r’ word

I hope you enjoyed the dialogue with Michele. I always appreciate talking with her as she lives with an integrity that has meant she has not always been able to walk in a straight line pursuing a successful career path in things ecclesiastical, but has turned aside and then followed the path of the Spirit… after all Jesus said that was a hallmark of those who are ‘born again’… theologians have changed the words of Jesus to apply it to the Spirit being like the wind! Such an interpretation can still allow us to live carefully… not I think an option Jesus seemed to want to offer.

I grew up with talk of Duncan Campbell and the Lewis revival of the early 50s; I came to faith through connection to Pentecostals so the stories of Smith Wigglesworth, Stephen and George Jeffries, the healing revivalists of the 50s became great ‘food’, then the extensive works and stories of Charles Finney (and what a middle name – Grandison!!), plus some amazing encounters connected to John Wesley. I wrote a book some 20 years ago ‘Sowing seeds for Revival’ (later republished as Gaining Ground). Someone asked me a couple of days ago would I change anything in that book (and Impacting the City) and I replied with a ‘basically no… even if I might express some things a little differently’.

I might not use the ‘r’ word so regularly, but am still looking for the ‘t’ word – transformation. Indeed for me ekklesia is bound up with transformation of the world, and it was one of the reasons why we moved to Spain, seeking to track where first Century unanswered apostolic prayers were seeded in the land / in the land of Empire.

[An aside: we all have to make some sense of our own journey. I, being optimistic, do not see wrong turns, simply distinct points on the way. I appreciate there are some who look back and view where they have been negatively. I do not. Does not make me right, but makes it a whole lot easier to live freely!]

When I began to travel outside the UK into the USA I soon discovered that the ‘r’ word was being used in a different way to how I had understood it. There it seemed more to be an activity within the congregation – ‘we are having revival’, whereas my background had reserved it for thousands coming to faith and donkeys no longer responding to miners’ commands as they no longer used expletives to command them to move (Wales, 1904)! The difference made me reflect some, then I began to think about the setting for those ‘revivals’ this side of the pond – 1859, 1904, 1951 etc. They were into a community already somewhat religious. Many, many chapels were built in Wales post 1859, those chapels were fairly full when we come to 1904. Filled with sons and daughters of those converted in 1859. With so much of the climate, there and in Lewis, being of a Calvinist nature therefore only God can convert, they were waiting for a move of God (‘I now feel guilty’). That move came, and although I have no doubt we can call it a move, such classic sermons as ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God’ also fitted a culture. The wider community was touched deeply, but that wider community was already strongly god-fearing (and we might wish to emphasise ‘fearing’!).

I have travelled numerous African countries and also in South America. The impact of the gospel has been incredible. Some cities in Brazil might be as high as 40% born again! But…

OK these are reflections.

Europe is post-Christian. Or maybe better put post-Christendom. I give a big ‘oh yes, now that is a description that will help us get out of bed each day with a spring in our step and a shout in our mouth’. Has God used Christendom? The answer is of course ‘yes’ but the question is irrelevant. God, after all, anointed a monarchy in Israel, a move that was birthed in ‘rejecting God’. God anoints what rejects the direction s/he is moving in!

Post-Christian, not having a voice that is listened to above others; pushed to the margins etc… That is where our faith was born, so surely it gives us hope. So many people have been praying for a revival of first Century Christianity, and then want to hold on to a context different to where it flourished. Seems to me like trying to grow grapes in the Arctic Circle. Plant all you want… but the context just is not the right one to produce wine!

I deeply suspect that north America, followed by South America and Africa will follow where the train is headed. Into the world of post-Christendom. At this stage seems we (in Europe) are well aware the train has left the track, while those in the other carriages can still happily swing from the proverbial chandeliers. I also like to swing in that way but perhaps for a slightly different reason.

I am not simply optimistic when I look ahead. I am up beat about now! I consider that we are right in an incredible outpouring; some put it this way that the last century saw three outpourings – Azusa Street and Pentecostalism; charismatic renewal, and ‘Toronto’ and the many parallel movements. Three outpourings, granting us a fullness.

I consider that Pentecost (Acts 2) gives a paradigm of three stages: for you; your children (generational); those afar off. We are at the afar off stage and how we respond depends on what stage we are at. Afar off means movement. Movement out. This is not a season of ‘bring them in’ but ‘abandon safety (safety is overrated anyway!) and make the journey to where the Spirit is moving’. If we don’t make the journey, and that journey will involve listening for there is a conversion to take place in ‘us’ that is greater than the conversion to take place in ‘the others’. If we don’t make the journey how can there be an embrace of Jesus?

I have come to believe that we really have to squeeze Scriptures to make it all about ‘in / out’ but if we let them speak to us we will hear very loudly ‘the earth is the Lord’s’, in other words ekklesia is not about getting people in but about a people being planted in the world so that there will indeed be transformation. (Moving from the first parable, the only one fully explained, with the seed being the word of God and falling on the soil of response… to the next parable where the seed is no longer the word of God, but the incarnated word, hence integrity being ever so important, with less mouth and more vulnerability and transparency, and the soil being the ‘world’. The first one fully explained so that we get it… and in getting it embrace the second and subsequent parables.)

Words do not primarily carry meaning at an intrinsic level – the old idea of etymology (the root word means) will not get us too far – but words are carriers of meaning, that meaning depending on what the communicator intended and the meaning the hearer injects into them. ‘The ‘r’ word, revival. I might or might not still use it, but my expectation is so far beyond what I had in mind when I began to travel with ‘sowing seeds for revival’ teams. The ‘t’, transformation word, is perhaps closer to where I am at.

But maybe it is the ‘r’ word I like. Responsibility. Taking responsibility for this world. Being sourced from heaven, being shaped by heaven’s values. I am happy to review almost anything, but the cross was the roadblock to destruction, so it opened the path to transformation. Maybe with the climate crisis we are running out of time. Maybe… but what is more certain is I am here in my generation, regardless of how many are yet to come. And finally to encourage me I meditate on the widow who put two small coins in the Temple treasury, that act prompting Jesus to speak to those who were so impressed with its magnificence to say – all will be changed! Being impressed or intimidated, I simply want as many as possible to throw a couple of coins in the right direction and then we might indeed see something in ‘this generation’.

Where will this path lead?

Stephen Bullivant, St Mary’s University in London has authored a report on the state of Christianity in Europe with a focus on those aged 16-29. It seems hard to argue that the future does not look so good. (Article based on this report can be read at The Guardian.) Here is a sample o the findings.

Those between 16-29 who identify as having no religion:
Czech Republic 90%
UK 70%
Spain 55%
Poland 17%

Those who never attend a religious service:
Czech Republic 70%
Spain 60%
UK 59%
Poland 12%

Those who never pray outside of a service:
Czech Republic 80%
Spain 64%
UK 63%
Poland 19%

In Europe among that age group the Czech Republic was the least religious and Poland the most. The UK and Spain featuring high on the non-religious spectrum. According to Bullivant, many young Europeans

will have been baptised and then never darken the door of a church again. Cultural religious identities just aren’t being passed on from parents to children. It just washes straight off them.

the Muslim birthrate is higher than the general population, and they have much higher [religious] retention rates.

In 20 or 30 years’ time, mainstream churches will be smaller, but the few people left will be highly committed.

Not a rosy picture and one that is sobering. Post-Christendom for sure, but these figures point to something more than simply the demise of the Christendom paradigm. Ancient Rome was of course a challenge to the Gospel’s progress so we should not lose heart, though the level of religious affiliation within that Imperial setting would have been so much higher. (I guess there could also be statistics produced that counter-balance a little the non-religious aspect indicating a percentage involved in spirituality.)

I am not dismayed by the post-Christendom era that has been present for a while and is increasingly the reality. We might not be alarmed if we simply suggest that the Christianity that younger people give no affiliation to is purely institutional and not a reflection of personal faith in Jesus. However, the vacuum that is being let will be filled,and dark controlling powers relish such a situation.

The task is clear. As much as I am an advocate of making the shifts, such as witness rather than evangelise, or seeing fulfilments of the prophetic in liberation, pro-humanity movements, etc., the presence of those with faith, who know the Lord is so necessary. The secular context maybe means we do not need to compete with other religious views and it does present the opportunity for a presentation of Jesus without baggage, but the report clearly says the future will not be an easy one.

If ever there was a time and a context for ‘the multiplicity of the small, and the diversity of expression’ the report indicates this. What an opportunity in Europe! Not the time to import something. The Gospel is in that third phase. From Jerusalem to the Gentile world, embedded in Europe, from there clothed in Imperialism to the ends of the earth. Now there is a return. But the return cannot be back again with the same clothing. Hence something has to be recovered from within, while not ignoring the help coming from the ends of the earth. Back to Jerusalem too, not with a Zionist push (for in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek) but to enable the reconciling Presence of Jesus to show in that very contentious place there is only one humanity.

The statistics are challenging. The focus remains the same. False hope will disappoint. Hope that remains and even grows among a grass roots movement though? That is what makes Europe an exciting place to live.

An end of an era is signalled in those statistics… The beginning of a new era beckons.


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A Divide

fall_of_churchNo easy solutions to the issues we all face. But ‘we’ have been here before. What about life under Rome in the first century? ‘We’ (believers) in every generation have to learn how to negotiate discipleship of Jesus in the context of anti-Christ spirits. In this short post I simplistically suggest that it might come down to how we view one central element of our faith, and how we approach this will probably manifest in a divided response among us who claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth. (I appreciate what follows is either simply simplistic, or it is at core simply simple. I was told years ago that truth though profound is also simple’).

Power – what kind of power does God call us to share? Did he intend that the church have power at the centre to shape from the top-down? Or to be the salt in the land and the light to the land? Legislation is important… any legislation that dehumanises by intention is anti-God. The resurrection being an enormous God-speech of ‘yes’ to humanity. Maybe there is good and necessary legislation that will unintentionally dehiumanise – the effects of what could be good but applied in a fallen world. But anything that intentionally or overwhelmingly dehumanises has to be viewed from a ‘there is something wrong with this at the core’.

I believe in the transformative power of the Gospel and not just at the personal level, but for the land(s) beyond the personal. I think that is the Pauline gospel and there is a shift from 12 core disciples to 12% of the Roman empire who were willing to be be marginalised and give their lives for Jesus that took place across the first 3 centuries. From an obscure sect in Israel to spreading right across the Imperial lands. That is transformation. For a kingdom that is not of this world that is quite an impact on the world!

It is this tension – a kingdom that is not of this world, and if it was then all the normal means of exercising power would be validated (including the sword, which is simply the final outworking of top-down authority); yet it is a kingdom that challenges all the power-structures of this world to a higher calling, the higher calling of love, compassion and care.

Two views of power, hence two views of the cross (a call to our death in the context of the world, or a symbol by which we may conquer), and ultimately two views of the one true God. How does he ‘rule’? I think (simplistically) it comes down to that. If, as I have been suggesting for some 2 decades, that Islam is a mirror religion of Christendom, maybe shifting our view of the rule of God could be very vital as we learn how to live as disciples of Jesus in our challenging context.

[The image of course is to the book by Roger Mitchell. Available also as a kindle book. The Fall of the Church is far more profound than I had anticipated. I thought pre-Constantine ‘good’, post- as ‘bad’. Alongside other books, such as Thomas Jay Oord’s Uncontrolling Love, these writings are great resources to help us re-think the rule of God and therefore how we are to live.]


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Toward Post-Christendom

Christendom is not something totally easy to define. It certainly relates to an era when the church ‘possessed’ the culture that it resided in. The culture was ‘christianised’ as it had some sort of Christian morality shape. Nations could be termed ‘Christian’ or heathen. It relates to an era when Christianity was the religion of the state / empire. This whole scenario became in the west the status quo in the centuries that followed the shift with Constantine, his conversion, and edicts such as the edict of Milan.

It is possible to see the submission of the pagan ruler (Constantine and successors) as a fulfillment of OT hopes, even if we accept the outworking as imperfect. It is probably also OK to feel that we have lost a measure of a moral framework that resulted from the christendom era, the framework that at some level permeated (western) society. In other words, even those of us who are opposed to christendom, who see a resulting fall of the church, do not need to demonise every aspect. The paper I wrote on the redemptive trajectory suggests that in the ever-increasing fall of the life of Israel God was still found in some incredible and glorious ways. Who would not wish to testify that ‘we were unable to stand to minister such was the presence of the glory cloud’? God present in power, yet inside an edifice that Jesus proclaimed could not be sustained beyond that generation.

A wonderful move forward, a mixture, or a terrible downward fall – regardless of our perspective we are moving from a christendom era to a post-christendom one. The pace of that movement and where we are located on the spectrum might vary but I think the movement is irreversible. In the process there will be loss and perhaps the loss of some good elements, but the process is necessary.

What will we think should (when) the president of the USA is not sworn in with hand on Bible, or a UK monarch is no longer anointed with oil at Westminster Abbey and presented with a Bible by senior church leaders as a ‘rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes’? Post-christendom could certainly mean change to both those practices – and of course numerous other ones that reflect the advance of christendom.

I do not suggest that the territory ahead is easy to traverse, but the shift of seeing the cross as the sign of power to overcome (Constantine, crusades) and rather as the place that re-orients all of life and through the embrace of love offering to one and all an opportunity to lose one’s life, is a journey that we have to engage with.

If there is a general principle that trouble is a sign to look higher (‘when you see these things…’) it is not too difficult to see numerous levels of crises all around. I am sure the dire conflict and loss of life that France has suffered these past few months is only a taste of what is coming to the majority of western nations. This should be no surprise. The idea that the daily slaughter in Syria or Baghdad is ‘somewhere else’ among ‘another people’ is not really tenable. We are in a wake-up call period of time. Isolationism and protectionism will neither isolate nor protect us. They will prove to be hollow promises, and as I wrote recently we have entered a slower but deeper time of the façades being opened up and the core of what lies behind them being exposed. It will indeed be painful.

For years I have been saying that the strength of Islam is found inside a christendom belief. That the source is not simply the quran but christendom. It should be no great surprise that Dayesh believes in Armageddon, with the gathering of the heathen nations (us!!) and although ‘we’ will have numerical and power supremacy, they will be vindicated as Jesus returns to defeat the heathens (us!!). I might find it hard to let go of some of the christendom benefits and privileges but the urgency of the times presses in on me and calls me beyond my comfort zone.

Hence back to where I started – christendom. We have to move on and through the current time. We cannot, though many will, seek to re-establish christendom. To get the church out of the building is a move forward. To call for the church to embrace its place in society and culture is a good call. To use language of ‘mountains of influence’ might be a useful metaphor, but if we see the langauge as more than a limited metaphor I fear it will simply result in a people out of touch with this time. Solomon (my morning reading) might have built for God a great house, but Jesus warned in his day that not one stone of ‘God’s house’ would remain. An era was over. An era is over in our day. We will have to learn how to traverse a land where we do not possess the culture, yet believe passionately that the gospel is this-worldly in application. We will have to learn the difference between wanting the 10 commandments in our court room or the beattitudes of Jesus to permeate our values and to seep out beyond. We will have to learn that the ‘greatest mountain’ will have to go through a NT lens of all mountains being brought down.

We do not have to demonise the past. God has never left us. There are godly vestiges, for after all even the Temple could still potentially act as a house of prayer. But we have to face tomorrow and allow ourselves to be cleansed.


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