Simon Says

img_0101Last week I caught up with Simon Halle, a friend from Ethiopia. Simon is head of the Urban Community Development ministry in the Kale Heywet (The Word is Life) denomination in Ethiopia which has over 7 million members. We were able to chat together about what Northern Irish churches can learn from Ethiopian churches who are flourishing despite challenging economic circumstances.

Kale Heywet Church in Ethiopia, through the department which Simon leads, has supported over 200 congregations to bring help and hope to more than 70,000 people living in poor communities. What they have achieved with support from Tearfund is inspirational. In his own characteristically humble way Simon plays down his role in seeing these changes come about.

Simon says that one of the key features in encouraging the development of a successful ministry to the people in their communities is the involvement of every church member. A key part of their strategy in working with local churches is to engage the whole congregation and not just the leaders in the initiative. It is only as everyone in the church identifies with the ministry and gets involved that the project moves forward. It’s necessary to inspire pastors and elders to start with, but they must pass on the vision to everyone else. That’s a challenge that many Irish church leaders recognise.

I remember some years ago trying to persuade some parents in their 30s and 40s to help out as leaders in our junior youth club on a Saturday night. Their response was not the one I expected. They offered to increase their financial contribution to the congregation so that the church could  hire someone to do the job of youth club leader if I didn’t ask them to forfeit some of their precious Saturday evenings to volunteer themselves. It was easier and more comfortable for them to give more money than to be involved personally.

The challenge of motivating people for hands-on work and ministry is a considerable one, but in a society like Ethiopia where people have no cash to give they are more willing to give of their own time and energy. That’s a lesson we can learn from our African brothers and sisters. Our cash-rich society, relative to Ethiopia, deprives people of the joy and blessing of actually being involved in practical Christian ministry.

Simon also says that since the church has no cash resources to start such ministries, they are dependent on self-help groups and projects to make the difference. Kale Heywet Church, like many Christian groups in developing countries, has made great use of micro-financing schemes among poor people so that they can help each other to improve their situation. By providing small group facilitators, people save small amounts of money, normally no more than the cost of one cup of coffee a day. But by pooling their resources, they can begin to help one another through small loans.

We saw this working in practice when a women in one self-help group in Addis Ababa was able to borrow enough money to buy two griddles so that she could produce injeera bread which she sold to local restaurants and at her own road-side stall. With the income she was able to provide for her own family.

Simon says that the amazing thing is that poor people see these efforts being made to help them in the name of Jesus Christ, they respond positively and hearts are opened to the message of the gospel. Many of them come to believe in Christ and join the local church. Simon says that a church that fails to display the gospel in both word and deed fails to be salt and light in its local community.

tf_web20rgbWe need to believe in what church communities locally and globally can achieve together. The Presbyterian Church in Ireland has supported a succession of Kale Heywet Development projects and has recently funded relief programmes for families affected by the drought in East Africa.

Simon says, “The transformation we have seen happen in Ethiopia has astounded us all over the years, but we shall never own it as unique. These community initiatives often start very small, but it’s when we come together and share our insights that we can really see exciting change.”

I am proud to be associated with men like Simon and to see the difference which they are making in the name of Jesus Christ. And we thank God for agencies like Tearfund which enable us to partner with our African brothers and sisters. Tearfund’s ten year vision is to lift 50 million people out of material and spiritual poverty through a worldwide network of 100,000 local churches.

The Queen’s Christian Christmas Message

queenpa_2093517cWhen it comes to Her Majesty the Queen’s Christmas message, it is all her own work. On this one occasion each year she does not turn to government for help or advice, but writes it herself. You can imagine how thrilled we are as Christians in the UK and the Commonwealth when our Sovereign makes an unambiguous statement of the Christian gospel.

“Finding hope in adversity is one of the themes of Christmas. Jesus was born into a world full of fear. The angels came to frightened shepherds with hope in their voices: ‘Fear not’, they urged, ‘we bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour who is Christ the Lord.’

Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general, important though they are, but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.

Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.

In the last verse of this beautiful carol, O Little Town Of Bethlehem, there’s a prayer:

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, Descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us today.

It is my prayer that on this Christmas day we might all find room in our lives for the message of the angels and for the love of God through Christ our Lord.

I wish you all a very happy Christmas.”

Thank you , ma’am.

The inaccessibility of the KJV

king-james-bible-trust-logoI had the privilege of being at Westminster Abbey this week to attend a service celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Along with Her Majesty The Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles, there were over 2,000 people assembled in a service which was the culmination of a year of events to mark this anniversary. The Queen herself had highlighted this anniversary in her Christmas message last year. In our own congregation we have been acknowledging this anniversary in our preaching series, Route 66, in which we have been preaching from each of the 66 books in the Bible.

The preacher at the service was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, not always the most lucid and easily understood when it comes to preaching. In his sermon he said that he believes that Christians should resist the temptation to make the King James Version of the Bible more accessible. Instead we should celebrate the determination of its translators to find words that express “the almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love pressing down on those who first encountered it.”

The temptation is always there for the modern translator to look for strategies that make the text more accessible. When that temptation comes, it doesn’t hurt to turn for a moment – for some long moments indeed – to this extraordinary text, with its continuing capacity to surprise us into seriousness, to acquaint us again with the weight of glory – and we hope and pray, to send us back to the unending work of letting ourselves be changed so that we can bear just a little more of the light of the new world, full of grace and truth.”

The main reason why many churches have turned to more modern translations of the Bible for use in public worship is precisely the reason which Dr Williams says we should celebrate.  Many believe that the language of the 1611 translation makes divine truth inaccessible to modern readers and hearers. The “inaccessibility” of the King James Bible, far from being an obstacle, is in fact one of its virtues, claims Dr Williams. Since “there never is an ideal or final translation ” of a text, we should not think that the KJV is the final word. But there is a weightiness and seriousness about the King James Version of the Bible that we should not lose.

In terms of our dress and our language in worship, we have become much more informal. That is not a bad thing. The increased informality of church life reflects key aspects of Christian truth, namely, that we are loved, and accepted by God as we are, because of Christ, and that we ought to reach out in love and grace to those who worship with us. Barriers and walls on both the vertical and horizontal dimensions have been removed by Christ. But most Christians will concede that there is something missing when we become too relaxed in the presence of God. Perhaps the continued use of the KJV in public worship would help us to appreciate the greatness and the majesty of the One who speaks to us from his Word when we assemble for worship, that it would “surprise us into seriousness”, as Dr Williams says. And there are aspects of God’s being and love that we will never grasp, and which the “inaccessibility” of the KJV helps us to appreciate.

But if the language of the Bible translation we use results in us understanding little of what we read or hear in worship, then nothing is gained. Paul himself commends intelligibility in worship. He says,”I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:19).  The translators of the King James Bible themselves said in their words to the Reader, “Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel.” The work of Bible translation is a window-opening, shell-breaking task that enables us to access sweet and precious spiritual truths.

We recognise that the King James Bible is probably the most beautiful and elegant English translation that will ever be produced. It has contributed so much to the English language. Lord Melvyn Bragg has described it as “the DNA of the English language”. Many of our contemporary English expressions were first coined by the translators of the King James Bible: “the powers that be”, “the apple of his eye”, “signs of the times”, “a law unto themselves”, “from strength to strength”, and “the writing on the wall”. Modern translations lack the elegance of the 1611 version because modern scholars are often more like scientists than artists.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with the King James Bible. Firstly, in the 400 years since 1611, thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have been uncovered which are older and more accurate than those which were available to the translators of the King James Bible. Modern translations give us a more accurate understanding of the original words of Scripture. Secondly, the English of the 17th century is a very different language from that which we speak today. Both vocabulary and grammar have changed significantly. For many people, reading the King James Bible is like reading a foreign language.

That does not mean that we should embrace every new translation of the Bible that comes on the market. The danger of some modern Bible translations is that flawed human agendas can impose themselves and distort the truth of God’s Word. Recent controversies have highlighted the issues that arise when translators attempt to make the Bible gender-neutral or when they try to create a version which is acceptable to Muslims.

I was struck by the words of the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, in his introduction of the service which accurately summarised the reason for our celebration:

Four hundred years ago this year, the King James Version of the Bible was published, the result of the commitment and foresight of King James I and the scholarly work of six companies of learned divines. Two of the companies met in each of Oxford, Cambridge and here at Westminster. It is fitting that we gather here to give thanks to almighty God for their work.

We celebrate the impact of the work on our understanding of the great story the Bible tells of God’s persistent and generous love for his creation and for his people. We acknowledge with gratitude the work’s lasting influence on our national language and culture and on the faith, language and culture wherever the English language has reached throughout the world. We give thanks for the contribution of so many to this year of celebration.

Above all, we pray that we and all people may continue to be uplifted and transformed by the great story the Bible tells, and may grow daily in our knowledge and love of almighty God who unites us now as we join together to offer him fitting worship.

As the service in the Abbey came to an end, it occurred to me that just over 30 years after the company of scholars at Westminster had completed their work on the translation of the Bible, another group of divines met in the same Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster and completed the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. As they reflected on Holy Scripture, they affirmed that while not everything in the Bible is accessible and clear, the important matters with regard to salvation are transparent.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due sense of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

Like a mighty tortoise

galapagos-tortoise_532_600x450Many of us remember the parody of the famous hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight
Christ our rightful master, stands against the foe
Onward into battle, we seem afraid to go.

Like a mighty tortoise, moves the Church of God
Brothers, we’re treading, where we’ve often trod
We are much divided, many bodies we
Having different doctrines, but not much charity.

The “like a mighty tortoise” phrase came to mind recently as I listened to my friend, Brian Givans, describe the amazing and innovative work of Christians Against Poverty. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a national debt counselling charity with a network of 160 centres based in local churches. Brian heads up the ministry in my former congregation, Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, as it seeks to bring direct practical help to people who are struggling with debt. The testimonies of those who have benefitted from this ministry are inspiring.

But in describing the expansion of CAP’s ministry, Brian pointed out how that mainstream churches are slow in taking up the challenge, but that newer, emerging churches, are responding quickly and effectively to this pressing, and increasingly relevant, pastoral need. It seems that older, larger churches move at a much slower rate than the more recent arrivals on the ecclesiastical landscape.

seminary-book-194x3001This observation was confirmed by the author of  a recent publication. “What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary” is by an experienced pastor of large American church, James Emery White. It is an a-theological reflection on the challenges of pastoral ministry, which, in spite of its lack of theological reflection on the doctrine of the church, offers some useful and practical advice on coping with many of the issues that occur regularly in the rough and tumble of congregational life. White points out that many of the issues which preoccupy those involved in theological education are just not relevant when it comes to leadership in a local church.

Among those issues is the ability of the church to respond quickly to changing circumstances. When it comes to church government, how the church is led, the roles and responsibilities of its leaders, and general church polity, White says that it is important that we have a structure that allows gifted leaders the space and the opportunity to lead the church. The way churches are structured either releases the gift of leadership or stymies it. And churches rise or fall on leadership.

White points out how that people attending a conference or seminar on church life often identify an action that would radically improve their church’s health or effectiveness. But it is never implemented, not because their church doesn’t have the money or the volunteers or the facilities, but because they don’t have the freedom. If they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they would be blocked or hindered because that authority is not trained or inclined to make such decisions. In other words, decision-making is so radically democratised or shared that it can take so much time to act that you lose the window of opportunity. A more flexible and nimble-footed church or parachurch organisation can act more quickly and seize the initiative.

White says that most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure, any of which can kill good leadership: committees, policies, and majority rule. As someone committed to a presbyterian form of church government where committees, policies and majority rule are key components, White’s analysis, if correct, is depressing. The reality is that presbyterian structures can result in movement and change, but in many cases it only happens at a glacial pace. Without forfeiting the key features of a form of church government which “is founded on and agreeable to the Word of God”, is there any way that established churches can act more quickly and respond more effectively to their changing situations?

White describes how that his congregation were forced to leave the high school they were meeting in with just ninety days’ notice. White took a personal lead in a new building project and, amazingly, within ninety days a new building was built. There were no committees and no votes, he says, just truly gifted leaders leading as the Holy Spirit enabled their gift. And all because their church structure allowed it. It’s not a scenario that is likely to be repeated in any church in our denomination, and I imagine no one committed to a presbyterian form of church government would consider it desirable or wise to have to move at such a speedy pace. There are distinct advantages to a church structure that has an inclusive form of decision-making. But sometimes that degenerates into a desire for unanimity on every issue, which means that the decision-making body only moves at the pace of its slowest members.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is in decline, and in many places congregations are finding it hard to change. In some congregations there is an in-built conservatism which often reacts negatively to new initiatives, and the result is that in attempting to respond to the needs of their community they are out-paced and out-flanked by newer churches and fellowships. Clearly, it is important to have godly leaders who have a vision and a heart for the expansion of the kingdom of Christ. But it is also important that those leaders are not trapped in a church structure which stifles their gifts of leadership. That is why we must not only seek to develop the leadership gifts of people in our congregations, but we must organise our meetings and our decision-making processes in a way that allows opportunities for witness and service to be grasped.

My prayer is that the authentic words of the hymn may not simply be an aspiration but may become a reality in our churches: “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God….one in hope and calling, one in charity.”

The Genius of Wrong

33-4-the-genius-of-wrong-custom-106x106Once in a while I come across something that makes me think again about what’s important in Christian ministry. This article, The Genius of Wrong, made me think again about what church and ministry are supposed to be about. The challenge of making disciples of Jesus Christ must be one of the main things that every church accepts. Rather than just registering “decisions” for Christ or “conversions” to Christ, the New Testament sets us the goal of “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). That disciple-making goal must remain, and take precedence in the life and ministry of the church and its leaders.

I have included the entire article below.

Continue reading “The Genius of Wrong”